is giving one of the best performances in all of television as fierce, wounded Fiona Gallagher on Showtime’s “Shameless.”
She’s working for a network that has had a lot of success at promoting its actors for awards the last few years. Oh, and she has the word “Emmy” right there in her name. Yet despite this, Rossum and “Shameless” haven’t so much as sniffed any Emmy love as yet. Not even her two-time Emmy-winning co-star William H. Macy got a nomination for either of the series’ first two seasons.
Maybe it’s because it’s hard to categorize “Shameless,” which has both extremely serious elements (a family trying to cling to the poverty line, dealing — either personally or through friends — with substance abuse, violence, incest and more) and comic ones (many of these subjects are played for laughs at times). Maybe it’s because the low-class, dirty nature of the Gallaghers and their lives are a turn-off to awards voters. Maybe Emmy voters simply don’t like to give headline writers an easy task now and then.
But Rossum continues to be great on “Shameless,” playing the one Gallagher who holds the family together, and she’s been especially strong in what’s arguably been the show’s best season yet. A recent story arc involved Macy’s degenerate drunk Frank Gallagher calling social services on his own kids out of spite, resulting in the family being split up — some to dire circumstances, like Debbie (Emma Kenney) being sent to a foster home that seems more like a prison — while Fiona scrambles to reunite her siblings under one roof.
Sunday’s episode (it airs, as usual, at 9 p.m.) provides the sort of showcase that could win Rossum an award or three if anyone who gives out awards were to notice. (Some spoilers follow.) Fiona, having discovered that it was Frank who called social services, has finally had enough of this man having any say in the lives of her and her siblings, and decides to go to court to protect the family she’s been running for years. In the clip embedded at the top of this post, Fiona makes her plea to the judge for why Frank should be kept away from the kids.
It’s a superb scene in what’s been a terrific season, and I got on the phone recently to talk to Rossum about this year in the life of the Gallaghers.
When you get a big meaty monologue like the one in this episode, how do you, as a performer, approach that? What was your reaction when you got that script?
Emmy Rossum: Well, these are characters that are dealing with poverty and dealing with alcoholism and homosexuality and everything. And it's a dark story that generally we tried to treat it with some levity, and that's showing a very resilient family. And Fiona's a very strong character. But this is a situation where William H. Macy's character, Frank, has really reached a whole new level, a whole lower bottom. He's basically taking his own children and taking them away from Fiona, who's essentially their mother, really. And so I tried to approach it from a story perspective. We know that she's been in court fighting for these kids before, and that the accusations against the family are really bogus. And her having to say aloud the things that you always know about how horrible her father is to her and to her family, having to verbalize the abandonment and the hurt in order to persuade the judge, is something that I don't think she's ever done. So the monologue is about admitting the shame in the fact that your parents have abandoned you and don't care about you, and saying that in a courthouse to a judge and where people are supposed to be upstanding citizens, and you’re feeling like you're dirt. It's a very difficult thing. So I tried to tell the story as simply and honestly as possible, and I think about my own situation with my father who abandoned me and my mother when I was a child. So although I don't know him very well, there was definitely some poignancy in that kind of a story to me.
Frank is an unrelentingly horrible human being and that's been something that Fiona has witnessed for much of the series. What is it about this particular circumstance where his behavior so far over the line that she's finally willing to say these things and commit to this kind of legal action?
Emmy Rossum: I don't think she has a choice at this point. She has to do this to get the kids back under one roof. Because you want them to get better, you want to be a family. I think there's a longing in that for her, in her and in all the kids for Frank to get better, to get clean, but at the end of the day, Fiona is a mother lion and she will do anything to protect these children and she knows that she is the only one who can protect them. And the fact that he has called Social Services on his own children is really a new low. He has jeopardized their safety, and she will do anything to get them back and to keep them safe. There's such nobility and strength in the female character, it's really amazing how they write her.
Are there ever times in the past where you've read a script and Fiona or one of the other kids is allowing Frank back in to the house or back into their life or believing something he's said and you said to yourself, "Really? Would she really go along with this given everything that she knows about who he is and what he's done?"
Emmy Rossum: Yes, but then I realized that where Fiona's mother has completely abandoned them, Frank always comes back. I think that there is some forgiveness in that — in the fact that he is a selfish bastard and a junky, a horrible person, but I think underneath it all he comes back — and I think there's something in that kind of twisted loyalty that gets her. And I think that she wants to believe that he'll get better one day, and I think that there's a little part of her inside that is still a little girl that wants affection and approval from him, and I think that's only a natural instinct. So as times when I feel like, “Well, I can't believe Fiona would be letting him back in the house after X-Y-Z,” I try to put my own judgment on that action off of it and just focus on how she would deal with it.
One of the big threads leading up to this is the tension between Fiona and Jimmy. He feels that she is not empathizing enough with his problems, and she feels that his problems are small potatoes compared to her family’s, and it goes back and forth between who seems to be apologizing in any given moment. Obviously, Fiona doesn’t know at this point about Jimmy’s wife, but do you feel she’s justified in her side of things, do you think that he maybe has a point?
Emmy Rossum: The bottom line is we're dealing with a romantic relationship with people who come from completely different worlds. Jimmy is a privileged guy who doesn't need to work and Fiona works nine jobs to support these six kids. Jimmy's obviously reeling with the news that his parents are getting divorced; his mom's an alcoholic and his dad's gay. But essentially, Jimmy's a rich kid whose dad's gay and his mom drinks a little. We've got Fiona whose family has been completely torn apart, who has no mother, who has a horrible father, who has put all of their lives in jeopardy and she's picking up a body in the backyard of her house that her father buried. Comparatively, I think that I would side with Fiona because these problems are pretty incomparable.
You said before that it's a privilege as an actress to get material like this. There aren’t a lot of roles — especially for an actress of your age, as opposed to someone who's been around the block for quite a bit longer — that are really this meaty and give you as much to play both in terms of drama and in terms of comedy as you get to so consistently do for these three seasons. How does it feel to have this character and have this showcase to play her?
Emmy Rossum: It's a blessing and I just thank my lucky stars that I had a good audition, because the material is top notch week after week. The dialogue is good. They let us inhabit these roles and make them our own. They give us the guidance and the support to create something that I think is unique and funny and dark, and we get to deal with these big issues and deal with these dramatic storylines that have the brevity too.
What do you remember about that audition?
Emmy Rossum: How much I wanted it. How much I wanted and loved this character. How much I could see the potential in her of what she could be and what she could become, of what she is becoming. When you're dealing with the character with so much pain, but who is so resilient time and time again, it is so fascinating to play and energizing and thrilling. And I feel very lucky. And as a woman in television, you're seeing these parts on television that are now written for women that really don't exist in film as much. It's a really a luxury and I am grateful and don't take it for granted.
And you so rarely get a juicy monologue where people writing for you that it feels it often times that our show is written like it could be anything. You know, if you want to find the funny in it, you can find the funny. If you want to find the catharsis in the same, you can find that. It's very varied and our actors are really smart and invested in playing the truth, and if that truth makes you laugh that's great. If that truth makes you cry, if it makes you horrified, that's great. I think people are sometimes a little scared of our show, to be honest, because they hear a lot about how graphic it is and I think that it definitely is. I think we try to show love and child services and alcoholism and sex in a graphic real way, and I think that when you're showing poverty like this, it gets graphic. So I don't shy away from that; I'm in fact proud of it and I think that it's an interesting thing and we're just different. So I'm glad that we're finding our audience and that that's growing because I think people are sometimes a little scared of the content. It's tough content.
As someone who has to play some of this tough content, was there a point at which you came to terms with the idea that, “Okay, they're going to keep throwing these scenarios at us and we're going to have to play them,” or did it never trouble you at any point?
Emmy Rossum: Yeah, but there's push backs that we have as actors, too, to say, “No, I don't think my character would do that” or, “No, I don't think this is believable” or, “Can we try to play this in a different way?” or “I don't think this is right. This is too far.” So we do have voice. Actors have a voice. It's our job to bring it to fruition and bring it to fruition believably. So it's our job to say when something rings true with us or it doesn't, especially after we've lived these characters viscerally for three years now.
But at this relatively late date, do you ever read scripts and you know your jaw drops and you said, "Oh, my God. I can't believe that this a thing that's happening on Shameless."?
Emmy Rossum: Well, it's the title of our show. We're called “Shameless.” We're bold and we're in your face and we're intense and we're proud of it. And I think that there is something to be celebrated 'cause we're different than every other show because of it and John Wells certainly doesn't shy away from that. He writes a lot of it, so there you go.
Obviously, you've got this very serious storyline that's going on right now, but the other thing that Fiona had been dealing with recently is the job at the supermarket. And that's a fairly straight-up comic storyline for you, when you don't necessarily get to go to quite that comic of place all the time on the show. How was that experience for you?
Emmy Rossum: It was strange because it was the one storyline that I wasn't sure was actually going to work. I have never been in a situation where I was the victim of sexual harassment to this ridiculous extent. So I wasn't sure that stuff like this actually happens, but these episodes have started to air now and people are writing on Facebook, on Twitter, writing letters like, “This happened to me. Thank you for making this funny. Thank you for bringing this to light.” It's just strange that you can show these kind of heightened scenarios and that it resonates with people. So it was definitely a comically kind of comic ode to a Norma Rae moment.
There was a lot of reacting to this disgusting boss who's sexually harassing all the girls in the supermarket, and I guess I can imagine that that exists. So I just had to play that. And I try to play even the comic situations realistically. And if you get the laugh, you get the laugh, but I never try to play for the laugh.