The 'Shameless' kids: Emmy Rossum on playing Fiona Gallagher
She's the stand-in Gallagher matriarch who can make a guy fall so hard he's willing to buy a washing machine -- and even a van -- to woo her. Such is the life of Fiona Gallagher. And Emmy Rossum, who plays the character on Showtime's "Shameless," enjoys all aspects of it.
"There's so much to her," the 24-year-old actress said in a recent phone interview. "She is Wonder Woman. She really is."
There's no other option for a girl living in a chaotic household and cleaning up the mess of an alcoholic father (played by William H. Macy).
Rossum, who has appeared in such films as "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Day After Tomorrow," added that it's a welcome change to the girly personas that often come her way.
"Fiona is so the opposite of a prissy girl. She's gritty. She doesn't care if her hair is tangled. She doesn't care if her clothes are wrinkled. There are bigger things at stake."
For more on what Rossum thinks of Fiona and what we can expect as the season progresses, read on:
You’re sort of the glue that holds the family together. …
Well, I’m an only child, and a lot of the other actors are as well, which I think is interesting because we all kind of bonded together really quickly. I can speak only for myself that not growing up with siblings, I always wanted siblings and I always wanted that mayhem that sort of comes along with a big family. I feel like I really gravitated towards that in this show.
But, yeah, Fiona really is the one keeping them together. She is sort of the one sane person and everyone around her almost like a crazy clown, so it’s interesting to play that.
And she seems to have everything under control — as well as she could, anyway. But there’s clearly a vulnerability to her. Is it hard to present that dynamic?
Well, I think exposing yourself as an actor is kind of what’s fun, at least for me. It’s definitely scary, but no risk, no gain. I think it’s so much a component of who she is underneath it all. She definitely has a tough exterior; she’s a go-getter; she needs to hold the family together. A lot of the comedy comes out of the situations and the dire circumstances they’re in. All in all, this is a girl who is in over her head in a lot of ways. It’s always fun to play dual levels. I get to do that a lot with her. She doesn’t often say exactly what she thinks, and she doesn’t often express everything. In the moments where we see her alone, it’s interesting to show who she is underneath all the bravado, but it certainly is challenging. But we’ll be seeing that side of her more and more as the show progresses because the hurdles the family has to overcome in later episodes will be greater. We’ll get to know all of the characters a lot better.
Is it surprising to you that, despite the extreme circumstances it faces, the family still manages to remain somewhat optimistic?
I feel like they're a very unique family. I feel like not only because of Fiona’s positive attitude and probably also of the child-like nature of Frank and because they believe that there is no real time for self-pity or depression. If you’re so consumed with that you really can’t problem solve, and so much of their life is problem solving. I think they’ve figured out how to live, and this is how they live. I’m sure a lot of people in this same situation — and we did discuss that as actors — that the depression and the anger is very, very far underneath. It’s not something they’re feeling in a day-to-day basis. And that’s been really interesting: to play a character that’s not showing the immediate feelings.
Talk about Fiona’s relationship with Frank. …
Well, first, I think the children probably feel more of a connection with Frank than they do with their mother. I mean, their mother left years ago, and she was the one who deserted them. And Frank, even though he’s a completely insane, ineffectual father, he didn’t completely leave and is kind of trying to do a good job in whatever way he can.
I think that they really love him. I think they remember who he was before. In the episode where we see him sober, it will be interesting to see how the kids deal with him when he’s sober and what kind of a sober parent he is.
I think the bottom line is, to them, family is family and everyone else is everyone else. They’re survivors, they’re not quitters. And Frank is surviving in whatever way he knows how. And Fiona is there to help him in the way that she knows how. They’re a team at the end of the day.
Will we see more of the mommy issues play out this season?
I think that we’ll see mommy. We’ll definitely see some of the issues come to light. It will be interesting to see how the kids react to her and how Fiona’s place in the world and in the family — 'cause if she’s not the mother figure in this family, then what is she at all? She’s clearly dropped out of school, and we’ll see her try to find a job and the limited opportunities that are available to her because of her lack of education. That’s something she doesn’t have because of what’s she’s given up for the family, and that’s tough for her to deal with.
What did Fiona want to be when she grew up? Have you tried to figure that out?
Yeah, but I don’t think that she thinks about that a lot. So I have it figured out in my head. I’m sure if you asked her six years ago, it would have been a different answer than it would be today. I don’t think that she has enough time to think about that. She’s only thinking about the now. I think she anticipated raising these kids until Liam grows up.
Do you think Fiona’s is in denial about how the other kids really are coping with their situation? When Debbie kidnapped the kid because she missed Aunt Ginger, it was like Fiona didn’t want to see that something was really wrong.
Oh, absolutely. I think that, you know, she’s in her early 20s. I think she deals with a lot, and at the end of the day, kids are very secretive. She is their parent figure, but she doesn’t punish them like a parent. And she tries to be there for them like a sister. It’s a tough thing. But she tries to put on this semblance of being a normal twentysomething. Look at her personal relationships: She tries to make them all physical. But Steve kind of sees how unique she is and wants more, and that just terrifies her. She’s not really sure how to be all these different roles to these different people. She’s got five kids to take care of and a drunk father, and she’s split between two guys. She’s got a lot on her plate. But she’s doing better than I can do!
Do you think Steve has ulterior motives? You’d think a guy wouldn’t want to deal with all that drama.
I think Fiona would take offense to that [laughs]. I don’t know. I can’t say really much, but I think that all the characters have a lot more going on than we know. A lot happens in every episode. And what we find out about Steve will be pretty illuminating.
Will we see Fiona get fed up with all that she has on her plate and maybe try to leave?
Um … yes. I think that will definitely come into play this season. But, you know, abandonment is a big issue for them. So it will be interesting to see if she decides to follow in her mother’s footsteps and just give up.
And Amy Smart makes an appearance on the show. What can we expect?
She will be coming in towards the end of the season. She will be a new character — her character was not in the British series. She’ll play the mother of a child in Debbie’s class. She meets Fiona and befriends her in a very kind of overly friendly way. She’s very perky and everything that Fiona is not. She’s just very interested in being friends with Fiona, and Veronica is not happy with that.
Which of the other Gallagher kids are you most sympathetic toward?
My first impulse is to say Lip because he’s so smart and clearly has a lot of anger and resentment towards his father and is dealing with really liking this girl. But interestingly enough, I would go with Carl. I think it’s interesting to show how angry abandonment can make kids, how lonely it can make them feel. He’s clearly acting out in these ways of aggression.
Where do you see the Gallaghers 10 years from now?
Debbie is working for NASA. Carl is probably like a Navy Seal … or an assassin. Liam is probably in school. Fiona is, hopefully, with a nice guy — hopefully letting him in. I think they all still remain really close. But I really hope they’re not all living together still. I would hope Lip and Ian have moved out.
Photo: Emmy Rossum as Fiona Gallagher in Showtime's "Shameless." Credit: Showtime