The 'Shameless' kids: Jeremy Allen White on playing Lip Gallagher
Jeremy Allen White is doing his part to keep a stiff upper Lip.
The 19-year-old actor plays tough, protective brother Phillip "Lip" Gallagher on Showtime's "Shameless." It's hard standing out in a dysfunctional family, especially one helmed by an alcoholic patriarch, but Lip manages to do it. He is the sibling with good grades -- which he exploits by taking SAT tests for money -- and the one who is least likely to rat you out if you have a file of homoerotic pictures stashed in your room.
"He's quite the brother," said White, who opted against a phone interview and visited The Times because "I don’t like talking on phones."
Read on to learn how White prepared for his role, what he thinks of the relationship between Lip and dad Frank (William H. Macy) and what lies beneath Lip's tough exterior.
You had auditioned to play Ian and Lip. Whom do you prefer?
Originally, I kind of liked Ian a little bit more. I thought he was a little more interesting. I felt like I had read Lip; I felt like I already knew who he was. I thought I already had him pegged down. Then I gave it a few more reads and I realized I was being an idiot. I really had no idea. I hate reading scripts and being like “I know you. I’ve seen you before in movies and on television.” But I learned that I'm constantly finding out more about Lip. That’s what’s really fun. I’ll be sitting in my apartment and reading a book and I’ll be like “Oh ... I just thought of something about Lip.” It’s a cool thing for my head to be in that space all the time, no matter what I’m doing.
How do you even prepare for a role like this?
I went to a few Al-Anon meetings in New York. I just kind of listened to some stories. Thankfully, my family is, you know, dysfunctional ... but in their way and not in the Gallaghers' way, so I couldn’t really draw from personal experience. I went to those meetings and listened a lot. It’s pretty powerful just to imagine not having your father supporting you. For me, just to imagine having that taken away, it was quite shocking and really affected me a lot.
What struck you most about the relationship among the siblings?
I think, in a way, their patriarch, Frank, has given them a gift in that they’re forced to grow up really, really quickly. He’s given them a real sense of independence and strength. They’re incredibly strong characters and it’s really inspirational. It’s a lot to deal with. It's a survival story. I think it’s compelling for people to watch because so many people have a hard time every single day and it goes unnoticed. I think, in a way, it's sort of uplifting to see them struggle because, at the end of the day, they’re still there. They’re still living life.
Talk a little bit about the relationship between Lip and Frank.
Lip, he’s really smart and at a really early age he learned how to compartmentalize his relationship with his father and know what he has to take seriously and know when he has to tell him to ... off and not even have to think about it. He’s had a decent amount of success doing it, at least where we pick up with the first few episodes. But, you know, Frank definitely tests Lip’s sensitivity to him and it gets harder and harder for Lip to ignore him these things he’s doing are having a greater and greater affect on the family. But then there’s the other part — Frank is a really intelligent character. He’s almost Shakespearean. He has these monologues where he’s commenting on culture and love … you laugh, but he’s not always wrong. There’s something that Lip, as a son, has to admire — there’s moments of admiration no matter how brief they may be where Lip really turns his head and is like … there’s small moments where he’s like, "maybe you’re not the biggest ... "
Do you think they’ll be able to deal with him wanting to be sober at some point?
There’s an episode that actually addresses just that. Lip is affected by it the most. He doesn’t think it’s fair, I think, that Frank can turn the switch off and on. He doesn’t think it’s fair to the family because it's not right to see a father sober who is an alcoholic because its only going to be worse when he starts drinking again. So, it’s almost like you can always count on Frank to be drunk. You know what to expect because he’s very thorough in the way he is. I think it’s incredibly off-putting when he stops drinking for a short period of time. We don’t -- it’s confusing. It’s like "The Twilight Zone." And it’s scary because my younger siblings might have their hopes crushed — it’s only for so long and it will just hurt them even more once they get a taste of what a loving father can be when he’s not drinking.
Looking in, what puzzles you the most about the family?
It’s interesting because I always think, would we be happier if Frank left too? But I've sort of thought of that: Why hasn’t Frank left yet? I suppose the only reason he could stick around is because there has to be some sense of love for the family and also he has the twisted sense that he’s still the father figure. He thinks he’s still this world’s greatest dad. So it’s like, "Why would I leave? I’m doing such a great job raising these kids.” So because of his own twisted mind, I don’t think he could imagine leaving cause he wouldn’t have anything to talk about.
Will we get a peek into how Lip is dealing with all this? He's has this tough exterior …
I think he’s been able to remain pretty levelheaded. But I think he feels like he had his childhood taken away from him and now he's forced to kind of fill his father’s shoes in a way. I think it’s incredibly unfair and there’s something definitely bubbling in Lip — a lot of anger that’s been withheld and false trust in who his father could be. There’s nothing worse … he’s forced to grow up so quickly. Fiona was still pretty young when he was young. And he’s managed to remain so levelheaded and just hold it and hold it and hold it all in. But you can only do that for so long.
Do you think Lip cries at night?
It’s possible. He would make sure that no one else was in the house. He could definitely shed a few tears when no one is around, I think.
Which character, other than Lip, do you sympathize for?
I think maybe Debbie’s character. She has such a false trust in her father. She really thinks he’ll pull through in the end. There’s nothing sadder than seeing — especially a little girl or a little boy — having such a sense of false hope. Just believing it so thoroughly and then to be let down is terrible.
When do you think Lip gave up believing that his father could change?
I don’t know if he ever had that much hope. He’s always been really, really smart. He might have figured it out so early on. He might not have been able to verbalize it, or understand it, but he might have known before Debbie’s age. Or he’s still harboring some of it. I think Debbie’s character is the worst. But we all — somewhere deep inside — hope that Frank will get his ... together.
How important is the relationship between Ian and Lip in terms of survival?
Lip’s usually there more for Ian than Ian is there for Lip. Lip’s the older brother and he’s usually giving advice. And I’m sure that gives him great comfort even though he’s not getting it in return. I think he enjoys putting things in perspective for others. But I think he also wishes someone was to do the same for him.
And we'll see the mother returning at some point, right? What can we expect?
It’s hard. I don’t want to say too much about it. It’s just another person that failed us miserably. One is bad enough. It’s hard having two to see every day.
And what's it like working with William H. Macy? Intimidating? Does he offer advice between takes?
It's not very deep. It’s like, “Jeremy, memorize your lines.” Ah, words of wisdom from Bill Macy. He's such a smartass: "The scene's a lot easier when you know all your lines." But I learn a lot without him giving advice; just watching him work is plenty.
Amy Smart will be guest-starring. Anyone else you'd like to see stroll through?
I'm a big fan of Sam Rockwell. I think he could definitely have a cool little part on the show.
[Check back tomorrow for an interview with Emmy Rossum, who plays Fiona]
Photo: Jeremy Allen White as Phillip "Lip" Gallagher on Showtime's "Shameless." Credit: Showtime