Interview: ‘Shameless’ star Emmy Rossum discusses Fiona’s downward spiral

[This interview contains spoilers for the current fourth season of “Shameless.” Don't read if you're not caught up!]

Were there any justice or standards in awards voting, Emmy Rossum would already have a trio of Emmy nominations for her raw and fierce performance as Fiona Gallagher on Showtime's “Shameless.”

She does not.

Fortunately, Emmy and Golden Globe voters should know that it's not too late and that Rossum has been doing some of her best work to date in the fourth season of “Shameless.”

Although occasionally prone to questionable decisions, Fiona was always the glue that held the Gallaghers together, the responsible parental figure making sure lunches were made and utilities were paid. Sure she had questionable taste in men and she liked to get a little wild, but as the fourth season began, Fiona had her family on the verge of leaving the poverty line behind. She had upward mobility at a white collar job, a responsible boyfriend and a positive outlook.


Since that positive beginning, Fiona has been in a spiral that has included sleeping with her boyfriend's drug-abusing brother and, in a moment of unprecedented weakness, leaving a bag of cocaine out where wee Liam found it and overdosed. Jail and a plea bargain followed and when we left Fiona two weeks ago, she was realizing that even if she'd avoided prison, her life would never be the same.

Production on the “Shameless” season ended two weeks ago and I caught up with Rossum fresh off a brief vacation, where she tweeted that at least one fan accosted her on the beach to tell her she should be locked up for what she did to Liam.


And guess what? Rossum teases that Fiona has yet to hit bottom.

In the interview, Rossum talks about getting her mind around Fiona's descent this season and how she was able to convince herself that it all made sense for the character. She also discusses the maturation of young co-stars like Ethan Cutkosky and Emma Kenney and tells an unfortunate story about filming amidst the polar vortex this winter in Chicago.

Click through for the full Q&A. It's a good one.

HitFix: Things started off so happy this season. When you see good things happen to any of the Gallaghers at this point, do you immediately assume it's a trap and the bottom is about to drop out?

Emmy Rossum: Of course! When something looks too good to be true, it usually is. And that walked like a duck and talked like a duck. I think when you've grown up in a chaotic environment, the normalcy that you crave doesn't actually feel good or at home when you actually get it. I think this is a serious sign of self-sabotage on her part.

HitFix: Had you been tracking hints of that behavior from Fiona in previous seasons?

Emmy Rossum: Well yeah, I mean, we saw her make poor decisions to kinda sabotage, like cheating with a married man or stealing a purse or something like that. But never has she been so close to middle-class, happily-ever-after than at the beginning of this season, where she has health insurance and the kids have doctors appointments and she doesn't have to do bag lunches. The kids can actually take four dollars to school to buy their own lunch. It's that kind of stability, but also compounded by the fact that the guy she's dating is the most vanilla, non-chaotic, not-dangerous man ever. She's only ever been attracted to and exposed to a completely different type of man. She's never really going to feel comfortable in that kind of situation if she didn't have a good eight years of therapy.

HitFix: So when you see the plotline with Robbie come up, do you immediately understand what's going on in Fiona's mind in those decisions? Or do you require some convincing that this is what she'd actually do?

Emmy Rossum: My heart sank for her, because like all characters that we play, actors feel a real connection and a real empathy for the characters they play, no matter whether they're good or bad people. I think you have to have that in order to play it well. So when I see the Robbie character introduced, I just think, “Oh no. Here we go.” And it's not really Robbie or his qualities that make her make the bad decision. Robbie's kind of just an excuse or a catalyst for her to achieve that kind of destruction that she wants to achieve to regain that security, because she grew up around chaos. So even if it wasn't Robbie, it could have been someone else or it could have been something else, but he's just a very convenient way to cause an explosion in her life.

HitFix: You talked about the empathy you have to have for a character, but how protective are you of Fiona? And when you get a script that has the horrible thing with Liam, do you go, “She would NEVER do this”? Or do you go, “Oh God. I guess I can see how this could happen”?

Emmy Rossum: Listen, accidents happen and I think this really was an accident, but I think it's a big case of just being too young and not having the life experience for really everything that she has to handle. I think it really is an accident, but I was very concerned and had many conversations with our writers and with John Wells about how far we were gonna push her downswing, because she's been, for the majority of the show's four years, kinda the center of humanity and sanity amongst the crazy circus that is the Gallagher neighborhood. So for me, to kinda pull that all alway — not only from her, but from the audience, from the family — it's definitely interesting drama, but for me it took a lot of analysis of the script and plotting things happening in earlier episodes to kinda make it work for me so that it felt believable to me, because this is a completely different Fiona than we've seen in the past.

HitFix: I'd love to hear more about those conversations that you had to have so that you could get your mind around this and make it work for you.

Emmy Rossum: I was very concerned that if we made her make these kinds of decisions that put children at harm… Firstly, we've never seen her do a hard drug. That was my first thing. We've never seen her do cocaine. She's being very Frank, in a certain way, not only with her interest in self-destruction and drugs, but also in the cheating that she does, the way that we see her kinda drawn to this chaos and darkness. Similar to the way that we're starting to see in episode six and seven, and we'll see more in eight and nine, that Ian comes back from the military with shades of Monica, we're seeing Fiona have shades of Frank. There's that moment in episode four or five, right after Fiona's slept with Robbie, and she says, “This is never gonna happen again” and he says, “Yes it is, addict.” And then she walks out of the bathroom and she sees Frank laying with trackmarks in his arm and she looks at him. 

For me, that was the moment of realization of, “Is that what I'm going to become?” So I was really concerned that the more Frank we made her, the less the audience would like her. And how do you come back from that? How do you take a toddler that you're responsible for, give him a drug overdose — even if it was an accident — put him in the hospital, go to jail, do an anal probing scene, basically have all of your humility and humanity ripped from you, when you were the girl two seasons ago who just wanted to get her GED and get this family on track? This is a girl who is in a really dark place who can do this. So for me it took a lot of examination of the character, examination of her family tree and kinda just trying to come to an understanding of how she could make these decisions, that really some people aren't comfortable with success when they've never had it and I can understand that. I can understand how you don't really think that the outcomes will be necessarily as bad as they are if you self-sabotage. And then they're worse.

HitFix: It felt like that's where we were at the end of last Sunday's episode, that she has that brief moment where she hears “no jail” and she lights up and then she hears the sentence and realizes that her future's gone, at least as she imagines it. Is that the bottom for her? Or is there more bottom to come?

Emmy Rossum: I would love to tell you that's the bottom. But it's not, unfortunately. I won't say too much, but basically she has to adjust to this new life where she's a felon, now. She was our golden girl and now she's a felon. It's hard for her to get a job. She's at home. The kids are gone all day. She's becoming totally stir-crazy. Every job that she applies for, she gets denied and there's kinda this reckoning for her here and this breakdown of, “Who am I now? I don't know who I am.” And that kinda leads her, after she gets hit with all this rejection from the world  — and rejection from her family that doesn't need her anymore, they don't want her, she's a felon, she's disappointed them. She even feels rejected by Liam and by Lip and by Debbie and Carl and she kinda goes off the deep end.

HitFix: I want to talk a bit about your co-stars. You start off on a show with a bunch of very young actors and you just can't predict how anybody's going to change. I feel like Emma and Ethan in particular are getting better each week. How does having them as maturing scene partners and how does that change things for you?

Emmy Rossum: It's kind of fascinating, because I've watched them go through the struggles that I went through as a tween actor and I've watched them also be really excited and terrified of the challenges that they're given each week. A lot of the things that their characters are going through, they may not have experienced actually in real life, so it takes a lot of courage and a lot of imagination for them to do these things. They're pretty fearless and I think they probably learned that from us, unfortunately. 

I think that this show, the way it's run, sides are not allowed on our set. No actors are given scripts on the day. Everyone shows up learning all their lines, even the guest stars on the day and the day-players. So it's really like you show up for theater and then you work. There's no bulls***. There's no cell phones on set. There's no Twitter on set. There's no distractions. Everyone shows up and is a professional, whether you're 12-years-old or you're 60. It's really almost like a boot camp. So when I now go onto other sets and when Emma and Ethan will go onto other sets, they show up for the table read knowing all their lines. It's really kind of amazing what that kind of discipline will encourage in you. It also lets you have this freedom with the material, because once you know it, you can let it go and you can feel free to play with it and play in different directions. There's kind of a messiness with which we shoot and play our show. Oftentimes we shoot the rehearsal and that's what they end up actually using.

HitFix: Is that the kind of thing where, as the actors are getting older and more comfortable in the process, you're getting more freedom?

Emmy Rossum: You never get freedom, really, in terms of the dialogue. They're not as meticulous about punctuation or about changing an if/and/or/but like an Aaron Sorkin, but there is an adherence to the page, for sure. But we definitely get to play around with the emotional intent of all the dialogue and do different things in a way that you might have less freedom on “Newsroom.”

HitFix: I know that on Twitter you mentioned you've gotten some negative reactions to Fiona's behavior this season. 

Emmy Rossum: Oh, people are angry at *me*! I was on vacation right after we wrapped last week and I was on the beach and a man came up to me and said, “How dare you be on vacation on the beach? You should be in jail for accidentally giving that toddler cocaine.” And then just walked away. But I take that as I'm doing my job right and I do feel like there will be a certain amount of redemption for Fiona. She will really understand what she has become and start to take responsibility for her actions by the time we reach the end of this season.

HitFix: We've talked so much about downward spirals, but to end on a lighter note, do you have any fun stories from filming in Chicago in this winter of the polar vortex?

Emmy Rossum: Can I tell you! There's a scene, I think it's in the next episode, where I'm on house arrest, so I'm allowed to be out looking for a job between the hours of 10 and 6, but not after that? And my character's at a job office looking for any kind of a job at this point, she's been rejected by so much, and I realize that it's 5:35 and I have to be home in 25 minutes, so I run to the L-train and it's closed and I run for a taxi and they won't take me, so I end up taking off my working girl heels and running barefoot home. So they have me, in Chicago, running barefoot on the icy, sludgy streets, in a pantsuit with bare feet. And I told them, “I'm only gonna do this twice.” But still, can I tell you, it broke ever blood vessel in my foot. And I got diagnosed porphyria on my feet because I was running on the ice. Apparently all the blood vessels in my feet just decided to say, “Screw you” and just burst. But it's all worth it! 

HitFix: Even that?

Emmy Rossum: Yeah. It's gonna heal. Apparently I got them iced and then I put them on the heater in the 15-passenger van that was our transpo vehicle. I put them right on the heater after the ice and then I put them in the ice and I then I put them on the heater and apparently I broke all my blood vessels.

HitFix: So next season hopefully back to filming in the summer?

Emmy Rossum: We are, actually. We're starting in July.

HitFix: And is that actually *better*?

Emmy Rossum: Well, that just means that I'll be all broken-out because of the sweat. But listen, this is what we do for our art. We don't care. I'm not a big complainer. I love my job and I love every weird, awful thing they throw at me. There's a scene [coming up] that's maybe the lowest of lows that I've ever felt, where I'm using a public restroom in front of other women and we were all actually sitting in the bathroom together with our bare bottoms and I was just like, “It doesn't get any worse than this.” We shot it at the mission downtown. I had my bare bottom on the mission toilet. Of course I used a little Wet One to wipe it down, but it was really like, “Wow, this is cable filmmaking. I've done indies that had more cushy niceties than this show.” But I love it! Also, they don't treat us with kid-gloves, so it really does give you that real vibe. If they put a bunch of public restrooms on a Warner Brothers soundstage, it probably wouldn't feel the same. And I'm an actor, so I love to be degraded!

After a week off for the Oscars, “Shameless” resumes its season on Sunday night.