The versatile actress-singer talks about her multiple projects, including a film, TV show and new CD.
Actress-singer Emmy Rossum
Tavis: Emmy Rossum plays the very put-upon eldest daughter of a wholly dysfunctional family in the critically acclaimed Showtime series, “Shameless.” The role is something of a departure for the young actress, whose classical music training had her joining the Metropolitan Opera’s children’s chorus, and sharing the state with Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti.
She’s taken a more contemporary turn with a new CD titled “Sentimental Journey,” and, of course, with her role opposite William H. Macy in “Shameless,” which we will now take a look at a clip specifically from this Sunday night’s episode.
Tavis: I leaned over to Emmy as that clip was airing and said to her, “So this all happened because you grew too tall.
Emmy Rossum: That’s true.
Tavis: Is that a true story?
Rossum: There’s an element to truth, yeah. I was singing in the children’s chorus at the Met, and I had a little 12-year-old growth spurt, and I got too tall for all the children’s costumes. So they said, “Well, you’re out. Come back when you’re an adult and can be in the adult chorus.”
I think it all happened because I don’t take “no” for an answer well, and I just thought, well, I don’t want to, like, just go back to school and do that for a couple of years and not be on stage. So I decided I would look up an agent in the Yellow Pages and went and auditioned, and they took me, and -
Tavis: The rest, as they say, is history.
Rossum: A lot of work (unintelligible).
Tavis: Now you’re on “Shameless.” (Laughs)
Tavis: So aside from growing too tall for the costumes, was the acting thing of interest to you? Clearly, music is your – I don’t want to say your first love. Is that -?
Rossum: Yeah, it is.
Tavis: Is that a fair statement?
Rossum: Absolutely, yeah.
Tavis: It’s your first love.
Rossum: I listened to all kinds of jazz piano and classical music in my house growing up and I love music, but I just love the – I like playing pretend. I like being on stage and the costumes and the element of imagination that came into getting transported into another time.
So I think for me, I always thought first I’d go onto Broadway, but I ended up going out for films and getting some indies and yeah.
Tavis: How did the music thing happen for you? Are you from a musical family?
Rossum: No, strangely. My mom loves jazz piano, played a lot of John Lewis when I was growing up. She loves classical music. Played Kiri Te Kanawa, and so I just kind of heard it in the womb and loved it. They sent me over to the opera when I was seven, after they heard me singing in the chorus at my school where I was going.
Tavis: How long when you switched to the acting thing before you felt like you could actually run successfully in this lane? Clearly, you knew you could sing.
Rossum: Oh, I don’t ever feel that about anything.
Tavis: (Unintelligible) now, yeah.
Rossum: No, I always think I could do better. I always think that something could be more perfect, but I think that that’s just within my nature. I think I want to please a director, I want to give my everything and find every which way I could have burrowed further into a character, or -
Tavis: So you’re your toughest critic.
Tavis: So what’s that like, then, if I were directing you, which will never happen, but if I were directing you in something, what kind of actor are you to direct, given the way you process?
Rossum: I just finished shooting a movie with Hilary Swank and George Wolfe directed it, and he said to me – I didn’t even think that he liked me very much until the wrap party, and he came over and he finally smiled at me, hugged me, and he said, “I honestly think that if I had told you to jump off a bridge, you would have.”
I love to create and I love to be challenged and I love to do things that are scary, so I think I would probably think about jumping off a bridge (laughter) if somebody told me that’s going to make that shot real great. I’d be like, “Okay, here we go, let’s do it.” (Laughter) Like, yeah.
Tavis: George seems like a nice enough guy. Why did you think that George wasn’t feeling you?
Rossum: It was a tough shoot. She plays a woman with ALS and I’m her nurse and caregiver, so it was just a very dramatic, emotional ride, and so I think he had a lot to deal with with fine-tuning how she was playing the illness and how I was playing an alcoholic taking care of her. So I just think that he didn’t want to let me know that I was doing a good job until it was done.
Tavis: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: I was teasing when you walked on the set by saying to you that I watched “Day After Tomorrow” last night for the, like, gazillionth time.”
Tavis: This thing is always on somewhere. How did -
Rossum: Thank God for those five-cent residuals.
Tavis: I was about to say, yeah, if you’re getting paid every time that thing airs -
Rossum: Yeah, about a nickel.
Tavis: – you’re doing OK.
Rossum: So I’ve gotten like 35 cents this week.
Tavis: You got 35 cents now.
Tavis: It’s on all the time. Since we’re talking about that, when you did that project – I suspect this may be the case with everything you do; I don’t know, you tell me – when you’re on a project like that, does it make you consider the real consequences of the work that is at the epicenter of the project? In other words -
Rossum: Global warming.
Tavis: Yeah, global warming. It’s a long way of asking a very simple question.
Tavis: What kind of impact does doing a project like that have on you as a human being? Forget the actor part.
Rossum: Well, I think that there’s an element of – we’re in an entertainment business, so the goal is to entertain, to distract people, to make them happy, to give them joy, but it’s also to hopefully get to do something that you believe will benefit the world, and whether that’s raising awareness for a specific issue or whatever, I think that that is our responsibility, in a certain sense – to not just to projects that are just trashy entertainment.
When I read a script that feels like that, it doesn’t feel good if I’m going to lend my name to that, and that was a project that I didn’t even really know much about global warming, and it had some of the science element behind it and so I loved that.
Obviously, it was the first big studio movie I ever did, so I wasn’t in the place to even ever turn it down, and I wouldn’t have even if it dropped in my lap today, because it was a great character, a great director, and I loved the experience.
Tavis: Speaking of turning things down, did I read correctly that you were not immediately embraced -
Rossum: Was turned down?
Tavis: I’m trying to be charitable about this.
Rossum: You don’t have to be. (Laughter)
Tavis: I’m trying to be generous about this.
Rossum: You don’t have to be. For “Shameless?”
Rossum: That’s true.
Tavis: So you said it, I didn’t say it.
Rossum: They turned me down.
Tavis: So what happened?
Rossum: My agent called me and she said, “There’s this great project.” I said, “Oh, good, tell me all about it,” and she said, “Well, they don’t want to see you,” and I was crestfallen. There’s a part of ego that says, like, oh, well, then I don’t want them.
But then there’s that other part of me that goes, oh, no, I’m going to prove them wrong. Now I have to get the part. Now I have to prove them that I can do whatever it is they think I can’t do.
She said, “They think you’re too glamorous,” which was to me just, like, I think I was, like, in sweatpants with, like, pimple cream on my face at the time, (laughter) and I kind of looked in the mirror and thought, oh, well, that’s ironic.
But I got it because I’m from New York, sang at the opera as a kid, definitely don’t seem like a girl from the South Side of Chicago with an alcoholic, MIA parent, and five younger siblings.
So I got it, but I took it upon myself and wanted to audition. Read the script, loved it, and knew it was based on a British series, so watched a little bit of that, and then I kind of devised a way – I didn’t have anybody to read opposite me for the audition, so I found this weird way by using my computer, of recording the other person’s lines in Garage Band, and then turning on the recorder, and then going back into the Garage Band app and reading with myself while pushing the spacebar.
Tavis: That’s innovative.
Rossum: So it was definitely – I think they saw it and they were like, “Who is this freakish person?”
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Rossum: That wanted this so bad that she’s reading with herself while pushing the spacebar. I guess it was good enough. They told me to come out to L.A. and that they would audition me, and after three more times, I finally got the part.
Tavis: Wow. Wow. So every actor, every thespian, has his or her way of processing this and dealing with this. I am impressed by the way you push back when people tell you that either you’re too tall or they don’t want to see -
Rossum: Too fat, too thin, too dark, too light, not Latina enough, too dark, too ethnic, not ethnic enough. You’re always going to be something.
Tavis: Yes, but it’s a business – I say all the time, this is – not that I have any talent anyway for this, but I could never be an actor because I could not take the rejection.
Tavis: You get told no so many times.
Rossum: Yeah. Yeah, more times than yes.
Tavis: I don’t like being told no. So it’s not a profession for me, but how have you at this stage of building this career navigated that whole journey of being told no more than you get told yes?
Rossum: Well, I think you have to push back until you turn into an obnoxious person who just won’t take no for an answer. (Laughter) There have been certain things that I wanted that I didn’t get, and they turned out terribly and I was glad that I didn’t get them, and then there were certain things that I wanted that turned out great, and I wish that I’d been considered.
But I think that you’re always going to get no. The reasons one person gets the yes and you get the no, whether you’re an actor or an accountant who wants to get a bigger job or a promotion, whatever business, I feel like it couldn’t just suck for actors.
I think acting is a job where you’re always unemployed. You’re always looking for the next job, so I assume that it’s like other jobs that are with that same kind of setup.
Tavis: What’s it like working with William?
Rossum: It’s terrible.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Rossum: No, it’s great. He’s so funny and imaginative, and he doesn’t subscribe to any one specific method. There’s no rigidity to his process. He’s fun, he’s joking around one second, totally sober, playing the ukulele, and then the next second it’s action and he’s (unintelligible) slur.
There’s incredible complexity to what he’s portraying, too. He’s portraying a very smart, well-educated, insane alcoholic, so it’s very interesting to kind of watch him do it in person, and then kind of watch it when it airs.
Tavis: I’m always fascinated by any series or anything that has, like, a large family. I’m from a large family. I’m one of 10 kids.
Rossum: I’m jealous. I’m an only child.
Tavis: An only child, yeah. We’ll talk about that in a second.
Tavis: So I’m always fascinated by things that have to do with families, and this clearly is a dysfunctional family, given Macy’s character and the mom bipolar. But how do you, aside from – I know how you rehearse your lines, but how do you research a project like this, given that you are an only child? You don’t know what it’s like to be part of a family – I guess that’s where the acting comes in, obviously, but what’d you do to figure this out?
Rossum: I met with some addiction specialists and talked about kind of the roles that different kids of addicts kind of take on and figured out which stereotypical child of an alcoholic Fiona would fit.
Then I think you do it like any role. You try to create some semblance of the relationship with another actor that kind of mirrors whatever relationship you have in the piece.
We had a lot of fun just bonding and getting to know each other. Actually, a lot of us who play the Gallaghers are only children, so it’s interesting how much we had kind of all wanted a big family, and how this is our shot at a big, dysfunctional family.
Tavis: You like the way the character’s moving? Now we played a clip from this coming Sunday’s episode, but now you’ve gone to court and you are the -
Tavis: You’re the co-guardian, you’re the guardian here now.
Rossum: Yeah. She’s always kind of been the mother lion, but now it’s just interesting. I’ve never been on a TV show before, so you get to kind of live this journey with this woman as she’s kind of growing up, and it’s just really – it’s fascinating and interesting and fun.
Tavis: So back to your being an only child. Your mom still lives in -
Rossum: She still lives in New York.
Tavis: The Bronx.
Rossum: Well, my mom’s from Pelham Parkway in the Bronx, and now she lives on the East Side, by the river.
Tavis: Cool, cool, all right.
Rossum: Where I grew up.
Tavis: She watches you every Sunday night.
Rossum: She probably watches it every single time it airs.
Tavis: Every week, every day, yeah, exactly. (Laughter)
Rossum: Yeah. She says if she ever misses me -
Tavis: What’s your mom’s – is your mom’s name Joyce? It sounds like my mom. She watches – yeah, yeah.
Rossum: No, my mom’s name is Cheryl, but (laughter) she says, “If I ever miss you, and you know I don’t like to bother you too much, I’ll just turn on the show and I’ll just watch that.” I was like, “Mom, that’s really pathetic. Please don’t do that. Please just call me.”
Tavis: See, your mom and my mom are the same, because if “Shameless” runs, what, 12 times a week at a minimum -
Rossum: Yeah, uh-huh. Oh, she’s Tivoing it and watching it.
Tavis: Yeah, my mom would watch every time.
Tavis: I say, “Mom, you know it’s the same show?” “I know, baby, I know it’s the same show.”
Rossum: Yeah, no, yeah.
Tavis: So what was it like being an only child, since you were jealous that I’m from a big family?
Rossum: I always wanted an older brother. That was my thing. My mom would be like, “What do you want for your birthday?” I’d be like, “I want an older brother.” (Laughter) That’s going to be a little difficult. We can work on a younger one, but.
I had a single mom, I don’t really know my dad, so being kind of around my mom was the best example that I had of what a woman was, and she was strong and smart and thought education was important and thought art was important, and never thought soccer or any of those things were important, which is probably why I suck at all things physical. Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: I’m curious more about the relationship you had with your mother, and I’m asking this because I’m working on a separate piece now that has to do with single-parent families.
There’s no one-size-fits-all, there’s no right or wrong answer, but I’m curious as to your relationship with your mom, being just the two of you.
Rossum: Well, I grew up in an apartment that was smallish. We had a one-bedroom and she had a wall erected in the middle of the one bedroom so that I would have my own room. It was a legitimate wall, but it was like a sliding door, and so I would have to walk past her bed to the sliding door and open that up and go into my room.
So the idea of me, like, ever having a boyfriend or ever, like, bringing a boy home – because I lived there until I was 19, 20 – was definitely not going to happen, because -
Tavis: But she gave you your own space, though. That’s important.
Rossum: Yes, yes.
Tavis: She wanted you to have your own space.
Rossum: I got the side of the room with the window, which I always thought was so nice, because she didn’t have any light in her side of the room, and I got the window.
I guess when I was younger she traveled a lot. She was a photographer, and art was always so important to her. She would always send me to the museum and send me to see plays, and she loved the fact that I sang at the opera.
She was very encouraging of I had lots of kind of imaginary friends, and when I was very young I would make up all kinds of stories, like I lost a tooth and I said, “The tooth fairy came last night.”
She said, “Oh, and how did she come in?” I said, “She came up the fire escape and I opened the window. She came in; she was wearing an amazing dress, all organza.” (Laughter) I knew about fabrics even back then.
She was just, her skin was glowing, she was dewy. My mom was like, “What did you talk about?” So this would go on, and I believed in things that weren’t real for a long time.
I remember one time for Christmas I pressed zero on the phone, I must have been, like, eight years old, and I asked the operator to speak to Santa Claus. The operator was a woman, and she said, “Oh, he’s not here right now, but this is Mrs. Claus.” The operator from AT&T had a whole -
Tavis: Oh, how cool is that?
Rossum: – 10-minute conversation with me, and so this only fueled my imaginary friends (laughter) and all my kind of craziness. So yeah, she was very okay with me being weird. I went to a prep school, but I definitely wasn’t one of, like, the cool rich kids at this prep school.
She sent me there and paid for me to go there because that’s what she thought was important in life, was that I get an education and -
Tavis: Did you feel like you fit in there?
Rossum: Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no.
Tavis: You felt like you didn’t fit in.
Rossum: Oh, yes. No, no, I didn’t fit in.
Rossum: Because all the girls had perfectly straight, blonde hair and trust funds, and I knew this even at seven years old. This was a very bizarre experience for me. They all had moms and dads and a sister and a golden retriever and a house in the Hamptons, and I lived with my single mom in, like, a one-bedroom apartment, and they were like oh, why – they would come over to play at my house and be like, “You should get a bigger apartment. This is really small.”
I would just think, like, this isn’t real life. I don’t belong here. So I ran away to the opera and joined the circus. Yeah.
Tavis: Yeah. I was about to ask how you even came into discovering your own identity, your own individuality, when everything around you is so unlike you at school?
Rossum: Yeah. I guess I was okay not being like everyone else. I guess I kind of have never felt like I was like all the cool kids, and now I feel like maybe I am one of the cool kids, but I still don’t feel that way, even though people make me feel that way sometimes.
Tavis: I’m glad you went there. I was just about to ask. So how do you process this now, because at one point you did not fit in, you were not the star, and you were not all that and then some. Now you’re all that and then some. How do you process that?
Rossum: Well, it’s helpful when people keep saying no. (Laughter) Because that brings you right back down. You’re like, “I’m all that and then some,” and they’re like, “No, you’re not getting this.”
Tavis: No, not exactly.
Rossum: And you’re like, “What? I still need to,” and I think that all of that is just noise. You can’t’ pay attention to that. You just have to kind of put your head down, do your work, do the best job that you can do, and hope that you’re adding something good to the world, I think.
Tavis: Yeah. So tell me about the singing now. So we know the acting thing is working remarkably well, but music is still your first love.
Rossum: It was.
Tavis: So how do you advance that while you’re doing the acting thing?
Rossum: Well, I decided to make this record with my own money because I wasn’t sure anybody would want to make it with me. It’s a record of jazz covers, of standards from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, yeah.
Tavis: Twenties, ’30s, yeah, yeah.
Rossum: It’s very retro, and it’s like my mom would sing me a lullaby when I was a kid of an Andrews Sisters song called “I’ll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time.” I remember hearing that and thinking I want to make a record like that someday, even when I was little, and so finally, between hiatuses of “Shameless,” I had the chance to, the time to make it.
At the same time I was down in New Orleans making a movie called “Beautiful Creatures,” and heard so much cool street music down there and bluegrass bands and people playing washboards with thimbles on their hand, and I was like, “What is this? I need to be part of this. I need to know everything.” So I decided to make this record.
Tavis: I’m curious as to why you felt like you couldn’t get the record made if you didn’t put your own – you’re a star now. You didn’t have to -
Rossum: Yeah, but I guess I didn’t want anybody, I guess I didn’t want anybody pushing it into, like, make it more pop or make it more sexy or wear, like, a low-cut thing on the cover of the record.
I just wanted to be kind of like purely one little project that was my own little baby, that I could make and then give to people and say, “I like this. I hope you do.”
Tavis: So you want to do more of that?
Rossum: Yeah. I love music. I’d love to go on Broadway and do a musical there. I just like to kind of go with whatever’s inspiring at the moment, and kind of follow that as far as I can.
Tavis: Yeah. So how are you finding – you mentioned earlier in this conversation this is your first time actually doing a TV series.
Tavis: So how are you finding that work as opposed to the movie stuff that we have seen you in so far?
Rossum: I love it. It not only -
Tavis: It’s (unintelligible) though, isn’t it?
Rossum: It is, to a certain extent, especially because the material that we deal with is pretty dark.
Rossum: But I think that we’re doing something that people are responding to and people are liking and we’re showing – we shoot on location in Chicago, all our exteriors, and shooting in these real neighborhoods, in peoples’ real houses.
At first when I kind of read the script I thought, like, oh, well, we’re talking about poverty and we’re talking about alcoholism, we’re talking about underage sex and homosexuality as a teen growing up in the ghetto and what that’s like.
But then when you really go there and you really sit in people’s living rooms and watch them kind of just live their daily lives, it’s very impactful to know that we’re doing something that has real meaning underneath it all, underneath the fact that it’s a farce and the fact that it’s funny and a little broad. It feels – it’s very heartening.
Tavis: I’ve always wondered whether or not doing something that is that dark for that long has any kind of emotional or psychological impact on you. You do the character and you go home and you’re back to Emmy again?
Rossum: No. It takes a while. We actually celebrated Thanksgiving during the last – over the course of the time that we were shooting the third season, and my mom came and she was making Thanksgiving in my house here on the West Coast.
She was like, “I’m eating Thanksgiving with Fiona Gallagher. You’ve dropped the F-bomb four times.”
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Rossum: “This is not my daughter.” I was like, “Wow, you’re right. It really does rub off on you and your way of thinking and talking and speaking.” She’s like, “What is that accent you’re talking with right now?” I was like, “Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it,” or whatever.
So it’s an interesting process. It’s hard to shake off something like that, but at the same time, you’re doing something that you think is good, that you think is important, and that you enjoy. It’s fun.
Tavis: That’s what life ought to be, if you can work it out.
Tavis: The more fun, the more better.
Tavis: Emmy, good to have you on the program.
Rossum: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Tell William I said hello when you see him again.
Rossum: I will.
Tavis: It’s been a while since he’s been on our show. We always -
Rossum: I’ll send him back.
Tavis: Send him back. I’ll talk to him if he comes back.
Tavis: The show is called “Shameless” on Showtime – speaking of which, these guys have a great lineup on Sundays. “Shameless,” “House of Lies.”
Rossum: “House of Lies.”
Tavis: I’m loving that.
Rossum: Yeah, me too.
Tavis: Yeah, it’s good stuff. Glad to have you on.
Rossum: Thank you so much, appreciate it.
Tavis: Thank you, Emmy. Emmy Rossum, from “Shameless.” That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
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