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Emmys 2017
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Article

Shameless: Emmy Rossum talks directing debut, new trans character

Plus, Rossum predicts the series finale: ‘The show for me has always ended with Frank dying’

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Cliff Lipson/SHOWTIME

It’s the next big leap of faith for Fiona Gallagher — behind the scenes.

Shameless’s stunning seventh season takes its latest turn on Oct. 23 with the first episode directed by the show’s very own Emmy Rossum, who’s given life onscreen to clever, headstrong, self-destructive Fiona for seven years on the Showtime series. Now, the difference in directing is that this time around, she’s responsible for giving life to everyone else, too.

Directing was both an exercise in passion and in multitasking sanity for Rossum, who follows in the footsteps of another Shameless star-turned-director, William H. Macy, who directed a season five episode and even co-wrote one in season two. Add that pressure to the fact that Rossum was also tasked with another challenge: delicately introducing a new trans character on the episode, played by actor Elliot Fletcher, who will recur this year as a new love interest for Cameron Monaghan’s Ian.

EW spoke with Rossum during the summer, just days after her directing stint ended, to get her immediate reaction to her time in the chair — and to the self-starting Fiona that’s been blazing trails for herself all season long.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congrats on directing! Why now in season seven?

EMMY ROSSUM: I think maybe it took me that long to get up the guts to ask — and to feel ready. I took cinematography at NYU this past spring during our hiatus and I feel like I’ve kind of been secretly shadowing [fiancé and Mr. Robot creator] Sam [Esmail] for the last three years, and I shadowed last year on our show. I love our story and I love our actors so much that I was really excited to bring the personal connection I have both to them, and to the material, to a more leadership role. And I saw [William H.] Macy do it really successfully — although, shooting on our show, because we do nine pages a day and only seven days per episode, it’s kind of like hazing. And John [Wells] didn’t really go easy on me in terms of what kind of episode he gave me.

That’s for sure. How did that manifest in directing?

He gave me one of our biggest, most complicated episodes we’ve done in a few years, with two straight night shoots and a rain rig and 60 extras. And a party scene! But more importantly to me, the most exciting part about getting this episode to direct was that we are introducing our first trans character and I had a hand in casting that person. The young man that we found is 20-years-old and he hasn’t done that much. He’s an incredible actor named Elliot Fletcher and his audition just blew all of us away. And for me, it was important to cast somebody trans in the role, even though that limited our pool of actors that we could choose from. It was really important to me that it was authentic. So I was incredibly touched and I just found great meaning in getting to introduce this character, especially because I think it’s such a hot-button issue right now. It feels like it’s very much in the zeitgeist and it feels like the audience that we have is very young and very diverse. I feel like it’s a new group of people that maybe don’t understand exactly all the facets of LGBTQ, and of course, we approach it with the same kind of Shameless humor and darkness that we do everything.

How do you remain PC?

We’re not. And also the actor that we cast had dialogue tweaks that he wanted to do and we were very sensitive to that. We just had so much fun working with him and working with Cam. There was a vulnerability and the bravery was really phenomenal for me to be around, and to feel like I was shepherding that kind of a role onto television was, for me, very moving and meaningful. I’m also pretty excited because I feel that the fans have been frustrated since Mickey Milkovich left, so I feel like this is a new thing: somebody they can ally themselves with who’s also an underdog and doesn’t feel like he fits in society, much like Ian doesn’t feel like he fits in society with his mental illness and all the stigmas around him. So I think they find common ground in that, and it was really beautiful.

Ian had a great monologue about mental illness in last year’s season finale, and it was such a payoff for the character and all that he’s been building up. If Ian represents a movement in mental illness on TV, when the series is over, what do you hope the takeaway of Fiona is?

I think it’s about a larger conversation that deviates from the idea that women should fit into specific categories or display certain parts of the spectrum and not all. So for me, Fiona is both a mother and a sister and a fighter, but she’s also a sexual being. She is loyal. She’s human, and I think, especially right now with all the talk about feminism and what is feminism and are you a feminist, do you have to be a feminist, what does that mean, who are you, what do you say, I’m with her, f— Trump — all that stuff is going on right now. I’ve always found Fiona so interesting because she kind of refuses, and I refuse, to put her in the category of “the mother figure” or “the sister” or “she’s just trying to get ahead.” She changes, and she grows. So it’s interesting to find that.

This season, we’re seeing her become more independent and entrepreneurial, essentially putting herself above her family, finally, since they never seem to put her first. If they think they’re so independent, she’s now calling them on their bluff.

It’s definitely a new kind of self-starter Fiona that we’re seeing, and we’re seeing that dynamic change and how that ripples throughout the family. Everyone is realizing the core family that’s been their family for so long might not be their be-all, end-all family, and that they start to develop these relationships and dynamics outside the family. Carl starts to find a mentor in Luther, Dom’s father. Fiona starts to find her family in the new staff that she hires at the restaurant. Lip is working for a start-up and he starts to find his people there. Frank takes over a homeless shelter and quite literally starts calling all of the other homeless people “New Fiona, New Lip, New Carl, New Debbie, New Ian.” So you’re seeing how they’re kind of leaving their family nest and making these relationships outside and then hopefully can come together again having retained those outside support networks.

It brings up an interesting point — whether Shameless ends with all of the Gallaghers having built new lives apart, or if the whole point is that they must stay together. What do you think the final image of the series has to be?

I wonder. I don’t know. The show for me has always ended with Frank dying, in my head, because I don’t think there’s any way you treat your body that way. We’ve seen him skirt death so many times. Or maybe he’s just that cockroach that will never die.

Was it strange for you to treat Fiona as just another character to direct?

On a TV show, by and large, a lot of the directors who come in don’t give the series regulars that much direction, just by virtue of the fact they feel like we probably know the characters. They’ll tweak things here and there, but there’s not a lot of direction. And I think, especially with Macy, a lot of directors on Shameless are intimidated, but if they actually knew how collaborative he was, he loves ideas and he loves notes. I was definitely intimidated my first time pitching him an idea on the set — some he hated, and some he loved. You can’t take it personally one way or another. Giving myself notes was probably tricky but also I did a lot of storyboarding and thinking about what I wanted every shot to look like. Blocking is so important on our show in terms of keeping the characters on their feet and moving — we very rarely have characters sitting and talking to each other — so a lot of the messy camera work works when the characters move around a lot. I took pictures of little LEGO people walking around on little schematics on the set and uploaded them to a Dropbox so that, when we were about to rehearse a scene, I could consult a little idea of what the LEGOs were doing to tell the actors what to do.

That sounds like exactly the kind of extra passion that begot this opportunity.

I felt like I had something to prove because people could be like, “Oh, who’s this actor that’s just given this vanity position of directing an episode, because she asked?” Like what are they going to say, no? Well, yeah, they could have said no. I felt like the bar was even higher to prove myself than another director coming in because I wanted to prove to the crew that I could hack it.

And now, just days after finishing, how do you feel?

I’m really tired. I mean, the running back and forth between being in a scene and watching playback and watching still frames. I had a monitor that I would wear like a purse so I could check the frames during rehearsal. It was a lot of back and forth, and a lot of using different parts of the brain — the analytical part that you could see from afar, and the emotional side that’s in the scene. And then the other part of it, where you’re literally making notes on both your performance and the other person’s performance while you’re doing it, and taking inventory of where the camera is, how it’s pacing, is this working, am I about to get fired? It was definitely stressful but it was really exhilarating.

Shameless airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.