By Marc Snetiker
Updated January 10, 2014 at 05:00 PM EST
Shameless 401 Emmy Rossum
Credit: Cliff Lipson/SHOWTIME

For three seasons, Emmy Rossum has led the wild herd that is the Gallagher family on Showtime’s bold, often jaw-dropping dramedy Shameless. Eldest sister Fiona ended last year with a cushy office job, but Rossum suggests that the character might not be long for the corporate world.

As the show gears up for its fourth season premiere on Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, the tight-knit Gallaghers have found themselves at a surprising crossroads. EW chatted with Rossum to find out what’s in store for the most hard-headed of the bunch.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s your excitement level heading back into the Gallagher house, heading into this new season where it seems as if everything has changed?

EMMY ROSSUM: I’m really nervous because we have new cast members and we’re missing old cast members and it’s just kind of evolving, as shows do when they get into their fourth season. It’s a much darker, harder season than I think we’ve ever done. I’m interested to see peoples’ reactions to it, because it’s definitely been harder on us as actors in terms of where they’re taking us to.

Is it safe to say that the characters have gone their separate ways for a good chunk of the season?

The Gallaghers are very separate and doing their own thing. We’re seeing that all the kids are growing up and they have lives of their own, so this is the first season where Debbie has a boyfriend (and he’s older), and Lip is in college… At the top of the season, Fiona’s living large for herself. She’s employed and they have health insurance and they’re going to the doctor and they aren’t cutting coupons and each of the kids has five dollars for lunch. But of course, Fiona always has that slight bit of Frank in her to self-destruct, and we’re going to see that at an all-time high.

What’s it like for you to have long played this character dirt poor, and now to play her flipped?

I’m not used to playing her without a certain level of panic-survival mode, and type-A “everything’s in its place and we’re making lunches.” When she can actually breathe and have a life of her own and be in a somewhat functioning relationship, I’m not only not sure how to play it, but I think she doesn’t know how to live it. She’s definitely not comfortable being comfortable.

It’s interesting that she’s so much like Frank. We don’t get to see that too often.

There’s literally a moment where we’ll see her hiding under a table, a la Frank, so her boyfriend doesn’t see her at this other guy’s house. I mean, she’s horrified by this. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy that she doesn’t think she deserves a normal, middle-class life with a nice guy who doesn’t steal cars and get her in trouble. She doesn’t feel like she’s deserving of that normalcy and comfort and happiness and she does everything in her power to destroy it.

I kind of love it when “street Fiona” comes out.

I think we’re going to see shades of Monica and shades of Frank in Fiona this year. When she finally messes up her job situation and gets into trouble, we’re going to see her go a little stir-crazy.

Does her goodbye to Jimmy hold up? Will she see him again?

Oh she’s definitely not over him, and I think a lot of the bad decisions she makes this year are because she’s suppressing all of these feelings from the loss of Jimmy/Steve. I think he’s dead but at the same time, they never showed it, so I’m not sure that doesn’t leave it open-ended.

Are you, as a normal human being, ever shocked by the storylines that these characters find themselves in?

All the time, all the time. Sometimes I’m sitting at a table read like, ‘Are we really gonna do this?’

Was there one in particular?

Yeah, in season one when Lip urinates on Frank’s head to punish him. And Frank just kind of knows he deserves it so he just stands in the stream. [Laughs] They live in their own universe, so all the rules of civility don’t really apply to the Gallaghers.

In talking to fans, why do you think people love the show so much?

It’s obviously a very different show from any other on television. It’s kind of genre-less. It’s equally hysterical and over the top as it is grounded and dark in the drama. I think everyone can relate to family dysfunction and to the struggle of survival in today’s economy, and I think that it’s really about loyalty and family. Against the odds even when your own family messes up, will you stick by them?

Where would you like to see Fiona go?

I’d like to see her with somebody that can actually protect and take care of her in a way that would be very difficult for her to find comfortable, but I’d like to see her in a healthy relationship and I’d like to see her succeed in business.

Off-camera, you’ve seen these kids grow since season one. Is it strange or exciting for you as you’ve seen these young actors blossom?

It’s exciting to watch them take hold of their characters in different ways. Ethan, who plays Carl, he’s very instinctual, there’s really no method to his madness. Emma, she’s like me, she’s very type-A, she has notes written in every margin, so it’s interesting to watch them develop into the artists that they’re going to be and it’s really kind of exciting. But it’s also stressful because they’ve been children for so long and now they’re getting these adult storylines that they may not have experienced in real life. It’s a delicate scenario, and I think we’re very careful to make sure that they’re comfortable with what’s being written for them. I try to be, as do the other adult actors, a safe sounding board for them so that if anything doesn’t feel right, they can just say so and the writers will change it.

That’s a nice atmosphere to create for them.

There’s enough insanity on the show that we don’t need to inflect that upon 14 year olds that aren’t comfortable with it. Growing up in the industry, my first kiss in life was onscreen, as was Emma Kenney’s, so when she had that, I was like, “You’re going to be okay, it doesn’t count, that doesn’t mean it’s your first kiss, you’re still going to get to have it in real life yourself, so don’t worry!” Because she didn’t like the person she was kissing at all. So it’s just kind of become this family where we really do interact with each other and try to keep each other safe. I’m the de facto big sis.

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