It’s hard to picture Shameless without Emmy Rossum, but that will soon be the reality when the actress steps away from the beloved series that her character, Fiona Gallagher, has been the heart and soul of for nine seasons.
“I was 23 when the show started and it’s been pretty remarkable the confidence that it’s given me,” Rossum, now 32, tells EW. “It’s been a long, wonderful journey and I’m so close to my Gallagher family that to walk away is quite bittersweet, but it did feel like it was time for the character to spread her wings and that there was less need for her. I never want something to just feel like a job and so I’m leaving while I still love it.”
It has been far from smooth sailing for Fiona down the stretch, with the aspiring entrepreneur’s life crashing down earlier this season, sending her into an alcohol-fueled spiral. But, as the most recent episode ended with Fiona hitting rock bottom and going to an AA meeting, Rossum appears to be getting both the “messy darkness” that she loves and the happy ending.
Ahead of Rossum’s final two episodes, EW chatted with the actress about Fiona’s “moving” goodbye, whether she will return, and what’s next. Also, above, see the first look at the actress’ final episode (is she finally visiting Ian in prison?!).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve talked a bit about this already, but why did now seem like the right time for you and the character to leave? It’s been nine seasons, so obviously you’ve put in more than your share of time.
EMMY ROSSUM: I had felt that coming for a while — 110 hours of a character is a long time and it’s one that’s been a really fascinating journey. I’ve never had the opportunity to tell a story in such long-form before, and it can become quite fascinating, because you just get to investigate so many different aspects of a person and experience their growth over a long period of time. And it was also, not only experiencing that as a character but myself as well. I was 23 when the show started and now I’m not and it’s been pretty remarkable the confidence that it’s given me, that [showrunner] John Weells has given me, encouraging me to write and direct, giving me the chance to direct on the show, mentoring me as a writer. And it really does feel like we’ve spent nine wonderful years together, and it also feels like I’m excited to experience what else is out there, what other characters will excite me in the way that Fiona did for so long, and to see what else I can tackle, what is scary and exciting and wonderful. I always look forward to things that I’m not sure if I can pull off, things that intimidate me when I look at them on a page. I like that journey of discovery and I never ever want to become complacent in my work. So yeah, it does feel like I’ve really grown up, and also she has in watching the incredible rise and fall and rise again and fall again. There have really been two distinct cycles for her over the nine seasons. We’ve watched her ascend and gain some traction in her life in the first few seasons, and season 4 really took a dip with drugs and jail time, and then she built her way back up, became the manager of a restaurant, a property owner, and then her hubris led her to bite off more than she can chew. And when she lost it all, the same old demons and coping mechanisms came back with her anger, her inherited trait of alcoholism. And so it’s been really fun to play those dynamics, especially because they are so different from who I am.
We’ve seen tough stretches for Fiona over the years, but this was definitely a very dark run for her over the back half of the season. She had pulled herself up and really made some big moves, only for it to come crashing down. What did you enjoy about this arc and why did it seem like a fitting final one for you?
I always wanted Fiona to leave on a high note and I’ve campaigned for that since the beginning. Fiona is not only close to my heart, but I think kind of like a pillar of strength in the family. But at the same time, I love the messy darkness that she falls into. I love the chaos that she craves and attracts and it’s much, much more exciting and thrilling to play her when she’s going through s— and when she’s combusting than when she’s a successful property owner. So, selfishly, I feel two ways about it. As an actor, I want to play a mess, it’s more fun, it’s more expansive, especially taking her to the lows that she went this year, which are so much lower than she’s ever been.
It doesn’t get much lower than waking up next to Frank (William H. Macy) in your old building that you’re now squatting in and being so hungover that you’re nonstop vomiting.
Reading on the page, much of what John wrote for this episode, especially the end of it, which you’re talking about, is relatively silent. And that’s some of my favorite acting to do. Don’t get me wrong, every actor loves a monologue, but to get to express things just by repeatedly vomiting and showing what her life has become — in silence — is quite exciting. And John is always very, very specific about how he writes silent scenes. It’s extremely emotionally specific. So he really gives you a road map of how that scene should be and he gives me a lot of reign to experiment in that.
That episode also featured Fiona bonding with Frank, which was a fun dynamic that turned depressing. Considering her state and your impending exit, did it seem important to have one last big plot featuring the two of them together?
It’s really fascinating for me to watch Fiona wonder if she’s an alcoholic. You will see that in episode 13. After she goes to AA, she’s struggling with the fact that she hasn’t always been dependent on alcohol, but it’s a coping mechanism that she’s learned and it’s one that is very familiar and one that has become very destructive. It’s a gray era of substance abuse and something that I found incredibly interesting. She is a child of a junkie and an alcoholic, so watching her wrestle with that, and then you have her brother, who is an alcoholic, goes to AA all the time, has been on the straight and narrow and making something of his self. So it’s really interesting how the coping mechanisms that you learn or inherit can provide some road bumps for you in the future, and it’s been really exciting to play that, to wonder if she really is a lot like Frank. In episode 12, she begins capitalizing on the blackout, and her and Frank team up in a way that I don’t think we’ve ever really seen and kind of enjoy each other. At the same time, she’s telling her that the way that she drinks is very destructive in a way that doesn’t make her happy like it makes him happy; it makes her angry and connects her to her feelings in a way that aren’t as palpable and reachable as when she’s sober.
What can you tell me about the next two episodes and how the show says goodbye to Fiona?
Something that was set up previously kind of pays off for Fiona. A door opens and she walks through. She goes to start to make her life elsewhere, and the way in which she says goodbye is quite moving. I think the final moment between her and Frank is actually quite telling about really how much he loves his kids but just really can’t be a parent and there’s an understanding there. It reminds me of a scene in the pilot. There’s a scene with Frank and Fiona in the finale right at the very end where he’s trying to acknowledge what she did for the family and it’s in some way reminiscent of what Fiona wanted to hear in the pilot when he was passed out drunk in the living room and she was patting herself on the back and saying “Good job, Fiona.” Now, of course, she doesn’t hear those exact words because Frank is a terrible narcissist and not very generous with words, but there’s an understanding that happens and I think the way John blocked the scene was so smart. There’s a separation between the characters but there’s a lot unsaid and understood between them. I’m quite happy with the life that Fiona is going to make for herself and the things she’s put in place to take care of them before she leaves.
Cameron Monaghan left earlier this season and is already coming back, so what are the chances that we see you again before the series concludes? And I would assume it will eventually end despite you saying it can go on “forever.”
I would never close my door on the family. Like I said in what I wrote and what I said to them repeatedly, they should just think of me being down the block. I’m just in New York. It’s not like I’ll never be in L.A. or Chicago ever again, so I’m not that far away. But for me, quite honestly, I’m not sure what more story can be told for her. I really liked the way we ended it. But never say never; I really love all the people I work with. There’s so many other things that I want to do but I love my family.
You wrapped Shameless a few months ago, so what has it like to have more time to do other things? And what more are you hoping to do now that you’re more available?
Now that I have so much executive time! I’m thrilled actually. Coming right off Shameless, I wrapped on a Saturday and then flew to New York and started prepping for [Amazon’s] Modern Love on Monday and I got to direct a beautiful episode with Shea Whigham and Julia Garner. I just had a wonderful time, worked with some really awesome up and coming New York actors, just shooting in my home city and being able to practically walk to work in the morning was pretty awesome. I’d love to do theater, I want to do more directing, I’ve written a feature that I’d like to make, we’re developing Angelyne as a limited series and it’s pretty awesome, the scripts are really good so I’m excited about that. I’m pretty psyched about the opportunities that I see.
Shameless airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.
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