Emma Kenney and Ethan Cutkosky on growing up Shameless and saying goodbye to the Gallaghers
For half their lives, Emma Kenney and Ethan Cutkosky have been Gallaghers. The duo were both only 10 when cast on Shameless as Debbie and Carl, the two youngest siblings (aside from baby Liam) in TV's most dysfunctional family. Now, 11 seasons, five Liams, and one unforgettable run later, the 21-year-olds are all grown up and preparing for the end of an era — and whatever comes next.
"Everything that I wanted to do and that I'm doing right now is because of Shameless," Cutkosky tells EW. "Shameless is always going to be our baby."
With only episode left before the Shameless series finale, EW talked with Kenney and Cutkosky about filming their emotional Gallagher goodbye, becoming brother and sister on camera and off, and auditioning to play love interests.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It's only been a few days since you finished filming the Shameless series finale, so how are you feeling?
EMMA KENNEY: For me, I think that when we first wrapped, we were all exhausted, we had a night shoot, so I don't think it really started hitting me until a few days after wrap, once I've caught up on some sleep, and just thinking that we're not all going to be back together the way it was.
ETHAN CUTKOSKY: Yeah, that last night we were all shooting until like 2 a.m., and that was the last scene that we had after six months of being with each other. It's very different filming now, quarantine-wise, with the pandemic. We're in our own little bubbles, our roommates are basically the only people we can see, or for Emma, her dogs. So I think when we were there that night, there was so much emotion and energy going on. I remember when I woke up that day I was like, "Wow, the sets are being taken down, I'm never going to walk through the Gallagher sets again."
Like you said, Ethan, production was so different this year with all the restrictions and safety measures in place. It couldn't have felt normal, but did you still feel like you got to have a real last hurrah together and enjoy these final moments as much as possible?
KENNEY: Yeah! We all obviously looked different because we had masks on and everything, but it's the same people at the end of the day, we all have the same goal of wanting to keep each other safe and get through the season successfully. So it was nice knowing we were all on the same page.
CUTKOSKY: At the beginning of the season we were all like, "How is this going to work?" We're usually hugging and beating each other up on set, so I think by the time we started shooting we realized, okay, you just keep your social distance, you work on everybody trying to be safe. But the whole season was its own last hurrah, as opposed to the last night. It just felt like this whole season we all were on that vibe that this is the last time we're going to be seeing each other.
KENNEY: [Laughs] The last time we'll ever see each other?
CUTKOSKY: I'm never seeing Emma again.
KENNEY: Steve Howey looks like a big scary guy but he's such a teddy bear, and all season he's like, "This is going to be the last time we're all doing a scene here." We're like, "We have eight more episodes, relax!"
Going all the way back to the beginning, what is your first memory of Shameless coming into your life? I talked to everyone in the cast back for a big retrospective feature tied to the 100th episode, and I believe there was a story about you two running around a hotel together when you were cast.
CUTKOSKY: I want to bring up a set school memory. This is when Emma and I really started becoming brother and sister. Because end of season 1, we're sitting in the Gallagher boys' bedroom on like a little picnic table…
KENNEY: I don't even know this story.
CUTKOSKY: We're eating food, I look over to Emma and go, "If you're going to chew like that, can you please step outside?"
KENNEY: [Laughs] Ethan! Where is this coming from?!
CUTKOSKY: It makes me look like an A-hole, but that's how I knew we were brother and sister.
KENNEY: We would get into it when we were young. I think our go-to thing was, he'd be like, "Well, I'm older," and I'd be like, "Well, I'm taller!" And now we're the same age and he's taller. My first memory of Ethan is we were at the hotel going to our screen test for the show before we booked it, and I saw Ethan and he had either these Batman or Spider-Man sunglasses…
KENNEY: Yeah, it was Batman sunglasses, and he was just sitting there with his arms crossed, chin up, and he was like, "What's up, I'm Ethan," and I was like, "Hi, I'm Emma!" And he was like, "What have you been in?" I was like, "Um, I haven't been in anything," and he was like, "I'm in The Unborn." [Laughs] And that was the beginning of many, many, many memories.
Except for the babies who played Liam early on, you two were the youngest in the cast, and this is a show where there was so much going on that probably was not age-appropriate for you. Was that weird at first, or was a lot of it just so over your head that you didn't know what was happening?
CUTKOSKY: I think a good amount of it went over our heads. There were things were Emma would come up to me like, "Do you know what this is?" and I'd be like, "I think?" It's like you're sitting at the adult table and your hear them talking and be like, "Kids, shush your ears."
Looking back, is there one scene or one plotline that you still can't believe you were involved in? It is Shameless, so there are plenty to pick from. Like for Debbie, I still get queasy just thinking about Frank cutting off her toes.
KENNEY: That was one of the least traumatizing story lines I had to do. I thought back to this one a couple months ago, I believe it was season 1 or 2 when I had those scenes where Debbie was going to the public pool and these mean girls put ketchup under her bathing suit. And I think back on that now and I'm like, first of all, f--- the writers, mortifying me when I was so young. [Laughs] But I am so glad I got to do something like that because things like that happen to people all the time and maybe somebody watched and went, "That happened to me or my sister." So I remember being super-anxious leading up to it, just because I was embarrassed and it was a very personal, touchy thing.
CUTKOSKY: Honestly, I think all the story lines that Carl had as a kid. He had a lot of outrageous stuff after he got back from jail. I feel like it was all over the board, except for this season was a pretty toned-down Carl, like, I'm gonna be a good cop, we're going to f--- over the rich, we're going to s--- on people who mess with our community.
Maybe it was from day one, since Ethan was in The Unborn after all and probably ready to go immediately, but was there a moment during the run when you felt like you had come into your own as an actor? Obviously any performer is only going to get better the more they do it.
CUTKOSKY: I would say right around when I was 14 years old, end of middle school, beginning of high school. From there on I really felt like I was coming in like, "Okay, this is how you perform, this is how you do your dialogue, this is how you want to look when you come to set around these adults." That started to become a conscious objective for me.
KENNEY: I feel like I had a very interesting roller coaster of an experience from the beginning of the show. Everyone goes through different phases as they're growing up and trying to figure out who they are, but I think from day one I've always been a bit of a perfectionist. I don't want to say teacher's pet but a little bit in that way, especially when I was younger. Then I think I went through a little bit of a phase by the time I was 13, 14, where I was like, "No, I'm going to be a rebel and just try to figure myself out," and then I got back to my roots of being a perfectionist. I want to say that was when I was like 17, 18, I think I started to really feel comfortable in my own skin and comfortable to do the best that I could do in front of the camera, and I wasn't holding back anymore with fear of being judged.
CUTKOSKY: When we first started the series, I remember when we would go to read-throughs, Emma would have all of her notes on the script, and when I was younger I was like, "What is she doing?" I never did such a thing, I was in that kind of young, "Oh, I'm playing this rebellious character" mindset. But you look back on it and you have this 10, 11-year-old highlighting her script, creating her own notes, it's such a crazy and professional thing.
KENNEY: "Crazy." [Laughs]
While we got a tease of it with the "don't chew so loud" drama, how would you compare the Ethan-and-Emma relationship to the Carl-and-Debbie dynamic?
CUTKOSKY: I'd say we're a lot closer than Carl and Debbie appear on screen. I think the banter between us is very similar, but I would say opposite side of the spectrum for being how close we are. We talk every day, we've been this close since we first started, we're each other's brother and sister on set. So I would say our relationship goes pretty heavy.
KENNEY: [Laughs] Goes hard!
When did you realize that Shameless had really become a huge thing? It feels like going on Netflix took it to the next level popularity-wise.
KENNEY: Probably when we would go film in Chicago. I remember around the time we were 17 is when the show hit Netflix and we were in Chicago, and I don't know if I'm being dramatic by saying at least 100 people at a time were outside the hotel where we'd all stay, and they hired security to protect us. That was pretty crazy. I remember another time Ethan and I and a couple of our friends went to Lollapalooza, that music festival in Chicago, and Ethan and I just got freaking mobbed. It was funny because Ethan and I actually had backstage passes but our friends just had regular ones, and so we wanted to be with our friends and we just went out into the crowd and somebody straight jumped on me. Do you remember that, Ethan? And you tried to like pull them off.
CUTKOSKY: Then she threatened to beat me up and I said, "I'm sorry."
KENNEY: Yeah! Not me, the girl who jumped on me threatened to beat Ethan up after he pulled her off of me.
CUTKOSKY: Yeah, I would say it really felt bigger than what we were doing by the time it hit Netflix, which I think was actually around when we were 15.
KENNEY: Oh, really?!
CUTKOSKY: It was way earlier than 17, because I remember it hitting Netflix almost at the end of eighth grade. You're a year older than me in school, three weeks younger than me in age.
KENNEY: It's just a cutoff thing!
CUTKOSKY: We're both from pretty small towns compared to L.A. I'm from a town that has 30,000 people, so when you started seeing the other side of stuff and how school was, you were like, "Okay, this is very different than growing up in public school and being how all my peers are."
I went to Lolla a few years ago and I can't even imagine what that must have been like for you guys being there in Chicago.
KENNEY: The fact that it was Chicago, people in Chicago love Shameless more than other cities do. It's amazing to feel the love. Even not just in Chicago, it's a great feeling when somebody comes up to you and say something like, "I watch Shameless with my family, it brings us together, it helps take me out of the struggles of my every day life, I relate to that character."
What was your reaction when you heard the show was coming to an end? It's been 11 years, so you knew one day eventually it was going to end, even though talking to showrunner John Wells he always said he'd do it forever if everyone wanted to.
CUTKOSKY: I feel like it was a good 50-50. We were expecting to go for one more or two more, none more than that, it didn't seem like. So it was kind of expected, and you're like, okay, at least we're doing one more and we know that.
KENNEY: Eleven years is a really long time, and we are so grateful and lucky that we had that. Nothing lasts forever. We obviously had no idea that the show would keep going on for that long, so I think we'd wrap and be like, "Okay, guys, bye." Just kidding, times 11!
CUTKOSKY: When we were younger, I don't even think I understood the concept, I was like, "Oh, I'm at school and my parents told me we have to go film next month."
KENNEY: Literally, same.
CUTKOSKY: I'm like, "Yeah, I like my brothers, I like Emma, might as well."
KENNEY: Would you ever get a phone call while you were in class? And they're like, "Ethan, or Emma, go to the principal's office" and then it's your parents and they're like, "Shameless got picked up again!" And then you just go back to lunch.
CUTKOSKY: I never had that. [Laughs]
What will you miss about Carl and Debbie? These are characters you've played more than half your lives.
KENNEY: I'll miss Debbie's hustle. I was always interested to read the script and see what shenanigans she'd be getting into that episode and how she would come out unscathed. So probably that, her ambition, her relationship with Franny. It was always really fun to film with the little girls who played Franny; they were so sweet and cute on set.
CUTKOSKY: I'm definitely going to miss the evolution of Carl. It's just been so interesting over the years, especially for me, evolving as my own person, as a young adult and coming into age.
Emma, you mentioned the young girls playing Franny, and it was probably a unique experience for you, considering that was you early on when Shameless began. So what was that like, being on the flip side of things at a certain point as the older one?
KENNEY: It's funny you even say that, because growing up on a set you have so many different experiences, and, yes, there are a lot of great people, but there's also a lot of people who maybe aren't so understanding or kind or decide to pick and poke at you. I know how that felt when I was young and it didn't feel great and I will never do that to a child in general, but especially not on set, because I know what that's like. I want to give kids their voice when I can and let them know they can say what they need.
Without giving anything away, how would you tease what fans can expect from the last few episodes?
KENNEY: I'm like, should we tell him the spoiler?! [Laughs] I think you see towards the end of the series a lot of the Gallaghers going off in their own direction, but also bonding together and trying to find a happy medium.
CUTKOSKY: I wouldn't say expect "Oh, this is it!" But more so, this is the Gallaghers and we have our banter until the end and we're still a family.
KENNEY: There's no such thing as a fairy-tale happy ending, and the show doesn't wrap up every single story line, it kind of leaves open-ended and imagining what you think they're going to go off and do next.
The end probably still feels so fresh, but have you yet had that moment of reflection about what Shameless and this family has meant to you?
CUTKOSKY: Yeah, 100 percent, because everything that I wanted to do and that I'm doing right now is because of Shameless. It has given me a place to stand and a voice to be able to put out things that I want to put out. So it's a reflection every day, and now seeing how much I've grown. Shameless is always going to be our baby.
KENNEY: I agree with what Ethan said. It's always going to be so special and home. God, I'm so grateful for the cast and John Wells and [casting director] John Levy and Mark Mylod, who directed our pilot, and everybody. It was a total team affair.
KENNEY: Who knows? I have so many goals but they're not that specific, if that makes sense, because I just want to find scripts that are dope and I can connect with and bring some life to. I've got some specific goals but I'm super-superstitious, so I don't want to say them out loud. But I'm also really interested in getting a bit more behind the lens; I'm into photography, so that's something I'm definitely interested in continuing to pursue, more professionally at least.
CUTKOSKY: Luckily we are bringing back a role from Law & Order: SVU that I did when I was 14, so I'm out here in New York doing that for two weeks. That will be really fun. After that, it's playing the game of acting, you audition, you twiddle your thumbs and wait and read scripts. So that's why I've been working on music for the last year and a half, been doing a clothing brand for the past three years that I run out of my garage, just a passion project for creativity and where I want to channel myself. So those are some of the things that I know will be a constant while I'm auditioning and work myself further into acting.
I will say there is another role I'd love to see you revive, Ethan. I also cover Power and you showing up in the last scene of the series finale as young Tommy blew my mind, because it was such perfect casting. When they hired you, did they say if it was something they might revisit? I know they are pretty secretive over at Power.
CUTKOSKY: I haven't heard anything personally from them. Fingers crossed. They seemed like a great family. I only talked to Joseph [Sikora, who plays Tommy] over the phone briefly, but the showrunner and everyone was super-nice, so it would be awesome.
KENNEY: It was so cool that you did that. Where did you guys shoot?
CUTKOSKY: That was New York for literally one day.
KENNEY: You always go to New York to film. I always say that certain actors always film in one spot. I feel like L.A. is where I'm at and you're Chicago and New York, even though we were obviously in L.A. forever.
Maybe Ethan will get the Tommy prequel going and bring you into the Power universe.
CUTKOSKY: Brother and sister on Power! We've gone on auditions where we're auditioning for love interests, and we're like, "Oh, how is this one going to work out?"
KENNEY: Literally Ethan and I will be like, "Okay, I want this one, you don't want this one that bad, I'll do great, you do bad, and for the next one I'll bomb it and you do good."
Do the casting people realize what they're doing when they bring you two in?
KENNEY: Maybe they've got some weird, twisted minds. [Laughs]
Shameless airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.
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