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Sunday's episode of Shameless couldn't have been any bigger for both V and Shanola Hampton.

After 11 years of playing the best next-door neighbor a degenerate South Side Chicago family could ask for, Hampton pulled double duty as actor and director for "Cancelled," a very busy hour in the hit Showtime series' final season.

The great debate over whether or not to sell the Gallagher house took a back seat as Debbie (Emma Kenney) faced her abandonment issues, Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) blew his undercover gig by crashing a car and saving the Alibi, Frank (William H. Macy) railed against cancel culture, Liam (Christian Isaiah) won the contest to rename his school, and V tried to cope with her mother's decision to move to Louisville, only to be surprised by Kevin (Steve Howey) with a wedding 11 seasons in the making (even though we never imagined Zoom would be involved — or knew what Zoom was!). And not to go from cheery to heartbreaking, but the episode ended with the Gallagher kids learning of their father's dementia diagnosis.

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Shanola Hampton (center) in 'Shameless'
| Credit: Paul Sarkis/SHOWTIME

Only two days before Hampton wrapped Shameless for good, EW spoke with her about directing her family, dealing with a major false-positive COVID shutdown during her episode, and what to expect from the series finale.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: They didn't ease you in at all, huh? They gave you the biggest episode of the season so far!

SHANOLA HAMPTON: They definitely didn't treat me like a first-time director on this thing, and when I read it I said, "Uhhhhhh… okay! So we are going to do this and this and a car crash?! Okay, great." And I just jumped in. I was ready for it.

How did you directing in the final season come about? Is this something you've long hoped to do on the show?

When you're on a show this long, you take time to get your personal life together too, so I was able to have both of my children, and then I was like, "Okay, I'm done having kids, what's next, what do I want to do?" And I knew that I had an interest in directing, but because I'd never done it before I went to [showrunner] John Wells before season 10 and said, "Here's what I'm thinking, John: I want to direct." A lot of the time there's a bit of hesitation when an actor says they want to direct or shadow because the commitment is not always there. But John was very receptive to it, and I shadowed John, Silver Tree, and our [director of photography]. I wanted to do three different directors. I stayed every day, between 12 and 17 hours, just really learning everything. I didn't leave, I wasn't one of those people that shadowed for an hour and was like, "Look at me, I'm shadowing!" I really stayed from beginning to end, I went from prep to edit with all of the directors, and it ignited a fire in me. I knew I wanted to do it, and because John saw my dedication to the shadow process and me picking up stuff, he gave me the opportunity to direct in the final season, which is just incredible. It really is a dream come true.

Did you do all your shadowing in season 10, which was shot pre-pandemic?

Yeah, I did all of my shadowing in season 10. I went from director to director to director, so I just told my home life, "Hey, guys, for about six weeks you're not going to see me." I called it "I'm getting my accelerated master's degree in directing," and I'm going to learn from the greatest person ever, John. But it was three different styles and it was really smart to look at the DP, who knows everything about cameras and angles and blocking, and then Silver who has another take and is great with actors, and then, of course, John.

So you do all that shadowing but then it comes your turn in season 11 and none of that homework could have prepared you for filming in this COVID environment, which adds so many other elements. What was it like trying to navigate your first time directing while also going through everything that needs to be done to keep the cast and crew safe?

The blessing for me is that I didn't direct until episode 8 and I'm on the show that I'm directing. So I already knew the rhythm and how things were going to work; after those awkward weeks of figuring out masks and shields, we were already a well-oiled machine at this point. However, you're not prepared for there to be a lab malfunction where 18 people test positive but it was definitely false positive and then you have to shut down for three days, and then you're going into the holidays. So my eight-day shoot ended up going a month because it kept getting pushed. This was the episode that never ends.

Oh wow, I didn't realize that false-positive situation was on your episode.

Was on my episode! But you just roll with the punches. Again, it's great because these are my people. I'm like, "Okay, if it's going to happen to anybody, let it be me." We know we're not going to lose me as the director because I'm on the show; any other directors might have to go to another job. So it was good that it was on my episode, but you have to gain the momentum back that you've already created. I'm known to be an energetic person, so I can kind of get it back fairly quickly.

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Shanola Hampton behind the scenes on 'Shameless'
| Credit: Paul Sarkis/SHOWTIME

What was it like directing these actors who you've worked with so closely for 11 years? With those trusted and established relationships, I have to imagine it just made it that much easier. Or maybe it went the other way and they also felt like they could push back more too because of that.

Directing my costars/family! I will say because we've been on the show so long, everyone kind of has different scenes, other than that very first season when we were doing a lot of work together and in the finale where we're all together. We don't really see each other at work that much. So I had such an appreciation for the talent and for everyone's process, that's number one. Number two is everyone was so supportive, but for like Jeremy [Allen White], he probably had the hardest time, having been my little brother forever, just kind of being like, "Oh, it's Shanola the director now." So he wanted to challenge me some, but that was okay with me because I was expecting that; I thought it would have happened even more. But I was up for that challenge, and that was fun for me to dance back and forth because I'm like any other director. If you give me anything, I'm going to give it back because I know y'all, so don't play with me. [Laughs] So it was family atmosphere for me to do it my first time, but I also have to prove to you that I know what I'm doing. And because I knew what I was doing, that was easy to prove!

Was it a coincidence that you ended up getting Kev and V's wedding? Or did they feel like, who better than you?

It was just one of those things that happened and fell in my episode. Sherman Payne wrote such a wonderful script. That's really the final thing that we've been waiting for with Kev and V, to actually just be married, no cliffhanger, no other wives. They're finally just Kev and V married, and it was an honor. What a moment for me to be able to be in my wedding dress and doing the scene with Steve and we're looking in each other's eyes and saying, "Are we really doing this?" To have that moment is great, and then when it's over I'm yelling, "Cut!" So it was really sort of surreal but super-fun. The outtakes on that are funny.

You've worked with all of these people for 11 years, but with no one more closely than Steve. What's it been like being partners in this together for so long?

It's been incredible. Steve is now one of my best friends and one of my soulmates in this world. Soulmates come in so many different ways; you can just really see a person, and we see each other in a way that is very, very rare. And it's because we've been on this journey together and have this respect for each other and he's my protector and he's my best friend. It felt right to be able to bring closure to Kev and V, to have them be married. They are forever, they are the endgame — it's always been that way. And it's be an absolute privilege to play tennis with Steve Howey.

Did you have a favorite moment from this episode?

Yeah, there's a favorite moment and it's the one I was most freaked out about: the car crash. Setting up that crash, you have your stunt team there and you choreograph the scene, but you only get one shot to wreck this car. So if you wreck it wrong, it's done, the crash is a bust. And so when they were going full speed and made that left turn and hit that vehicle and you see the background stunt people jump out of the way and the impact was so great, I fell out on the concrete because I am not afraid to be dramatic! [Laughs] It was fabulous.

You got a car crash, you got a wedding, you got the usual fun Shameless material too, but there are also some really big, emotional moments in this episode, specifically involving Frank and his deteriorating health. What was it like shooting those?

Our show is a comedy, so you have to find the balance — you can't let it go so heavy that you forget it's a comedy. What's wonderful is I have actors who are able to already create that balance, give me the emotion. So when I first read that scene, I had these grand ideas and this is the moment where he reveals to the kids, but it wasn't that at all, it was so much simpler. It was Bill just going, "I have dementia?" It's so simple and subtle, and that's what he's a genius is.

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Ethan Cutkosky, Jeremy Allen White, Emma Kenney, and William H. Macy in 'Shameless'
| Credit: Paul Sarkis/SHOWTIME

The show has always been so great at weighing in on what's going on in the world, and this season has been much of the same, whether it's pandemic politics or the Black Lives Matter movement. Where those issues that you felt it was important for V to be active in?

I think that is what Shameless has done well throughout. We always tackled the topics, and we tackle it in a way that is not PC. We're a show called Shameless, so we just get into it, and I think it was important, not only for the V character but for all of these characters, to show the state of the world, to show that gentrification is happening, that these neighborhoods are being taken over. People have lived in their neighborhoods for forever and ever, and they're being pushed out. That is a very real thing. In the pandemic, what people have not had access to during this time, who don't have a certain income, it's not even a racial thing a lot of times, as we show on our show. It's, you're in the lower income bracket, so we don't offer these things. We don't have time to complain on our show, the only thing these characters have time to do is to hustle and survive, and that's what most of America is doing and that's what makes Shameless great.

I saw on social media that you all have been recently shooting the series finale. Have you wrapped yet?

We finish the day after tomorrow. [Editor's note: This interview was conducted March 9.] We have 48 hours before our show is done forever. And that's a crazy thing.

What have the emotions been like the last few days?

Yesterday I said goodbye to two sets. I said goodbye to Kevin and V's house, and we had a wonderful last scene in the Gallagher house. That's the house we spent a week before we went in front of the camera [on the pilot], just playing Guitar Hero and chatting and rehearsing and finding the bond that has lasted 10, 11 years. Wrapping that set was huge, and it was all the emotions. It was pride because we still have such a love for each other, as corny as it sounds. You don't hear about us fighting because we don't, not in that way. We really are a family, we love each other so much. So to still have that, to still have most of the original cast at the end of an 11-season run is unheard of. And John Wells [ER, The West Wing] himself will tell you he's had the greatest of great hits, but to have the originals by the end of an 11-season run? C'mon, it doesn't happen!

Maybe you've already experienced this, or maybe it will be when the finale airs, but have you had a chance to reflect on what this experience has meant to you?

I try to live in the moment, so I remember being a guest star on other shows and going on the Warner Bros. lot and just wishing and praying and dreaming of walking on that lot as a series regular. And so every time I scan my pass to get on that lot and see those stages, I feel so in it and grateful and happy and blessed. That feeling never died down, it never got old. And that's how I feel about working with these people — it never got old. We are not in a situation, and I think I can speak freely for all of us, where we are like, "Thank God this s--- is over!" It's not that feeling at all. It's, "We've done it guys. We've done a really, really good job." And the honest-to-God truth is we could have gone for another season and been happy.

I've never had the feeling of not going back to Shameless for the next season, but I imagine when it's been a long enough hiatus that I'm thinking I'm supposed to be going back and I don't, that there will be some reflection that happens. But I am not in any way under the impression that this is something that is normal. We are a unique group, we had a unique experience on a risqué show — before it was cool to be risqué — with people I adore inside and out, on screen and off screen. I'm just so proud.

You're right in the middle of it now, so how would you describe the finale?

I am a TVaholic, I love television and it's very hard to wrap up a show, but John Wells did it in a way that is going to be satisfying. There will be some great callbacks to where we started in that pilot. Still one of the very best pilots that has ever been on TV! That is not because I'm on it… that pilot had everything. You can expect to be satisfied and to reminisce.

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

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