'Shameless' Star Emmy Rossum Says Fiona Is "Stumbling Toward Maturity" in Season 5

Shameless S05E02 Still - H 2014
Cliff Lipson

Shameless S05E02 Still - H 2014

John Wells' Shameless adaptation for Showtime is a dark comedy that defies many boundaries in terms of what can be done in either genre but continually confuses award committees in the process. Last season, when stars Emmy Rossum and William H. Macy were doing some of their heaviest dramatic work on the show, they were submitted in the comedy categories for Emmy nominations. (The latter, in fact, is also up for a Golden Globe in the comedy field.)

"Most of my favorite shows exist in this place between drama and comedy," Rossum told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of season five. "There have been days when you could laugh hysterically and cry in the same day — where you can experience everything. So for me, it's more true to life in that way."

Rossum certainly got to experience those emotional highs and lows in season four, when Fiona went from a nine-to-fiver raising her young brothers and sisters to a parolee with child endangerment on her record after her youngest brother got into a stash of drugs in the house. Many might hope that the worst is over and that Fiona has learned a lesson that will allow her to stay on the straight and narrow, but wherever there is a Gallagher, chaos is soon to follow. And truth be told, Rossum wouldn't want it any other way. THR caught up with Rossum to preview season five as well as discuss what keeps her on her toes all these years in.

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You're five seasons into a very demanding role. How has your approach to the more emotional scenes changed?

So many things have happened to me personally since we started filming that the things I may have used to make me angry or make me cry in season one are very different than the things I use to generate those same feelings now. And also, the character has grown, and I'm trying to show her stumbling her way toward maturity — a maturity that I don't even have myself yet. I get to show different things. I still get to show the same kind of colors, the same instincts, but maybe she starts questioning those instincts, questioning those impulses. And I'm excited for something that I'm going to get to do this season in episode six [along those lines], because she's kind of teetering over a cliff into a bad situation, and just as she's jumping, she says, "Stop." That will be a really interesting place to go to because I'm so used to careening off the cliff with her.

Do you find that you more easily anticipate certain elements of the character or certain situations she finds herself in now?

I can see how to play it much easier than I could five years ago, because I feel like I can understand her almost like a textbook, like I've studied her. I understand all of these things she's been through in her life over the five years that I've lived her and all of the little moments of backstory that have peppered my subconscious and that I use when I think of the character as a whole. So, when she goes someplace where somebody doesn't give her a tip, I know that that's going to set her to a hundred right away. She's been wronged so many times in her life. Whereas, if I were just reading a character in a random scene, I might question how she'd react to something like that [and] if the person is someone who would get really mad or be able to shrug it off. But I know Fiona, and I know what she would do, so navigating those questions is easier for me now.

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Has your approach to playing up or down certain comedic moments changed at all with time or with awards in the back of your mind?

I don't make choices to play up comedy or drama. I always make the choice to play the reality of the character's emotional state and kind of think about where I start at the beginning of the episode and where I need to get at the end of the episode and what moments I can pepper in between to tell that story as completely and believably as possible. I don't think I ever play anything for comedy, but I feel like the things are still funny because of the situations. It's funny because she has a frying pan, and she's taking her own ankle monitor off, or because Carl is smuggling drugs, or because Frank is — this season — trying to make the world's strongest beer. We're still living in a depressed society with characters who are dealing with being gay on the Southside, where it's still not accepted, struggling financially, struggling with sobriety. These aren't funny things, but there are a lot of funny things that come out of them.

Shameless left Fiona with a lot of plates to juggle again at the end of season four, between realizing her brother Ian (Cameron Monaghan) has inherited their mother's mental disease and taking on a new job while still raising the youngest Gallagher kids plus now having to prove she can stay clean and sober. Where is her focus when the new season starts?

It's three or four months later, and she's settled into her job. Her job has kind of become the new Gallagher kitchen [in that] she takes over. She knows all her customers. She's kind of got this flirtation going with a couple of different guys, of course, including her manager, Sean (Dermot Mulroney). She's also flirting with these guys in a band, who are some of her regular customers. It's summer, she has her ankle monitor off and she's also looking forward to kind of going forward with her life, but she's still displaying tendencies toward being very impulsive. So, we're seeing some of her issues still there. But she is going to NA.

Unfortunately for Fiona, she's not really taking NA all that seriously. She still doesn't believe that she has a problem, and I'm not actually sure if she is a drug addict. I think she's addicted to situations and people and energies that aren't necessarily going to put her in the position to win, and I think she's more comfortable in chaos than she is in flatlining, normal, happy situations.

There was a moment at the end of season four where Fiona expressed concern that she, too, could have inherited bipolar disorder. Is that weighing on her at all when she thinks about her future?

She's definitely not worried about her future! I don't think the things she does — like we see in episode two she removes her own ankle monitor on a Sunday because the parole officer's office isn't open yet. So, she takes a screwdriver to it and takes it off because that's the time they told her she'd get it off. Most people who are going through things like that wouldn't do that; they'd go through the correct channels [but] she's the kind of person who will just decide. And while she doesn't get in trouble for that, it's not the most careful road to finding stability in her life, and she does a lot of things like that this season.

We're definitely exploring the impulsive fighter instinct [this season], but we're also exploring her trying to wrap her head around the idea of getting better, being better and being around the right people.

The very tail end of the season-four finale revealed that Jimmy/Steve/Jack (Justin Chatwin) is very much alive and in Chicago. How solidly do you feel Fiona moved on from him when she thought he left her, and do you think she can handle it when he resurfaces in her life?

I think a lot of her behavior last year came from again feeling abandoned by a man, feeling that she didn't find her place [and] that she'd never feel that heat and that safety that she had with him. She certainly didn't find it with her boss, and she certainly wasn't finding it with his brother! Then she went into this tailspin, and I think subliminally this year we're going to see her work through that, and maybe she blames Jimmy a little bit for the things that happened.

He will present himself in her life again, and it will be very tempting for her not to fall back into that old dynamic. He has a real physical pull for her, [and] it will be interesting! I kind of want to see her with Jimmy, but I don't want to see her get screwed over. He's not the most honest guy. (Laughs.)

You mentioned getting Fiona to a certain maturity. What does that look like in your mind for a show like Shameless?

For me, we can't just take her one way for four years and then make her a different character — or make what she's attracted to different — in season five without having all those steps in between. So, my job as the person who has to play it is to find all those moments that legitimize the growth and change in the character — to find those things for myself. I want to make sure that even though we have her in the beginning of the season in a happier situation, we get to show the complexities of that. We don't just go, "Oh, she's out of jail, [so] she's happy now!" It's not written that way at all, but the temptation of that can be to go, "Oh, it's season five. I know the character. I can coast." But I want to keep digging, keep pushing, keep exploring further.

What do you like most about Fiona at this point in the series?

What I like about her still is her desire to win, and that's kind of throughout all of the characters, even if you think about Frank. He's so persistent about destroying his body and drinking; he just doesn't give up. These are characters that do not give up. Even Mickey, deciding to come out in front of his family at this thuggy, dirty Irish bar. There's just a refusal to quit, and that's something I respect in all the characters and something I continue to enjoy to play. No matter how many times they get beat up, lose their house, get separated, go into foster care — they still come together; they don't really get bogged down the way life can bog you down. They're fighters.

Shameless returns Jan. 11 at 9 p.m. on Showtime. What are you looking forward to seeing? Watch the season premiere, below.

Twitter: @danielletbd