Spoiler alert: Do not read unless you’ve watched episode four of season seven of “Shameless,” titled “I Am A Storm.”
For seven seasons of “Shameless,” star Emmy Rossum has watched countless directors take their turn behind the camera. She finally summoned the courage to ask showrunner John Wells to give her a turn. Wells agreed, handing her the reins of what turned out to be one of the season’s most expensive episodes, given all of the exteriors involved.
“I thought they would toss me a bone and go easy on me, but they threw me into the deep end without any waders,” says Rossum. “They were like, ‘Swim, child!’ And I survived.”
A self-described “type A” personality, Rossum prepared extensively for the episode, taking a cinematography class at NYU, even using Legos to plan all the blocking for the eight-day shoot. Her episode, which aired Sunday, was also a pivotal one for her character, Fiona, who finally moved out of the Gallagher home after an argument with her brother, Lip (Jeremy Allen White).
Here, Rossum tells Variety about her experience behind the camera, what’s ahead for Fiona and the Gallaghers — and whether she’ll return for a season 8.
|Emmy Rossum photographed exclusively for Variety
Dan Doperalski for Variety
Why did you want to direct?
I had wanted to do it for a while. Working so closely with John Wells and our original director Mark Mylod, the real authentic connection they had to the characters in this family I felt the same passion and protectiveness and excitement about telling that story, and finding out what would happen as they did. I found myself more and more interested in the actual filmmaking and the process of it. I started to shadow directors, learning what ends up in the final cut, the three different versions of something that is made. The first is the script, when you’re shooting it, and then when you’re editing it. I became infatuated with the whole process. And then living with [fiance] Sam [Esmail] when he was making “Mr. Robot” demystified the whole thing for me. Getting to see the real struggles and the day to day happen and the setbacks and going through casting tapes with him, it was really illuminating. It really put it all in perspective for me. I felt like if I prepared my ass off and studied and took a cinematography course and did all the things that a Type A person would do and trusted my instincts, it might not be bad.
What advice did you get from Sam?
The best advice he gave me was be prepared that everything will go wrong. And just to not freak out. I’m predisposed to be a person who freaks out but I didn’t. The first scene we did was the boys at the nightclub. I had wanted this specific lighting rig which would be the colors of the transgender community which are pink and blue. And of course they were too heavy to hang from the ceiling. That was the first thing that went wrong. And then the fire alarm kept going off. We couldn’t get a proper rehearsal. And then Elliot Fletcher, who plays Trevor, who’s supposed to do cocaine in the scene, he had never even seen cocaine. So my actor has never seen the drug that he’s supposed to be really good at doing. So I was like OK, Sam’s absolutely right. Everything’s going wrong. But we’re going to be OK. We’re going to figure it out. We got other lights. We got the cops to come in and turn the fire alarms off. I coached Elliot on how to do cocaine. And we were off to the races. I think knowing that it’s not a smooth ride for anybody, even somebody who knows how to do it well, made me feel a lot better about when things went wrong.
Why did you end up blocking the scene with Legos?
Blocking is something that’s important to our show, especially with my character. She never really sits down. She’s always doing something. So you always want to keep the camera moving. It’s a very movement oriented show. Very rarely will you have two people sitting across the table talking for two pages. So it was very important for me to see what that would look like in a 3D way. Initially I had pennies and nickels and I was moving them around and I realized I couldn’t figure out the spatial awareness. So I was walking down Fifth Avenue past the Lego store. And I thought, I’ll get Legos! They had a section of make it yourself Legos. You pick the face and the body and the accessories. I started to make little Legos of our characters. Carl had little headphones on his head. Frank had a wine bottle – I don’t know what children’s Legos need a wine bottle. I found a torso that was wearing an “I Love NY” shirt, so I made that Fiona, because that’s me. I just started to assemble a family. I blew up the schematics of the set and laminated it at Kinko’s like a nerd and started to move the Legos around and draw where people would go. I was exceedingly prepared. I had a game plan.
Was the rest of the cast supportive?
Very, and the crew as well. I was a little nervous because I’m obviously a little Type A, and they know me as a perfectionist in my own work as an actress on the show. Cameron [Monaghan] on the second day was like, we thought you were waiting for these 6 ½ years to tell us how we should really act, and now you’re just going to unload it upon all of us. I just thought that was so funny. Maybe I’m not as expressive as I should be as a fellow actor in telling them how much I admire them. And how incredibly talented and brave I think they are. It was a big learning curve for me. Because I was so excited to empower them and knowing the characters as well as I do after having done the show for so long, I was really in it with them. If I would give them a note, it felt like it had all the history behind it. There was nuance there that I felt like I could find with them that maybe another director wouldn’t have known as well.
What about Bill Macy?
I was scared to direct Macy because he’s Macy. Macy doesn’t need to know what I think. I remembered when we were shooting the pilot he was doing some kind of physical comedy and it didn’t feel like it was landing. He started to take a poll on set of the crew: “Would it be funnier if I did it this way?” He was so detached from judgment about his own performance that it didn’t matter where a good idea came from. That’s something that I’ve really held close to my heart because my first time as a director, the smartest people know what they don’t know. It was very important for me to have a distinct idea of what I wanted the blocking to be. Where I wanted the camera to be. What I thought the scene meant tonally. How it should feel texturally and emotionally. But at the same time, it’s possible that my DP had a better idea about it. and there were a couple times when I had to go, yeah, Lauren, you’re right, I’m wrong. It’s really liberating to know it doesn’t matter where a good idea comes from. you have to be ready to say, your idea is better than mine. Let’s go with that. I think Macy taught me that early on.
What was the message John wanted you to convey with the episode?
We wanted to talk about how it was about these characters finding family dynamics outside of their family, unexpected families outside of their families. So Ian thinks he’s going to find his new home at the fire department but no one wants to hang out with him and he ends up with this LGBT community. For Lip, he thinks he’s going to have this new family with his professor and he finds this new family at this Game Change place that he’s going to make a life with. For Fiona, she finds a new family at the diner with the new waitresses that are supporting her and helping her plan this party that turns out to be a success that no one thinks she can have. Frank is quite literally starting a new family with the new family at the homeless shelter. It’s about seeing what that would like if you had a new family outside your normal family.
The episode is a pivotal one for Fiona — she ultimately packs up and moves out of the house.
The storyline the whole year is about how Fiona realizes how she’s never going to be able to make something of herself if she makes it about other people and not herself. That plays hand in hand with why she doesn’t want a romantic relationship. Because it’s a distraction from getting on with what she really has to get on with. Which is who is she, what is she capable of, and what she can do. We’ve kind of seen Lip over the course of earlier episode in the season, say “My job is serious and you work in a diner.” I think that she really wants to prove it to herself. I think she doesn’t know if she can be a success. But I think underneath it at all she knows that if she can raise this family she can do anything. We’re going to see that happen, which is great.
It’s also an important episode for Ian, who finds himself launching into a new relationship. Talk about taking on LGBT issues in this episode.
The second I read the script I knew how important it was for me to cast an actor who was authentically trans. We had never cast in that community before. So we also got a lot of names and a lot of self tapes through coaches we knew. We reached out to Jill Soloway and Lady J and people who work on “Transparent.” And we were initially kind of nervous because the pool is smaller than a cisgender casting call. We didn’t want it to be a one episode arc. It’s a storyline that goes throughout the rest of the season. Possibly next if we have a next. He’s a really important character, in terms of real contrast of Ian’s relationship with Mickey Milkovich. This is all love and that was war and sex. So it was very important to cast the right person. And when we got Elliot Fletcher’s tape, it was an immediate yes. He had such naturalism. Such a vulnerability and rawness and grit. I believe he’s from the south side of Chicago. I believe he’s this person.
There’s a powerful scene at the brunch table, where Ian asks some probing questions of Trevor and his friends.
Those conversations will happen more and more now. What is your pronoun? How do you want to be identified? What’s your name? Later on in the season, we’ll see the uncomfortable taboo of asking, What did you look when you were a girl? What was your name then? Show me your driver’s license. There are a lot of conversations of you feel a little uncomfortable because this is new territory for a lot of people. As long as you’re coming from a place of care and interest, you can ask a lot of questions. I think that’s one of the things that I like about Ian and Trevor’s storyline. Ian’s very curious, and not in an I’m going to make fun of you kind of way. This is a whole new world for him. He thought being gay was different. But this is a whole new world that he’s exposed to. At that brunch table, I directed them to eat off each other’s plates, and really feel relaxed and casual. In a way that it felt like a family. Just like it feels like at the Gallaghers. That was really important to me. Really like they were including him. I learned that there’s really no question that’s weird as long as you’re coming from a positive place of learning. I liked that my journey was almost mirrored in Ian’s journey.
So what’s ahead for Fiona for the rest of the season? She’s single for the first time.
It’s been interesting to play her without sexuality as part of it. to just play what she’s capable of. How far she can push herself when she’s actually pushing for herself not on behalf of someone else. We’ve seen her fight for Debbie or fight with Debbie. Or fight for Lip or fight with Lip. We’ve never seen her fight for herself. So watching her get inspired by realizing the Sharon Lawrence character who comes in who owns a few blocks in the neighborhood. Fiona realizes she grew upon the South Side and also dropped out of college. Fiona feels very much like this could be a pattern of footsteps in which she could follow. That becomes her journey in which could she make something of herself. Can she be a businesswoman? Can she be a real estate woman? What would that be like? The learning curve of not knowing when you buy a property you should do an inspection. Not knowing these things, she had no one to teach her. Just like she had no one to teach her how to be a woman or how to be a mother. She had to learn the hard way. She’s learning the hard way in business, too.
Your contract is up at the end of the season, along with the rest of the cast. Would you like to see the show come back?
As of now. I want to see it as long as it’s going to be great. I want it to be everyone together. I can’t imagine what the show would be like without any of us. I love the show so much and I love everyone that I work with. After 7 seasons, I think how could it still be good? But I come home from doing a scene with Jeremy Allen White or Cameron or Steve Howie who makes me laugh more than anybody ever has or Macy who has these moments of brilliance and tenderness and comedy all in one and I’m so inspired and excited and surprised. And I fall in love all over again. We should be so lucky.