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Emmy Rossum on the Hot, Tuna-Sandwich-Tinged Sex of Shameless

Emmy Rossum, perhaps best known for playing doe-eyed innocents (i.e. The Phantom of the Opera) is getting down and dirty with her role as the scrappy, sexy Fiona Gallagher on Showtime’s Shameless, which airs Sundays on at 10 p.m. As the 20-year-old daughter of an alcoholic father (played by William H. Macy) and an MIA mother, Fiona serves as the de facto head of her penniless Chicago household, parenting her five younger siblings and dating a car thief. For its honest portrayal of penury, the show is surprisingly funny, and horny as hell. (Fiona's two teenage brothers — one of whom is romantically involved with a married Muslim man — are turbocharged with hormones, her next-door neighbors are permanently copulating, and even Joan Cusack has a kink.) Rossum talked with Vulture about the relief of ditching her princess image, and the glory of working with a bunch of dirty-minded boys.

I can’t remember the last time we’ve seen a white family on TV in such economic dire straits as the Gallaghers, except maybe white-trash Southerners who serve as the butt of a joke.
They’re not even blue collar. They’re no collar. They don’t have a car. They don’t have groceries sometimes. They work odd jobs. It’s interesting to show a family dealing with the economic downturn, and where the children have more of a parental role than the parents. Clearly the mom is MIA, and the dad, Frank, is an alcoholic, unemployed narcissist.

Frank is a loose cannon who turns up after a few days of being on a bender, totally volatile and sometimes even violent.
I think that’s what makes the character interesting. But in the third episode, we see him being so sweet with [his new girlfriend] Debbie [Joan Cusack]. At one point he had the ability to be a very caring person. He’s just clearly lost his way.

You worked with your Shameless boyfriend, Justin Chatwin, in your last movie, Dragonball: Evolution.
Yes. We’re very comfortable with each other, which is good, especially when you have to do sex scenes. He’s very amusing. He likes to eat a tuna sandwich before our romantic scenes. All the boys are always pulling pranks on each other.

Like what?
They’re foul. I shouldn’t even say.

No, you should.
They mess with each other’s trailers in bad, bad ways. They’re boys. They’re gross. [Laughs.] They’ve asked me to participate, but I won’t stoop to their level.

Tell me one prank.
Okay. One day, they put a public-restroom sign on my trailer door, so everyone started using my bathroom, because they thought it was the public restroom. Hundreds of people were peeing in my bathroom.

You’ve inherited a bunch of surrogate brothers.
That’s what I always wanted. Actually, with the exception of one of the other kids, all of us, in real life, are only children. I think that’s why we gravitate toward each other, because we’ve always wanted siblings. Now I have to think about a good retaliation. I am going to put Gruyère in a sock and leave it in one of their drawers for a week.

Who are the masterminds?
Steve Howie, who plays our neighbor. And Justin.

So, this show isn’t just earthy onscreen. Actually, Shameless is probably the raunchiest show on TV. And Fiona is certainly less of an innocent than your past characters.
The word the writers use to describe her is “feral.” You don’t know how she’s going to react. She’s stable, but if you get in the way of her brood, she’ll cut you. For some weird reason, I found that this character comes easier to me than the other ones I’ve done, which probably says something about my childhood and is probably something I should talk to somebody about. I think that, because of the way I look, I was always cast as this — I’m gonna go with "princessy," in corset-y dramas like Phantom of the Opera. When this role came up, I really had to fight for it. I wasn’t the logical choice for this character at all, and I had done nothing in the past to suggest that I could do anything like this.

Is it weird doing sex scenes?
I’ve always shied away, but I’m 24, and I feel like I’m ready. It never feels gratuitous. If they’re going to try to show what these characters’ lives are like, sex is such a big part of it that to not show that would seem like a disservice. So much of people’s insecurities or idiosyncrasies and feelings of self-worth come out in sexual situations.

What’s the craziest thing you have to do?
In episode eleven, I have to make myself into a human pretzel and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

And how about Fiona’s teenage brother, Ian, who’s having an affair with a married Muslim man? Scandal!
With children. Married to a white chick. You’re just like, how many people can we offend at once? I’m waiting for the Jewish jokes. Bring it! My people are waiting.

Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images