Emmy Rossum on Her Directorial Debut, Casting Shameless’ First Transgender Character, and What She Learned From Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail

By

Spoilers ahead for season seven, episode four of Shameless.

After nearly two decades in Hollywood, Emmy Rossum can finally add director to her IMDb page. The actress helmed Sunday night's episode of Shameless, the season high "I Am a Storm," as both star of the show and the one behind the camera. Steering an ensemble cast of about a dozen, each with their own meaty subplot, all simultaneously playing out in various Chicago locations, would be a Herculean job for any director. As a first-timer, it forced Rossum to spare no detail, even blocking scenes with LEGOs to visualize control over the chaotic, nonstop lives of the Gallagher clan. As a bonus challenge, episode four introduces Shameless' first transgender character, Trevor, a potential new love interest for Ian, into the show's deeply non-PC world.

It's a story Rossum knew couldn't be made light of, from personally casting a transgender actor (Elliot Fletcher) to getting all the language of gender identity right. (She credits fiancé, Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, with keeping her from psyching herself out during the shoot.) Vulture spoke with Rossum before she headed back to Chicago to wrap season seven about her directorial debut, why she hired a transgender actor, Fiona's tough love, and Esmail's advice.

How did it feel seeing your name next to “director” in the opening theme for the first time?
We paused it and took a picture of it because it was very surreal. It’s like the first time I ever saw myself onscreen, just in a different way. It feels exciting and new and something to be really proud of. I’m obviously proud of the job I’ve done as an actress on the show, but after seven years, the idea of seeing yourself in the character isn’t fresh anymore. This felt like a fresh perspective that made me fall in love with the show all over again.

This was a long time coming.
I was interested in it for a while, but didn’t have the confidence in myself that I could necessarily do it. I threw it out casually for a few seasons and then realized if it was really something I wanted, like all things in life, you have to work for it and assert yourself. So I took a cinematography course at NYU and told [showrunner] John [Wells] that this is really something that I wanted to try, and he was supportive of me.

Did you feel like you had to overprepare to prove anything to skeptics?
I’m generally overprepared, but that’s how I can relax in the moment. I’m the same way as an actor: I’ll intellectualize everything and then, on the day, I can have fun because all of that preparation has seeped into my subconscious and I can rely on it if I need it or feel like I’m getting lost. But I did feel like I had a lot to prove because sometimes a director will come in and they do a good job, but they’re maybe not the best fit for our show. And then there’s a new director the next week that we can get excited about, so there’s very much the feeling that maybe even if the director who came in wasn’t your favorite, there’ll be somebody better next time. But I still have to come into work as an actress the following week, even after I finish shooting my episode, so I really don’t want people to not like me or dislike the experience they had with me.

Talk to me about the rigors of making an episode this wide in scope. I can’t remember the last time an episode of Shameless had this many locations and large group scenes.
We tried to consolidate because it’s only an hour-long episode. I thought they were gonna go easy on me and give me a lighter episode, especially one that I maybe wasn’t in very much. But my character’s all over the episode! So it was really important to me to think everything through, spend as much time with the script as possible, and enough time with the schematics to get a sense of the location. A big part of the episode is emphasizing the heat of the summer, this languid quality that everybody’s moving a bit more slowly at the beginning of the episode and waiting for the storm to break. That kind of beautiful, Midwestern storm that cools everything down and is so intense and powerful. I had to get the pacing right and find those little moments with the performances, the right blocking to make all those things happen, and just be prepared and trust the actors who are so talented.

William H. Macy told me that he doesn’t have much grace directing himself, which reminded me of Donald Glover’s own directorial debut on Atlanta. Glover's character isn’t in either of the episodes he directed. It’s the total opposite for you — Fiona anchors your episode. How did you balance the two jobs?
I know! I was watching that episode of
Atlanta and I was so annoyed. He kills it, that episode was so good, especially the fake commercials, and then at the end of the episode —  cause the whole time I was thinking, Why is he not in this episode at all? — me and Sam [Esmail] realized that Donald had directed it. I was like, “God, that would’ve been so much easier!” And it was half an hour! But he did such a fantastic job. I think it’s easier when you know the character and you’ve been playing them for so many years, so I found directing myself not particularly challenging. Directing other people in scenes with me while I was acting and keeping track of the notes that I wanted to give them in my head while still staying present in the scene, that was tricky for me.

Mr. Robot and Shameless couldn’t be more different, but did you pick up any techniques from Sam?
Going into it, I kept harping on what if I made the wrong creative choice? And he said, “There isn’t a wrong choice. It doesn’t matter what the choice is. In theory, yeah, there are wrong and right choices, but it’s your creative vision. As long as you honor that, you’ll be honest to that. I stopped trying to be perfect; it’s something I tend to unrealistically strive for. Once he freed me of that thought, it was really liberating. I started being more decisive and having more fun, even during the prep process.

One of the biggest responsibilities of directing this episode was introducing the show’s first transgender character, Trevor. You helped cast Elliot Fletcher, who is trans in real life. That's pretty rare to see since so many cis actors are still playing trans people.
I was really excited, thematically, about what Elliot would mean for Ian. Because even though Ian’s gay, I don’t think there’s a lot of sophistication about the LGBTQIA world in that part of South Side Chicago. Nor do I think there’s necessarily a lot of sophistication about it in anyone who’s older than I am, or even my age. For a lot of people, this is still so new and a learning experience. I was super-open to learning the terminology, learning everything that I could about what it means to be transgender, how that feels. One of the things I learned, and it mirrors Ian’s experience, is that as long as you’re respectful, a healthy curiosity and an empathy is encouraged and embraced. You can learn so much more than you ever think you could about something if you just ask in a respectful way. I had such a wonderful time getting into the casting process. We’d never cast anyone trans in the show before, so that was a new pool to dip into and one that was important for us to do authentically.

The show even hired a “reference person” to get the story line right. But there’s no better reference than having a trans actor in the role. Did Elliot give you any notes on how to handle Trevor’s introduction?
Elliot works part-time at the LGBTQIA center, so all of our questions were pretty easily answered. And I found that I was doing things subconsciously through my research, like picking the lighting colors in the club that Ian and Trevor meet at as pink and blue, which are the colors of the trans flag.

There’s a tense scene in this episode between Fiona and Lip that brings out the ugliness in their competitiveness. In the past, Lip appeared to somewhat respect Fiona for being the family's sole caregiver while still attempting to make a life for herself outside the Gallaghers. Now he mocks her for it, harshly. Where is this suddenly all coming from?
Lip — in my personal opinion, not Fiona’s —  has never been terrifically pro-female. If you think about how he treats women in other ways, I’m not sure he’s the best person. He obviously struggles a lot in his life and he’s gone through some things, like last season with his professor, that might exacerbate some of his patience. I get where he’s coming from. I also think Fiona seems to have forgotten that she’s actually a legal guardian to these children. Just because you want to be respected, taken seriously, and have people to care about your ideas just as much as you do, doesn’t mean you have to burn the house down and move out. But it gets to the point where they’re two people, one with 100 percent responsibility, and it has to be divvied up. Neither person wants to take all of it and they both want the other person to take all of it, so they’re just gonna butt heads. Hopefully, he learns to respect her, but I think this will be a pattern of bickering between them that will last for awhile until they both find their own way. Her and Lip are both handling this indelicately.

They’re immature. It’s actually been so long since Fiona’s age has even been mentioned.
I have no idea how old she is [
laughs]. I assume when we started she was 21, so maybe she’s 28 now? But Liam still looks four years old, so I have no idea! We’ve played winter and summer so many times now. But she’s kind of ageless to me. She’s always been a mother and a child and a lover and a fighter and a sister and a kid. She’s a [case of] arrested development and too much of an adult too soon. I hope that she finds balance between the ability to be authentically who she wants to be as a caring person and somebody who can find success in her life. I hope that includes romance at some point without sacrificing what she needs and wants to accomplish.

Do you think you’ll catch the directing bug?
Probably. Hopefully somebody will hire me and then it’ll be all good. Our director today, John Wells, had a cold, and I told him that if his cold got too bad, I would take over this afternoon. I’d take one for the team! He laughed and kind of was like, “Ha ha, not a chance.” So I’m not pushing my luck. I’m happy with the scraps I get. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.