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Shameless’s Jeremy Allen White on Turning 21, Smoking Camel Lights, and Playing a Masochistic Heartthrob

Jeremy Allen White. Photo: David Livingston/Getty Images

Shameless has a lot of characters — the show follows six rowdy kids, their wastoid dad, the kinky neighbors, an agoraphobic down the street, her sex-addict daughter, a meth queen grandma, etc. The whole cast is phenomenal (hello: William H. Macy, Emmy Rossum, Joan Cusack), but if there’s a breakout, it’s Jeremy Allen White as Lip, the troubled genius of the Gallagher bunch. He subtly steals almost every scene he’s in, and for a guy who just turned 21, he sure does pull off jaded face like a world-weary Sean Penn. Last we saw, Lip was planning to drop out of high school, get a real job (he currently sells weed out of an ice-cream truck), and take care of his baby-on-the-way with Karen (the aforementioned sex addict and generally awful person). We spoke with White shortly after his surprise birthday party about his character’s masochistic tendencies, why that makes him such a heartthrob, and smoking Camel Lights.

I saw on Emmy Rossum’s Twitter that you just celebrated your 21st birthday.
Yeah, it was amazing.

Did you celebrate like a Gallagher?
I did, kind of. I’m actually from New York, and I didn’t think I knew that many people in L.A. So I went out to dinner with, like, five friends — and that was what I thought my birthday night was going to be. But then they took me to a bar and a friend who was managing took us to a balcony, and there was everyone I have ever met in Los Angeles. I was shaking for about fifteen minutes. And then I proceeded to get very drunk and act like a Gallagher.

Nobody blew the surprise for you? Everyone kept it a secret?
Actually, funny enough, Bill’s assistant just sent me an e-mail yesterday saying, “Bill said something about you having a birthday party. We wanted to know when it was so he doesn’t miss it.” I guess Justin [Chatwin, who plays Steve] was supposed to tell Bill about it, and there was some kind of miscommunication. I’m just so glad she didn’t send that e-mail before my party; Bill would have ruined the entire surprise.

Do you find yourself getting more like Lip the longer you play him?
No, I think there’s a healthy distance between myself and Lip. I’m kind of envious of him. I’ve always been jealous of what he gets to do. I just don’t have the confidence that Lip has; I don’t have balls quite as big as Lip’s.

But the way his story is going this season, it’s not so much that he has balls. He’s just masochistic, picking fights just to get his ass kicked …
Absolutely. He’s really angry at himself. He feels like he’s becoming something like his father, and I don’t think he wants to admit it. So I think that’s very upsetting. And I think his relationship with Karen is so strained.

What do you think is more masochistic: him getting into fights he can’t take, or him getting back with Karen?
I think it’s definitely getting back with Karen. You know, I’ve struggled a lot with that. Oftentimes, people that might recognize me on the street will ask, “Do you ever feel shameful about playing Lip and some of the things that Lip does?” And I say, “No.” Selling drugs and alcohol to kids — I’m okay with all that. The only thing I struggle with is his loyalty to Karen and how he keeps coming back for more after everything that she’s done to him. And I’ve had a lot of talks with the producers and writers about how they really love that story line and how I have a very difficult time wrapping my head around the idea of this — like, there’s no faltering in his love for Karen. Or maybe not his love, but his need to be with her.

But the relationship, as fucked up as it is, sort of makes Lip the heartthrob of the show, even over Steve. Do you get that a lot?
I have gotten it, and it’s surprising to me. I think there’s something kind of classic about Lip in that he’s this rebellious character with a heart. And I think that people just love to watch that. It’s kind of like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen and James Dean: They’re these kind of good guys with rebellious tendencies. I even battled with the thought, Is it pathetic, or is it a beautiful romance? I think people like to see that struggle and maybe sometimes lean towards the romance side.

Is the James Dean vibe the sort of vibe you’re going for as an actor?
No, but what’s great about the show is the writers really write for us actors, and if they see you doing something and if they see that people are responding to that, then they will write to that. And I think that’s kind of what happens. But, no, I’ve signed on to do a couple projects, and they’re all different from Lip.

Has the idea of John Cusack guesting on the show ever come up, since his sister is on it and they have a track record of appearing together?
It hasn’t. I think Emmy went out with him one night. When we were doing the first season, when we were in Chicago filming, he took her out on his triple-wheeled motorcycle and went to a few cigar bars. And she had a pretty good time. But as cool as it would be to have John, I think that one Cusack is enough.

Are you a smoker in real life? It looks like it.
I am a smoker. I’ve pretty much taken the whole burden of smoking. All the Gallaghers were supposed to smoke in the first season. But Emmy doesn’t smoke, and Cameron [Monaghan, who plays Ian] doesn’t smoke either. And so what happened was, they would smoke in scenes, but it is surprisingly difficult to fake smoking if you’re not a smoker; audiences can kind of tell. And so they kind of took that away from Emmy and Cameron and now just have me smoking in literally every scene. I carry the smoking burden completely.

What kind of cigarettes do you smoke?
I smoke Camel Lights. I might need to get off the show before I can even fathom the idea of quitting.

Young women get asked about sex scenes a lot, so I want to ask you: Are those scenes awkward for you?
I’ve done quite a few now, and I suppose they do get easier. But that doesn’t mean they ever get easy. I’ve gotten to know Laura Wiggins [who plays Karen] so well, and we’ve gotten more comfortable doing our scenes. But Emma Greenwell, who’s playing Mandy this season, for example — we’d hardly spoken to each other before we did our sex scene. And that always makes for a bit more of a difficult situation. I often feel like I’m on a porn set. It’s very, very, very extreme. It’s just something that’s so intimate, and it’s hard to capture that intimacy when you have ten grips and cameramen staring at you.

Can you set up the next episode for us? All we know at this point is that Fiona is threatening to kick Lip out of the house if he quits school.
There’s a tension building between Lip and Fiona — a staring contest, almost — where they continue to bluff. And it comes to an end when Fiona does pretty much kick Lip out of the house, which I think is very astonishing and surprising to Lip. I didn’t think a Gallagher would ever kick another Gallagher out of the house unless it was Frank. I thought the family was far too close for that. So it was very surprising to read, and I don’t think audiences would expect something like that, either.

And Lip and Karen, they’re not gonna make good parents. Right?
That’s pretty safe to say. I mean, I don’t know. I think Lip would like to be a good parent. But I don’t know if the relationship with Karen would work out, and, in the end, I don’t know how it would work out if they were to have a child together.

At this point, we don’t really know if they’ll have the kid.
Right, no, it’s up in the air.

I read that you’re a fan of Dexter’s Michael C. Hall, and that you basically told him so when you met him. Are you guys friends now?
You know, I haven’t seen him since then. I have kind of a weird romance going on with another Showtime star, though: David Duchovny, who I’ve actually never met and I’ve never spoken to. But my friend Addison Timlin did about six episodes on Californication last season, I think, and she became very friendly with him. And she kind of passes along compliments from him to me and myself to him through texting and phone conversations. So we’ve complimented one another through my friend for a while now, and I think it would be very, very cool to meet him. I’m sure our paths will cross soon enough. I hope.

Shameless’s Jeremy Allen White on Turning 21, Smoking Camel Lights, and Playing a Masochistic Heartthrob