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Shameless’s Jeremy Allen White on Lip’s Heartbreaking Downward Spiral

Photo: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Since 2011, Shameless fans have come to know the ever-resourceful Lip Gallagher to fight his way out of every hardship life throws his way, be it with his fists or foul mouth. A pillar of strength for the wayward Gallaghers (of which he’s the oldest son), he’s the perfect balance of book and street smart — the kid in the neighborhood who everyone hoped would make it out of Chicago’s South Side and become the first in his family to graduate college. But as is the Gallagher curse, he’s stumbled along the way.

This season, Lip’s illicit romance with an older professor (Sasha Alexander) and unprofessional friendship with another professor he TA’s for (Alan Rosenberg) have caught up with him, sending him on a downward spiral of reckless behavior that might jeopardize everything he’s worked for. Vulture caught up with Jeremy Allen White ahead of the show’s season 6 finale to talk about Lip’s alcohol abuse, mistakes with women, and why he’s dangerously close to following in his father’s crooked footsteps.

Ugh, Lip. I don’t think he’s ever had such a depressing season, and that’s saying something.
It’s been a rough time, he can’t catch a break. I think while there’s been some tough times and he’s gone through his fair share of shit, there’s never been so much at stake before. He’s never lost as much as I think he’s already lost this season, which makes it all the more worse. And I think the Gallaghers — Lip included —  have always had this survival instinct. No matter how dark things got, they were able to continue on, and it’s scary to see Lip at a point where it’s hard to find hope. Everything’s pretty hopeless now. I think he might be a bit lost.

Why now? 
He’s always had issues finding a healthy romantic relationship, and in the beginning of this season he was really starting to fall for his professor, Helene. He was creating this world in which it was possible that they could be together, even though she has a family and a husband. And she gave him no reason to think that was a possibility, but he kind of ran with it anyway, in his head. He started down this rabbit hole, and when that all fell apart — even with Professor Youens, he started to form a healthy relationship with his professor [whom he had TA’d for], someone in his life who he had admired and could look up to for the first time. Lip’s never had that before. And when that professor let him down as well, I think that’s when everything truly fell apart for Lip.

Lip has generally mistreated the women he’s involved. What was it about Helene that made him want to be a better man?
She represented something so new for Lip. He’d had a relationship with his roommate’s girlfriend for a while, Amanda, but he really admired how intelligent Helene was. Growing up, Lip was always the smartest person in the room. This was the first time he was stimulated intellectually in a relationship, and the idea of that was really appealing.

Lip also got a blast from the past from his ex, Mandy. What do you think was going through Lip’s head when they crossed paths in the Gallagher house, having each had a traumatic night? They don’t say a word to each other.
It was like seeing a ghost. Something that was so special about Mandy, in regard to their relationship, was she truly cares. She wanted him to do well and be the best person he could be. Lip, at the time they were together, was so bruised from his world falling apart with Karen that he was sort of ignorant to how much Mandy truly cared about him. Reflecting on that now, where he is in his life, he knows how much she cared. That’s hard for him, to think he lost someone who maybe could’ve been very good for him. I also think he wanted to know more. He goes inside and sees Ian after he runs into Mandy and asks whose Jeep it was [parked outside]. He wanted to ask more and see how she was. But he couldn’t bring himself to it, or at the very least he couldn’t show Ian how much he really cares.

Lip’s downward spiral has led to serious alcohol abuse. He ends up in the hospital for alcohol poisoning, but is more concerned about paying the bill than he is getting long-term help. Do you think Lip recognizes he’s an alcoholic?
It’s a weird cultural thing: Where he grew up, drinking is so sewn into the culture that he doesn’t know anything else. His father’s a drinker, his mother’s a drinker, he grew up in the Alibi. His neighbors run a bar. So the idea of him getting help or not drinking is such a foreign concept. It’s gonna take Lip some time — if ever — to come around to the idea that he should maybe get clean.

Watching this last episode, I kept thinking of a scene from season 3 where Lip and Frank are at the ice-skating rink, and it’s probably the only father-son moment they’ve ever had. It’s of course ruined by the fact that Frank’s dying of alcoholism. Do you think Lip realizes he’s inherited his father’s destructive nature?
A constant theme for Lip in this series is
how am I gonna not be my father? Even back in the second season, when he gets Karen pregnant, he wants to be a part of that child’s life — really for selfish reasons — just so he can prove to everyone that he can be around, he’s gonna make it work, and he’s gonna be present as a father. He’s always been running away from the idea of being Frank. For us, as viewers, it’s so clear that Frank has problems with addiction and alcohol. But for the characters, it’s more about what kind of person Frank is and not becoming that kind of person, rather than not becoming an alcoholic.

Drinking and Frank have always gone hand in hand, so I think Lip would be hesitant to admit that alcohol could be a problem. He understands the concept of it, but pointing the finger at someone and saying “he’s an alcoholic” or “you have to stop drinking,” that idea is just so strange [to Lip]. But especially in the last episode, Lip’s lost so much already, and he’s faced with the idea of well, shit, maybe I am becoming Frank. He has to confront that idea and do whatever’s best to avoid the inevitably of becoming his father.

Tell me about that explosive fight between Lip and Youens. It’s one of the most emotionally unguarded scenes Lip’s ever had, and he’s just in a blind rage. You, as an actor, are visibly shaking.
It’s a hard thing. People often do this with their parents: They’ll put them up on a pedestal and make them these superheros who save the day. They’re gonna make you feel better or fix you. Lip never had that with his parents, but I think he did that with Youens. When he was let down and saw just how human and broken Professor Younes was — parallel with Frank — it was so disappointing. Lip, in that moment, was more angry at himself that he let himself get close to yet another person who so closely mirrored Frank and his mom. Lip was holding in a lot of that anger toward Youens for a while, and that was just a moment in which he let it all go.

Has Lip hit rock bottom? His college career now seems finished after smashing Youens’s car. That was his last chance to do right.
When we kick off with Lip in the finale, he’s pretty lost.

I’m assuming he’s in jail?
He wakes up in jail. All he knows is that his sister is getting married and he wants to be there for that, and he doesn’t wanna bother anybody else with his shit. He’s pretty quiet about what his last 24 hours have been like, but obviously everyone can tell Lip is struggling. He comes to a fork in the road, and now he needs to make some tough choices.

You’ve been with this character for so many years. What do you hope for Lip going forward, and into season 7 next year?
I hear from people who like the show, and everybody obviously wants him to finish school and be successful. I was almost disappointed when Lip went to college, for selfish reasons, because I’d enjoyed working so much with the other actors who play my family. And I knew that going off to college would take me away from them and that world we’d created. I’d have to exist within a different world. But I hope that he can find happiness and be successful in something like teaching, but also remain loyal to where he came from and to his family. Be of some help to them by taking the weight off Fiona’s shoulders and get his shit together so he can be a big brother to his siblings.

Shameless’s Jeremy White on Lip’s Breakdown