The Transformation of Emmy Rossum
It may seem from the outside that Emmy Rossum has led a charmed life. The 25 year-old actress and singer has been performing on major platforms since her first audition singing “Happy Birthday” for the Metropolitan Opera’s Children’s Chorus at the age of 7. She has since worked alongside several icons of our time, including Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Clint Eastwood and Andrew Lloyd Webber, who personally invited her to audition for the role of “Christine” in the 2004 film-adaptation of “Phantom of the Opera.” Rossum’s performance as the Phantom’s musical obsession, played by Gerard Butler, garnered her several awards, including a Golden Globe nod.
As glamorous as it all may seem, what is missing from this fairytale is the hard work, long hours and dedication involved in being able to sustain the pressure required to compete in such storied venues. Everyone can sing “Happy Birthday,” but not in twelve different keys as was required on that first audition. Above everything else, it is the work that is most important to Rossum, the stuff behind the scenes that never makes headlines to support the magic on stage and screen. “I guess what they saw in me as a 7 year-old was a raw ability to carry a tune and an eagerness to work,” Rossum says of her first audition. “My MET chorus director, the great Elena Doria, really taught me to sing and instilled in me a work ethic and a care and a willingness to work without fatiguing. If you love what you are doing and appreciate the music it doesn’t feel like work. It is a gift.”
The children’s chorus gave her a unique community in which to express herself, countering the uniformed standardization of her all-girls school. For the next five years she regularly practiced and performed in twenty different operas, including Carmen, La Bohème, Turandot, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, singing complicated, exacting verses in 6 different languages. “People are generally amazed at that experience, and I guess it was bizarre but it didn’t feel that way,” Rossum says. “There was lots of professionalism involved but we were also kids that pranked each other, ran around and got into trouble. We got to wear hats and wigs and all kinds of makeup. Everyday was Halloween for us.”
Young though Rossum may be, she doesn’t play the ingénue. Her experiences have given her too much strength and independence to succumb to any level of naivety. She grew up the only child of a single mother in New York City. The stage instilled a foundation for excellence. And competition. When she outgrew the children’s costumes she naturally gravitated toward acting, believing she would perform elsewhere in the interim until she could return to the opera with a mature voice. She enrolled in acting classes and began working in television, appearing in episodes of “Law and Order” and “As the World Turns.” Film roles soon followed, and her performance in the critically acclaimed “Mystic River” directed by Clint Eastwood propelled her to new levels of public awareness.
Though the thrill of live performance was incomparable, Rossum discovered the scope of television and film proved too alluring to leave. She continued in film, taking roles in Poseidon, Dragonball Evolution and Dare. During this time she also wrote songs for her first album titled Inside Out, released through Geffen records, and toured for special guest shows in 2009 with the “Traveling Circus and Medicine Show,” featuring the Counting Crows and Michael Franti and Spearhead. That same year she joined the cast of Showtime’s Shameless, starring Bill Macy, for the pilot episode that soon became a hit. Rossum plays Fiona, the eldest daughter to Macy’s character Frank Gallagher, a drunk father of six living in poverty in Chicago.
Rossum just wrapped the second season of Shameless when we spoke right before the Thanksgiving holidays. She was getting ready to prepare pumpkin pie, cornbread and chutney to bring to a potluck feast planned with her cast and crewmates. Cooking is something Rossum does to relax. “It is somewhat cathartic,” she says. “It’s a creative outlet that doesn’t have too much at stake in terms of the outcome. And it is always delicious. Plus, I find that no matter how I decorate other rooms people always make their way into the kitchen.”
What did it feel like being on stage at such a young age?
It was an amazing experience. There were costumes and horses and donkeys on stage. At that time it wasn’t about making money or being famous like it is for so many people these days. It was about creating something beautiful. I am so fortunate to have been introduced to this in such a pure way.
How did that experience impact your life at that time and for the future?
There was lots of competition involved at a young age. We would have to audition for solos for James Levine – and sometimes you got the solo in Tosca or whatever and sometimes you didn’t. When you didn’t get it you were so bummed. So while it was fun it also instilled in us the opportunity to achieve goals and perfect very complicated work. There was always lots of intricate word play involved and we had to pronounce everything correctly. There was a joy in perfecting the material for the directors who had interpreted the material in terms of how they believed Puccini, for instance, would have wanted it sung.
It also instilled in me the communal experience and enjoyment of entertainment, particularly with live performance, which is so special because it is so fleeting. Unless it is recorded it is gone. I truly appreciate my work and am fortunate to be good at what I love doing.
How did your career move toward acting? Was there an experience that solidified your decision?
I never thought as a child, ok, now I am going to be an actor. I loved singing and I was very comfortable being on stage. It naturally led to acting because I wasn’t worried about the consequences at stake. I got through all of that a younger age. Ultimately the stage helped me get over that.
What made you decide to continue along the acting path?
I kept enjoying it and I kept being challenged all the time and kept getting better in my work. So until I don’t feel this way anymore I will keep on doing what I love to do. There are so many factors that come into play that continue this momentum. I was lucky to be able to audition and get the role. For me at that time I was not making a lifetime decision at age 13, even though in a sense I was without realizing it. I wouldn’t do anything differently even if I could.
The one thing that I have learned is that anytime I didn’t trust my gut instinct I was burned or I burned someone. I didn’t have any family guidance or experience in this industry so there were so many different voices guiding me toward various directions about what to do or not to do. My instinct toward material is what moves me to make decisions.
You seem to move seamlessly between singing and acting. Did Phantom make you want to do more of both or did it create a divide?
I don’t have any game plan for the future. I just go and figure out along the way what happens next. I am planning a film in January and am looking forward to working on my next album, so I am tinkering with music, too. My last record was a reflection of who I was for the first twenty years of my life and now I am taking baby steps toward another album for these last few years.
I just try and go with where the opportunity and my instincts take me. As an actor you never really are in the driver’s seat. We have to be very reactive to material. I can’t just say that for my next role I’d really love to play this ball-busting vixen or a girl from the 16th century if these characters haven’t been written. As actors we have to be ok in a constant state of unemployment. That is, until you are employed again.
Do you feel more in control with your music since you are writing lyrics?
Music is pure and honest in terms of reflecting where I am at the moment from these last three years. I have experienced a lot personally since my last record. I draw upon all of that for my next work.
It is like therapy?
Yes, but less self-indulgent. And edited in retrospect.
What has shaped you in these last three years the most?
I am living on the west coast. I have had various break-ups and make-ups in relationships. I have a cat and two dogs. I am gluten-free. I met my dad for the first time. Working on “Shameless” with Bill Macy has been an incredible experience. I guess he inspired me to want to seek out my father and get some answers.
Did you get them?
Yes, I got them.
What has prepared you for your role as Fiona?
Everything. She is given enormous responsibility because of her situation at a young age and she takes it upon herself. I did that, too. For a while I was the provider for my family in my teen years. I feel a kinship for the pressure that Fiona faces. Plus, I love children and I love family. The cast is incredible. We all have a great bond now and we all worry about each other. I worry about Bill and Joan – I want them to be home at a reasonable hour to spend time with their families.
Do you feel as if you had a void in your life? You seem to have been fortunate enough to choose various families along the way that fulfilled certain aspects of your life.
Life is such a communal experience but also very individual, as well. Of course, I had a void, but I didn’t feel sorry for myself. It made me strong and I am able to get by with less because of it.
Tell me about your charitable work? Why is it important to you to become involved?
My friends say I am empathetic to a fault. My mom always taught me how lucky I am. If I have $5 in my pocket it means I have $5 to give someone else who needs it because at home I have a roof over my head and food inside. Give to those who are less fortunate. My godmother suffered breast cancer so I worked with the Susan G. Komen foundation, as well as others. I am in a unique position with my job that I have a voice and I have people who listen when I say what I feel about something. I want to appreciate that opportunity and not take it for granted.
You starred in this captivating interactive social media film called Inside shown on the Facebook and Youtube where you play a woman trapped in a room lost to your location trying to get out. How did you decide to do this?
We shot the film in 3-days. There was no preparation at all. I have always wanted to work with director DJ Caruso and it all just came together. It was this great challenge that I was up for. It was a very fluid experience. The internet is such a new place but it is the future of entertainment. People want it in their homes. In 5 or 10 years web shows will be the norm.
What has been the biggest surprise thus far in your career?
That I am still here. It is so easy to get mixed up in the wrong crowd and involved in the wrong things and I have had great people around me for guidance. I have also never lost sight of the most important thing and that is the work. And enjoying the work. I have also learned through primary examples how important it is to be kind to everyone. It is very humbling to work with Bill Macy and Joan Cusack who are kind and considerate to everyone on set. They are always prepared. They always know everyone’s name on set, cast and crew. I hope to one day be these examples for younger actors, as well.
Written by Sonja Magdevski