Emmy Rossum on Her Historic ‘Shameless’ Equal Pay Win: ‘It’s Our Responsibility’
The Golden Globe-nominated actress opens up to Melissa Leon about her highly publicized pay dispute, the eighth season of ‘Shameless,’ and sexual abuse in Hollywood.
On TV Emmy Rossum plays a ballsy, complicated broad unafraid to stare down the establishment and fight for every scrap she and her family need to survive. Eight seasons into playing Fiona Gallagher on Shameless, and Rossum is equally uncompromising when it comes to taking what she deserves.
Rossum made headlines in late 2016 after refusing to sign on for the Showtime dramedy’s eighth season unless she was offered more than her co-star William H. Macy—a move meant not only to create parity, but also to make up for the seven years Rossum was paid significantly less. The “standoff,” as reports took to calling it, lasted only days after becoming public. (“It was a quick resolution,” Rossum, who has chosen not to disclose the details of her new contract, told The Hollywood Reporter in May.)
The news came amid heated conversations about equal pay in Hollywood sparked by women including Jennifer Lawrence, Gillian Anderson, Patricia Arquette, and Robin Wright, the latter of whom famously threatened to “go public” with her fight to be paid as much as her now-disgraced male co-star on House of Cards. Rossum, for her part, says she “never anticipated” her own fight for equal pay becoming public at all.
“I don’t particularly like the private aspects of my life, specifically monetarily and business-wise, to be public,” Rossum tells The Daily Beast by phone days before the Shameless Season 8 premiere (as nearly every episode has since the show’s first season, it centers around the Gallagher family matriarch, Fiona). “But I understand that when it did kind of leak out, it was part of a larger conversation and that’s important.”
“It just as easily could not have worked out and not be a happy ending,” she adds. “We’ve seen that happen with a couple other people’s negotiations. It is a complicated issue. But my heart is with the show, I wanted to keep making the show. I love the show. I love Bill Macy, I love [showrunner] John Wells, I love my network. They’ve given me the opportunity to direct, to create this incredible, fascinated, multilayered character for eight years.”
The Shameless cast and crew are tight-knit; Rossum likens them to “the best friends I’ve had since I was 5 years old.”
“That is not something I was wanting to walk away from, ever,” she says.
In dealing with her own pay disputes, Lawrence described an ingrained reluctance to seem “difficult” or “spoiled” in asking for more in a piece titled “Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?” (The news of Lawrence being compensated less than her male co-stars was broken here at The Daily Beast.) Asked if she grappled with similar conflicting emotions, Rossum answers with a flat “no.”
“The bottom line of it was for me, I had to make a very unemotional, very business decision,” she says. “It’s their responsibility to make the most profit, which means getting the talent that’s best for the role at the cheapest rate possible. Everyone likes to get something on sale. And it’s our responsibility to get as much as we can, and that’s our agents’ and lawyers’ responsibility. It is, at the end of the day, business.”
Cornered by TMZ at the Grove last December, the Oscar-nominated actor rattled off relevant historical facts: “They wrote the Equal Rights Amendment in 1927. It didn’t get passed by both houses of Congress until 1972. It still hasn’t been approved by all the states, therefore it didn’t make it as an amendment to the Constitution. About fucking time, don’t you think?”
“She works as hard as I do, she deserves everything,” Macy declared, before joking, “The only thing I’ve got on Emmy Rossum is I’m better looking.”
“He’s a wonderful man,” Rossum says, recalling the interview and offering the occasion of her wedding in May to Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail as proof. As a gift, Macy carved her a bench made out of trees from his property in Aspen. “I was like, what am I supposed to do with this bench? I’ve never gotten a bench before. And he was like, ‘You know, marriage is wonderful but sometimes it’s difficult. And when you guys run into problems, I want you to sit on this bench and talk it out.’ And it was such a beautiful sentiment.” The moment encapsulated “the core of who he is as a practical and romantic, kind individual.”
Still, the spotlight on pay inequality should reach far beyond Hollywood, Rossum says. “This is across the board in every industry, how women are paid versus how men are paid. And then you take it further, that kind of bias extends not just to gender but to race, ethnicity, religion. It extends to weight! People that are overweight are systematically paid less than those who are fit. And when you’re thinking about the kind of biases that are going into judging whether somebody is worth X or X-plus-10, it’s incredibly complex.”
“This is just the beginning of a kind of tidal wave,” she vows. “I feel that, you know, I am just a very small drop in a very large bucket of change, but it feels nice to be a very small part of it.”
Rossum is outspoken in her support for women and equal rights on social media, and has watched with “sadness, confusion, and outrage” as women’s stories about serial sexual abusers and harassment have roiled Hollywood. On Twitter, she’s shared formative memories of the work environments she and other actresses have long been expected to accept as normal.
“The day of my first big magazine cover shoot. I am 19 years old,” she wrote last month. “Proud. Excited. Nervous. We shoot all morning. Then break for lunch. Photographer sees me put a piece of cake on my plate. Comes over and says, ‘You’re not really going to eat that, are you sweetheart?’ I stare at him in defiance. I place a SECOND piece of cake on my plate. I eat it as I stare him down, daring him to make another comment.”
“But if I’m honest, in that moment, I feel shame,” she continued. “I don’t want the cake anymore. I don’t want to celebrate. Don’t even want to keep shooting.” But men, as she pointed out, aren’t the only ones who make women feel “not thin enough, not pretty enough, constantly physically compared to others” on set: “I have had FEMALE producers make comments to me about what I’m putting in my mouth. Things like, ‘Don’t get fat. No one will watch this.’”
Rossum attributes the stick-thin body standards pervasive in Hollywood to the homogenized, “plasticky” type of beauty omnipresent—or as she says, “shoved down our throats”—in media. In that regard, “I don’t feel any pressure like that for Shameless, even though I’m often disrobed, because I feel that [Fiona] is a character who feels incredibly comfortable in her skin, more so than I even feel in my own personal skin,” she says. “She doesn’t have time and doesn’t have money to go to SoulCycle so this is not the top of her priority list.”
Fiona’s struggle to rise out of poverty in Southside Chicago—this year she takes ownership of a rundown apartment building, happy to discover how much yuppies will pay for space in an “authentic” neighborhood—while raising five disaster-prone siblings takes on an especially resonant tone in 2017, when the political leanings of white working-class families like the Gallaghers are routinely, endlessly dissected.
“We’ve always aimed to be a show that’s a commentary on class, specifically the lower working-class and how difficult it is when there are so few real mentors or systems in place to help you achieve the American Dream the way you were once able to,” Rossum says. “The divide between the rich and poor is becoming even greater. It’s becoming more and more difficult to get a leg up. So for a family like this, it feels maybe more topical than ever.”
Frank (Macy), Fiona’s addict father—who until recently collected disability for a fraud injury, remained willfully unemployable, and smokes half a pound of meth in the show’s off-season alone—has been known to blame immigrants for his woes. Carl (Ethan Cutkosky), Fiona’s teenage brother, returns from military school to mutter over breakfast about “coastal elites who take our liberties for granted.” And Svetlana (Isidora Goreshter) renames the neighborhood bar “Putin’s Palace,” complete with a masculine portrait of her dear leader and Russian flags waving gallantly outside. Veronica (Shanola Hampton), meanwhile, calls in an ICE raid to round the undocumented Russians up out of “her” bar.
Every note is played with the heightened, all-skewering comedic lunacy Shameless is known for, and which would come unmoored without the anchor of Rossum’s antiheroine. The 30-year-old actress, who made her film debut at 13 and was later nominated for a Golden Globe for 2005’s Phantom of the Opera, has also branched into directing for the show; her second episode behind the lens, which will go inside a gay-conversion church and see “reverse immigration” of Muslims leaving America for Canada, airs later this year.
Shameless hasn’t blushed at stories hinging on thorny topics: abortion, homophobia, trans discrimination, poverty, race, and of course, sexual harassment have all touched the lives of the Gallagher clan. Fiona herself contended with an abusive boss in Season 3 after taking a job as a checkout clerk at a local grocery store. The manager there, she soon discovered, expected his female employees to take turns giving him blow jobs.
“Sexual pressure [at work] is a question of economics for a lot of people,” Rossum says, explaining Fiona’s predicament at the time and actress Brit Marling’s essay on the topic in The Atlantic. “It’s why a lot of women have to endure these kinds of abhorrent work environments, and why they feel like there’s no way out.”
Has the wave of equally sordid sexual assault and harassment revelations from within Hollywood altered her perception of the industry she’s made a career in? “Not at all,” she says firmly. “It affects how I feel and embrace the sisterhood—and the brotherhood as well that exists of good men who will call out bad men’s behavior and good men who will protect women. And it’s not just women who are victims. There are men and boys. There may be a microscope on our industry right now, which I think is great, but this extends beyond. It exists in politics, in Silicon Valley, in medicine—we’re seeing three Dartmouth professors accused and suspended with pay, which makes no sense but that’s a much longer conversation…”
The impact Hollywood has on other industries while burning under that microscope gives Rossum a sense of responsibility and, in turn, inspiration. “I saw Anita Hill speak the other day,” she says, “and she was saying how statistically, what we do in our industry will have more impact on young people than what she ever did. It kind of took me aback. I thought how strange it is that we who tell stories and create characters would have more of an impact on what sexual harassment in the workplace means to young people than Anita Hill, who was the pioneer up against an entirely male Supreme Court in 1991.”
“I just thought, you’re right,” she continues, sounding determined. “We do have a great responsibility to tell the kinds of stories that we feel will send a message. And because people are consuming the entertainment that we’re acting in and creating, then our responsibility is great.”