Emmy Rossum’s transformation into L.A. icon Angelyne is extraordinary. From the big, blonde wig to the extensive prosthetic work, the “Shameless” star completely inhabits the title character in Peacock’s latest. But for Rossum, it was important to give 100 percent to both the performance and the series itself, where she not only stars but acts as an executive producer. The series had a tough hill to climb because of its focus on a subject who is little-known to anyone outside of Los Angeles, but Rossum wants to prove this isn’t a “niche L.A. story.” It’s a tale about identity and the ways people can reinvent themselves.
Rossum talked to IndieWire via phone about tackling a story that took four years to come to fruition and playing a character who is larger than life. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
INDIEWIRE: What drew you to Angelyne?
Emmy Rossum: I first saw a billboard when I was about thirteen, and kind of like the law of attraction I started to see it everywhere as a young actress in L.A., auditioning for pilot season and invariably for, I’m sure, some terrible pilot I didn’t get. I was fascinated with this idea of a person [who] was so known in L.A. and yet unknown, because everyone I would ask — agents or people at Mel’s diner or whatever — who is this person, they would tell me a completely different story [and] everyone would light up with a huge smile whenever you said her name. There was this real love and curiosity and like, “Oh, when you see the Corvette make a wish.” I saw her car a couple of times and there was an attraction to it, the image and what she represented was seared in my brain.
She was certainly everything I was not at 12 or 13. She was hugely powerful over Los Angeles. She was incredibly empowered in her sexuality. She was glamorous and famous, and loved, and celebrated for being who she was. [But] no one else seemed to know who that was and there was a contradiction that fascinated me. I didn’t speak as much about it until the Hollywood Reporter story broke in 2017, which claims to have, quote, unquote, solved her identity. In response to that article, she calls into question a lot of the facts in it and then refused [to] not specifically refute what was in it. She knows all of the different stories about her go to further her fame, and the fame machine, and, ultimately, corresponds to creat[ing] even more mystique and intrigue.
That was really intoxicating for me, and also the idea of playing somebody so incredibly different than me. Somebody that I felt some kind of emotional magnetism towards. It was very profound, the idea came to me on a side street in Chicago during a rainstorm on hold from shooting “Shameless.” I had the idea and it was pretty much all I could think about for four and a half years.
Angelyne reveres Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield who have been these examples of women done wrong by Hollywood. Is there a responsibility to be authentic to her?
What Angelyne is after is preserving the mystery, so that the enigma, the mythology of the character that we hold in our hearts as Angelyne can survive. Being reductive and defining her by one story is antithetical to that goal. [It’s like] when you find out the Wizard of Oz is the one behind Oz, it kind of takes the air out of the cotton candy. Ultimately, a lot of those old Hollywood stars had the studio machine around them creating their image, deciding their hair color, even sometimes putting them on specific diets, and controlling what they could say and couldn’t say.
Angelyne is the one controlling her image [and] what she says, what she doesn’t say. She’s hyper feminine [and] weaponized sexuality in a patriarchal society. There is no other Angelyne. Angelyne doesn’t have another car, or go home and put on jeans or slacks. She’s Angelyne 24 hours a day.
What was the research process like considering so much about Angelyne remains unknown?
There’s so much video and so much audio available, and there are private moments and public moments. I was also able to meet with her on a couple of occasions, and speak with her at length. So, it was a combination of using all of these pieces of the puzzle to formulate a tapestry of different colors which I could access for different moments in the story depending upon who was telling the story at that moment [and] who’s in control of the narrative. Over the course of four years, working on the walk, how the walk changes, how the body changes, as her body changes as it develops and she turns into more and more of a Barbie doll. Through aging as well, although that’s not something she believes in it is something that happens.
When we meet the very, very young precursor to Angelyne, that is a character that I had no audio on and limited visual examples. [There were] many anecdotes, but nothing that felt as deeply researchable as the Angelyne with a capital A. Creating the connective tissue, watching her body and voice [and] emotional life move through the decades and then wondering, “Where could that have stemmed from? How close is that to what we’ve become?” Finding that connective tissue was very challenging. When you add in covering yourself with prosthetics, a sprained ankle, blisters, and styes in my eyes from contacts — and having a baby in the middle! — it was very arduous.
Was there one physical element that was harder to grasp than the others?
Subtle nuances between different eras. How vocally and physically the character evolved; how high the shoulders are based on age; how tight the walk is. When you want your body to move in a way in which it doesn’t usually, and you want your voice to do that for 12 hours a day you have to work really hard and pattern all of those things, and do that for 1000s of hours to get it to feel natural on the day [so] that those mannerisms don’t feel like flourishes. They feel like they’re coming from your guts and [are] very instinctual. It was [about] moving between those era and making it feel natural. That took a lot of time.
Did playing Angelyne affect how you move through the world as a woman and actress?
Angelyne says something that I think is so moving: she wants everyone to be a superstar and she wants everyone to be able to have the feeling that she has, which is that you can make the impossible possible. This was a Herculean feat to get a show made; to convince people that this was worth doing, that this mattered, that this has such an incredible resonance to where we are in society today. This is not a niche L.A. story.
This is the story of reinvention [and] survival. Holding her work close to my heart made me believe that I could do that. Although it’s nice to just be an actor for hire and [not worry about producer problems] I also love getting to work on a show with women, and I love getting to tell stories. It’s made me think that if you want something and you work hard enough for it and you give it tens of thousands of hours you can make the impossible possible.
“Angelyne” streams Fridays on Peacock.