On the Showtime drama series Shameless, actor Jeremy Allen White plays Phillip “Lip” Gallagher, the second and by far the smartest Gallagher child, who has a penchant for trouble and a relationship with wild child neighbor Karen (Laura Wiggins) that is always threatening to break his heart. With an even further strained and more contentious relationship with his father than ever, Lip begins to realize that the more he fights to be his own man, the more he may end up just like his father, Frank (William H. Macy).
While at the TCA Winter Press Tour, Jeremy Allen White sat down with Collider for this exclusive interview about how lucky he feels to have such amazing material in Season 2, how the relationship between Frank and Lip will change this season, what he’d like to see Lip do with his life, how bizarre all of the sex scenes can be, and what working on this show with this cast has taught him about the craft of acting. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Jeremy Allen White: The writers are pretty amazing. They’ve really been writing for me, this season. I’m really lucky. I got some great stuff in the first season, but this time around, the writers are really warming up to me and have given me some amazing stuff. I feel really, really lucky.
Is it fun to play a character and be on a show where anything goes and the story really could go anywhere?
White: Yeah, not having limitations is great, but it also sometimes makes things a little difficult. A director will always tell you, when you go in to do a scene, “You go as big as you want, and I’ll tell you when to come down.” And I found that on Shameless, you can’t follow that rule because they will never tell you to come down. So, I’ve had to find my own balance with when it makes sense to get this upset or angry. I really have to gauge that. Most people, in situations like the Gallagher kids, would be absolute messes. You really have to pick and choose those moments where the characters break down a bit because they are so strong. You want to make it very clear that they are strong, and it’s not just anything that will make them angry or cry. So, you really have to choose wisely, what really hits home for your character.
How does the relationship between Frank and Lip change, this season?
White: I didn’t know how to come back from what happened with Karen (Laura Wiggins) and Frank (William H. Macy), in the first season. They tied that knot at the end with that scene with Lip and Frank – the peeing scene, with the golden shower – but there are obviously a lot of loose ends. I think that Lip and Frank’s relationship is very interesting, in this season. While there was never much of a father-son relationship, this season it’s non-existent. Lip is incredibly passive with his father now. He’s just kind of a guy that happens to be walking through Lip’s life. The only way he does affect Lip, internally, is that Lip and Fiona (Emmy Rossum) begin to mimic some of the mistakes that Frank has made.
In one episode, in particular, Lip has been kicked out of the house for a day and he’s looking for a place to stay. And all of a sudden, I thought of that episode in Season 1, where Frank was knocking on doors and Lip was following him on the bike, saying, “Come home.” I think it was the second episode in Season 1. And then, in the second episode in Season 2, Lip is right in the same position.
So, I think the biggest affect that Frank has had on Lip is that Lip is like, “How do I not become like that?” While Frank is a drunk and a fuck-up, he’s very smart. I think Frank could have been very much like Lip, when he was young. He was also raised by his crazy mother and his father. I think Lip is starting to pick up on the fact that it’s possible he could end up something like Frank. Lip finds himself in some of those tough situations, where there just aren’t very many possibilities for him anymore. It was very exciting for me to do, and I hope it’s just as exciting for people to watch.
With as smart as Lip is, have you given any thought about what you’d like him to do with his life?
White: I’m a little weird. I think Lip is so amazing because he is really loyal, not only to his family, but to his neighborhood and to the people there. His roots are very, very important to him. Some fans might see it differently. The audience might want Lip to go off to college. But, I want Lip to really struggle in the neighborhood. I think he loves these working class, blue collar people, and he wants to be a part of that life. He’s also afraid of the outside world. He’s comfortable there. He survived there. He’s used to it. He’s adjusted. It makes sense to him there. I feel like, if you threw Lip into a situation where he was at a university, or had a job in downtown Chicago or another major city, it would really throw him for a loop and he wouldn’t know how to handle himself. He’s just so very comfortable and loves his home, as dysfunctional as it all is.
So then, do you think he’s someone that deals with his own picture better than the big picture?
White: Yeah, absolutely. He lives in a small world where he’s a big fish. While he’d probably do very well going out, he’s insecure and he’s afraid of what he might find, out there in the real world, away from his family, away from the people in his neighborhood, away from Kev (Steve Howey) and Veronica (Shanola Hampton), and away from these people that he loves so much. I don’t think he wants to get away from them, anytime soon.
When you were initially presented with this show and you thought you might identify with one of the other characters more, what eventually sold you on Lip?
White: It was interesting. Up until the very end, when we did screen tests for Showtime, I had been auditioning for Ian and Lip. They would bring me into a room, and then bring a Lip in and I would do Ian. And then, they’d bring an Ian in and I would do Lip. And I really loved doing both. When I first auditioned, I actually preferred Ian. I thought he was incredibly interesting. I had done a screen test for United States of Tara, two years before, so I just thought Showtime really wanted me to be gay. I was like, “I can do it for you guys! I can really do it!”
But then, I realized that I just find people as smart as Lip so fascinating because they have such a difficult time existing, socially and emotionally. Also, you hear these stories about these geniuses who were living in their car for years because they don’t know what to do. I think it’s just a fascinating inner battle that these people go through. It’s this turmoil over it being a gift and a curse. As cliche as it sounds, that’s what it is. He feels like, “Yes, I’m very smart, but why do I have to do anything with it?” These incredibly intelligent people have a very hard time existing in everyday life. I found that to be more fascinating, in the end, then playing gay, I suppose.
Do you think that Lip is how he is and is always taking care of everybody because he doesn’t want to stop and think about the fact that he doesn’t have anyone to take care of him?
White: Absolutely. I think that’s something, in Season 2, that’s very clear. In Season 1, he kept himself busy, taking care of everyone else. This time around, people don’t want to hear his advice anymore. Not only that, when he needs it, they don’t want to give him the answers that he wants. It’s very, very hard for him to live that way. He feels like he’s owed that because he’s done so much for the rest of the family. I think there’s a certain amount of frustration with how he is sometimes neglected because he has to fill those fatherly shoes, more often than not. And while Fiona does an enormous, Lip has stepped in as second-in-command. I definitely feel like he wishes that he had someone.
What’s interesting is that, in the second season, he finds that the Kev character, that Steve Howey plays, is the best male role model in his life, believe it or not. They differ so much, intelligence wise. But, he has a loving relationship, which is more than Fiona can say, more than Steve can say, and more than Frank can say. He has a job. He’s not the best at it, but he’s passionate about it and works hard. I think it’s really great for Lip to see that kind of person, in his life. In the second season, he really goes to Kev for advice, and I think it’s a really beautiful thing that Lip can be vulnerable with him. He’s not trying to make fun of him. He’s not trying to be a smart ass. He can just sit and listen and learn from someone he never thought he could take lessons from. I think he’s found some kind of safety in Kev, which is great.
Do you think Lip can ever get to a place where he can have a relationship that’s not so dysfunctional?
White: I don’t know. I hope so. But, it’s hard for these incredibly intelligent people because relationships don’t always make as much sense as everything else. It’s a hard thing for them to wrap their heads around. With Lip’s relationship with Karen, he’s like an incredibly sex-fueled 10-year-old. Relationship wise, he’s such a child. I hope he learns from what’s happened with himself and Karen. I think he is slowly learning how to cope with a relationship. But, it’s hard to say because he did put trust in Karen and she’s really done some terrible things to him. It’s hard to say how much time it could take for him to heal from that and jump into something else, at least open-armed and warm-heartedly. I would hope he can, for his sake, but I can’t be so sure.
Do the sex scenes ever get any easier, or is it always horrifying?
White: It’s always horrifying, but it’s easier. I’ve done so many with Laura [Wiggins] now that we can joke about it and it’s much easier. But then, no matter how many sex scenes you’ve done, when you’re with someone who’s pretty much a stranger – Lip has sex with a few more characters this season – that’s always weird. You trying to be the veteran and be comfortable, and I always try to show the girls that it’s fine. They’re all very professional, but I’m so nervous that I have a hard time, and they end up being more confident than I am, in the scene. So, it’s something I haven’t gotten used to yet. Hopefully, I will. If the show goes much longer, I’ll have to. But, it is definitely a bizarre thing to have people watching you, and you trying to be so intimate with someone. I guess that’s what actors have to do, sometimes. Other than the sex scene I had with Karen, at the end of the first season, it’s all pretty fun sex and there’s laughing. Any mistakes you make, work. It’s very clumsy and teenaged sex, so that’s always lighter and easier to do.
How much have you been able to contribute to the development of this character and who he is, since you’ve been a part of the show?
White: I don’t have much input that I’m aware of, but I think that the writers and (executive producer) John [Wells] and some of the directors definitely look at us actors and look at our relationships with each other and definitely try to write for us, and that’s a great thing ‘cause that’s not always the case with television. But, they are very open to getting to know all of their actors, and writing for them. I couldn’t ask for more.
I talked to Paul Abbott, who did the British Shameless and he’s also involved in ours, about the original Lip, Jody Latham, and he wasn’t an actor or the brightest guy. He was from a neighborhood much like the neighborhood they live in, in the British Shameless. They had to shy away from Lip being so smart. He was still smart, but they went more with him being a brawler. They’ve done both with me, so I feel very lucky, but with him, he very quickly turned into a regular street kid. So, Paul Abbott voiced to me that he felt very lucky that I was able to carry out the character like he had intended, and I feel very lucky for that too because it is kind of Paul Abbott’s story.
The show is about his family. It’s not direct, but Paul Abbott and Lip are very much connected. Paul Abbott is obviously very intelligent. He’s had a great career. But growing up, he kind of did the same things and got into trouble, like Lip did. So, I’m just happy that I can keep his image as true as possible, in what I’m doing, and do my best to do that.
Have you had a storyline that was really surprising to you, but turned out really great?
White: Yes, in the season finale of the first season, there’s that scene on the rooftop with Karen and I, where I know she slept with Frank and I’ve beat him up, and we have a moment. I grab her hand and she rests her head on my shoulder. I was like, “What the fuck?! She just had sex with my dad? What are you guys talking about?” They were like, “Jeremy, trust me, it’s going to work.” And I was like, “Help me understand it because I’m having a very difficult time!” So, they did, and we talked about it a lot.
I think Lip has a lot of empathy, and Karen and Lip are of a similar breed. They come from these broken families and they can do these terrible things to each other, over and over again, but at the end of the day, they have to be there for each other. And, Lip had to step in to support her and be there for her. He saw that she was going through so much pain and, because he is such a great guy, he really had to step in and be there for her, which is a beautiful thing that I originally thought was shit. That’s a perfect example of what you’re asking.
Do you have a favorite episode from Season 2?
White: Things get very serious for Lip, towards the end of the second season. I’ve had a lot of fun with Karen and Lip’s relationship, and him being betrayed again, so shortly after having been betrayed before. It’s so heartbreaking. What’s amazing is that there’s a moment, in Episode 5, where Lip realizes his loyalty is still with Karen. It’s this dreadful love story where she keeps beating him and he keeps coming back for more. I had viewed it as pathetic for the longest time, and in Episode 5, there is a scene where I was like, “He loves her. He doesn’t want to let her go. That’s an amazing thing.” When that switch turned, that was pretty powerful for me and I really enjoyed it.
White: It’s great. Everyone has their own thing. Before the cameras roll in a scene, Justin [Chatwin] really likes to have some time alone to really get into it. And, [Steve] Howey will joke with everyone for the whole day, and make everyone laugh, and that gets him ready to play Kev and be that kind of guy. But, Bill [Macy] is the best, in that it’s a switch that he turns on and off. He’s Bill until the camera starts rolling, and then he’s Frank. There’s nothing messy about it. It’s very clean. While Steve and Justin’s methods are fantastic, I just love to watch Bill turn that switch on and off because you can tell he’s just such a polished actor, and that’s what I strive to do as well.
But, it gets difficult. If I’m filming Shameless and I go out on an audition, it’s hard not to just go where you know. It’s difficult sometimes to really take a moment. I’ve actually stopped auditioning while I’m working on the show. Once I’ve had some time away from it, it gets much easier for me to play other characters. While I’m doing it, it’s a big part of your life for those five months. I work eight to 12 or 14 hour days, Monday through Friday, so it becomes a huge part of you for awhile and it takes a lot out of you and it’s all you can think about. It sucks ‘cause you go out to see friends and all you want to talk about is the show and what’s happening and what you’re thinking about what you’re going to do, with this scene or that scene. It’s definitely nice to get some separation. But, I aspire to be like Bill and Joan [Cusack], and how amazingly capable they are of just turning that switch on and off. It’s very impressive and very fun to watch.