On the Showtime drama series Shameless, actor Justin Chatwin plays Steve, a handsome and charming guy with a lot of money and a rap sheet a mile long. After a heartbroken Fiona (Emmy Rossum) was forced to choose her family over him in Season 1, Steve left for Costa Rica alone. But now he’s back, which is sure to throw a wrench in Fiona’s love life.
While at the TCA Winter Press Tour, Justin Chatwin sat down with Collider for this exclusive interview about what his character has been up to this season, what’s coming up for Steve, that getting past his own psychological barriers of being naked in front of people was part of the initial appeal for the show, finding out how different his character’s backstory is from what he expected, and that he likes Shameless because it brings up important issues, in a smart and funny way. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: With as strong and great as Season 1 was, were you concerned at all that Season 2 would not live up to that?
JUSTIN CHATWIN: I had those reservations, after the first season. I was like, “You guys just set a standard that’s really high. Where are you going to go from there?”
Since you’re not really in the first few episodes, when you started getting those scripts, were you worried that Steve was never going to show back up?
CHATWIN: Yeah, I was sweating. But, I am coming back. Seriously, (executive producer) John [Wells] sat me down and was like, “Don’t worry, you’re coming back in Episode 4 or 5, with a cameo in Episode 3.” I love working on the show, but at the same time, I understand the device of looking forward to the character coming back.
So, what was Steve up to while he was away?
CHATWIN: I think what Steve does, which is what I’ve always done, is that when you’re madly in love with someone and you can’t be with them, you try to go back to living your old life. He goes back to that with new girls, and he changes his location. We all can relate to moving around and hoping that our lives can be different, but usually the same patterns and problems come up. He may not be stealing cars, but I think he’s into dealing drugs down there, and he gets himself into the same mess that he got himself into in Chicago, which is strictly acting off of his impulses and not thinking about what he does.
He gets himself tied up into a sticky situation and, as always, talks himself into not being killed. He is forced, out of a deal that he sets up with someone, into doing something, so that he can go back to America. He’s talked to Fiona (Emmy Rossum) on the phone once, in six months, and she’s the only thing that means anything to him. He has the disease of believing in romantic love and true love, and he’s a pursuer of cheap thrills. That’s his drug. He sees his only answer in life as Fiona, and Fiona is not simple. She is a very challenging, complicated person. I think they’re both attracted to each other because they’re both very similar. So, Steve comes back with a wife.
Do you think he’s trying to sabotage himself before he gets hurt?
CHATWIN: His intention in having a wife is not to hurt Fiona. He just has no choice. Everything that Steve does is to make that step towards being with her. He just has, like a lot of the people on the show, not a very high moral compass and lacks a little bit of integrity, in some corners. So, when he comes back and he says, “Oh, yeah, I’m married,” it’s just married. It’s not in love. Fiona has his heart, so it doesn’t mean anything to him. But to her, it’s just this huge obstacle. For her, putting up that barrier is her protection, but he’s already seen the future and he knows that he’s going to be with her. He doesn’t doubt it. She just really puts him through the ringer. It’s definitely jumping through hoops for my character, this year. You see them together quite a bit, in the end, but up until that point, the two of them are apart, jumping through hoops and going through their own things, so that they can clear up their messy situations and be with each other.
What else is coming up for Steve, this season, apart from his relationship with Fiona?
CHATWIN: You start to meet more of my family members and you see the world of poverty and the world of privilege may wear different exteriors on the outside, but on the inside they’re exactly the same damaged people with the same problems. They just have different challenges, but it’s the same dynamic. They’re the same people.
Have you just come to expect anything with this show?
CHATWIN: I don’t know when they’re telling me the truth, and I don’t know when they’re lying. The writer came up and said, “Yeah, you’re coming back in Episode 3, and I’m going to have you getting a BJ.” I was like, “Yeah, right!” And then, I got the script and I was actually getting a blow job in Episode 3. I went to set for two hours, at 6:30 in the morning, and stripped down my clothes and performed hip gyrations, and then I went home. It feels a little cheap sometimes, to be honest with you.
Does it get any easier to do the nudity and sex scenes, or is it always horrifying?
CHATWIN: Yeah, one of the things that attracted me to the project, in the first place was getting past my own psychological barriers of being naked in front of people. We all have it. We’re all afraid. We’re the only creature on earth that wears garments. I spent a bunch of time up in Big Sur at the hot springs last year. I walked in, in my bathing suit and everyone else was naked. It was the only time I’ve ever felt isolated, not to be naked, and I felt uncomfortable. So, I stripped down and took it off. I was standing next to an 80-year-old woman and a young girl, and I was looking at the two of them and thought, “They’re both equally as beautiful.” That’s just how life happens. Life turns your body into that.
Eventually, over time, I stopped peeking like a pervert at them and starting realizing, “Oh, these are just bodies. These are just things that we have.” I think that we come out of such a Calvinistic, religious, repression era, and I think there’s a lot to be said in “exploiting”our bodies in healthy ways, so that we can towards more liberal, healthy sexual practices. I think this show walks the line with that, and I don’t think it’s gratuitous. I personally don’t like pornography. I think it leads to violence and a lot of unhealthy mental states. When I was 12 years old, I always enjoyed watching late-night Showtime and Cinemax. That was my pornography, before the internet. But, moving away from emotionless pornography and into programming that’s actually about connecting emotionally and intimately while being naked feels more graphic than watching two adult actors on screen. I think that’s unhealthy. This is liberating. It’s a gift to be able to go on set, strip down in front of people and, once your nerves calm down, be a part of telling a story. But, yeah, it’s vulnerable.
Because your character is the one viewers probably know the least about, is it weird to have to come up with your own backstory, and then have it turn out to be something completely different?
CHATWIN: Yeah. When I got Episode 8 of the first season, and I saw that my name was Jimmy and that I came from that family, I knew that I had some sort of secret and I made my own choice of what those things were, but I was like, “Oh, okay, does that work?” And, it does. What it does for the actors is that we never know where our life is going, which is life. You don’t know what’s going to happen later on today. For us, as actors, we get to experience the same thing that the audience gets to experience. I don’t have the backstory that most of the other people have, which is confusing, but it’s also sometimes fun.
In a way, a character like Steve, who is confused about where he’s come from, has to improvise on the moment, all the time, and create a character, in order to fit in, in different situations. That’s how I related to my character, when I first took it on, in the beginning. I was like, “This guy doesn’t know who he is. He’s trying to fit in, in every realm. He’s hanging out with people in the ghetto, he’s hanging out with the richest of the rich, and he’s hanging out with hardball criminals, drug addicts and, I’m sure, politicians.” I’m sure, in the fifth season, Steve will be running for governor or mayor of Chicago, or some other sort of sketchy position of power.
Do you think he’ll ever be comfortable with who he really is?
CHATWIN: I think he’s trying to come into more of his own honesty, so that he can say, “My name is Jimmy, I’m from Lake Forest, I’m privileged, I had a good upbringing, and I’m actually a good boy that’s trying to be bad. I can’t be vulnerable. I always have to be charming and doing something really adventurous, in order to feel like I’m loved.” I think he’s moving towards that, but over the years, he’s just played so many different parts and characters and blended in and lied, in order to feel loved. In a way, he’s not far off from who Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy) is.
Do you feel like you’ve learned more about yourself, as an actor, and about the craft of acting, through this whole experience of developing a character over a longer period of time?
CHATWIN: Yeah. That’s the great thing about working on a show. This is the first show I’ve been on, and I love it. I just want to do shows because you get to see, over all the seasons, the person grow, and you get to grow with the character. That transformation, for me, is what I love about my job. I get to learn about myself and challenge myself and grow with the character. For me, it’s a whole process of learning and growing.
Because there is such an ensemble on this show, are there any actors that you haven’t gotten to work with much yet, that you’d love to be able to do some scenes with?
CHATWIN: I’ve had interaction with everyone on the show. We’re a pretty tight-knit group that we hang out off camera, too. But, there are a lot of characters that I would love to have more scenes with. I don’t have a lot of scenes with Frank. I don’t have a lot of scenes with Sheila (Joan Cusack). Most of my scenes are with Lip (Jeremy Allen White) and Fiona (Emmy Rossum) and my wife, this year. There’s this new character, named Jody (Zach McGowan), who’s hilarious. He’s Karen’s (Laura Wiggins) husband. He’s great. That’s what draws Steve and Lip together, as friends.
On the first day of the pilot, me and Jeremy grew really close, as friends, and I think John [Wells] saw that and started writing more stuff for us to be in together. We both are broken men with broken women that don’t want to be with us. We all have the capacity to be Frank Gallagher. I know I have a Sheila in me. I’ll go some weeks without leaving my house. We all have that Friday night Fiona in us. But, we watch this so that we don’t have to do it. It gets acted out for us on TV, so we laugh and we experience it, and we don’t have to go out and do it because we see what happens.
I really like Shameless because it brings up important issues, but we get to talk and laugh and look at something that’s really important, that’s a problem, like alcoholism and bad parenting. It’s done in a funny, smart way. Sometimes I think it goes beyond the boundaries, but at least it’s done in a way where people can talk and discuss it, and then they know their own moral compass.