Emmy Rossum’s Angelyne Obsession

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Emmy Rossum was a no-show for a rather important meeting. This was to be the final hurdle before filming Angelyne, her miniseries based on Los Angeles’ billboard queen of the same name, yet its star and champion had informed collaborators at the eleventh hour that she simply could not make it.

Executives were seated around a Universal City conference table when their PowerPoint about production design was interrupted by a busty blonde wearing leopard-print arm warmers and not much else. She passed out rose quartz crystals, tickled faces and necks with a peacock feather (a nod to the streaming platform footing the bill) and cooed a breathy incantation to bless their endeavor with good juju. For a moment, at least, a few folks in the room thought it was the real Angelyne. But it was a platinum-wigged Rossum, her 5-foot-8 frame propped up on stilettos and a pink lamé minidress pulled taut over the conspicuous 3-pound breastplate glued to her torso.

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“She was utterly transformed,” says Alex Sepiol, a drama executive at NBCUniversal who was there when Rossum arrived in character. “To give this kind of performance in a business meeting, no one does that. But that’s Emmy, she’s fearless and bold and just a trouper.”

Rossum says, “As my acting coach likes to tell me, intensity is not something I struggle with. I wanted to give them the experience.”

The real Angelyne in 1993. - Credit: Bernard Fallon/ZUMA PRESS/Newscom
The real Angelyne in 1993. - Credit: Bernard Fallon/ZUMA PRESS/Newscom

Bernard Fallon/ZUMA PRESS/Newscom

Angelyne and Rossum bear virtually no resemblance to each other, in appearance or biography, which is one reason the actress went to such lengths to shore up support for her project. The 35-year-old has courted a successful career with regular acting work since she was a teenager — booking roles with a vague solicitation for “girl next door” types and logging nine seasons as the star of Showtime’s Shameless. Angelyne, on the other hand, is a figure of hyperlocal folklore. She became famous for being famous after erecting billboards bearing her distinctive likeness around Los Angeles during the 1980s. She offered no backstory then, and she hasn’t since. Ask anybody Hollywood-adjacent what they think of her, and you’re equally likely to be greeted with a blank stare or a giddy anecdote about the first time they spotted her pink Corvette. Writer-producer Sam Esmail, Rossum’s husband and frequent collaborator, counted himself among the former group until his wife shared a 2017 article from this publication that revealed Angelyne’s real identity as a Poland-born daughter of Holocaust survivors.

“I didn’t know who Angelyne was, and I lived in L.A. for 20-odd years,” says Esmail. “When I googled her, I was a little taken aback as to why Emmy would want to play her, but the more I learned about her, the more it clicked. Reinvention, or a rebirth from trauma, that’s something we all tend to do in different ways.”

Rossum is in a period of reinvention herself. Her career’s “complete and singular focus” for four years, Angelyne‘s May 19 premiere brought bigger challenges than just outsized prosthetics. She had to court the series’ capricious namesake for her life rights as well as navigate a pandemic stoppage and an additional delay by her own pregnancy (Rossum and Esmail welcomed a baby girl in May 2021). She’s distancing herself from her best-known job to date — one on which she famously fought for pay parity with her male co-star — and is using the TV makeover as a calling card for her young production company.

“I found it to be completely liberating to look in the mirror and not see myself at all,” says Rossum of transforming into Angelyne. “At first, it’s unnerving. But feeling lost gives way to this real liberation — from myself and the hang-ups that can impede a performance.”

“I think that this business asks a lot of people, and I think it asks a lot of women,” says Rossum. - Credit: Photographed by Jenna Greene
“I think that this business asks a lot of people, and I think it asks a lot of women,” says Rossum. - Credit: Photographed by Jenna Greene

Photographed by Jenna Greene

***

“Some actors hate it, but I love eating in scenes,” Rossum announces, gesturing her fork toward an egg white omelette and then a side of pastrami. On Shameless, which lacked a lot of the stage direction one typically finds in most scripts, she gravitated toward the kitchen scenes — meals to eat, pots and pans to move, laundry machines to load. “There are certain intimate human behaviors that can offer an opportunity for what you can reveal about a character — how they eat or how they laugh. I love a prop.”

Over breakfast in mid-April on Beverly Drive, outside of Nate ‘n Al’s delicatessen, life is imitating art several times over. The original meeting between my colleague Gary Baum and the real Angelyne for a pair of articles on which Rossum’s new series is based took place at another deli, Canter’s. On the series, the fictionalized encounter was filmed at a Denny’s in a Hollywood strip mall. We are doing our best to pay homage to both.

Rossum was born and is once again a full-time New Yorker, but she spent the bulk of her formative years in Los Angeles. The only child to single mother Cheryl, an artist who early in her career served as Steve Jobs’ personal photographer, Rossum was thrust into the arts at a young age. Cheryl wasn’t a stage mom so much as a co-conspirator who indulged her daughter’s fondness for singing and acting. Rossum started performing at the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus at Lincoln Center at age 7, backing the likes of Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. In 1998 they migrated to Los Angeles, where they shared a small apartment on Shoreham Drive, within earshot of the Sunset Strip, in a unit previously occupied by Axl Rose. Their landlord, for whatever reason, disclosed that the bathtub had not been updated since the Guns N’ Roses frontman lived there. “I was coming out of the classical music world,” says Rossum. “I did not even know who Axl Rose was, but I used to play his music in the bathtub and think, ‘This feels cool.’ ”

Rossum with her husband, Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, also an exec producer on Angelyne, in 2019 - Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
Rossum with her husband, Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, also an exec producer on Angelyne, in 2019 - Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Another cultural education that took place upon her arrival proved more prophetic. Riding shotgun in her mother’s rental car, a 13-year-old Rossum first encountered Angelyne. Her billboards could still be found around town back then, and Rossum recalls staring up at one in fascination. “In retrospect, it’s a very curated image, but it had a lot of impact on me,” she says. “I remember seeing a woman who was totally empowered in her body, in her sexuality, in her womanhood in a way that I certainly was not at 13 — somebody that had captured the city’s attention, seemingly magically.”

Control is something the actress says she doesn’t give much thought to as it pertains to her own public image: “The care about what you create is what resonates with me, but I’m not particular. For me, my image is changing constantly. For a character, I’m comfortable showing blemishes or imperfect skin. That helps me tell the story, in the same way that having none of that helps Angelyne. Because she’s a fantasy.”

Rossum found Hollywood recognition through more traditional means than Angelyne. A run of well-received performances in TV movies and independent films landed her roles in awards bait (Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River) and blockbusters (Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow) before she was cast in Shameless in 2010. The dark comedy about a blue-collar Chicago family afforded Rossum the opportunity to shed the good-girl image she’d cultivated for a decade, as her character, Fiona, distracted herself from a crummy life with sex, drugs and the mouth of a sailor. She essentially functioned as the series’ lead, clocking more hours on set and on camera than anyone, but she spent the first seven seasons being paid a fraction of what co-star William H. Macy was paid.

“I actually have to pee,” Rossum says as soon as I broach the contract stalemate that went public when she sought equal pay in 2016, preceding the #MeToo and Time’s Up rally cries for female enfranchisement that soon would follow. “I’m not avoiding the question. I just really have to go.”

She mimes dialing her publicist before heading inside the restaurant, leaving a Hermès bag on the table as collateral.

“I certainly was never trying to make any kind of grand political statement,” she says upon her return of the nearly yearlong negotiation. “I was only trying to do what felt right. The idea of not continuing on Shameless was not one I ever wanted to entertain. So when it all worked out, I was thrilled — thrilled my small victory was part of a much larger tide. But my story is not unique. It was just public. Wage disparity becomes even more pronounced when you factor in age, race, body size and orientation.”

Notes actor Nyambi Nyambi of the ordeal, “The woman cuts through the bullshit.” The Good Fight castmember has been a close friend of Rossum’s since a 2006 Williamstown Theatre Festival production of Romeo & Juliet. “If Emmy sees something wrong, she does everything she can to change it.”

Still, even after two additional seasons with parity, a decade of devoting her career to one character was producing diminishing creative returns for Rossum, who says she has no regrets about her decision to leave Shameless two seasons before it finished. She was anxious for new material, and her life had changed dramatically since she took the job. In 2012, she met Esmail, the Mr. Robot creator, while working on his film Comet. “We fell in love as collaborators,” she says. “He’s the first person that I text or call with an idea, and vice versa. I think watching him work, before I started directing and producing myself, demystified a lot of the process for me.”

They married in 2017, a few months before she read Baum’s exposé about Angelyne. They optioned the story, and she announced her impending Shameless exit. “I found, and find, her fascinating,” says Rossum of Angelyne. “There’s an immediacy to her story. She’s the original influencer. She was doing this before anybody. She knew the power of her image, which is why she had so much control over it.”

Rossum, however, was not content with just optioning an article and replicating Angelyne’s image. She wanted her blessing.

“She’s the original influencer,” says Emmy Rossum of Angelyne, whom she portrays in a new limited series on Peacock. “She was doing this before anybody. She knew the power of her image.” Rossum was photographed April 15 at PMC Studios in New York. - Credit: Photographed by Jenna Greene
“She’s the original influencer,” says Emmy Rossum of Angelyne, whom she portrays in a new limited series on Peacock. “She was doing this before anybody. She knew the power of her image.” Rossum was photographed April 15 at PMC Studios in New York. - Credit: Photographed by Jenna Greene

Photographed by Jenna Greene

***

Angelyne is simultaneously one of the most accessible and elusive figures in Hollywood. If you spot her Corvette, you can buy a T-shirt, ample merch or, for the right price, a photograph. But if you want to find her, she’s not available by traditional means. She has no publicist, no agent. She also is a decidedly free spirit. She dismissed Baum’s vetted report on her past identity as San Fernando Valley resident Renee Goldberg as “vindictive” and has stated on multiple occasions that no performance could ever do her justice. Her approval would be harder to come by than any green light.

But there was too much riding on Angelyne to let the project get away. Rossum had quit Shameless and made her intentions public. She had signed a first-look deal with Universal Content Productions, and the series would be its first fruit. She courted writers, producers and a director. “Somebody asked me, ‘How did you cast Emmy Rossum?’ ” says Angelyne showrunner Allison Miller. “Emmy Rossum cast me. It’s always been her project. I mean, she bleached her eyebrows for this.” She also tried to get into her headspace.

“I bought her meditation tapes on eBay,” Rossum says later that morning, during a walk around the Hollywood Reservoir. “I had a pink Walkman, and I’d play them constantly. They’re quite hypnotic. She says things that are incredibly resonant and deep about identity — how to find yourself out of pain, out of sorrow, out of sadness, in this hot pink bubblegum Barbie fantasy. It worked on me.”

Tapping into her own pain, as it is with many actors, is an evolving process for Rossum. “It’s a combination of imagination, things that are deeply personal and sometimes traumas that are nationally held, things much bigger than myself. It’s nice to have a Rolodex of pain,” she says, laughing. “It’s also nice to have a Rolodex of pure joy. [Shameless showrunner] John Wells used to tell me, ‘The brighter the photograph, the darker the negatives.’ ”

The THR story by Gary Baum about Angelyne’s true background on which the Peacock series is based. - Credit: The Hollywood Reporter/August 2017
The THR story by Gary Baum about Angelyne’s true background on which the Peacock series is based. - Credit: The Hollywood Reporter/August 2017

The Hollywood Reporter/August 2017

Two years after the series was announced, a meeting between Rossum and Angelyne was finally arranged — in a private room, per Angelyne’s request, at The Hollywood Roosevelt. “I showed up an hour early, overprepared as usual,” says Rossum. “I could see from the window that her car pulled up on time, but she ended up almost an hour late because she was selling merch out of the trunk.”

When she finally arrived upstairs, Angelyne introduced herself by asking, “So why do you have such a hard-on to play me?”

“That’s why!” exclaims Rossum. They exchanged gifts. Rossum offered a box of pink macarons — she is known for presenting collaborators and friends with baked goods — and Angelyne shared a pink crystal. Rossum laid out her pitch for the project, telling her muse about the nights she spent listening to the tapes, and then bought some merch. Angelyne’s contract, signed and sealed with a pink lipstick kiss, arrived in the mail soon after. With a handsome fee, the production had secured her life rights, trademarks, songs and art. For a while, it even seemed like they’d secured active participation. She met with Miller and director Lucy Tcherniak at Denny’s, where the trio talked about spaceships. But, by the time production resumed after pandemic and pregnancy delays, Angelyne was out. She’ll have no formal credit on the series.

There is no official answer for why Angelyne bowed out, and a request for comment sent to the president of her fan club (and de facto gatekeeper) went unanswered. Those involved with the project echo the same sentiments on and off the record: She was given the opportunity to participate in the manner she preferred. And that amounts to a quiet payday. Rossum’s reverence for her subject doesn’t waver when I ask about the axed cameo that originally was intended to punctuate the series: “She got to decide how she wanted to be a part of it, and I respect that.”

In the end, Angelyne’s part in the series didn’t much matter. Skepticism for the project, or at least Rossum’s ability to capture its subject, dissipated as soon as the first set photos leaked. Her temporary alterations were not without sacrifice. Rossum got blisters from the fake breasts and suffered tear duct issues from wearing two pairs of contact lenses and from the oppressive eye makeup during the shoot. She often spent four or five hours in the makeup chair every morning before most of her colleagues even arrived on set.

“When I say that there are times where I did not recognize her because she was lost in this person, I really mean it,” says Esmail. “This is my wife I’m talking about. It’s kind of eerie.”

Concedes Rossum: “The physicality of the character was challenging. The body is heavy, yet it has to feel light and effervescent. But I just kept focusing on how lucky I felt. This opportunity is really every actor’s dream. You raise your hand and you say, ‘Hey, I’d like to play this, and this is how I envision the story.’ ”

Rossum as Angelyne. “I found it to be completely liberating to look in the mirror and not see myself at all,” she says. - Credit: Isabella Vosmikova/Peacock
Rossum as Angelyne. “I found it to be completely liberating to look in the mirror and not see myself at all,” she says. - Credit: Isabella Vosmikova/Peacock

Isabella Vosmikova/Peacock

***

I ask Rossum, as others have, if she sees Angelyne’s schtick as an act. Is she still the billboard queen when she returns home at night, or does she shed the role like most actresses do after a day on set? “She is living, breathing performance art,” Rossum concludes. “She has turned her life into art — that’s who she is.”

When Rossum returns home at night, it’s to her husband, their nearly 1-year-old daughter, a cat named after her Shameless character and a rescue dog, Pepper. “All girls,” she says with pride. “Sam is the only man in the house.” And it seems easy for her to turn work off. Esmail and Rossum play Wordle together. They fuss over their daughter. They hang out with their group of close friends, which includes Mr. Robot star Rami Malek. They revel in their return to Manhattan, walking through Central Park and finding new places to eat breakfast. Rossum recently started filming the Apple TV+ series The Crowded Room, an exploration of mental illness, in which she plays — to the internet’s great confusion — 25-year-old Tom Holland’s mother. (“I understand the response, but when people see the way in which the role functions — I’m aging backwards and forwards — it’ll make sense.”) She’s mulling a new musical endeavor and, perhaps most notably, is developing projects for her production shingle, Composition 8 Films, including an adaptation of Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women.

“I think that this business asks a lot of people, and I think it asks a lot of women,” says Rossum, who’s trying to use her company to shift female compensation — she offers full fertility coverage to her employees, not an industry norm — and on-camera representation. “I have all these little seeds and dreams and ideas — for me, sure, but I’m especially interested in expanding the platform for older actresses.”

Angelyne may spark the second or even third act of Rossum’s career, but she is still young and quick to emphasize that she’s not just here for the passion projects that take years to get off the ground. She’s more than happy to come in and read for a part.

“I’m a glutton for punishment because auditioning is something I love,” she says. “I like the exploration. I think the act of acting is the work — whether or not I get the job or if people see it or not.”

And that open mind even extends to the woman who has consumed her thoughts for so long now. “I have absolutely no idea if Angelyne will watch,” says Rossum, whose last correspondence with her muse took place earlier in production. “I would like her to know that it’s a love letter to her, to the way she helped pave the way for what pop culture has become. But she’s going to do what she wants. She’s a rebel.”

This story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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