While critics and audiences are beginning to take notice of 18-year old Emmy Rossum, star of the eagerly awaited screen adaptation of Phantom of the Opera, the beautiful young actress blushes and turns away with apparent embarrassment when suggested that imminent fame is a very real possibility in the life of Hollywood’s latest breakout star. “I don’t like questions like that because I try not to think about those things too much. Joel [Schumacher] says that if you read what’s written about you – which sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t — and you believe all the good things, then you should believe the bad things, too,” says the actress and former operatic ingénue.
“Listen, I try to keep myself as sane and as grounded as possible by surrounding myself with normal people, such as all the friends that I’ve had from when I was little. Nobody in my family is in the business, I still do my laundry, make my bed and I bring my laundry across the street to the Laundromat. It’s funny, because fame is nothing I’ve ever strived for, as I was always just happy to get the job, and a good one at that and I was always just so happy to be working with good people. To get to work with Miranda Richardson was great because I just got to watch her. Even though she doesn’t have a lot of dialogue and the character is not overly emotional, she can express so much just from her face, which I think is extraordinary. I’m 18, so working with actors that are like that when I’m so young is important to me,” Rossum explains, referring of course to her experience working on Phantom.
Sticking more to the original material, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 15-year old dream to bring his commercial stage hit to the screen, has meant youthening the characters, something impossible to sustain in the theatre. With Rossum’s opera training, combined with her acting ability, meant the young actress was the perfect Christine, for this sumptuous screen rendition of the classic tale. But she was never a shoe in, or on anyone’s initial radar, the actress recalls when describing her audition process. “I certainly wasn’t offered the part. Joel had been casting for six months, which was the six months I’d been working on The Day After Tomorrow in Montreal, so I came in really at the very tail end of the casting process and in fact, I was the last person he ever saw.”
Rossum, who made her operatic debut at New York’s renowned Metropolitan Opera at age 7, admits to have never seen any of the stage productions of Phantom prior to reading the screenplay. “So he sent me the script, and I kind of got a feel for a take on the character. Because there wasn’t a lot of verbal dialogue in the script, while I was talking to him about what she goes through, I had to express the things that she feels as I was talking about what she was feeling, so it was kind of a strange audition process. Then they sent back footage to Andrew Lloyd Webber, who called and said I had not been eliminated. I was like, ‘Oh my God. It’s a miracle. I have not been eliminated.’ I was 16 and I never thought there was a chance that I’d get the part.”
But Rossum indeed won the role over both unknowns and established stars, and set about making Christine her own, a challenge given the character’s history with the public. “I was aware of the fact that she’s a character that’s so identifiable, especially in so many of the Phantom fans’ minds, who feel such closeness to her. But having never seen the show and electing to never see the show before going into it, it meant that it would come from my heart and soul. I went about creating the character as I would have any other, from scratch, from the script, the dialogue, from finding experiences in my life that are similar to ones that she goes through and if I can’t find one, then I’d go out and have an experience that’s similar.” Determined to create a believable 19th century Parisian Christine, Rossum went to Paris. “I spent some time at the Opera Garnier to kind of get the feeling of what it was like living there. I stood on the roof at the very apex, where she stands during ‘All I Ask of You,’ and I felt the wind. It was at night, during sunset and I kept getting visceral sense memories, and making them a part of me that made my job a lot easier,” Rossum recalls.
Cynics might argue that 18 to 25-year-olds make up the movie audience and that this isn’t a film aimed at that audience. Rossum, who in part is that principal demographic, disagrees. “I don’t have to say anything about this movie, because I really think it stands on its own. I remember when I saw it for the first time, after putting a year of my life into it, and it was really exciting to me. Also, our generation is MTV-fed. We’ve grown up watching MTV and seeing somebody sing at the same time as watching a visual and an interpretation of a song is not something that’s foreign to us, so it’s something we accept. And this isn’t classical music by any means. I know, because I was brought up on classical music.”
But unlike recent musicals, one can argue that this Phantom remains a musical in the classical sense. “I think it’s a hybrid of pop and classical and pretty accessible. I think people my age will like it, because it’s visually sumptuous,” Rossum counters. “I think it’s sexy, scary, really heroic and at the heart of it, it’s about love. Also, for girls my age, especially, but for all people, we go through trying to define what love is, who’s Mr. or Mrs. Right, how do we know when we’ve found them? So I think that a lot of the struggles Christine goes through in the movie are things that kids my age can really relate to. The main themes of the movie are so universal: love, compassion, hatred, jealously, fear, terror. I think that those are things that are important.”
Unlike Christine, who is being mentored by the Phantom, there have been no mentors in Rossum’s own life, just women whom she admires. “I wish I could say that I have a mentor, but I don’t. I’m somewhat friends with Marcia Gay Harden, who I think is one of the most talented actresses around right now and I wish that our relationship develops in the way that I hope it does. I think she’s good in every movie she does, does very different things, but I also think that she’s maintained a very normal home life, which is something that’s really important to me.” Rossum is also slowly completing her university studies, which included a course in art history “which was something I elected to take after Phantom because I’d studied a lot of Degas paintings, of the ballerinas, because Christine was a ballerina at that time. I’m also taking French and I’m going to take English and philosophy, but I’m taking some time off.”
Currently, Rossum is actively looking for new film opportunities and has something in the pipeline. “I’m looking at a movie right now that’s much smaller. If feel like I’ve come off a lot of big Hollywood blockbusters and this is about drug addiction. But I don’t want to talk too much about that because I’m superstitious and I think I’ll jinx it.” And the actress hopes to juggle her acting with her continuing love of opera. “I hope I can mix both. I can’t go back to the opera until I’m 25 because the voice doesn’t develop fully until that point, which is why I left when I was 12, but film is really what I love, because I love the intimacy of the medium.”