Thursday, June 23, 2005

Elle January 05 - Emmy Rossum

18-year-old Emmy Rossum (Phantom of the Opera) is still in the newly-minted category when is comes to celebrity, but that didn't stop her from looking every inch the star upon arrival at her first big cover shoot for ELLE in New York City. Dressed in a long black coat and jeans, with hair swept back in a sleek ponytail and the obligatory sunglasses in place, Rossum was definitely ready for her close-up. However, no young lady, however professional, can truly escape the power of princess chic: The on-the-verge actress was sweetly enchanted by the fairy-tale frocks hand-picked for her by the ELLE team and age-appropriately awed by the array of delicate, feminine jewelry. We're betting she'll have to get used to it.

One might guess that 18-year-old Emmy Rossum, the classically trained singer who stars in the new Phantom Of The Opera movie, is soft and demure. One would be wrong, who can tell you she's ready for her close-up and then some.

Just keep telling yourself she's only 18...

That's my advice should you ever bump into Emmy Rossum, the smashingly beautiful young actress and vocal powerhouse who stars as Christine, the tormented soprano, in the new film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Gothic romance cum musical extravaganza The Phantom of the Opera, which will invade the national consciousness on December 22. (The film costars Gerard Butler, Patrick Wilson, Minnie Driver, one very durable smoke machine, and enough candelabras to light Cher's boudoir several times over.)

Emmy. It sounds cute, doesn't it? Childlike, tender, endearing. But the second she sweeps into La Houppa, a cozy Italian restaurant on New York's Upper East Side—not far from the apartment she shares with her mom—flashing a toothy, million-dollar grin and swinging one stilettoed foot boldly in front of the other, it's clear that the name doesn't suit her at all. Emmy Rossum, you see, is formidable. Intimidating. Scary, even. She seems to have emerged from the womb (or perhaps the head of Zeus?) fully formed, a megastar in search of a movie, a fan base, a chat-show love seat. Think Sharon Stone with a shiny new voter registration card and heaps more talent. “She's very wise and honest and clean-looking and bubbly,” notes Ralph Lauren, who has been dressing Rossum for premieres and other events, “but she's also a true professional who's very serious about what she does. I believe she's going to be a big star.”

Rossum sits down, her naturally curly hair blown out into a vivacious Bardot pouf, her slender shoulders blossoming from a chic navy cashmere top (Ralph, as it happens), big diamonds glimmering from each ear and another on a chain around her neck. I apologize for not being able to get a last-minute reservation at the other restaurant she suggested, the Grill Room at the Four Seasons—where Henry Kissinger and Barbara Walters are among the power-lunch regulars—and she shrugs. “Oh, don't be silly!” she says in a somewhat mousy voice that sounds almost nothing like the ringing soprano she deploys in Phantom. “It's really very amusing, this millionaire and that millionaire, this movie star and that model.… But you know, that's not my scene at all.”

Chalk up Rossum's sophistication to her Manhattan upbringing. An only child whose father, a banker, and mother, a corporate photographer, divorced when she was young, she attended Spence, the tony all-girls prep school (Gwyneth's alma mater). She was, she insists, “the least posh girl there. I was totally, totally unpopular.” Rossum now thinks her failure to fit in was for the best. “The truth is, I probably didn't want to be friends with some of those girls because I found that a lot of their values were a little specious,” she says, noting that having the right Gucci bag has never been her priority. “Now of course all those girls are calling me and being like, 'We should have lunch!' And I'm like, Um…don't you remember how you didn't like me that much?”

Besides, Rossum was way too busy to socialize. When she was seven, her music teacher was wowed by her “perfect intonation,” she says, and suggested she try out for the children's chorus at the Metropolitan Opera. She made the cut and before long her Irish nanny was shuttling her across town to Lincoln Center, where she was “onstage almost every night, with Plácido Domingo on one side and a donkey on the other, in some crazy Zeffirelli production. I remember whenever Plácido would see me he would pinch my cheeks and go, 'Bella! Bella!' And that was really, really sweet.” She adds, “I think the training that was instilled in me there has been totally invaluable in terms of the discipline that I learned.” Rossum's professionalism is also quite apparent during our interview. She stays on message like a seasoned pundit, repeating that line about discipline several times, along with a few other key talking points: “When I do something, I do it 150 percent”; “I'm a really rational person”; “I come from a very moral, ethical household”; and “I don't believe in faking it.”

At age 11 she left Spence to concentrate on opera, choosing to study with tutors and attend classes online. She got her high school diploma at 15, thank you very much, and made friends virtually, though she has yet to meet them in the flesh. Even so, by 12 she had left opera for a career in movies. “She wanted solos, but they were only given to boys,” explains the Metropolitan's children's chorus director, Elena Doria, who still coaches Rossum privately. “She wanted more and more. Can you blame her? She's the best innate talent I've ever met.”

“It's an old opera tradition,” Rossum says of the boy bias. “But they let us try out for understudies, which I got—every single one.” Unfortunately, unlike Christine in Phantom, who becomes a star when the prima donna, Carlotta (Driver), refuses to perform, Rossum never got her solo—that is until she switched to film, getting cast as a sparkling, gap-toothed Appalachian orphan in the 2000 Sundance hit Songcatcher.

“That character was really the essence of the mountains,” says director Maggie Greenwald. “I had scouts looking throughout the South, and in walks Emmy, who grew up on the Upper East Side. But she had this incredible feeling for the music that just transcended everything.” Rossum appeared in several TV movies (including 2000's The Audrey Hepburn Story, in which she played the star as a child) and little-seen indies before turning heads again as the murdered teen in 2003's Mystic River (a film in which she held her own among such costars as Sean Penn and Tim Robbins, despite just a few minutes of screen time) and as the bright-eyed brainiac in last summer's disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow.

But Phantom, which was directed by Joel Schumacher, is the first major studio picture she's carried. “I was assuming a lot of responsibility that I didn't have before—to go to the set every day and feel like you're holding the whole production on your shoulders,” she says. While false modesty would seem to be an aspect of celebrity Rossum has yet to master, it's undeniable that her performance, and in particular that astonishing, classically trained instrument of hers, is the film's emotional center, without which the campy elements that were so much fun onstage might have come off as hokey or ridiculous on-screen—like a really long karaoke video with a lavish budget.

“She has to carry the plot, the love affair, everything,” says Schumacher. “I had agents for every young actress telling me their clients could sing, and I'd say, 'Like Sarah Brightman?'—Webber's ex-wife, who was the original Christine—“and they'd say yes, and then the girls couldn't and it was really embarrassing. Then along comes Emmy, who's been training at the Met from age seven and has an exquisite voice that's as beautiful as her face and figure. It was like I'd ordered her from a catalog.”

Raves Webber, “She is a wonderfully pure soprano, with an exceptional range. But more than this she also brings real character into the voice—so rare for her age.”

The film, which is largely faithful to the stage production, tells the story of a young chorus girl who becomes a star overnight while trying to choose between rival suitors: the suave aristocrat, Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, and the disfigured “opera ghost,” who has squatted in the depths of the theater for years, terrorizing the company while acting as Christine's otherworldly vocal coach. “The Phantom's also a singer,” Rossum points out, “and come on, every girl loves the singers—we love the rock stars. But he's also very destructive. Whereas Raoul is Prince Charming—he's supportive and handsome and dashing and affluent and he loves her.” (Rossum won't say whether she has a boyfriend of her own, although it's been reported that she's dating David Wildenstein, the nephew of socialite Jocelyne Wildenstein.)

To prepare for the role of Christine, Rossum—who thinks she might be the only person in the world who hasn't seen the stage show (so as not to influence her performance)—studied up on great artist-muse relationships (especially the one between George Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell), “tapped into a lot of personal sadnesses,” and visited the Opéra Garnier in Paris to soak up “sense memories” for later use on the soundstage in London. To get in touch with her own phantoms, Rossum attended a séance at the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain, where a medium talked to her about her late grandmother. “She knew too much,” Rossum says, “all about how she died, how she looked, what her hopes for me were. It really upset me.
“I'm a very rational person,” Rossum adds as a double order of beet salad is set before her. But since the séance, “I pray every day.”

One slight departure from the stage production is the film's amped-up sexuality. “Oh, it's dark,” Rossum says of the erotic subtext of Christine's relationship with the Phantom. “He preys on her need for a father figure. There are a lot of funny undercurrents going on there.”

Butler, the Scottish actor who plays the Phantom, agrees wholeheartedly. “If you actually listen to the lyrics, Jesus, it's all about fucking, isn't it?” he observes. “I mean, 'The time has come'—you know, let's get it on. I think there's always been sexuality in there. Hopefully we took it to another level. How could you not, with Joel Schumacher directing?” Rossum, who loves to cook and has taken classes at Le Cordon Bleu in London, thinks of acting a little like making pasta. “I'm the dough, and what kind of pasta I turn out to be is just a matter of whether I feed myself through the lasagna, the ravioli, or the fettucini part,” she explains. “When I play a character, a certain osmosis thing happens. My heart and soul go into becoming the core of who this person is, and that can be really difficult emotionally.” Phantom posed a special challenge, she adds, because she and Christine are so different: “I'm a pretty happy, sociable person, and this is a girl who is tortured emotionally, very lonely. I'm very rational; she's very spiritual. I feel loved by the people around me, and she feels abandoned.”

To hear some who've worked with her tell it, Rossum—who, after all, grew up sharing stages with the world's top opera stars—actually has somewhat more in common with Phantom's imperious diva, Carlotta. Tales of her high-handedness with hair and makeup artists (and occasionally directors) have been circulating in Hollywood for some time, and even Doria, her vocal coach, notes that she sometimes has to say, “Hey, cool it,” when Emmy takes issue with how a line should be phrased. Meanwhile, Rossum has quickly blown through a sizable chunk of the industry's top publicists in her quest to “surround [herself] with the right people,” as she puts it. “Sometimes you try on a few shoes before you find a pair that fits, but I'm pretty happy with the shoes I have now,” she explains, employing what some former colleagues will consider a pretty telling metaphor.

“Would you say you're tough?” I ask her.

“No, I think I'm sassy,” she replies. “But my parents taught me to be a very kind person, to be compassionate. That's something that I have in common with Christine, something I could tap into. At Spence, one of my friends was a girl who was handicapped. And I have a friend who had a craniofacial deformity [like the Phantom]. That's not something that frightens me. So I'm sassy,” Rossum adds, “but I'm kind.”

Even so, she acknowledges a willingness to stick up for herself when she thinks the situation demands it. On photo shoots, for example, “sometimes I don't want to wear a certain dress, say, because I don't think it reflects who I am, so I'll choose another dress or eyeliner or whatever,” she explains. “And sometimes there are safety issues. Like in Songcatcher they wanted me to get in this donkey cart going along this cliff at, like, a 90-degree angle, and it just wasn't safe so I just said no way. It's things like that.”

“We certainly wouldn't have endangered anybody,” director Greenwald says, adding that she and her 13-year-old star also battled over the character's hairstyle. “Emmy has the most spectacularly curly hair I've ever seen, but she wanted to have it straightened for the role,” Greenwald recalls. “And you know, Emmy's argument was actually correct—she researched it and found out that girls in that region didn't have curly hair. And I said, 'It may not be accurate, but this is a movie.' This was her first film, and she was incredibly assertive for someone that inexperienced. But if you have a lot of talent like Emmy does, you can get away with that—up to a point.”

“She has a very keen sense of her own worth, and that might not be a quality that's universally admired,” points out Alan Hruska, who directed Rossum when she was 16 in the 2003 indie Nola. “But she really came through for me.” For her part, Rossum describes Nola as “a really small movie that I did a really long time ago that I don't really want to talk about.”

Wilson, who plays Raoul in Phantom, says he's heard “all the stories” about his costar but thinks they're beside the point. “At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how many publicists or agents or hair and makeup people say this or that. When you walk onto a set and you're not only the leading lady but the youngest person there, I would imagine you go one of two ways: You either crawl into a corner and go, 'Can I come out now?' Or you go, 'Here I am.' And Emmy does the latter. That's who she is. But her strength to me was eye to eye—listening to each other and working together—and she does that. Something just happens when the camera starts rolling, and those scenes that we shot together, that's where the joy was for me.”

“She's very formidable about her feelings and her thoughts, which I think is great,” Schumacher says. “I think Emmy should give lessons in how to be a young professional. She was the most prepared, the most tireless, never late. She would do a thousand takes if you'd let her. But she is a teenager, and people with teenagers at home know that they become someone you'd like to murder from time to time. But that's how we learn.”

At the moment, Rossum is still mulling over her next film project, and she's contemplating recording an album, “something of a contemporary pop genre but with a sound and spirit that would be very much my own.” When asked if she's aware that she's already become somewhat of a legend in Hollywood, Rossum presses her teeth together in a big, knowing grin, like a museumgoer who just realized the bench she's plopped down on is actually some ancient altarpiece. She quickly recovers, returning to her script with such tenacity that it's clear no amount of sniping will deter her from her goals. “Every set I've ever gone on, I've given 150 percent,” Rossum says. “I've prepared and I've gone in and I've loved every moment of it. And I always hope that everyone around me has the same agenda, to make something that is really going to make people happy.”

And do they? I ask her. “Sometimes!” she says brightly.