Emmy Rossum on transforming into Los Angeles' mysterious Angelyne

·8 min read

Emmy Rossum is unrecognizable in Peacock’s five-part limited series Angelyne, the star and executive producer’s four-years-in-the-making passion project. She transforms everything, from her voice to her appearance, to play the titular real-life character, who rose to popularity after several enigmatic billboards of her popped up in L.A. in the ’80s. Her real identity was largely a mystery until The Hollywood Reporter published an exposé on her in 2017.

Rossum, best known for her role as Fiona Gallagher in Showtime’s Shameless, passionately pursued this new venture, even pitching Angelyne to network executives fully decked out as her character. Her commitment pays off as the miniseries charts exciting, surreal territories in its exploration of Angelyne’s life, including how she was able to pay for that constant self promotion, what she’s been up to all these years, and how she got to L.A. in the first place.

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The A.V. Club spoke to Rossum about what it took to portray Angelyne over several decades, the lengthy prosthetics process to get into her shoes, and how she feels now that the show is finally out in the world.

[Editor’s note: The last question and answer in this interview contain spoilers about Angelyne.]


The A.V. Club: You’ve been working on making Angelyne for so long now. What was it like when you saw yourself fully transformed and in character for the first time?

Emmy Rossum: It really was a long time coming. I was so thrilled when Kate Biscoe, our makeup department head, and Vincent Van Dyke, our prosthetics designer, agreed to work on the project. I really needed someone to make a Sistine Chapel on me because Angelyne is unlike any other. Playing her over so many decades and aging in both directions is very challenging, and to do it realistically but with kindness, grace, glamor, and accuracy. It was important for me to handle it tenderly. The first time with all the makeup and prosthetics, it took 11 and a half hours. We got it down to seven for the contemporary day look.

When they spun me around to look into the mirror after it all, nothing of me was there. The nails, earlobe, neck, chest, waist, nose, the upper eyelids, the entire face, none of it was mine. I was wearing two pairs of contacts in each eye. When I started speaking in Angelyne’s voice, I didn’t even know where I was anymore. I remember shaking because I was scared not to see or hear myself at all. And then I just felt an immense wave of possibility; I could do anything within this and stretch my boundaries. I had so much gratitude that this incredible team made it happen.

AVC: How challenging was it to act with all the prosthetics without letting them take over, to still deliver a memorable performance?

ER: I thought that if they’re done well, it would only enhance what I was doing. Everyone worked hand-in-hand and tirelessly to perfect their responsibility. I remember Kate told me she would dream every single night about Angelyne’s eyeliner; she would dream of doing it and perfecting it. And then she was nervous about it each morning. She had a magical pink wand that she would bless the hair, makeup, and prosthetics with. [The look] is all part of telling the story. These are real artists. For me, my responsibility was to do my 10,000 hours to perfect Angelyne’s voice and try to bring humanity to every moment, while also wildly coloring outside the lines depending on who is in control of the narrative in the scene.

I get to play many versions of Angelyne, not just over the course of a 50-year period but also depending on who’s telling the story. As an actor, every time you play a role, you slightly alter your voice and cadence, and then you get into hair, makeup, and wardrobe. This was a much, much, much larger version of that. Going into this after preparing for years without a concept of what the day-to-day would look like, it was a longer and more involved process. Even when we were interviewing Kate to do the job, she asked me if I was aware of what the process would be for me and how many hours it would take. I just said, “No, but we’re going to have a lot of fun and make something really cool.”

AVC: You said you spent hours trying to nail Angelyne’s voice and mannerisms, so when did you realize you had it?

ER: I think when I started to hear and see it happening without me trying to make it happen. It tends to bleed into your life when you’ve done it more than you haven’t on a given day. I was flipping it on for dinner, or I was catching something I’ve never done before. And then it’s happening because you’re just living in it.

AVC: Angelyne has a really surreal vibe to it, like the scene with you and Martin Freeman flying over Los Angeles in the pink Corvette as Angelyne’s billboards keep popping up below. Why was this element important to tell her story? 

ER: Angelyne is such an unconventional figure. [People have] tried to define, explain, and pin [her] down throughout the years as one thing or another. Ultimately, Angelyne’s version of things is pure fantasy. Her insistence on preserving the mystery and enigma and not giving it all away is kind of her driving the car, preserving that fantasy for us, so she can be whatever we need her to be. In a way, it’s like how Oz exists and is that kind of magical, fantastical place, and then you find out the wizard is behind it all. She preserves the art that is Angelyne for us. Using these different styles as we constructed our footage, with moments of surreal magic and childlike playfulness, really felt to us like it would capture the spirit of the extremes that is Angelyne.

Emmy Rossum, Philip Ettinger, and Antijuan Tobias in Angelyne
Emmy Rossum, Philip Ettinger, and Antijuan Tobias in Angelyne

AVC: Despite the timeline jumping, each of the five episodes tells a distinct story about Angelyne’s relationship with a particular person, whether it’s her boyfriend Cory [Philip Ettinger], fan-club leader Rick [Hamish Linklater], or filmmaker Max [Lukas Gage], and so on. What was appealing about this storytelling structure?  

ER: What I find most interesting about Angelyne is how so many people have tried to co-opt her narrative, but ultimately she’s the only one who can do it best. The idea of telling her story is in itself completely imperfect. It’s almost as much about the failure of the biopic Max or anyone else tried to make. We’re much more interested in the power struggle to control the image and the narrative of Angelyne the icon. There have been many failed documentaries about her actually. The reason I think she gave us her blessing to do this is we were interested in returning that mystique to her and using her own words. In the show, we are fantastical, and she’s making a documentary about herself, and we’re trying to say she’s the only person who can do it.

AVC: Since this has been your passion project for years, how do you feel now that it’s all done and out in the world?

ER: I’m excited, happy, relieved, and sad to let her go. I’m excited because realistically when you share something with people, it no longer belongs just to you. We got to have our version of Angelyne all to ourselves for so long and we’re sharing it with people. It’s wonderful to be able to do that on a big scale. I hope it will elevate the work of the many artists who worked on it, from our incredible production designers to costume designers to the directors. There are so many people who worked on this that are simply A-plus. I also hope we have told a story about identity, reinvention, and control over your life that is empowering and universally emotional.

[Editor’s note: The following exchange contains spoilers about the final episode of Angelyne.] AVC: What was the idea behind breaking the fourth wall at the very end, when you go back to just being Emmy Rossum and wait for an unseen Angelyne’s approval on the last shot?

ER: We end with that quote of Angelyne. Although she’s blessed our project, we added that sound bite of her saying something like, “If anybody would ever play me in a movie, it could only be me.” It’s true. I feel like only Angelyne can ever be Angelyne. In the end, I look up and say, “What more do you want?” And then all of the images with me go black and are replaced with images of her. That’s us turning the power over to her and saying, “Only you can be you. This is just our love letter and tribute to you. We hope you are now on the rocket ship to huge influential stardom.”