Showtime’s “Shameless,” based on Paul Abbott’s British drama, centers on the Gallagher family in Chicago, whose father’s alcoholism puts a wrench in the children’s lives. On the outside looking in is impulsive criminal Steve, played by Justin Chatwin, a guy who finds himself entranced by the eldest child Fiona (“Dragonball” co-star Emmy Rossum).
“Shameless” marks Chatwin’s first television series as a regular, and after being “unsatisfied” with some of his past roles, he began seeking out niche fare like “Weeds,” a part he said went “through his fingers.” (He played Doug’s son in one episode.) But Chatwin wasn’t aware of the U.K. series while auditioning for the part and revealed that he was “indimidated” with the idea of watching James McAvoy’s, with whom he shares an agent, imagining of Steve. Instead, it was his genuine fascination with thieves, like Roddy Dean Pippin and the “Barefoot Bandit,” that served as appropriate guides. “I’m sure that’s where my character’s going to essentially go. He’ll be on the run from the cops,” he said.
Chatwin spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on a day off from filming where we touched on several topics, including Steve’s journey, his relationship with Fiona, filming nude scenes and what’s coming up next. (Note: There are some spoilers.)
THR: Steve has one of the best introductions. It’s embarrassing and he’s trying to impress a girl. Is it indicative of this guy’s personality: fun, easygoing and will do everything he can to get what he wants?
Justin Chatwin: Yeah, everyone on the show is definitely running from something and has some sort of fucked up childhood pain. Steve’s addiction is living like this hunter — “carpe diem,” “seize the day” — and living impulsively without thinking about the consequences. It ends up getting him in trouble every single episode, and also is one of the more romantic, noble things about him. His intentions are good and sometimes the outcome isn’t so.
THR: He’s trying so hard to woo Fiona. Is she representative of what he can’t get?
Chatwin: Fiona is a pretty messed-up character and I think it says something about him. We’re essentially attracted to someone that’s like ourselves or something that we’re missing. Steve’s someone who you find out comes from a wealthy family, more educated and elite, that is a complete opposite from the Gallaghers, and he comes from a family that might deal with conflict by crying and not talking about it. It’s beautiful how raw and honest the Gallaghers are. Steve loves the mess because he’s used to order and a structured life and having everything together and everything being pretty.
THR: In the first episode, Steve had a line about how Fiona made him want to “enjoy his life again.”
Chatwin: Everyone on this show lives a pretty shameless lifestyle and Steve’s gone into a life of crime that gives him thrills; that’s his drug of choice. Seeing her has inspired him to start living his life again and get his life on track. He’s lived this lone wolf lifestyle that seeing her raising this family, that makes him go, “That is meaning for me, that is purpose.” He has all these things that give him fulfillment I think that’s running out and feels soulless to him.
THR: At first glance, Fiona’s not necessarily the type of person anyone would want to be with.
Chatwin: There is an ounce of masochism. She’s a very violent girl and Steve’s very passive, but he’s also entranced by the violence and the passion. Their relationship is like Bonnie and Clyde. It’s wild, it’s youthful, it’s impulsive, but essentially, for it to last, he has to learn the workings of this girl, who is a wild cat.
THR: What brought you on to this project?
Chatwin: I didn’t go to acting school. I read a lot of books and fumbled my way through the industry, working on different opportunities but I never really did a TV show. I felt like I skipped a step and I think it’s a great platform for trying things out and learning and growing and creating a family. When I got the script, it gave me a rush when I read it. I’ve never been more excited to try to get a part, so I pursued it. Everyone who got their parts in this show really had to fight for it.
THR: Did you receive any background info that was helpful?
Chatwin: My character was based off a guy named Brandon, who was completely in love with his sister, and his sister would have sex with club promoters and bouncers and drug dealers and anyone she could. And no matter what, he still kept coming back.
THR: Steve is fascinating because he reveals just enough to keep us intrigued. Will we learn more about him?
Chatwin: I hope so. I hope that I learn more about him in upcoming episodes. I’m being honest with you. [Laughs] They share them with you episode by episode. I make choices for myself but every time I get an episode, the scripts will go around the set to hair and makeup and all the actors go in and steal the scripts and read them as fast as they can because we all want to know what happens next or we want to know more information on our characters. There are some really pivotal flip-you-on-your-face moments with my character that have blown my mind. I’ve gone, “What?! You can’t tell me this right now!”
THR: Will we be meeting his parents?
Chatwin: Yeah, you do this season. It gets messy, It gets really messy. It’s literally the opposite of the Gallaghers. That has their crutches too, but they just deal with things in a different way.
THR: Will it make viewers hate him or love him more?
Chatwin: There is a good balance of Steve as a hero and Steve as an asshole. It’s the same with Fiona: It’s Fiona as this noble, beautiful caretaker and Fiona as a bitch. Painting the characters as having positive traits and negative traits is what this show is about.
THR: In the second episode, Steve kidnaps Frank (William H. Macy). It puts him in hot water with Fiona. Was that the first moment he realized things aren’t black and white with the Gallaghers?
Chatwin: Oh yeah. [Laughs] I don’t think Steve comes from a family. I don’t think Steve has huge abandonment issues. That’s the first time he realizes he can’t fully bounce off his impulses. He does the same thing as hitting the bouncer in the head [in the pilot]. He kidnaps Frank and does something out of trying to do the family a favor, but what he doesn’t realize is the biggest wound in the family was when the mom abandoned them, and he is now responsible for the father abandoning them. He sees the degree to which he’s affected this family and starts to think about himself and how he can be a part of this family without stepping on toes or disempowering Fiona or any of the other family members. It’s a learning process and there’s a lot of tripping and falling for my character.
THR: There’s a lot of nudity on the show. Was that nerve-wracking?
Chatwin: A lot. I really wanted to push my own boundaries. I never felt comfortable doing nudity and a lot of times, an actor takes on a part or role because it scares them and this definitely scared me when I read it. That first scene in the kitchen in the pilot, [Emmy and I] were both pretty terrified.
THR: Does it make it worse in situations like this that you and Emmy worked together before?
Chatwin: It was pretty weird. I don’t recall we were that sober doing that scene because we were pretty nervous, but later found out it’s a lot easier to do nudity scenes sober. It was like jumping off a cliff at first. First time you jump off, it’s terrifying, and then once you know that nothing’s going to hurt when you jump, it’s fine. It’s the closest I’ll come to doing soft-core pornography.
THR: Do you have a favorite scene of an episode that you’ve seen thus far?
Chatwin: All the stuff with Aunt Ginger was really, really funny. I just know that our writers are beautifully damaged people. It really is offensive, a lot of the stuff, and it takes me a lot to say, “That’s really wrong,” but having a 90-year-old snorting cocaine off a plate, keeling over and dying … You could look at the show and go, “This is wrong. This shouldn’t be shown. It’s setting a bad example,” but it’s not because it’s going to make you think and it’ll make people talk.
THR: What can we expect as the season progresses?
Chatwin: I could tell you that eventually [the Gallaghers’] mom comes back and that really flips everyone on their ass, and there are more kidnappings. Kidnappings are a big part of our show, apparently. There’s gay sex, straight sex, racism. My biggest question is, if they go to a Season 2, where do they have to go next season? It’s pretty out there. I don’t see how you can top it.