'Phantom' employee earns all of her pay

Times Staff Writer

At 12, Emmy Rossum was a student at Manhattan's toney, all-girl Spence School when educators upset with her frequent absences delivered an ultimatum: Spend less time at the Metropolitan Opera, where she had been singing in the children's chorus for five years, or sever her ties with their institution.

She chose the latter.

While she missed out on the usual high school camaraderie, the trade-offs were considerable: By night she performed alongside such stars as Placido Domingo, Kiri Te Kanawa and Denyce Graves and by day took "virtual classes" sponsored online by Stanford University. At the Met, she also learned breath control, language dexterity and discipline -- handy skills when, shortly thereafter, she switched her focus to acting.

That path, like her previous one, has been an education in itself.

After a series of TV roles, the 13-year-old Rossum played a tooth-deprived Appalachian orphan in Maggie Greenwald's "Songcatcher" -- a performance the Independent Spirit Awards honored as the "best debut" of 2000. Two years later, she picked up pointers from a Who's Who of Hollywood talent, playing Sean Penn's murdered daughter in Clint Eastwood's critically acclaimed "Mystic River." Last summer, Rossum co-starred as a brainiac love interest in the global-warming disaster film "The Day After Tomorrow."

Nothing prepared her, however, for assuming the lead roles -- with two other unknowns -- in Joel Schumacher's $70-million film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera." Though the picture has elicited mixed reviews, Rossum has come out a winner.

The National Board of Review called her portrayal of Christine, a young soprano at the Paris Opera who falls under the Phantom's spell, the best breakthrough performance by an actress this year. The Broadcast Film Critics Assn also gave her a critics' choice award. And, next month, the 18-year-old will be competing for best actress, musical or comedy, at the Golden Globe ceremony.

Reached at the tiny New York apartment she shares with her mom and teacup Maltese, Chrissy, Rossum basks in the afterglow. Three bouquets arrive during one 90-minute stretch ("The place is starting to look like a funeral parlor").

And her Spence classmates have been calling.

It seems to have slipped their minds, Rossum observes dryly, that -- lacking designer clothes and upper-crust credentials -- she'd never been embraced by them. Now it's all about having lunch ... six years too late.

Schumacher, a Hollywood veteran ("The Client"), knows the syndrome well. Success is a "bucking bronco," he said, and the bumps are inevitable.

"Child performers have additional pressures," the director said. "Either they go crazy and become drug-crazed slackers, or they incorporate the training into their DNA. Emmy has an incredible work ethic. She was a young girl of 16 at the beginning of the shoot and a formidable woman at the end."

Even before she plunged into "Phantom," however, Rossum was a force. Greenwald remarked that she was "very assertive for someone so young." And Alan Hruska, who directed her in the 2003 romantic comedy "Nola," commented on the youngster's "keen sense of her own worth."

The daughter of a photographer mother and banker father who divorced when she was 3, Rossum is certainly no shrinking violet.

Self-possessed and intelligent, she admits to being "sassy" and headstrong -- and makes no apologies for that. On "Phantom," she says, Schumacher gave her creative freedom, and she was determined to make the most of the role.

"I'm heavy on preparation," she said, speaking at breakneck speed. "Some actors come to the set and don't know what scene they're playing, but that would make me crazy. It's not about control but perfectionism -- my biggest vice and one of my biggest assets. I have strong feelings about the emotions of the character and am not shy about expressing them. I go along with directors after I agree with them. While they have the last word, they're not paying me to read lines."

Based on the 1911 novel by Gaston Leroux, "Phantom" tells of a budding star caught between two powerful men: the dashing theater patron Raoul (Patrick Wilson) and the Phantom (Gerard Butler), her disfigured but charismatic mentor. Lloyd Webber's stage version premiered in London in 1986 and has since taken in more than $3.2 billion worldwide -- the top-grossing stage production of all time.

For the movie version, Schumacher was determined to have someone who could not only sing but act, since music is the dialogue of the film. And looks, always crucial in Hollywood, were even more so in a "Beauty and the Beast" tale.

After auditioning 200 actresses over a six-month stretch, however, the director came up empty-handed.

Then he learned about Rossum, giving her a call in May 2003, right after "The Day After Tomorrow" wrapped. Two days later she was back in New York singing "Think of Me" for her screen test.

Watching her in costume and full makeup, co-star Butler stood behind Schumacher at the monitor and whispered "hire her" in his ear. Rossum repeated the tune for Lloyd Webber in his New York apartment and, obviously, scored again. A few days later, her agent was on the phone, saying she'd gotten the part -- a moment equal to that, a few years back, when she got "Mystic River" and "The Day After Tomorrow" in the same 24-hour period.

The actress intentionally avoided seeing the stage production to avoid any preconceptions. Her goal: to ground the character in reality -- no matter that it was a musical. Rossum studied the older man-younger woman relationship between choreographer George Balanchine and ballerina Suzanne Farrell to get a grip on the student-mentor dynamic. She attended a seance to better understand Christine, still coming to terms with her father's death. Before the shoot, she studied ballet and started singing again after a five-year hiatus.

"Because the set is such an artificial environment -- hair, makeup, 'Action' -- I need to tap into my memory bank and find something to draw on," she said. "I always break myself down emotionally, enlarging certain parts of myself. All of a sudden, I'm more Christine than Emmy, a moth in larva coming out of the shell.

"This shoot was tough on my family because -- inhabiting Christine's terror and pain -- I was depressed, tormented, for six months. Wearing the tightest of corsets for 14 hours a day made things even tougher. I ate ice cream rather than solid food because it melted on the way down."

Rather than parlaying her newfound fame into high-profile assignments, Rossum is leaning toward two smaller projects. One deals with drug addiction and the other with a real-life 19-year-old athlete who's overcome prejudice and adversity. A new album, she suggests, would also be a nice change -- a chance to express herself rather than a character. Sarah McLachlan, Celine Dion and Evanescence are among her musical muses.

In the best of all worlds, Rossum confides, she'd like a career somewhere between those of Julia Roberts and character actor Brenda Blethyn ("Secrets & Lies"). The former, she explains, has charisma and "happy energy"; the latter, subtlety and diversity. However ambitious that may seem, Rossum denies that she is "driven."

She never set out to be a movie star, she maintains, and she values anonymity. An Oscar nomination or a Golden Globe win might turn up the heat. But they'd also be proof that she's on the right track, she said -- part of the fuel that keeps her going.

Keeping things real is an ongoing challenge. But living 3,000 miles from Hollywood helps. To become a "more complete" person, she's enrolled in art history courses at Columbia University and, between gigs, likes to go fishing and cook. (During the "Phantom" shoot, she took a "vegetarian dinner party" class at England's Cordon Bleu because it fit into her schedule -- no matter that she's a carnivore.) Clothes and shoes are still a passion, she said, but not what makes her happy. That role falls to a guy, with whom she's madly in love -- someone with no ties to show business.

"I have good friends around me ... and they drag me down if I start floating," she said.

The frustrating part of stardom, Schumacher observes, is that the ripples can't be controlled. At 20, Julia Roberts confided to him that she had never wanted to be that famous. Women, he notes, have a tougher time in the spotlight -- especially younger ones. Men can get away with more -- they're called "wild guys" or "cool."

"When you become rich and famous overnight, the people around you -- family, agents, the dreaded 'entourage' -- can lead to your demise," he said. "They need to realize that a performer has two jobs: 'talent' and 'human being.' Emmy is trying to find the balance."

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