Among a cast of characters that has included a sex addict, an agoraphobe, a meth-cooking granny, and a deranged wastoid father, the part of the bad-boy genius sounds rather quaint. But as Lip, the oldest son of the dysfunctional six-kid Gallagher clan on Showtime’s hit series Shameless, Jeremy Allen White exudes a subtle, brooding charm, delivering a scene-stealing portrayal of a gifted scammer who’ll do whatever it takes to support his siblings—from helping classmates cheat on the SATs for cash, to dealing pot from an ice cream truck. “In order to grow up a strong man, I think you really need to have a good childhood,” says the 22-year-old native New Yorker. “A lot of the reason why Lip might come off as angry at the world is because he feels like he never got the chance to be a kid.” Like Lip, White wasn’t a fan of high school, so he persuaded his principal to let him spend half his school days working at a casting agency, a move that helped set his career in motion. Now it’s on a roll: Alongside signing on for Shameless’ fourth season, later this year White will star as another conman of sorts, playing a thieving vagabond opposite Michael Pitt in You Can’t Win, a movie based on 1920s hobo hero Jack Black’s account of freight-hopping through Canada and the American West. White was also just cast in his first studio lead, in the forthcoming time travel odyssey, Glimmer. Here he is on getting into character, kissing Liev Schreiber, and why he’s sticking with the ass shot.
So first off, I was reading that you’re a Tammy Wynette fan. Explain.
I just started listening to her. I was doing a film in Texas, and I think an interesting way to get into a role is to find the right music. I hadn’t explored very much country, so I started listening to her and she was amazing. I begged the producers to get some of her songs in the movie, but she’s pretty expensive. When I was filming that, I also listened to a lot of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and a lot of soul. That’s what I’m into. I like the Delta Blues. I like Muddy Waters.
When did you first know you wanted to act?
It was something I was always intrigued by. It was something both my parents did. They met when they were in their 20s doing theater in New York. They don’t act anymore—they got pregnant with me and had to get jobs that could support a child. But it was something I knew they’d been very passionate about. I didn’t really get into it until I was 15 or 16. I had a really great drama teacher. He’d look on Backstage.com and send the kids he thought were really good out on these huge open cattle calls. I ended up booking my first play and my first film doing that.
You’ve said there’s quite a difference between Lip, your character on Shameless, and you. How do you get into character?
I did most of the prep during the pilot and the first season. I went to some AA meetings to hear some stories. When we went to Chicago to shoot, I really tried to get a feel for the south side of Chicago. I think the south side is just as important a character as any of the Gallaghers on the show. I thought it was important that Lip looked and felt comfortable in Chicago. Now that the other actors and I have been doing it for so long, we can memorize stuff really fast and show up ready to go. That gives us the opportunity to explore and play around, which I think is the best thing about acting.
Lip is always in trouble, and he’s always pissed. What is his problem ultimately?
In order to grow up a strong man, I think you really need to have a good childhood. A lot of the reason why Lip might come off as angry at the world is that he feels his childhood was robbed from him. He feels like he never got the chance to be a kid. He had to start taking care of his younger siblings at a very young age. He hadn’t seen his mom in a long time, and Frank [played by William H. Macy] is the man he is. So he has to learn how to take care of himself before he can take care of everyone else.
There’s also a lot of sex on Shameless—and a lot of naked dude ass.
The directors and writers have asked a lot of us—you know, “You’re going to have to show something. You can show your dick or you can show your ass.” The answer is usually ass. I will be sticking to the ass shot as long as I have control.
Some people might say that the show glorifies getting ahead through deception.
It’s something that happens. It’s something that people do. If people are offended by some of these things, Shameless is obviously not the show for them. It’s reality, and we try to do our best to make it as honest as possible.
You were also in the film Movie 43, in which you kissed Naomi Watts, who played your mom, and Liev Schreiber, who played your dad. Who’s the better kisser?
Liev had a beard going on at the time, so it was pretty rough. I had a little rash on my face afterwards, so I’m going to have to go with Naomi.
Tell me about your character in the Jack Black story, You Can’t Win.
Michael Pitt plays Jack and is telling the story. When he is about 12 or 13 years old, he runs away from home and starts taking trains all up and down the west coast. He stumbles upon a young man who’s about 20 years old named Smiler, the character I play. Smiler shows young Jack the ropes and takes him under his wing.
Were you familiar with the book before you shot the film?
Michael and I had a few mutual friends. He was attached to the project for a really long time and actually produced it. He happened to be in L.A. for a couple of days, so we had a meeting and talked about the movie. Then he gave me his copy of the book, told me to go home and read a bit of it, then come back to his hotel and talk to him more about it. I read the first 12 chapters that afternoon. When I got the role, about two weeks later, I read the book in its entirety.
What are your thoughts on Jack Black after having read it?
Jack Black had no education. He was educated until he was 11 or 12, at which point he ran away. In his 30s and 40s, he worked as a journalist in San Francisco, and then in his last days he worked in a library. The book is written so well. What really blew me away was how this man who spent so much of his life being a criminal was able to write such a beautiful story. What adds to the intrigue is, in his 50s, Jack Black went completely off the map again and no one ever saw him again. He’s a fascinating guy.
You have another film in the works, Shoplifters of the World, in which you play a crazy fan of The Smiths who holds a DJ at gunpoint. Yet another delinquent.
I know! But I don’t think he has a bad bone in his body. The entire thing takes place on the evening The Smiths break up. These young people about to graduate from high school go out mourning the death of the group. My character goes to the local DJ station with an unloaded pistol and forces the DJ to play The Smiths all night long. We got the rights to about 15 Smiths songs.
What’s your favorite Smiths song?
I am now partial to “Shoplifters of the World Unite.”
Were you ever a delinquent like the characters you play?
When I was younger, I wasn’t a big fan of school and wouldn’t go very often. I ended up talking to the dean of my high school, who let me work at a casting office in New York for half the day. I’d do some of my academics in the morning and then I’d go to 38th street and 8th avenue and work at Susan Shopmaker Casting. She’s an amazing casting director who cast me in a film called After School when I was about 17. I think I learned more there about acting than I could have anywhere else.
Photography by Thomas Giddings. Styling by Djuna Bel.