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In the earliest days of her career, Emmy Rossum found herself at the Metropolitan Opera sharing the stage with (among others) Plácido Domingo, and a horse. How do you figure the pay scale works for a gig like that? A singer of Domingo’s stature makes tens of thousands per performance. The more talented horses in the production earned $150. Rossum, $5-$10 a night. Of course she was seven, but at those wages, even a kid has to know they’re not in it for the dough. About 25 years later, Rossum has multiple movies, awards, three albums, a lead role on the hit show Shameless and better paychecks to her name. But this is not a “how ya like me now, Domingo?” struggle-to-the-top story. She’s not that kinda gal. But if you like hearing about decent, determined artists who find their own way, learning and staying true to their instincts as they go, by all means, read on.

Rossum was raised in New York by a single mom who loved jazz, classical and opera music, so a stint on The New Mickey Mouse Club was probably never in the cards. A teacher who discovered her perfect intonation arranged an audition for the Met’s Children’s Chorus. She performed there until age 12, when she started outgrowing the kids’ costumes and decided to look into acting instead. She made her TV debut in 1997 on As the World Turns and her film debut (Genius) two years later. She came to wider attention as a flashback in Mystic River, playing Sean Penn’s murdered daughter, and the next year in sci-fi thriller The Day After Tomorrow. Her most notable performance in that period, Songcatcher, was not as widely seen, but more revelatory of her talent.

While Rossum was slowly finding her way as an actress by “constantly watching people who are better than me,” Joel Schumacher was busy, too, with his screen adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera. Rossum almost didn’t audition, but wound up coming in at the last minute, not realizing that he’d seen hundreds of people, and hers was the last audition for the role of ingénue Christine Daaé. She wasn’t too worked up at the time. After all, “I know I’m not getting it,” she told “I never thought I’d get the part. I mean I was 16 years old and not famous and knew I was the youngest and least famous person going in for it.” Once the disbelief of actually landing the role wore off, she got worked up. She’d signed on to carry a $70 million adaptation of one of the most popular musicals of all time.

Phantom took in $155 million at the box office, and while reviews of the movie were mixed, reviews of Rossum were not. The New York Times said she “breathes fresh air into her claustrophobic, over-upholstered surroundings and brings both a spark of defiance and a touch of melancholy to her role.” Though her co-stars included Gerard Butler, Miranda Richardson and Minnie Driver, Roger Ebert said it was Rossum who carried the show (singing her own songs, of course). So, what next? Any agent worth his 10 percent would prescribe more good girl roles, a couple of ‘popera’ albums, more stage-to-screen musicals. But Rossum isn’t really one to build momentum or a brand off one signature role, no matter how fabulous. She preferred a plan, or lack thereof, that would let her stretch.

She chose a series of smaller, more complex roles in indies like Dragonball Evolution, Dare, and the anti-rom-com Comet, which IndieWire called a career best, citing her contribution to the film’s authentic feel. That’s not to say she can’t have fun when the role demands. As Beautiful Creature’s fast girl/teen “dark caster” Ridley Duchannes, “Rossum barnstorms through her role in a way that ensures you watch her and only her whenever she’s onscreen,” said The Hollywood Reporter of the 2014 gothic fantasy, which also starred Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson and Viola Davis.

She’s taken the same approach with music. Rather than the classical, pop, or opera she could’ve done post Phantom, she sought something that felt more emotionally honest. In 2007 she released Inside Out, a debut album of ambient, highly personal songs. In 2014, she recorded Sentimental Journey, a calendar-themed mix of old standards – from torch songs to ragtime ballads – that despite their authentic smolder, never let you forget her dynamic soprano range.

Her biggest and best-known departure from her Phantom days is of course Shameless, now starting its eighth season on Showtime. Rossum, opposite William H. Macy, leads the ruthless, shambolic, impoverished Gallagher clan as Fiona, its hard but warm-hearted center, barely holding the chaos together. She’s almost saintly, in a clubbing, drugging, sex-loving way. The role, and what Rossum does with it, is quite layered. TV review site Screener said the show’s seventh season “proves Rossum is worth every single penny she’s being paid — and so much more. We’ve seen Fiona grow up through her time on Shameless. Likewise, viewers have watched Rossum grow and mature as an actress, able to build up or destroy those watching her with just a few words. Without Rossum, Shameless would be an incredibly different story – and not one we’re sure we’d be as interested in watching.”

The show has helped her develop in other ways. She raised her hand to direct an episode last year, and has since directed TNT’s Animal Kingdom. And while she no doubt is worth every penny she’s paid on Shameless, those pennies turned out to be less than those of her male costar. She renegotiated not only for equal pay, but back pay. Once you’ve played second fiddle to a horse – no matter how talented – you don’t let it happen again. She’s outspoken about Hollywood’s continued casting couch issues and a staunch supporter of numerous causes, including YouthAIDS, breast cancer awareness, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Best Friends Animal Society, and marriage equality.

One thing about Phantom does still define her. “I thought its themes were about love and compassion and understanding of people who look different and are different. That was the one quality about my character that I really identified with,” she said in a 2008 interview. In building a career, especially in this business, all the striving can sometimes make you forget what your art actually has the power to do. “When I look back on my life, I want to be most proud of the kindness, love and loyalty that I expressed more than any success I may achieve.” If that’s her criteria, we’d say she found her way – and success – a long time ago.