Her Career is as Impressive as Her Uber Cool Attitude
Written By: Matthew J. Black
Photographed By: Michael Wesley
Styled By: Anna Neimark
Assistant Stylist: Dean Hall
Hair & Makeup By: Natalie Bohlin Emma Kenney
One look atEmma Kenney’s resume and current job status and you might think you’re looking at the filmography of a 30-year-old Hollywood veteran. In 10 years, she went from being a finalist in an international film festival to holding roles on two popular TV series at the same time. Throw in about a dozen films, shows and a few voice overs in between, and you have a glimpse at a budding career for an 18-year-old actress.
It’s difficult to say that the star of Showtime’s “Shameless” and ABC’s “Roseanne” is an emerging talent. In fact, it doesn’t make any sense at all. She landed her role on “Shameless” back in 2011 when she was a precocious kid. Since then, her character has gone through such a long and transformative evolution that we forget that the real person behind the character was a girl making her way in the world and coming of age in Hollywood studios.
Emma’s story begins on the other side of the country in New York, where she was born to a defense attorney and a writer. Both played an extremely important role in giving their daughter a push on her path. At an early age, her mother broadened Emma’s horizons by enrolling her in ballet, gymnastics, karate, soccer and other sports. But according to Emma, none of them took to her more than acting classes. “I wanted to act since I was four years old,” Emma said. “When I saw Mary Poppins for the first time, I wanted nothing more than to be Jane,” she chuckled.
This was the point, as Malcolm Gladwell would put it, that Emma’s 10,000 hours toward becoming a world-class actress began. Acting is what Emma excels in now, but expect her to start moving toward where she started, which is writing screenplays and making films.
Emma explained that her father is an extremely talented writer, and after writing for outlets such as the “New York Post” and Fox Sports, I’m inclined to believe her. Her father took an interest in Emma’s drive and proficiency in writing, and worked with her to perfect her craft. While her father enabled her to write way beyond the normal capabilities of a seven-year-old child, it was all Emma who decided to break into the world of screenwriting.
Two years later, Emma was nine and her short film, The New Girl In Town, which she wrote, filmed, produced and starred in, was a finalist at the New Jersey International Film Festival. “It’s like a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” type vibe,” Emma laughed. Several short films followed as Emma worked toward paying her dues learning the industry and always making forward strides in her career path.
For the past seven years, Emma has gone through her informative phase while holding down a steady role on an award-winning show. Not to mention all the other projects she’s been a part of, such as starring in “Boardwalk Empire” and doing a voice over in Epic. And all the while her youthful spirit prevailed.
Emma goes to great lengths in order for her to relate to her characters. Prior to filming the pilot episode of “Shameless,” Mark Mylod, the producer at the time, gathered the cast for a meeting. Mylod asked them to each write a backstory for their character. It’s an exercise designed to help the actor own the character and polish the seams between real and make-believe. Since then, Emma’s done that for just about all of her roles. This includes her latest character, Harris Conner-Healy, on the revival and 10th season of Roseanne. It’s a show that unapologetically gets right in the face of people’s beliefs and struggles. “Harris represents that teen angst and emotional struggle,” Emma explained. “She’s lost and doesn’t fit in, and may come across as a bratty teenager, but she just doesn’t know how to express her emotions.”
When Emma arrived in Hollywood she admits that she had trouble fitting in. I got the impression she wasn’t the typical Disney kid the industry looks for. To fit in, she did a very natural thing and tried to alter her behavior in an effort to make people like her. “Eventually, I finally came to terms with who I am, and I encourage young people to do the same thing,” she exclaimed.
Her relentless work ethic is something she inherited from her parents, who she is close with, as they are very much involved with her career. All the while, we see her on TV as part of two other families who confront very different forms of issues. “‘Roseanne’ shows a real family and that’s what we’re representing,” she told me when I asked if it bothers her that the show offends some people. She’s very aware that “Roseanne” ruffled some feathers in its first season. While the family in the show goes through life’s trials while making us laugh, we forget that it’s serious for the characters.
“Comedy is scary!” Emma tells me. “I learned from great actors like John Goodman and Roseanne Barr that unless you’re a comedian, to be funny, you shouldn’t try to be funny. These situations are very serious for the characters even though it’s funny for the audience, so we take these moments very seriously during comedic scenes.”
Emma’s efforts at honing her craft are paying off, much to the benefit of her fans and followers. Expect her to shine as she reprises her roles as Debbie and Harris in new seasons of “Shameless” and “Roseanne.” Somewhere in the thick of that schedule she managed to star in Robert the Bruce, which is a prequel to the Academy Award-winning film Braveheart.
She has dreams beyond what she’s working on now, both as personal goals and career-driven aims. In the future, whether Emma is fulfilling her dream of traveling around Europe or directing an indie film she wrote, you’ll find her doing what she does best; wildly driven toward whatever she puts her mind to.
Bucket List: “I want to travel Europe when I have some time off, play Janis Joplin in a movie or series and do a coming of age indie film like Lady Bird,” said Emma.
Sing It, Girl! Emma is a huge music fan! She says her dad got her into music and among her favorites are The Beatles, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Cage the Elephant and Glass Animals.
Native Knowledge: Emma is a proponent of animal rights. She also has two dogs of her own, and a 20-pound cat —you read that right—named Cheddar. She hopes to open an animal rescue facility in the future.
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