NEW YORK — Though she’s only 17, Emmy Rossum already talks about making her characters seem “real and complex” because she believes that “characters are the heart and soul of every film.” But, like most 17-year-old girls, she also speaks about a mile a minute.

“Sorry, am I talking too fast?” Rossum says over breakfast at the Upper East Side hotel where she’s staying to promote her new weather disaster movie, “The Day After Tomorrow.” (She lives with her mother a few blocks away.) “I talk really fast.” Each time Rossum pours herself a cup of tea, she douses it with four packets of sugar. No wonder she talks so fast.

This story first appeared in the May 27, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

But Rossum has reason to be overexcited. Though she has been about to break out for a while now — she displayed her vocal talent in “Songcatcher” in 2000 and starred as Sean Penn’s murdered daughter in “Mystic River” last year — she will likely turn out to be one of the “It” girls of summer. That’s because “The Day After Tomorrow,” which casts her as Jake Gyllenhaal’s love interest, looks poised to be a major blockbuster, and Joel Schumacher’s film version of “Phantom of the Opera,” in which she has the coveted leading role of Christine, will hit theaters in December.

Let’s not forget, also, that Schumacher has a habit of launching careers. There’s Julia Roberts in “Flatliners” and Colin Farrell in “Tigerland.” “And Matthew McConaughey,” Rossum chimes in, referencing the Texan actor’s first major role in “A Time to Kill.” “But Joel and I never discussed it — I just wanted to do my job.”

Rossum’s consummate professionalism stems from her work on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, where she started singing at a very young age. “I think I was singing on the operating table when I came out of the womb,” Rossum jokes. “When I was 7, I was standing on stage next to Placido Domingo. Nothing makes you nervous after that.”

After leaving the Spence School to be homeschooled at 12, Rossum scored a two-week role on “As the World Turns.” But soaps were not for her. “I had been in Zeffirelli productions, belting out arias in front of 3,000 people. I thought, Gosh, this is so small! Where are all the extras? Where is Placido?”

Rossum’s recent big-budget projects are on a more epic scale. “On the set of ‘Day After Tomorrow,’ we were in a tank for two and a half weeks. [Director] Roland Emmerich was somewhere with a megaphone. It was like Noah’s Ark and I was knee-deep in water.”

As for “Phantom of the Opera,” which she finished filming only two weeks ago, Rossum coyly says, “It’s really a story about people looking for love.”

“There’s so much eye candy,” she adds, including actor Patrick Wilson, who plays Raoul, Christine’s childhood boyfriend. “He’s so cute,” she swoons. “But the corsets I endured! Eight months of corsets!” (Speaking of corsets, Ralph Lauren, who met Rossum through Schumacher, has been dressing her for events related to “The Day After Tomorrow” and will do the same for “Phantom.”)

This summer, Rossum hopes to take a few more classes at Columbia, where she’s been studying part-time. “But every time I sit my butt down in the classroom, my cell phone rings,” Rossum explains. “And if it’s Joel Schumacher, I’m going to be hard-pressed to say, ‘I’m actually sticking around to conjugate avoir and être in my French class.’”

But on the red carpet, the 17-year-old girl in Rossum comes out the most. At the premiere of “The Day After Tomorrow” Monday night, Rossum spotted Julianne Moore, one of her idols. “But I was too shy to go say hi.”

“I get all embarrassed,” she giggles. “I’d prefer to just sit here and drink my tea.” With four sugars, naturally.

— Marshall Heyman

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