The year 2017 was a tough one for Rosie O’Donnell: The man who publicly targeted her for years — and did so repeatedly during the lead-up to the election — had unexpectedly ascended to the presidency, where he was free to unleash his familiar bullying tactics on the rest of the world. “I seriously worry whether I personally will be able to live through [his presidency],” O’Donnell told W magazine earlier this year.
Yet 2017 also brought O’Donnell’s first dramatic TV role. On the feminist dramedy SMILF — which was nominated this morning for a Golden Globe — about a young Irish-Catholic working-class single mother named Brigitte (creator Frankie Shaw) in Boston’s Southie, O’Donnell wears an unfamiliar mane of long gray hair and plays Brigitte’s mother Tutu, who tries to do right by her daughter and grandson while grappling with her own mental-health struggles. For O’Donnell, the show arrived “like a life raft.”
We talked to Rosie about the curative properties of tackling feminism onscreen and the challenges of shooting her first dramatic sex scene (which aired last night), as well as Al Franken and her ambivalence about the #MeToo moment.
On how she joined SMILF:
I had had a meeting with my agents and I said: “I’m really not interested in being me, I want an acting role I can disappear into.” I was just very fed up, and so depressed because of this election.
They sent me the two shorts Frankie did and both of them are genius — like Too Legit, which is a parable about the absurdity of sexist rape culture. When I talked to her on FaceTime that night after watching them I was like, “I’ll do whatever you want.” I too was from a lower–middle class Irish-Catholic, generationally dysfunctional [family with] unspoken abuse patterns and addiction patterns. Everything she and I we talked about was everything I care about and everything I want to do my art about. It always comes back to these core issues of justice around women.
We actually were shooting the pilot on the night of the election, and I said to my shrink, “Do you think it’s wrong that I go there alone?” and she said “Rosie, there’s no way he can win, you’re a smart person, this is America.” Cut to — I’m devastated, falling through the ice, and when we shot the pilot everyone was totally underwater. It was crazy.
I really did think all I had to do was get through that day and then I was done. To find out that not only am I not done, that it could possibly be a four year thing, I didn’t know if I had it in me. And this show, I think, provided me with every single droplet of truth that one needs to rehydrate.
On feminist generation gaps on set:
Sex is a big thing. [Frankie] would always tease me when I would act the way I do as a 55-year-old gay woman survivor of child abuse; I kind of am very comfortable in my zone of what that means to me and my world. And here comes this fully actualized feminist, sexualized, healthy woman who’s forcing me to face a lot of the issues I have about my body, about my sexuality and how I represent it, and about my ability to give myself fully.
There’s a scene where Raven, who’s this amazing actress and wonderful young woman, is doing feeder-eater porn. And when [Frankie] showed me the scene I was horrified. I said, “Oh my god was she embarrassed? That must have been so hard for her” — I almost got tears in my eyes. And she said, “Embarrassed? She fucking loved it, you kidding me?” Everyone that I’ve spoken to about that episode, you can tell what age they are by how they reacted to it. I’m dating a woman now who’s 33 years old, who’s a police officer, and she’s like, “Oh my god, I fucking loved it, it was so great and empowering, you get it girl, you are beautiful.” And I was like “Whaaat!?” It challenged all my self-abuse, loathing, body-shaming — it challenged it all.
On the current sexual reckoning:
I do have this real problem with society now saying well we’re all ready to talk about it, therefore all of you men who behaved by this previous paradigm — the one that was prevalent in the culture and that we could not fight, from Anita Hill up onto Ashley Judd, all that space in between — all of you men are now going to be decimated for what you did in the time where the culture had not caught up to the reality of all of the wrongs we have used in order to make it. I was so heartbroken over the Al Franken thing, completely heartbroken. I felt dejected and I felt like, Are you kidding me?
I may come out to be really wrong and everyone can say how dare you, but I don’t think Al Franken is a predator. I know Al Franken and I know men who are also predators, including my own father, so I am always on the lookout for men who are predators. Al Franken’s not a predator.
Nuance is required. It’s a bigger conversation. It’s like that David Foster-Wallace thing that everyone loves, where an old fish says to two young fish, “How’s the water?” and the fish say, “What’s the water?” This is the water. This is the soup we have all marinated in, and you’re picking up a carrot and saying, “God damn you, you’ve got sexist and racist undertones.” Well, so does the water we swim in.
On preparing to shoot this week’s sex scene:
I think I really was able to do it because it was [directed by Frankie]. I did have two sex scenes in my career, which were both mostly played for comedy. But this one was not. And Frankie kept saying to me, “Ro, we’ve gotta get your waiver, your agents want you to write what you will and won’t do.” And I go: “I’m not going to write that. I’m going to come in here and I’m going to to do something real with you, and I’m going to talk with you about what I want to do, and the parts of my body that show I’m okay with in the moment of the doing it. Let’s just see what works. And I’m trusting that you’ll know.”
The harder part was the scene where I’m getting ready, and all it says in the script is “Tutu prepares for her date.” In Frankie’s mind, that was me almost naked, walking around the bedroom getting ready and I was like, “well I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to be naked.” That scene was even more vulnerable to me when I was in my underwear and pulling hairs out of my nipple and kind of dancing and trying to feel sexy and desirable and all of those challenging feelings that women my age have. In the sex scene, the actor who was playing Edmund was more nervous than anyone I had ever seen. So, of course being a woman, all of my emotions about doing a sex scene were cut off because I could co-dependently care for someone else. That’s such a female thing to do. He was shaking when we first started to shoot it and I just wanted it to be okay for him. Because he was my age and he’d never done one before. He was a very handsome Asian man, and he was like, “They don’t usually look to 60-year-old Asians for sex scenes,” and I’m like, “Well, they don’t usually cast 200-pound 55-year-olds either, so we’re in this together, my friend.”
On how SMILF gave her a new lease on life:
When you’re famous, you walk around in a bubble that isolates you from others and lets them observe you quote-unquote “living,” but you’re not really living. I learned to react and relate to people with that glass between us. Thanks to SMILF and my age, I’m getting to interact again as a human being. And it’s going to take some learning. I lived in the world for so long where everyone knew who I was, and I’m just trying to figure out how to live back in the world where not everyone does.
The freedom the show has given me having gray hair, not trying to hold back any of my fat or my imperfections or my age has been liberating. I thank Frankie for it, and I do love her like I love my children. Every week I cry because I never see the show until it’s on. Not what I do — cause I can pick apart myself like no-one else, I can do Donald Trump times a billion in my head every day — but when I see what she has done, I’m amazed. I’m brought to tears at the brilliance. She has restored my faith in the virtue of parenting no matter what state you’re in and how it’s a never-ending journey that requires forgiveness
On weathering Trump’s attacks:
He went crazy in a way that stunned me. He was allowed access on hundreds of television shows where they, along with the hosts, would talk about how horrible I was. And Larry King joined in and David Letterman joined in and man after man after man. It was like a very long gang rape.
People think I’m tough — it’s almost like an avatar I’ve made in order to get through, but it’s not who I am. When I was on my television show every day people saw that and remembered that, but having been removed from that — of my own volition, in order to raise my kids — it left a space for people to fill with whatever untruths they needed in order to fill their own agenda.
Now look, you can say I’m fat, ugly, disgusting, and gross; that’s an opinion. But you can’t say that my show was canceled, because I left my show with a 100 million dollar offer on the table. There are people who believe the narrative that Donald Trump wanted people to believe about me. So it was painful, make no mistake, and it kind of remains painful in some ways. I don’t move in his circles so I don’t really have to come face-to-face with his people who feel that, but I will say it did change the pop-culture narrative. When Trump wants to say the FBI is in tatters, he states it as fact when it is pure fiction — but say it enough, and people will believe it. And that’s sort of what he did to me.
This interview has been condensed and edited.