As someone who’s always been outspoken and especially so about her politics, it’s been an unexpectedly quiet year for Rosie O’Donnell. Donald Trump has publicly feuded with and bullied O’Donnell since December 2006, when she called him a “snake oil salesman” during a segment on The View, on which she had a brief run as co-host. For years, Trump called O’Donnell a “loser” and other epithets, bringing up O’Donnell’s appearance as fodder in the primary debates during the 2016 presidential campaign. For her part, O’Donnell has publicly criticized Trump and his politics for over a decade, responding in protest on Twitter and at the White House earlier this year.
In her first dramatic television series role, Rosie O’Donnell is taking on the topics of motherhood and mental illness, portraying “Tutu,” a working-class mother and grandmother living in Boston. Based on former Mr. Robot star Frankie Shaw’s Sundance short film of the same name, SMILF, which premieres on Showtime on November 5, paints a semi-autobiographical portrait of Bridget, a young single mother working and growing in the predominantly Irish Catholic Southie neighborhood of Boston (O’Donnell plays her mother). Joined by Connie Britton, Shaw’s story of Bridget and her family is funny and bittersweet, with a little darkness—mental illness, a possibly closeted matriarch—creeping in around the edges.
After shooting the pilot of SMILF in 2016 (on what happened to to be November 9, the day after Election Day), O’Donnell is now speaking out about the media’s part in the election, her own role as a comedic and dramatic actress—and as as a truth-teller.
What inspiration did you take from real life to inform your character on SMILF?
When I first saw the short, which did not have the character of Tutu in it, I was blown away by how genius and unique it was, and what an original voice. I said yes right away, and then we went and shot the pilot. We happened to shoot it on the day that Trump was elected so it was kind of a wonky day and a wonky week; and you know, we didn’t get picked up for like six months. When we did get picked up I asked if we could re-shoot the scenes with me and Frankie.
How did the election results affect your process that day?
The reason I thought we were not picked up was because I was really bad in the pilot because I was in shock. I was in pure unadulterated [shock], as if I had fallen through the ice on a lake; I was underneath the water and I couldn’t even see the surface. It was a severe shock to my entire essence and my beliefs in the order in the world, and also the PTSD of having been an abused kid in a family. And to think that the man who had abused me so viciously and with impunity for over a decade was now running the country. I remember when I first met “presidents,” for lack of a better word. I met Jimmy Carter first at a ski event with his lovely wife and became friendly with him; then I met Teddy Kennedy; and I remember thinking of my mother who valued John Kennedy more than the Pope. John Kennedy was number one, Jesus Christ was two. You know, that I was sitting there with Ted Kennedy, there were these moments that I can’t believe that a girl from Long Island from an abusive family with no mother and not a lot of money could be in the company of these people. It was very trippy to think that the man who is now in that job is the one who was so brutal to me for speaking the truth about him a decade ago.
So I was in no shape to do that, and when I did see the pilot I called Frankie to apologize and said, “I’m sorry I was so bad,” and she was like, “You weren’t bad in this.” I was like, “No, no I was.” So when we did get picked up, I asked if I could reshoot the scenes and they allowed me. I think that was a huge thank you to them because I had a year of living with the reality of him. I did a lot of therapy, I wasn’t in shock in anymore; as much as I am devastated, disappointed, disheartened, and depressed by the reality of it, I wasn’t in pure panic mode like I was that day and that week.
Are there any political undertones that come up as themes for the rest of the season?
The personal is political for [Tutu], so it’s not necessarily about politics. We never discuss the president or anything like that. She’s living her life in her isolated bubble of Southie, Boston. I don’t know that we will go into the politics of Tutu, and if we did I’d probably think she would like him, in some ways [Laughs.]. I don’t know, but we don’t do it about Trump, and I don’t even think we really address the political climate of the country today, but maybe next season we will. We really flesh out and define the emotional terrain of each character for this season, and I think [Shaw] did it really beautifully.
You’ve made so many public comments on Trump, it’s crazy that you had to film on the day after the election.
Literally, I got out of my fitting in Boston, and as a joke I said to everyone, “Listen, I’ll see you tomorrow on the set unless the unimaginable happens! In which case, I’ll be in the Charles River.” I was making jokes. And I said to my therapist before I went, “I got offered this role but it shoots during Election Day in Boston and it’s just gonna be me and the baby, and the nanny, do you think that I should go?” My therapist said a whole thing on how I “can’t have these negative, intrusive thoughts,” and that I “have to believe in the goodness of the world and that the worst is not always going to happen, and of course he will not be elected, every civilized and sane person in the nation has said he will not be elected. Don’t borrow trouble!” Then I was there and it happened, and I felt completely unprepared. I remember that night before they were announcing who had won, I saw the Trump children with their children on TV, and they were on an Instagram or something. They were taking a video going, “Grandpa’s gonna be the president!” I literally felt such sorrow inside of me that these people were so deluded. What were they doing with this child to tell the baby their grandfather’s going to be president? He’s not going to be president! Are you out of your minds? Cut to… right? I was completely unprepared.
The unimaginable truly did happen, but—
It happened to me in a personal manner. Because unbeknownst to me, for reasons I can’t really still figure out, he was allowed with impunity to brutally assault me and my character for a decade. No one—not the National Organization For Women, not Gloria Steinem, no one—stood up and said, “What the hell are you doing?” It was laughed about. Oh, “Rosie O’Donnell and Megyn Kelly, ha ha ha, let him in, would bring him out”… watching him do the “Destroy Rosie O’Donnell” charade in the same way that he’s been trying to destroy the character of everyone, from Representative [Frederica] Wilson to the wife of the Marine that was killed in Niger, all these things. He’s debasing the character of James Comey. There’s no one that he won’t attack or debase. When it was only me in that arena, it was a very lonely, isolated and depressing place to be. Even though [people say], “Oh you started it,” well I actually told the truth about him on a show where my job was to talk about pop culture [Laughs.]. What I said, he’s threatened to sue me, and you can’t sue someone if they tell the truth, right? What’s the truth? He was bankrupt four times, he got his money from his father, he never pays his contractors. He has a dubious moral character. These are things that were not hard to find, yet the media refused to print them a decade ago. And when he started to run, they all went in their turtle shells and acted like they had no idea that this was the essence of this man, when had they only turned on Wikipedia, they could have found out everything that we now know is fact. And we wouldn’t have him as president if they had done their jobs.
I wonder if your role as a comedian has something to do with so many people not taking you seriously a decade ago? And now with your role on this show, which is not necessarily comedic though there are moments of levity, how do you balance your role as a comedian with being a truth teller and dramatic actress as well—
I haven’t done any interviews since he’s been elected. Today’s the first day of doing interviews. I haven’t been on television doing interviews since he’s been elected, so when I do the press for this show that will be the first time, and it has taken me a full year to integrate the reality of him being a president in a way that I don’t come across as either so full of rage that no one can hear my words, or so sad that I can’t articulate the level of pain. It’s taken a year for me to get my equilibrium back, to come back up to the surface, to really go, “Okay, every Monday is the hope that this is the last week”—and every Friday is a devastation. There are people who tell me, “Oh it’s going to be another year, another two years,” and I seriously worry whether I personally will be able to live through [his presidency] and whether the nation will be able to live through it and survive. It’s a terrifying concept, on the brink of nuclear war with a madman in charge. And the ineptitude—the impotence of people who should be able to stop him claiming they can’t—is absolutely infuriating.
See W’s most popular videos: