Rosie O'Donnell waited until age 55 to take her first regular series role, as Tutu, a messed-up grandmother on SMILF. Actress-director-writer Frankie Shaw (Mr. Robot, Stronger) created this semiautobiographical TV show about a single mom that is adapted from her Sundance Film Festival award-winning short film. The series premieres Nov. 5 on Showtime. O'Donnell tells AARP that, like Showtime's hit Shameless, the show feels authentic to her experience.
Why did you wait until SMILF to become a series TV star?
I have five children ages 4 1/2 to 22 and couldn't go to L.A. for a show. And there wasn't a role that spoke to me. As a young actress, I knew that as I got into my 60s, I'd be able to do the Geraldine Page roles, like The Trip to Bountiful — the kind of Irish standard character I always knew that was in my future. So when this role came up, I thought, Here we go! I was stunned by Frankie's unique voice, the birth of a major artistic voice in our culture. The reality of an Irish Catholic working-class family — struggling with poverty and mental illness and all that comes with it — is accurately portrayed in this beautiful show. It's a woman-oriented, woman-powered series about a mother and daughter and how their lives mix and don't. It's like a feminist manifesto. Frankie grew up with a feminism that never existed when I was a kid, and it empowers her to write truthfully and expose the gritty underbelly of life with compassion, and not with disdain or self-loathing.
What will Rosie fans see that's new in you?
Tutu suffered in a family where emotions were never discussed and people often took to the bottle, rather than address their feelings. There's a stoic madness, and my character is mentally compromised, with either borderline personality disorder or severe untreated bipolar disorder. [O'Donnell has been public about her own different struggle with major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.] We explore the reality of her loving her child [Shaw] more than anything and yet not being able to be civil to her or maintain a relationship. It's very honest, and I felt I could bring a lot to it by dying my hair gray and letting the gray grow out and having no makeup — being as authentic as I can be.
Do fans recognize you with that look?
People don't notice me with gray hair. They go, "Are you Rosie O'Donnell?" I say 'Yes.' "No, you're not." I say, 'I swear to God I am.' "Oh, my God! You sound like you." The freedom of a 55-year-old woman is to show herself in this invisibility cloak that people think is really horrific and dehumanizing. But for me, it's provided a freedom that I haven't had in a couple decades. My teenagers were not so happy about my gray hair and looking like a grandma. Embarrassing for my 14-year-old. Horrible for her.
Your kids must suffer for your art!
My kids are suffering more than me. For me, it's the beginning of what I hope to be my second-chapter acting career.