Rosie O’Donnell on Defeating Trump, the End of ‘SMILF,’ and Why She Can’t Watch ‘The View’
The comedy legend talked to Marlow Stern about her new HBO series, Trump’s burning hatred for her (and the media’s complicity in it), the messy ‘SMILF’ drama, and much more.
When Rosie O’Donnell first appears in I Know This Much Is True, it takes a few seconds for your brain to adjust. We’ve been inundated with two sad Mark Ruffalos, one depressingly horny Juliette Lewis, and a horrifying act of self-mutilation (this is from the Blue Valentine guy, after all). And now here’s Rosie as a hard-nosed social worker setting one of the Ruffalos straight. And she’s not only holding her own but… blowing him off the screen?
“My first scene on the show was with [Ruffalo] in the office and it’s a 12-page scene!” she tells me. “I was so worried, because I’d never had that many lines in a movie before in a row. Usually, the friend comes in—ba-dum—and then you’re out!”
At 58, O’Donnell has entered an exciting new phase of her career: character actress. It began on SMILF with her turn as Tutu, the outré mother of Frankie Shaw’s Bridgette. But after two seasons (and rave reviews), the series was abruptly canceled following allegations of misconduct against creator/star Shaw. I Know This Much Is True sees the comedy icon and longtime Trump foe flexing her dramatic muscles like never before.
In a wide-ranging conversation, O’Donnell opened up about the new show, the messy demise of SMILF, her friendship with Michael Cohen, and feud with Trump.
These are very surreal times we’re living in.
And I can’t even imagine how things are going to go back to normal. It doesn’t seem like it’s possible! I think they’re nuts to open it up, tell them it’s going to go away because it’s going to get warmer. They’re deluded, you know?
It’s bizarre. You’d think the rest of the country would look at New York City and see it as a lesson and take the appropriate precautions.
It’s crazy. I was out for the first time yesterday. I went into the city for a heart test I had to have, and then I went to my apartment for an hour, and was just looking out the window. It’s a whole different city; it has a whole different vibe, a whole different feel. And it’s kind of scary.
Is everything OK with your health, if you don’t mind me asking?
Oh yeah, it’s good. I had a heart attack eight years ago, so every two years I get an MRI with dye, and my physician was like “I don’t want to let it go. We don’t know when this is going to be done.” I had to go to a hospital, which was nerve-wracking to me. I went to Columbia-Presbyterian but to the part where they administer all the tests, so it wasn’t a COVID area.
On a more positive note—although the show is quite somber—you are excellent in I Know This Much Is True. What attracted you to this decidedly serious role of a social worker?
I read the book all those years ago and totally related to the character. I thought, wow, if they ever make this into a movie I’d love to be in it. But I didn’t even hear that they were doing it. Derek Cianfrance—however you say his name, I can never get it right—asked me to meet with him, and it turns out that Mark Ruffalo’s wife, Sunny, had seen me on SMILF and recommended me for this project. So I met with Derek and we got along very well. He said, “Would you cut your hair for this role?” and I said, “Certainly.” I showed up there and was thrilled after SMILF to be given a role that has such dramatic overtones and was not to be the “funny best friend.” In my twenties, thirties, and forties, that’s what I did—the “funny best friend”—and was happy to have the work, truthfully. But I always felt like when I got older, like to my sixties, I would be able to get those Geraldine Page kind of roles. And here I am at 58, and I got my first one. I hope it’s the first of many.
The show explores an important topic, and one that’s so underserved in America: mental health.
Without a doubt. It was important to me that they were going to show a paranoid schizophrenic in accurate ways. Whenever you see someone with that diagnosis on TV they’re usually the murderer, when in actuality, paranoid schizophrenics are much more likely to harm themselves than anyone else. I thought it was going to do a tremendous service to helping people understand that compassion is needed when dealing with paranoid schizophrenia or any serious mental-health issue.
You mentioned SMILF and I enjoyed that show. It had a strange, untimely demise, and I’m curious if you could speak to the end of that show and what happened with Frankie Shaw, because I’m still confused about the misconduct claims.
It was confusing to the cast members as well. I was on that set almost every day and never saw one problem, never heard one complaint, never had any bad experience at all on the set. The only thing I saw was that there was something about the mother of the two twins worrying that they were going to be on the set long enough, since you only get kids on set for a few hours. If there was any controversy, it was minute.
But when the show was over, I got a call from Samara [Weaving], who I really wasn’t in any scenes with. I didn’t get to know her on the set, wasn’t on [set] the same days she was on, and we didn’t have many things to do together besides the gunfight scene we did. After the show was over, she called me and was telling me some pretty fantastic stories about Frankie Shaw, what happened to her, and how she felt. She didn’t know if she was going to go to lawyers or what to do. I told her, “The first thing you have to do is call a producer and report it. That’s what you have to do. I didn’t see any of it, I wasn’t there, I can’t swear to your story, Sam, because it is news to me.” I got off the phone and for two, three days I was waiting for a phone call about what happened—and none came. So I called one of the producers and said, “I just want to tell you that this was reported to me by a girl who is my daughter’s age, and I am 58 years old, and I want to put my name on record to say that she did file this complaint with me, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
Then they went into figuring out whose tale was true and whose wasn’t, who was guilty of what, and it was all a big cacophony of craziness. When they decided that, even though it had done so well in the ratings and reviews, that they were going to pull the show based on what had happened, I was stunned and kind of regretful that I had even said anything because that wasn’t the ending that I thought was going to happen, and that wasn’t what I perceived to be the reality of the show. And I have complete and utter faith in Frankie Shaw. I think the woman is a genius. I think she has so many outlets and so much authenticity.
Did what Samara told you mirror what was in The Hollywood Reporter piece about sex scenes being mishandled?
That and she had a lot of stories—and a lot that didn’t sound like the movie set that I was on. But mind you, I never worked with her until that last episode that we shot. So, I didn’t know her from anything, and I was surprised to get the call and I didn’t know what to do with it. But I’m glad to know that [Frankie Shaw] is working again. I’m going to be in her show Wifey on HBO. And I firmly believe in her. I don’t know what went down between her and Samara, but I know that Samara was playing the real-life counterpoint to Frankie’s real-life ex-husband, so I didn’t know if there was underlying tension. She was playing this Australian sportscaster, which is exactly what her baby daddy’s new wife does in Australia. I didn’t know if there were undertones that nobody could see that only they were relating to, but it seemed like a big mess of a girl fight.
One of the big TV what-ifs is that you were almost cast as Elaine on Seinfeld. Do you ever think about what could have been?
You know, I don’t think I was “almost.” I think I was one of many women who auditioned to play that role. They brought in almost every stand-up comic in the country to read for that, so I don’t think it was between Julia Louis and me. I think that Julia Louis-Dreyfus sort of had it and I was one of the people brought in to audition. But I never looked at the show and thought, “That would have been a good fit for me.” She was perfect in that role and had the right amount of adorable and sex appeal. I never thought of it as something that I lost; I only thought of it as something that I auditioned for.
Plus, you got to star in Curb Your Enthusiasm. “The Bisexual,” where you and Larry are competing for the affections of a woman, is so damn funny.
I think he’s a complete and utter genius, Larry. I love the way he works. It’s similar to how Derek [Cianfrance] works, where he goes, “OK Rosie, you’re going to be over there, you’ll meet a girl, you’ll get her number. Then you’ll see me getting her number, and we’ll both talk about how we met the girl of our dreams—and then we see it’s the same number!” And you just do that over and over again—a different way every single time. He’ll sculpt it as you go, and I think he’s epicly gifted, that guy.
You started quite a trend with the livestream COVID-19 benefit with the return of The Rosie O’Donnell Show, which raised over $500,000 for The Actor’s Fund. I don’t think you get enough credit for how charitable you are, having given away over $100 million. I still remember when you pledged $1 million to charity after 9/11. I also remember how uncharitable Donald Trump was after 9/11. I still think one of the most revealing things about Trump is the way he’s exploited 9/11. To be a New Yorker and not only be an uncharitable billionaire after 9/11 but take $150,000 meant for small businesses, boast of his building now being the tallest, lie about being a ground zero first responder, etc.
And you know, all these facts were available come election time last round. These were not facts that were hidden that no one could have found. When in 2007, I said some things about him—not nearly as bad as I could have said, like all the stuff about 9/11, which is damning for sure—but I just talked about him not being a self-made man, having money from his father, and saying he went bankrupt, and it made him go berserk. He went on a tirade for a good decade that hasn’t ended today. I just saw I’m in his latest re-election video. I think he can’t let go of a strong woman standing up to him. He won’t let it die.
He does seem to take particular issue with strong women standing up to him. You see it in his press conferences with the way he belittles the women reporters.
Yeah. And it’s so obvious. That’s the thing I don’t get! It’s so blatant and obvious. That this man could be leading the United States of America during this trying time in our history and be a complete and utter failure, and in some ways the press are allowing him to get away with it! Like just the other day, what he did with Bill Barr and dropping the charges against Mike Flynn, who pleaded guilty. He owns the Justice Department now, too! I just don’t know how, with these crimes in plain sight, he is absolutely untouchable. It just boggles my mind.
Speaking of the press allowing him to go unchecked at times, I’m reminded of his rants against you around 2007, because a lot of these celebrity-news programs just put the camera on him and let him unleash these disgusting, misogynistic rants against you and gave him all the airtime in the world.
And participated! David Letterman thought it was the funniest thing. [Trump] called me a “degenerate,” a “fat, ugly dyke,” and there’s David Letterman, the top of the entertainment pyramid, laughing his ass off at what Donald Trump’s saying. And the Today show had him on with all of his children, all of them saying things about me. It was an unbelievable response from him—and then the allowing of it by mainstream media was a pretty shocking thing.
Is it true that you’ve become friends with Michael Cohen? And how did that happen?
I wrote him a letter the day that Trump got impeached. I found his inmate number online. He always looked to me like someone from my neighborhood. He grew up on Long Island like I did, he’s a few years younger, and he reminds me of my brothers. I look at this guy and go, “How did he fall under the spell of that charlatan? Like, how did it happen?” I wrote him a letter saying, “At this time, when he’s being impeached and you’re sitting in jail for doing exactly what the boss told you to do, it’s mind-boggling to me. I want you to know that I realize you were involved wholeheartedly in all the attacks on me since 2007, and I forgive you, and I want to thank you for finally telling the truth about him. No matter how long it took you, you’ll be known and respected for that as much as any horror you’ve committed through him.”
And then he wrote me an email back saying he was sorry, and he thanked me, and he was so moved by the letter he couldn’t believe it was me, and he started crying and he called his wife, and that it had been bothering him all this time, because he couldn’t believe all the things he did to everyone—including me—at Trump’s direction was now being done to him. I don’t know. It was pretty interesting. We wrote a lot of letters to each other, and then he asked me to come visit him—this was before COVID, of course—and I went there and sat for six hours and talked to him. Michael and I talked a lot about how he got involved in Trump, how it’s a cult, and what role he played not only in Trump Inc. but also Trump’s own family, including how much he dealt with Barron and Melania. One thing he said to me that was shocking was that one of the nicest people he’s ever met in his life is Melania Trump. He said, “I swear to you. She’s a great mother, she’s a great woman, and she’s in a predicament with him and doing her best to get through it.” I thought about the “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket but didn’t bring that up.
He told me what chapters he was doing in his book, and on my way home, I was writing about what had happened between us, and I gave him my breakdown of things that should be in chapters. I said, “You should tell this story as a chapter, you should tell this story as a chapter.” He’s in the midst of writing it, and is nearly done writing it, and hopes that it’ll be out before the election. I’m not sure if that’s going to happen now that Trump’s seemed to get involved in his COVID release that got canceled.
Having had a glimpse, how spicy is this book going to be?
It’s pretty spicy! It’s pretty spicy. You know, thanks to Mark Burnett, who I believe is so guilty that he should lose his ability to live in the United States. He’s not from here, and look what he created! He created this monster and he has a whole safe full of tapes of [Trump] being as horrible as he is, and that he refuses to release. I just think that he created a monster, and an illusion. For a decade, people watched this man on a show that got high ratings firing everyone, and the illusion that he was some mastermind with this big corporate entity? He was a logo-slapper! That’s all he was. He’s no big success in business in any capacity. Mark Burnett created this for him, and I believe he is culpable.
Back in July, you said you thought Biden’s “time has passed.” Do you think he has what it takes to beat Trump now?
I pray to God every day that he does. He’s not my first choice and he was not my second choice, but like everyone else in the country who’s a Democrat, I will work for him and support him as much as I can, and do anything I can to help him be the elected president of the United States. But is he my choice? No. Do I have problems with his age? Yes. With some of the things in his reputation? Yes. With the fact that he doesn’t seem as cognitively on top of it as one would hope a president would? Now, look at the bar. The bar is at the curb thanks to Donald Trump, so he’s higher than the Trump bar. But I think there was a whole level of people, many of whom were running for that Democratic nomination, who would have been better than him.
I don’t think you look at many men that age, in their seventies and eighties, who haven’t been accused in some way of doing something like this. Now, him digitally penetrating her in the office? That’s a pretty big deal, you know? And the woman [E. Jean Carroll] who said she was raped by Trump in [Bergdorf Goodman]? Nobody gave a shit about that! The young teenage girl that he supposedly raped? Nobody gave a shit about that! Do I think that means we shouldn’t give a shit about the accusations against Joe Biden? No, I don’t. But how do I know where to place them in the hierarchy of crimes and character flaws? This is who we have. The fight is between Trump and Biden, and you have to choose who you want to win. And I choose Biden, a hundred-million percent. But he is not without flaws, and he is not by any means my first choice.
I really see you as the person responsible for giving The View its political bent.
I appreciate that. I think that, too.
Not only airing out Trump but voicing your opposition to the Iraq War. All these things that were not being done on daytime TV.
And Bill Cosby, which they didn’t let us talk about. I was overtly told: “We are not discussing it, Rosie.”
Who told you that?
One of the hosts… one of the hosts told me that.
Do you watch The View today?
I don’t watch it anymore because it upsets me, and because I think it’s been dumbed-down a lot. Everyone seems to think they have their two-minute sound bite and they want to get everything in but in the old days, The View had much more of a real conversation happening live, and it doesn’t feel like that’s happening anymore.