Rosie O’Donnell terrific in new show that tackles subject close to her heart: Mental illness
LOS ANGELES—Rosie O’Donnell, who is open about her mental health struggles, costars in director Derek Cianfrance’s HBO adaptation of Wally Lamb’s acclaimed bestseller, “I Know This Much Is True.”
The actress, completely shedding off her wisecracking Rosie O’Donnell persona, is Lisa Sheffer, a compassionate social worker at the Hatch Forensic Institute, who has long conversations with Dominick, whose identical twin brother Thomas, a paranoid schizophrenic, is confined at the facility. Dominick himself suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Both Thomas and Dominick are played by Mark Ruffalo in a tour de force performance. Mark and Rosie are part of a uniformly good cast that includes Melissa Leo, Archie Panjabi, Kathryn Hahn, Juliette Lewis and Imogen Poots.
Derek, whose directing credits include “Blue Valentine,” “The Place Beyond the Pines” and “The Light Between Oceans,” has fashioned a dark yet compelling six-part drama series.
The host of “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” which ran from 1996 to 2002, wore a black “Hamilton” hoodie in our recent videocon interview. “I’ve got 10 of them, literally,” said the Broadway-loving star in that familiar voice.
The former “The View” and “The Rosie Show” host was also good as Tutu in Showtime’s comedy series, “SMILF.”
A passionate advocate for lesbian and gay adoption rights, Rosie has five adopted kids. In 2018, she became a grandma when her daughter, Chelsea, gave birth to a girl, Skylar Rose.
A true survivor, Rosie had a heart attack in 2012.
She recently gathered musical theater stars for a one-night only revival of “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” streamed on YouTube, to raise money for the Actors Fund.
Excerpts from our chat with Rosie:
One of the fascinating things about your character in this miniseries is her patience in a job where people are hostile toward her. Did you talk to social workers to understand how they interact patiently even though there’s a lot of volatility around them?
I was surrounded my whole childhood by social workers. My mother died when I was 10. There was a teacher in my junior high school who took me under her wing. She quit teaching to become a social worker.
So, I was lucky that I had Pat Maribelle (the teacher-turned-social worker who took care of her) to mold this character after.
What was your collaboration like with the director, Derek Cianfrance?
When I met with Derek, we had a two-hour meeting, where we didn’t really talk about the script at all. Afterward, he said, “I don’t see anyone else in this part but you.” It was such a big relief.
Derek’s approach to making films is such a family kind of feeling, which makes it very easy for the artists to dig deep inside of themselves.
Since your character got to interact with Dominick and Thomas, who are both played by Mark Ruffalo, how were those scenes filmed?
We have this wonderful actor, Gabe, who came in and played all the parts of Thomas when Mark was still in the Dominick role. Then, we took our break for a couple of months.
I came back and I was there a little later than the normal call. I saw what looked like a homeless guy at craft service. I didn’t even recognize him (Mark). They shaved his head in all crazy ways, and he gained a lot of weight. What a fantastic actor Mark is, I have to say. I was blown away by his work ethic and style.
You are involved in the subject of mental health. This show shines a light on people suffering from mental health issues and the family around them. How important was that aspect when you agreed to be in this miniseries?
I have my own issues with mental health with severe depressive disorder and PTSD, which leads to different types of anxiety. I suffered along with my daughter (Chelsea) as she has tried to figure out herself. So, I know what it’s like to be the family member of someone who’s going through such painful things.
While Thomas is mentally challenged, our empathy is also with Dominick as he struggles with the impact of his brother’s mental illness on him. Was that also the intention of the show—to shed light on the impact of a family member’s mental health on everyone around him?
Yes, because sometimes, the person himself is not really accessible. They’re so lost in the delusions in their brain and thinking things that were happening weren’t happening.
You addressed your own personal demons. Thomas has his brother, Dominick. Did you have people who were there to have your back?
It was really more my job to have their back. I was never hospitalized for my depression. I didn’t have suicidal ideation, although I understand where it comes from. I didn’t really suffer from that. Judy Collins wrote a great book about depression that I read way back when I was just starting.
In fact, it’s coming on the 20-something anniversary of me getting on meds, because it was Columbine (the high school massacre in 1999) that made me go on meds.
Do you find it more satisfying now to act?
I always thought that as I was getting those Geraldine Page roles, those roles for women who didn’t do any plastic surgery and who don’t look perfect, in your 60s—I’m almost 60 (she’s 58) now—work would start coming in.
So this is like the second role after “SMILF” that I got to play a real character and I really loved it. I love being able to act and lose yourself in a part.
If you were not a performer, what do you think you would have become?
I would have been a teacher, for sure. Well, I love kids.
We’ve been dealing with this pandemic for quite sometime now. How do you think this crisis is being handled by the Trump administration?
The powers that be really dropped the ball, and they weren’t prepared. They found out in December about this pandemic. Then, for 70 days, they talked it down and said it was a hoax. They lied to the American people about what was going on in terms of equipment that we need to save lives. It was definitely mishandled by the administration, on every level, trying to make the governors fight with each other in order to get the ventilators they needed.
Do you agree with some psychiatrists who say Trump has some mental health problems?
Yes, I do. There are 27 of the top psychiatrists in the United States who wrote a book (“The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump”) and have an association, Duty To Warn.
Where does your fearlessness come from?
My mother was very outspoken. Injustice was a problem for her wherever she saw it. She was in the parish council at church, and the priest would always tell her, “Roseann, don’t rock the boat.”
Where are you spending these lockdown times?
I live mostly in New York City. I have a daughter who goes to school in Manhattan. But once their school was closed, we came here to our weekend house in New Jersey. So, me, three kids, the nanny and the dog are here.
For a change, let’s talk about what makes you happy.
Crafting. I do crafts in here all day with my kids. I get tremendous joy from my children.
After “Taboo,” are you still interested in producing a Broadway show?
I love doing it. I learned a lot about my illusion of what Broadway was and how it ran.
I do always hope that we could do a revival of it (“Taboo”). I really believe in the show. Stephen Sondheim once said in an interview that he felt “Taboo” was one of the most underrated musicals he had ever seen, which made me feel on top of the world for a few months.
How optimistic are you that once this pandemic is over, people would quickly flock again to the theaters and movie houses?
Not very much. I think it’s gonna take a long time before people feel safe enough to go into a theater.
I’m really worried of what’s going to happen to moviemaking and movie attendance. Now, everyone is used to getting the brand-new movie right on their screens.
What was your earliest memory of having a communal experience of watching a play?
My mother used to take us when we were very young to see the shows at Westbury Music Fair (in New York), a little regional theater where shows would come through. We saw George M. Cohan’s “Give My Regards to Broadway” with Joel Grey.
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