Rosie O’ Donnell has long cemented her place in the comedy world, becoming a household name with her own wildly successful daytime talk show and two long stints as a co-host on “The View.” But with her recent role as Tutu in Showtime’s “SMILF,” the comic was able to embody her most complex character to date, exploring themes surrounding death, sex and mental illness in Frankie Shaw’s nothing-is-off-limits series. In the second-season premiere, all three were wrapped up in one complicated arc as Tutu lost her long-time partner to suicide.
O’Donnell: “It was the best show I’ve ever been in. It was a deep and multi-layered role and when I met Frankie she asked me if I was willing to go to the dark places that people don’t normally go and I told her that I was. And I met her mother and we got really close and I figured out what Frankie was trying to tell me about her mother. So it was a gift, this role, being able to do it, and having it be based on the real life of Frankie.
“She had help for us every time we needed it. Everyone was complimenting me about my acting performance and I would say, ‘Thank you, it was in the writing.’ Because she set up these beautiful characters that we could play with and have fun with yet in each episode have meaningful moments that you take away from it.
“‘SMILF’s’ a comedy and a drama and it’s real-life situations; it’s almost like documentary-realism in a family as opposed to just the outer layer of what it feels like. All the many layers beneath it are given a voice, too, and I think that’s what makes it such a brilliant show. The great thing about working with Frankie was she was not really tied or attached to the script. It was never, ‘You have to stick to the script and not venture away from it.’ Everything that we needed to improvise from was already there in the written part and they were just kind enough to let us improvise.
“I really resonated with Tutu’s rage — how she would get so angry and out of control and then feel so bad about it. I felt a lot of compassion for her. [People] my are therapy-oriented [but] it was like the generation before, in the ’60s and ’70s, they didn’t have that opportunity as much to go to therapy and figure it all out. It was generations of dysfunction continued to get passed down until finally Frankie’s character broke it. She broke that tradition of ‘just shut up and get through’ by talking about everything and by having these themes that she wasn’t afraid to explore.
“Frankie and I are both ardent feminists, and I think that comes out in the work. Now with the #MeToo movement, feminism is getting its rightful voice again, a place that it kind of lost after the ’70s. I think that for feminist artists, it’s always a challenge to make sure your ideals and your goals and your pointing out the patriarchy is something that you continue to do whether it’s in your art or your life or your politics or whatever.
“‘SMILF’ [was] definitely a feminist show. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to get my teeth into a great acting role and I think it’s opened a lot of doors for me in terms of people seeing me as an actress again, and I credit that all to Frankie for believing in me.”