LOS ANGELES — Rosie O’Donnell has been a talk show host, starred in movies and made numerous guest starring appearances on television series. It wasn’t until her agent showed her the short films made by Frankie Shaw that O’Donnell knew she wanted to have a major part in the new Showtime series being made by the Boston filmmaker.
Shaw’s “SMILF” (a single MILF), which premiered Sunday, is based on her short film of the same name, which won the Short Film Jury Prize for Fiction at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. It looks at the life of Bridgette Bird (Shaw), a determined and independent single mom trying to deal with her extremely unconventional family. Bird’s struggles to make ends meet often results in immature decisions but those are always based on wanting to make a better life for her son.
Shaw serves as the executive producer of the series, which will take on such topics as motherhood, co-parenting and female sexuality. In keeping with Shaw’s feminist roots, each episode is helmed by a female director.
O’Donnell got the major role she wanted playing Tutu, a tough, opinionated and narcissistic mother who’s resistant to change of any kind, especially when it comes to her neighborhood. Tutu struggles with manic depression and has a volatile relationship with almost everyone in her life, especially her daughter (Shaw).
“My agent sent me the short films that Frankie did, and I was blown away by both of them,” O’Donnell said. “My agent said very meekly on the phone, ‘This is not really an offer. You have to talk to her on FaceTime.’ I was like, ‘Get that woman on FaceTime. Let’s see what we can do.’
“And I was just absolutely shocked by her talent and the message and the kind of feminist perspective that she had in a very universal way. And I was really thrilled to be a 55-year-old woman and see a 30-year-old woman being able to make those two pieces of brilliant art an eight-minute form [that] was all that any 55-year-old feminist would ever wish for. It was like a dream come true. I said, ‘I’ll do anything that she needs or wants if she’ll have me.’ And, she said yes.”
Because the series is loosely based on Shaw’s life, O’Donnell wanted to make sure she was doing justice to the series creator’s mother. O’Donnell got the information she needed to play the characters after splitting a couple of bottles of wine with Shaw’s mother.
“We were lucky. We got to hang out a lot. I spent Thanksgiving with Frankie and her family and all of the mother siblings, the aunts and uncles. I don’t have a mom. My mom died when I was 10, so to see what would have been my mother’s life in Frankie’s mother was kind of a beautiful and healing thing for me,” O’Donnell said. “You know, it’s working class Irish people, and that’s who I was growing up, and that’s who you remain. It felt familiar, loving and really authentic.
“I liked her very much. I saw her vulnerability. I saw her self-doubt, and I also saw her pride in her daughter, whether or not she’s able to express it. And that will be an interesting challenge as an actress to play a mother who sometimes chooses to disassociate what she’s afraid of, the intimacy.”
Shaw knew in her initial chat with O’Donnell that she was the right person for the role because O’Donnell told her she wanted to disappear into the role. The commitment and willingness to do that was obvious from the first rehearsal.
Taking on the role of Tutu won’t be just a place for O’Donnell to act silly or face deep dramatic moments. The role comes with some serious demands, as she will have to deal with her character facing the complexities of mental illness and having uncontrolled rage occasionally. While that might scare some actors, the opportunity excites O’Donnell.
“For me, it’s thrilling to be able to play somebody with mental illness. I suffer from major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, and I’ve been medicated since April 1999, right after Columbine. World events seem to be big triggers for me, so when I was talking to Frankie initially on that first FaceTime call, I said that was an issue that I really would love to explore in an accurate and realistic way,” O’Donnell said. “There are so many millions of people in the United States who don’t get the help that I was lucky enough to get and don’t medicate themselves in a manner that’s going to be beneficial to their long-term health.
“I think that Tutu never really had the ability or the support in her community and because of her age to go talk to someone and to get the kind of help that she needs, so we will be dealing with that concept as well.”
O’Donnell’s passion to deal with the mental illness issue comes from her own journey. The first time she spoke publicly about her battles with depression, people in her own family were very angry and didn’t want her to talk about it. She knows that was a different time. When O’Donnell started her career in 1979, no one was out on television. No one was talking about mental illness. She has seen the world change dramatically especially in how serious topics like mental illness can be discussed on a TV series like “SMILF.”