She didn't have to be asked twice. Rosie O'Donnell will join the hit ABC Family series The Fosters on Monday, Jan. 20 (9/8c), for a multi-episode storyline. Her role: Rita Hendricks, the tough-love operator of a group home that takes in runaway Callie Jacob (Maia Mitchell). TV Guide Magazine spoke with O'Donnell — actress, activist and super-Tweeter — about landing this cool new gig on one of her favorite shows.
TV Guide Magazine: Aren't you kind of living The Fosters in real life?
O'Donnell: That's exactly what my 11-year-old daughter, Vivi, said! She's a big fan of ABC Family — she loves Twisted and Pretty Little Liars and all those programs — and one day she was all excited about this new show coming on. "It's just like us — two mommies and bunch of different kids. Let's watch!" So we did, and I was extremely moved by it.
TV Guide Magazine: Did you approach the show about a role? Or did they come after you?
O'Donnell: I googled The Fosters and found out Peter Paige, whom I worked with on Queer as Folk, was the co-creator. I emailed him to say how much my family loved the show and he wrote back and asked if I'd do a role. I said, "In a minute!"
TV Guide Magazine: We find out early on that your character is a food addict. Are there other revelations in store?
O'Donnell: Rita has some pretty deep reasons for getting into this line of work and a real Achilles' heel. You'll find out why she's not able to treat herself as well as she's able to treat these troubled kids. They remind her of what she once was. You know, this group-home thing is something a lot of people in this country don't know about. There are safe places like these in almost every community where kids who are aging out of foster care are living together, usually with one social worker and a couple of young associates, in an effort to reconnect those wires that somehow were snipped, those synapses that don't quite fire in their brains. It's a great social system that helps these kids survive what has become a very hidden epidemic in this nation. The independent-living home you see on The Fosters involves no bars on the window, no lockdown. Just trust.
TV Guide Magazine: How would your life have been different if there was a show like The Fosters when you were growing up?
O'Donnell: God, I can't even imagine! I remember going to church as a kid and hearing the priest talk about Soap and how horrible it was to have a gay character on TV. That's stuff you carry with you for life. Remember that sitcom Love, Sidney in the early '80s? Tony Randall played a gay man but the only real reference that he'd once had a male partner was having him look lovingly at a photo on the mantelpiece every once in a while, and that show was cancelled in a second. Things didn't really start to change in a big way until Will & Grace came along. [Laughs] And when I heard the premise of that show I was sure it was doomed! Last year, when DOMA was declared unconstitutional, I changed internally in a way that surprised me. I suddenly realized how much shame I'd been carrying because I did not feel equal. Now the world is shifting and there's so much more acceptance and understanding, especially within the younger generation. The Fosters has done an awful lot to help that.
TV Guide Magazine: In your wildest dreams, did you ever imagine you'd see such changes?
O'Donnell: Never. I'm still kind of in shock. I came out of my therapist's office a couple of months ago and I see two teenage girls holding hands and walking through the parking lot. I stopped them and said, "Excuse me, are you guys a couple?" They were kind of sensitive and weirded out at first but they said, "Yeah." And so I asked them, "Then it's cool with your parents and the people at your school? You're just so beautifully in love and so comfortable with each other!" I was getting really choked up. I said, "I'm 51-years-old and I'm gay." [Laughs] And they were like, "Oh, uh...well, congratulations!" They didn't really understand what it meant for someone my age to see that, especially having just come from my shrink where I was talking through my feelings about DOMA. This generation — four generations from my own childhood — is able to live in a fairly shame-free way and that is so fantastic and overwhelming to me. That said, I don't really think of The Fosters as a gay show.
TV Guide Magazine: Why's that?
O'Donnell: It's a family drama about a clan that just happens to be headed by two lesbians. It's about how families come together nowadays. In that same way, I don't consider it a biracial show, just because one of the moms is African-American. It's about very recognizable, very relatable, really wonderful people. Vivi does have one complaint — that the mommies don't kiss enough. I told that to Peter Paige and he said, "That's an indication you're in a good and happy marriage and your child recognizes that. Because a lot people who watch our show say, 'Why do those women kiss so damn much?'"
TV Guide Magazine: Is Vivi pushing for a guest appearance?
O'Donnell: She is dying to be on The Fosters! She's like, "Mom, why can't you tell them to write me in? I definitely want to be on this show. I definitely mean it!" And I say, "Honey, that's not how the entertainment business works!" And she fires back: "Well, what about Will Smith's kids? They have record deals! They're in movies!"
TV Guide Magazine: You do kind of owe her. You probably wouldn't be on The Fosters without her, right?
O'Donnell: Hey, you'll get no argument from Vivi. She says, "You wouldn't have even known about this show or ABC Family if it wasn't for me! You didn't even like Pretty Little Liars until I made you watch it with me in a binge weekend!" It's true. [Laughs] I can't argue with that!