If there’s one TV performance that truly turned heads this past season, it was Rosie O’Donnell in the HBO limited series adaptation of Wally Lamb’s novel, I Know This Much Is True. Playing social worker Lisa Sheffer opposite Mark Ruffalo’s identical twin brothers, Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, the longtime performer and TV host not only brought a deep compassion to the supporting role but showed why, at 58 years old, Hollywood needs to start taking her seriously.
In the angsty story about the parallel lives of the Birdsey twins, Thomas ends up in a psychiatric hospital where Lisa is assigned to his case. Over the course of the series, audiences watch as she advocates for Thomas while trying to dissuade Dominick from taking matters into his own hands.
While O’Donnell only appears in one or two scenes per episode, she fully embodies the character of Lisa to the point that you feel like there’s so much more to her that we’re not getting to see. And that’s because she put in a lot of her own history with a young teacher, Pat Maravel, who looked after O’Donnell following her mother's death when she was 10 years old. Not long after that, Maravel became a much-needed mother figure for O’Donnell, helping with everything from school to taking her to the gynecologist for the first time.
“She just took me into her family in a way that was so healing and so monumental for me,” O’Donnell tells ET, adding that after years of teaching, Maravel became a social worker and spent the rest of her time doing that before dying eight years ago. “She went above and beyond the call of duty to take this motherless child in,” she adds.
As a performer, O’Donnell was able to capture Maravel’s innate essence and put it into the character. The end result is a standout performance that not only earned her rave reviews (“O’Donnell, stripped of any hint of wisecracking, builds off the momentum of her great work in SMILF,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter’s Daniel Feinberg), but also resulted in the performer being on the receiving end of congratulatory notes from the likes of Rosanna Arquette and Patricia Heaton as well as comedians she’s worked with in the past.
“It’s been very, very gratifying to have my work seen in such a wonderful light,” she says, adding that she would be “overwhelmed” if she were to be nominated for the series, which would mark her first acting nomination since 1996, when she appeared as herself on The Larry Sanders Show.
Although her turn in the HBO series is earning much-deserved attention, it shouldn’t come as any surprise O’Donnell could deliver a performance like this. While her career has largely been defined by her comedic roles as well as hosting duties on The Rosie O’Donnell Show and The View, her feature film debut as professional baseball player Doris Murphy in 1992’s A League of Their Own or recurring roles on Queer as Folk and The Fosters was proof it was all there on screen -- even if just briefly -- all along. “The goal was always to be an actress,” she says.
More recently, O’Donnell made a notable return to acting on the short-lived Showtime series SMILF, where she played creator and star Frankie Shaw’s mother, Tutu. In fact, it was the latter that led her to the HBO series. Ruffalo’s wife, Sunrise Coigney, liked her on the show and suggested her for Lisa.
And when it comes to her career moving forward, she’s done appearing on game shows as herself or playing the funny friend in something. “I really want to lose myself in a role,” she says, adding that the best compliment she got for I Know This Much Is True was from her best friend of 53 years, Jackie. “She said to me, ‘Ro, at the end of that thing, I didn’t even see you. I just saw the character,’ and I was like, ‘That’s pretty impressive for somebody who you’ve known your whole entire life.’”
O’Donnell adds that she is now much more drawn to dramatic roles as she starts looking at what to do next. “I’m hoping that this performance will allow me or open the doors for me to do more,” she says, revealing that friends of hers who worked on dramedies like Transparent or Better Things are hoping to create something unique for O’Donnell where she can really get to act and play in that space that balances humor with levity and real emotion that draws from her own personal experiences as someone in transition as she approaches her 60s.
“We’ll see what we can pull together and whether or not that happens,” O’Donnell says, adding that this moment is “pretty much what an actress or actor waits for.”
ET’s “Standout Performances” recognize the best of the 2019-2020 TV season. See more of our favorites below: