February 10, 2011 12:00 PM by Shayla Perry
She’s baaaaaack! Rosie O’Donnell is gearing up for a return to TV with The Rosie O’Donnell Show, set to premiere this September on OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Network. But first, O’Donnell’s going to be featured on this season of NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?. See what Rosie had to say about her “amazing” journey through her family’s past in a recent Q&A with the press (including RTVM), and what fans can expect to see (and not see) on The Rosie O’Donnell show.
You’ve been out of the television spotlight for a little bit, so why did you decide to do this as well as your show on OWN that’s coming up?
Well, this show is interesting because I had watched it and thought to myself, “Wow, those people are so brave,” and I didn’t really know very much about my family history at all. And so, Lisa [Kudrow] and I are friendly and she asked me if I would do it and I said as long as we did my mom’s side. I would be really curious because I knew nothing about her life. She died in ’73 and it was never really spoken about in any way. She was an only child.
So, I called my brother Eddie and said to him, “Would this interest you because if you’re willing to do it, I’d like to do it with you.” And I thought it would really help our relationship. You know, my mom’s death is something that was never discussed, and still isn’t discussed even though, you know, we’re nearing 50, and I thought it was a way to bridge that gap. And I also love the show and I think it’s very interesting, so that’s the reason I decided to do Who Do You Think You Are.
And the reason I decided to do a show for the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) is because Oprah Winfrey asked me.
What was the most revealing thing you found out about your family background, and were there any expectations before you decided to do the search?
I said, “I guess I don’t want to find out that they lived a life like Angela’s Ashes, the Frank McCourt book.” And they [the producers] sort of nodded and said–you know, didn’t say anything. And I came to find out it was very similar, if not even harder than the life than Frank McCourt lived, so that was really shocking to me, I think.
What do you hope viewers will learn or take away from watching you on this journey–about you, and what will they learn about themselves?
Well, they’ll learn I needed a haircut, because that’s one thing I saw when I saw the rough cut. Boy, I could have used a trim. And I don’t know, I think they’ll see how rewarding it is to do the search for themselves, and I hope that it inspires people to go to Ancestry.com and– or any of the websites that do it and look up their family, because I didn’t know that it would have the kind of emotional resonance that it did. I didn’t know that it would really change my world view or change the way I saw myself in the world now.
I almost feel as though I’m carrying all of the stories of my mother’s family that brought her to this country and brought me here as a result. So, I hope that people look into their ancestry. I never thought it would change anything about me. I thought it would almost be boring and, I don’t know, I did not expect the emotional impact that the show had on my life.
With genealogy, homosexuality isn’t really a part of what you might seek, but did you find anything about that when you looked back into the past?
No, I didn’t. I thought I would find maybe something like that about my grandmother because she didn’t get married until she was very old, and there were all these photos and her and other women on the beach in the 20′s. And I remember saying to my brother, “Eddie, wouldn’t that be funny to find out like if Nana was gay?” But no, there were no gays. We didn’t find any gays.
Although, you know, I don’t know how recorded it would have been in the census of the 1800′s, right, so who knows if one of my, you know, distant relatives. But, we found mostly, you know, Irish Catholic people who got married and had lots of children, but there was no homosexuality that we discovered in any way.
Did you ever hesitate about sharing too much about your personal life with the public by doing this?
I did and I think that’s why I chose my mother’s side. I think that, you know, there’s stuff on my father’s side that’s kind of tragic and personal and he’s got a lot of siblings and they’re still in various states of distress and I didn’t want to go there on that side.
So, you know, I did worry. I did say to them, “What if something comes up that I don’t want shared?” And they said, you know, “We would be willing to discuss it and take it out and if it’s something that really is too hard for you…” So they were very, very helpful. And it’s not like a scandal driven show. They’re not trying to find some sort of horrible truth about a celebrity’s past. They’re just trying to show people that going through your ancestry can really be healing and miraculous and kind of amazing for your own life today.
But I did worry initially and was comforted by the fact that Lisa [Kudrow] and her team didn’t seem to have any hidden agenda.
Which celebrity would you be interested to see profiled on Who Do You Think You Are and why?
I’d say Natasha Lyonne. And I got to know her fairly–about two years ago doing Love, Loss, and What I Wore, Nora Ephron’s Broadway show. And I really did not know anything about her. I had not seen any of her movies and since getting to know her I find her to be one of the smartest women I’ve ever met. She’s only 31 years old.
She has an amazing story about her grandparents being in the Holocaust and what that was like for them. Her grandmother and her sister both survived Auschwitz, her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister. And so Natasha was raised by a child of a Holocaust survivor and the ramifications of that. And I think it’s a pretty fascinating story and I would love to be able to see her tale told on that show.
Did you come across another ancestor–maybe somebody you weren’t aware of who really spoke to you or just captivated you?
Yeah. There was a story of a photo that hung in our house my entire life in the den. And whenever we would ask my grandmother who is that picture she would never say. She would sort of– no one ever knew who this was, but this photo was up there our whole life. And it was like a photo from the late 1800′s and that sort of kind of Victorian almost look. And we found out who that woman was and what her story was and how she was related to us. And it is a fairlt miraculous [tale] and pretty shocking as well.
And no one ever told it in our family and I don’t know why because my grandmother obviously had to know who the person was but did not want to bring it up. And it just hung there and it was a person who died a pretty tragic death and, I don’t know, I was very shocked to find out the story of the mystery woman in our house.
How will your show on OWN compare to your previous show?
It’ll be much more like her show than it is like my old one. So, it’s not going to be a bunch of guests coming in to promote a movie. It’s going to be a single topic, one hour, similar to hers. Although, you know, nobody can come close to doing what she actually did. That will be the format that we’re [going to] copy.
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Photo credit: NBC