It's a nice surprise to walk into Rosie O'Donnell's house. Located in a quiet town along the Hudson in upstate New York, the residence is discreetly set back from the street, but it's no celebrity fortress. It's a place to rake leaves and toss a football and eat ice cream--a real home for a real family.
It feels right that Rosie and Kelli have invited me here to talk about All Aboard! Rosie's Family Cruise, airing April 6 on HBO. The documentary, which follows 2004's inaugural R Family cruise, is a family affair, with all four O'Donnell kids on deck beside their famous moms. Indeed, when Rosie and Kelli O'Donnell attended the world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, they took the kids as well. "We wanted them to have a full understanding of what it was and why we did it," Rosie says. "Because it really meant a lot to them, this cruise, and the movie. They're in it, and it's gonna be forever, you know?"
Inside the O'Donnells' house, light pours in from windows facing the river. Oversize chairs flank a massive coffee table neatly piled with picture books and playthings. Blond and gracious, Kelli O'Donnell blends right into the sunbeams. My eye shoots toward the dark knot of energy sitting quiet on the couch. Rosie O'Donnell, in sweatpants and socks, gives off major mojo.
The force field turns out to be a crackling intelligence. For the next hour, Kelli at her side, Rosie is candid, reflective, and realistic about her journey to date. The 44-year-old comedian who once wrote a memoir called Find Me now seems to be a happy woman who knows just where she's going.
Her millions of fans know all about Rosie's turbulent life. (On her blog, they often write her about their own.) Devastated at age 10 when her mother died of breast cancer, Rosie learned early how to give back as good as she got. She struck gold as a grown-up with The Rosie O'Donnell Show, which ran from 1996 until she left in 2002. But she was clear that building her own family was more important. When she came out publicly in 2002, it was as a gay parent in support of adoption by gays. Even before Rosie's bruising 2003 lawsuit with publisher Gruner + Jahr over the rights to Rosie magazine, the O'Donnells were brainstorming about a new travel company to serve gay families.
R Family may turn out to be Rosie O'Donnell's biggest hit yet. But it's not a solo show. In the next hour I'll learn how Rosie came to build her nest with the former Miss Kelli Carpenter of Baton Rouge, La.--and how these two women from opposite points on the map found such strength together that they had enough left over to float the biggest cruise ship on the ocean.
All Aboard follows a number of really personal, emotional stories. What was it like to have people filming this cruise?
Rosie: At first we were worried that it would taint the experience for the passengers. [When HBO's John Hoffman and Sheila Nevins suggested making the film] we still didn't know what the cruise would be. We didn't even know if we were gonna sell a cabin!
Kelli: Also, it was our very first time to do this. To have cameras filming and boom mikes hanging over us, it was a little unnerving.
Rosie: But I'm thrilled that they did it, because I didn't get to experience the cruise fully until I saw the documentary. When you see the movie you really realize the impact that this had for people, and it's very touching.
How did you actually make this cruise happen?
Kelli: The idea's been around for a long time, but it takes more than just an idea. There's a lot of pieces that had to come together to make it work. It was really a group effort, wouldn't you say?
Rosie: Yeah. It was as simple as we went to Provincetown [with Gregg Kaminsky, former executive with Atlantis Cruises] and we saw family week, and at dinner I was like, "It would be amazing if we could make a thing like this for gay people," and Gregg said, "Well, you could. …