In the Bristol Lounge of Boston's stately Four Seasons hotel, the tone is set by buttery oak walls and ceilings, gathered drapes, swirling carpets. A stone's throw from Boston Common and a few blocks from the city's theater district, the bar-restaurant is the kind of place one reasonably might expect to see opera singer Jessye Norman reclining on a plush fireside sofa while a classic mid-February blizzard rages outside.
It isn't the sort of joint you'd imagine that Betty Rubble would pick for dinner. And yet, isn't that her high-pitched, Stone Age cartoon laugh, spilling forth from a corner table?
"Ahnnnn hnnn hnnn. Bamm-Bamm, put that down!"
OK, so the voice isn't coming from someone with bare feet and a cave-woman cocktail dress. But it might as well be.
Rosie O'Donnell--adorned by the same gray sweat pants, navy blue sweat shirt, black high-tops and zero makeup she had on when she left theater rehearsals that day--clearly has about as much respect for the sanctity of her posh surroundings as Dino had for Fred.
The stand-up comic-turned-actress is explaining how she won her role as Betty in the upcoming "Flintstones" movie, and that explanation seems to require a demonstration of "The Laugh." So without hesitation, apparently oblivious to the power-tie and Perrier crowd dining around her, laugh she does. Loudly.
She is one of the fastest rising personalities in the entertainment business--movie offers by the fistful, a starring role in a revival of "Grease" headed for Broadway (May 11, after a stop in Orange County beginning Tuesday), best friend to Madonna--but she's having none of the Terence Trent D'Arby Syndrome that proudly announces newcomer-with-an-attitude.
During this interview, at least, she is candid, nonchalant and altogether real--even stopping mid-sentence at one point to ask her interviewer if that is Jessye Norman across the room, then excusing herself to go meet the diva, like some wide-eyed kid running into Roger Clemens outside Fenway Park.
Between gulps of Coke and bites of gentrified Thai spring rolls and chicken satay, O'Donnell, 32, chats almost nonstop on subjects that range from her own Long Island upbringing to Tonya Harding, movie making and the allegations of pedophilia against Michael Jackson. Nothing, it seems, is off-limits.
The most immediate questions: Why "Grease"? Why now?
Her movie career has been humming along nicely ("Car 54, Where Are You?" notwithstanding) since the success of her debut in "A League of Their Own" in 1992--last year, she did "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Another Stakeout"--so this might not seem the best moment to take a nine-month hiatus. But with "The Flintstones" headed for theaters May 27 and the Garry Marshall-directed "Exit to Eden" targeted for summer release, O'Donnell thinks her timing is just about perfect.
"I'm done with (the 'Grease' tour and Broadway run) by the end of October, so I'll be back making movies by November," she explains. "Besides that, if you do movie after movie, the public gets sick of you." (She's on screen--briefly--in the current "I'll Do Anything," the scrapped musical version of which featured a rap number with her and Woody Harrelson.)
As to why "Grease" specifically: well, because Tommy Tune cast her. The original musical, by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, debuted on Broadway in 1972; this revival is a Tune production, directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun.
"They were looking for a 'name' to be one of the lead roles, and when I said I had wanted to do Rizzo, they thought that would probably work," she said.
Calhoun says he first knew the casting would work when O'Donnell brought a yo-yo to rehearsals one day, lending Rizzo an added dimension.
"I never in a million years would have thought of the yo-yo," the director confessed over the phone from Seattle, where the production was camped earlier this week. "I knew from that moment that we were OK."
O'Donnell has wanted to do just about any role in just about any musical on Broadway since she was old enough to memorize every line and lyric to "Funny Girl" (a talent she retains, and--in Streisand-esque comic voice--uses periodically to punctuate interviews such as this one).
But she is under no delusions that she has Barbra Streisand's vocal chops. Or even Stockard Channing's, who played Rizzo in the movie version.
"I was never really a singer, except for maybe in the shower or something like that. But I always wanted to do it because to me there is nothing like the thrill of going to a Broadway show when the lights go down and you have that orchestra in front of you. I always get goose bumps. It's the reason I went into show business in the first place."
So far, she says, the reception has been warm and forgiving.