Sundance Buzz: A Family Affair

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Former talk show host Rosie OíDonnell made her first trip to the Sundance Film Festival to debut the documentary All Aboard! Rosieís Family Cruise. The film, which was commissioned by HBO (a division of Time's parent company, Time Warner) and will air on the cable channel April 6, profiles gay families aboard a 2004 cruise from New York City to the Caribbean that was organized by OíDonnell and her partner Kelli O'Donnell. Rosie spoke to TIME about the challenges of gay parenting.

TIME: Where did you get the idea to take a vacation with other gay families?

ROSIE OíDONNELL: We went to Provincetown (Mass.) and we had never been there before. I heard it was this great eclectic magical city and I thought yeah, but we have Greenwich Village right here in New York, so I never thought to go there. But we went and I was totally drawn to the place. There was a huge mix of all different kinds of families of all different make-ups. And when we were there we saw a sign for family week for gay families and friends of gay families. So we went back for family week, and took the kids. It was organized by a non-profit called Family Pride Coalition. They threw a clambake and there were speeches and there were kids on a panel who talked about being members of families with gay parents and our kids participated. We are very lucky in New York that our children are not the only gay family even on our street. But the stories that we heard that week of people who had come from all over the country just to give their kids that experience. I thought what could we do that could replicate this? And my friend Greg who had run Atlantis, the gay male cruise business for many years said Ďwhy donít we do a cruise like Atlantis but for gay families?í I thought that was a great idea because there is really nothing for gay families to do other than Family Pride Coalition events.

TIME: How did you find the families that would be interested in going?

RD: We had no idea. I said ĎWe have to rent the best ship there isí and Kelli and Greg said thatís ridiculous -- it fits 2,500 people. But I wanted it to be the best experience of these familiesí lives. I wanted them to be treated with dignity and respect. So we take the risk and we see if we build it, who will come. We advertised in gay media and I did shows like The Tonight Show and talked about it as much as I could and people called and booked. It was very moving that first morning when we walked down the port in the New York and there were kids and babies and parents. And I was with my four kids and I started to cry. And I looked and they were all crying. And I was like Ďoh my God they showed up.í It was overwhelming.

TIME: For the kids you could tell this was a great experience to be able to play and be with other families like theirs.

RD: To not have shame. So many children are either afraid or ashamed. We were not expecting to change peopleís lives but it did. It was by far the most emotionally satisfying thing Iíve ever done in my career.

TIME: Why did you make a film about it?

RD: It wasnít my idea. John Hoffman and Sheila Nevins at HBO called and asked ĎWhat are you guys doing?í At first I was worried because I didnít want it to affect the experience of the passengers. But only five or ten percent didnít want to be photographed, because they were either teachers or in federal law enforcement or that they could not be seen on a gay cruise or didnít want be seen. So we had to make areas where there would be no filming or post when there was filming, but 90% of the people were dying to be on it and asking to be on it. I worried that it would taint the experience and it didnít in any way. In fact Iím so thankful that they made it because I didnít get to experience the cruise in the way I did when I watched the documentary.

TIME:† Sadly it wasnít all utopia because you ended up running into protesters in the Bahamas.

RD: I didnít see because I didnít get off the boat. But I heard about it. Atallah Shabazz, Malcolm X and Betty Shabazzís eldest daughter was on the boat as a guest and she called me when she got the note that said there would be protesters and she said ĎI would like to go speak on your behalf and on behalf of the boatí which of course made me cry, it was like a movie. Sheís a close friend and someone I look to for guidance in my life, spiritually and in many ways, and I knew that her request was telling me Ďyou need to stay on the boat.í Because I didnít know how I would react. I grew up in New York. I didnít have parents to come out to. Iíve never faced that anger and bigotry. I just wasnít prepared. So when people got off and told me their experience, I didnít see it until I saw the film. And then it was overwhelming.

TIME: Now that youíre talking about you and Kelli building a family together, have you heard from other gay families across the country about whether it helps them to talk openly about their families?

RD: Sometimes. Like we went out last night to a Broadway show and there were two men who stopped us and said ĎWe are in the process of adopting and we want to thank you for the inspiration.í We sort of get that in a general way, but I donít think specifically. But I do understand that we are role models, like it or not, for the gay community in terms of the family, and we take that responsibility seriously.

TIME: Do you like it?

RD: Well I donít think that you have a choice, like it or not. I knew when I adopted Parker I was going to raise him in the light, and not to be ashamed, without lies. Our children have never not known. Although people in the public didnít know that I was gay, everyone in my career always knew. Before I signed the deal with Warner Brothers to have a talk show there was a meeting and I said ĎI just want to be clear in front of everyone here that Iím gay and Iím going to probably not talk about it. I canít imagine wanting to talk about it but I have a son and my son is going to go to school and Iím going to be open and honest with the teachers as I have in my life.í I just wanted everyone to know. It wasnít as though it was a secret. It was a secret within the press reporting it because the press didnít really do that. Itís hard to imagine now with Ellen coming out and Will and Grace, but so much has happened now since my show started (more than ten years ago) Was I hiding? No. She (Kelli) sat next to me at the Emmys every year and when I almost died with my hand (O'Donnell was hospitalized with a severe staph infection in 2001), and I got the Emmy award I said ĎI want to thank Kelli who slept on the floor of ICU and saved my hand and my life, I love you.í I donít know how much more out you could be. Still it wasnít really reported. Iím not just blaming the media. Itís not like I volunteered the information. But I didnít hide the information.

TIME: Is the cruise going to happen every year?

RD: Yes. In fact in the summer weíre going to Alaska and that oneís pretty much sold out. Because of that starting in í07 there will be two, one in February for spring break that will go to the Eastern Caribbean and one in the summer again.

TIME: And will you, Kelli and the kids go on these trips?

RD: Yes we will. We couldnít keep the kids away. They have a countdown calendar. Definitely we will go on all of them. Thatís part of the gig. I want to be there to meet people and participate. And it was very inspirational for our family as well. Weíre also doing it for ourselves.