O'Donnell's 'America' long time in making

Lifetime telefilm centers on U.S. foster care system

Rosie O'Donnell waited seven years to see a pet project of hers make it to the small screen, and "America," her Lifetime telefilm that premieres Saturday, likely will have been worth the wait, at least according to the creative and executive talent attending a Paley Center panel Tuesday night.

The two-hour movie, which navigates the U.S. foster care system and the problems youth face when they are aged out of the system at 18, will make an "impact on the foster care system; millions of women will make a difference because that’s what women do," Lifetime Networks executive vp entertainment JoAnn Alfano said introducing the pic.

Following the screening, O'Donnell shared "America's" story to the screen -- from being handed E.R. Frank’s book in 2002 by an intern on her former talk show before leaving for a flight to L.A. to adapting the teleplay in four days before catching her return flight to New York.

"The book spoke to me," she said. "I was a kid who was in a difficult situation as a child; my mom died, there was abuse in the household, I totally related to disassociating, and I was lucky enough to have a teacher who was brand new. ... I was in the seventh grade. ... And that’s the woman that I play in this movie, and America is the kid that I was."

O'Donnell, who plays therapist Dr. Brennan in "America," said she had wanted to make the movie since 2002 and initially envisioned John Leguizamo in the role she wound up playing after Lifetime expressed interest in the project but only if she would topline it.

"Rosie has championed this for six years," exec producer Larry Sanitsky said. "She insisted it be truthful and bleaker than most Lifetime movies. She also talks the talk and walks the walk, having adopted four children and brought in two foster kids to her home. Her passion really trickled down to all of us who made the movie."

In addition to co-writing the telepic and exec producing, O'Donnell was instrumental in casting newcomer Philip Johnson as the title character, having "discovered" him at a restaurant in Detroit just days before production was to start.

Johnson, who has never acted before, was an instant hit with O’Donnell and said that he's "similar" to his character -- "but on a bad day" -- and that he was able to exaggerate his feelings to help with his portrayal of the troubled teenager.

Johnson added that he learned a lot about acting from one of his co-stars, Emmy winner Ruby Dee, who O'Donnell had in mind from the start for the role of America's matriarchal figure.

"From the beginning, Ruby Dee was the first thought," O'Donnell said. "We offered it to her and she accepted right away."

And as for the state of the country's foster care system, O'Donnell is optimistic.

"I see much more hope now than I did in the past eight years, and I think so does the world," she said. "I think that we have a president who is sensitive to the plight of foster kids. This is an African-American man who was raised by a single white woman. That's 'America' right there, and it's about time that we had someone in office who represented the populous."
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