Real artists are chameleons. They change by remaining the same.
I am sure Isabella Rossellini would appreciate this metaphor. In the last decade, she has completely given in to her visceral passion for the animal world. Set off in 2007, this zoophile journey has taken her to a new career level, without stopping her, nonetheless, from pursuing what has contributed to making her the icon she is, namely, beauty and cosmetics: Lancôme got back to her in 2016 — after 25 years from her last campaign — and asked her to be their testimonial again.
Not bad for a 65-year-old girl.
Sunday, December 10, at 92nd Street Y, Isabella Rossellini was not Isabella Rossellini the actress, the stunning beauty, the goddess. She did play those roles in her career. “The most difficult roles are the ones where you have to play the beauty: there is nothing else to play,” she confessed candidly and firmly to the audience — and one’s memory runs instantly to Death Becomes Her, a 1992 movie that probably echoed that kind of meager actorial involvement.
Last Sunday Isabella Rossellini was the animal lover, the owner of a farm that supplies six restaurants in New York City with fresh vegetables, the writers who writes about her poultry — My Chickens and I (2017) — and who could lecture for hours and hours about the endangered species of chickens she breeds in her property. She is the woman who gaily acknowledges, “My perfect day is at my farm, with my animals, my people.” She refers to the farm where she lives in Brookhaven, Long Island, one hour and a half away from the City.
So yes, Isabella Rossellini would fancy the chameleon’s comparison. In the last ten years, a great deal of her time has been devoted to nature — theory and practice. She enrolled in a Master’s Degree in Animal Behavior at Hunter College. From there, accepting to film a Sundance Channel-commissioned documentary, Green, was a short leap. And even shorter was the leap to Green Porno, the three 18-episode series on animal sexual behavior launched in 2008 that Isabella wrote and directed herself, where she acts out the mating rituals and reproductive behavior of various animals while commentary is played in sync. Gaining viral resonance through a then-newborn YouTube, the series was an unexpected success, so much so that a theater version in the form of monologue has reached stages all over America.
A nonprofit community center as well as a cultural institution of New York City for the last 140 years, 92nd Street Y is well-known for organizing “talks” with master names within the arts. An actress, a film-maker, a writer, a philanthropist and a model, Isabella Rossellini fitted in perfectly.
We expected Leonard Lopate to interview her, as scheduled, but unfortunately the recent allegations fallen upon the popular WNYC host have called for a last-minute replacement: Caryn James, from BBC Culture, was summoned on stage with Madame Rossellini.
The first topic on the table was the successful drama series Shut Eye, in which Rossellini plays the role of Romani crime boss Rita Marks. “To interpret her I looked at The Godfather, especially at Marlon Brando. The character he played was a criminal, nonetheless, he was also a common man. What a genius idea to play natural like that!, I thought. And I stole that from him. Rita is totally immoral, but she is also a grandmother. She loves her family, she is protective, and caring. And yet she is ruthless.”
Asked about the experience of acting in a series versus acting in a movie, Isabella shows no hesitation, “A series is fast! You don’t have the time to analyze, to go deep into a character. But the more you play them, the more you know them. In a scene I had to enter a house. Well, it came natural to me to storm in there, because Rita could have entered a house only that way. This is to say that you learn about the characters — they also evolve, they are alive.” The actress added that after one series shot in Vancouver and one series shot in Los Angeles, she felt lonely — especially in Vancouver — and wanted to come back home, to New York, to her farm. And she eventually did it.
From pictures to cosmetics. “I have been very surprised at Lancôme coming back to me after 25 years. I
was in Paris, and I saw this motorcyclist stopping before the hotel where I was staying. And a woman getting off the motorbike and strutting into the hotel, helmet under her arm. She was Lancôme new CEO! They have changed, I said to myself… You know, men understand cosmetics as seduction tools. But cosmetics aren’t just that. They are fun. Women like to play with them, with their colors, their shapes. I accepted Lancôme’s proposal because I wanted to emphasize this, and change. For instance, they dropped the word ‘anti-aging’ from their campaign, and that was important. I liked to work with them, and it was incredible to see how everything, and also the role of women, has evolved.”
The next topic on the list was Rossellini’s involvement in Green Porno, above-mentioned web series launched at the dawn of YouTube. “When Sundance Channel came to me and asked if I wanted to do it, I thought, yes, I can make it. It was meant to be an experiment. But then it became a theater show, and I was at the BAM in Brooklyn and in many other theaters I toured…
What really interests me, about this project, is the communication. Scientists have respect for our language, for semantics. But as an actor I know it is not so much about language, but it’s all about behavior. And my show is about this — empathy, interaction, communication. I have many animals in my farm. Chickens, turkeys, dogs. They have very different personalities. There can be the shy one, the adventurous one, the one who is always getting in troubles… And there are animals that change sex during their life. There are hermaphrodites. You have everything there!”
Isabella laughs, and her laughter is really a contagious disease the audience is happy to be infected with.
To stick to animals… there comes the turn of the elephant in the room… Being the child of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini — two cinema legends of all times — must not have been a walk in the park. “When I was a child, I thought everybody’s parents were famous! And this happened also to my daughter Elettra: she thought every child had giant posters of their parents hanging in airports, in the subway, or billboards along the streets, as she saw my face everywhere… My life as their child was not that tough. Maybe because in Europe — we lived primarily in Italy — fame was not like here. Fellini and De Sica were very good friends of the house, yes, but there wasn’t much Hollywood there. I can say Ingrid felt guilty about not being a proper mum. I remember one summer she wanted us to spend a ‘mom-and-kids’ holiday, in Spain. We were chased by paparazzi there. And at some point she burst out in tears. She thought she was a bad mother.”
Isabella keeps telling about the scandal that hit their parents when they fell in love: Ingrid was married
at the time, a situation the US Senate — and the Catholic Church — could not tolerate, and basically had her banned from America. “My mother was Swedish — that’s probably why she was shooed away from the US… And I wonder if America creates ‘devil’ to keep it away from ‘purity’… My mother suffered a lot as my sister Pia was apart from her for eight years. Maybe in Europe there is more comprehension, more understanding and awareness we are not perfect.”
Behind the jovial woman who amuses herself with wearing prawn- or mantis-shaped costumes, Rossellini is a clear-minded sharp tongue that does not flinch from speaking her mind. “As for my children, I raised them ‘immoral’! They are both models. And I think modeling is a fantastic job. You work with lots of talents, endless number of photographers, stylists, journalists. You discover a whole world. It teaches you to be disciplined, respectful, to work well in a group. I was glad they became models. I was glad I became a model too. But I have always known I would have done something with animals too. It took forty years years, but I am finally doing it. Animals, for some reason, make me laugh!”, and Isabella laughs out loud again.
Caryn James veers the topic towards beauty, acting, and the relationship with the many filmmakers she has worked with. “As for beauty, I like to quote Diana Vreeland, former director of Vogue, who used to say that there is no beauty without emotion. I agree with her. Regarding acting, it was intimidating at the beginning, as my mother did it. I believe I was attracted by certain films — like Blue Velvet — because I am the daughter of my father. I feel familiar with authors like Lynch and Greenaway. I understand them, their worlds. My father was the avant-garde Neo-realist filmmaker par excellence. I am more on the surrealistic side… and this is clear in the short-film My Dad Is 100 Years Old with which I wanted to tribute him, by playing almost every role, including Fellini, Hitchcock, my father and my mother.”
About the director she has most successfully connected with, Rossellini has no doubts. “John Schlesinger. He was the director I loved acting more with. The Innocent turned out to be a total disaster, but to me it was the biggest lesson I learnt. After that movie, I felt much more confident. And if you ask me my favorite filmmaker ever, I would say Charlie Chaplin. And the filmmaker I would love to work with, I would say Wes Anderson. I am not very technical… Méliès was my inspiration, and Anderson can do it too: they use the camera as the eye of a witness who watches the scene in stupor. Like for instance in The Royal Tenenbaums.”
New York is her home, but Isabella Rossellini is half Swedish and half Italian, and she carries these two heritages within herself. “I am very orderly and clean. That makes a Swede of me. Some years ago, I had to undergo some supposedly risky surgery — chances were I could die on the operating table. And what did I do the day before my likely death? I cleaned my house, top to bottom. ‘There you go, you are a Swede!’, claimed a Swedish woman, when I told her the anecdote! Adventure and playfulness, on the other hand, are the Italian heritage in me.”
Considering her wit, irony and natural knack for jokes, yes, she is definitely Italian.
“As a matter of fact, I was considering myself retired from acting… And then, in 2015, David O. Russell popped up with this proposal for Joy, with Bobby De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper… And it was so much fun! But you know, I have my farm, and I like to be there. When you are young, you want to demonstrate. When you are old, you just want to live your life. It’s much easier.”
And still her schedule looks quite packed. The project she is enthusiast about and will be busy with in 2018 is Virginia and Vita, a movie on the liaison between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West — something book lovers will pine for watching. “It was an intelligent and well-written script. After I read it, I said ‘yes!’. I play Vita’s mother, who was against her daughter’s and Virginia’s relationship, but not in a bigot kind of way. She was simply worried about the impact their bond could bring about. I liked the ramification of consequences.”
An hour and a half has flown by. We could have easily gulped down another one and a half. But we all realized Isabella had a farm to run, chickens to take care of, scripts to write, monologues to perform, beauty campaigns to go after.
Definitely not within the next thirty years.