When Isabella Rossellini was a little girl growing up in Italy, she was already a lover of animals, any animals of any size. “I remember going out after the rains to see the snails coming out,” she says in her charming accent that retains strong Italian roots even though she’s lived in the United States for nearly 40 years. Animal love, it turns out, is still an important part of her life, in ways both expected and surprising.
Rossellini is speaking by phone from her home in Bellport, soon after participating in the Hamptons International Film Festival as a featured celebrity. She’s owned a house in Bellport for more than 20 years, a converted barn on a large wooded lot two blocks from the bay, she says, with no view of the water but plenty of room for her three pet dogs to run around. She also raises and trains puppies (and, not squeamish at all, sometimes helps to whelp little ones) for the Guide Dog Foundation For the Blind, Inc., in Smithtown. Though she still keeps an apartment in Manhattan, four years ago, she moved to Bellport as her primary residence for the sake of her son, who is now 17 and a senior at the progressive Ross School in East Hampton.
“My son didn’t like the city. He wanted to be in the country. He wants to study marine biology, and he wanted to move to Bellport for his high school. And then I liked it. I like it a lot. I thought I would be here only for his years of high school and then move back to the city, but I think I will stay.” She has been active with The Nature Conservancy to restore shellfish to the Great South Bay, which is near her house. And likes to go bird watching, too.
So there we have love of dogs, love of marine animals and love of feathered fowl as major parts of her life. However, the little girl intrigued by snails who became a glamorous model and movie star has also found a way to dive full body into the world of animals. She has, since 2008, been writing, directing and starring in an Internet series she conceived called Green Porno, which is just as naughty as it sounds. It has provided her an opportunity to meld the talents she inherited from her father, the distinguished Italian film director Roberto Rossellini, with the acting genes from her Swedish mother, Ingrid Bergman—the three-time Oscar winner immortalized as the beauty at the center of Casablanca—to whom she bears a close resemblance.
Her parents, who caused a worldwide scandal by having an adulterous relationship before getting married to each other, divorced when she was 5. As a result, she, her fraternal twin Ingrid, an Italian literature professor who has taught at NYU and Stony Brook, and their older brother Roberto grew up in Rome and in Paris, where her mother later lived. Former TV journalist Pia Lindström, now an interviewer of authors and other literary types on Sirius’s Book Radio (and who has a house in the Hamptons), is their half-sister from Bergman’s first of her three marriages. Their father had four wives in all and four other children; these are complicated lives. Isabella, Ingrid and Pia often get together, Rossellini says, “I just had breakfast with them yesterday.”
The ongoing web series, made for SundanceChannel.com and occasionally shown on TV, is now in its fourth season, the most recent a subset or “spawn” called Seduce Me. (The newest batch, featuring deer, dolphins and other libidinous animals, airs December 15 at 9:45pm.) In two to three minute episodes, which are both informative and absurdly funny, Rossellini wears clever costumes while she pretends to be anything from a duck or a salmon to a barnacle or a whale. Animation, puppets, props and co-stars help tell the story.
These creatures, and many more, have far kinkier sex lives than the little girl who went out after the rain could ever have imagined, if she thought about it at all. Hermaphroditism! Sex changes! Cross-dressing! Rape! And let’s not even discuss how bedbugs do it.
“Sadomasochism excites me,” she says with a bawdy gleam in her eye in the role of, yes, a snail. As an anchovy, she swims in a dense crowd of her comrades as she delightedly gushes, “We have big orgies.” The dreamy half-smile that graced the pages of magazines when she was a popular cover girl or hawking lipstick for Lancôme, a gig she held for an unprecedented 14 years, can look awfully risqué in this context. There’s even a feminist edge to some episodes. The female snake she personifies explains that the males in her life try to plug her up after mating. “They all want to be the one and only,” she sniffs while laughing wickedly. (Rossellini herself has had a varied love life, with marriages to director Martin Scorsese and model-turned-Microsoft-executive Jonathan Wiedemann, and relationships with director David Lynch and actor Gary Oldman.)
Of course, her comfort around sexual matters onscreen isn’t that surprising, given some of her movie roles, particularly her star turn in the controversial 1986 David Lynch film Blue Velvet, which starts with a severed ear lying in a field and proceeds to violent battering and nudity for her character. She’s had more conventional roles, too, starting with her 1985 American film debut as the Russian wife of an American dancer played by Gregory Hines (Mikhail Baryshnikov and Helen Mirren also star) in Taylor Hackford’s White Nights. Her other credits include Wild at Heart, Death Becomes Her, Fearless, Immortal Beloved and Wyatt Earp. In 1998, she won a special award at the Berlin International Film Festival for her portrait of a Jewish Hassidic mother in Jeroen Krabbé’s Left Luggage.
She’s been limited in her American film career, she admits freely, by her accent, and in recent years by her age. Overall, she says, she prefers modeling to acting. “That’s not to say I don’t like acting. But acting is so based on voice, and this is very difficult as a foreigner, when English isn’t your first language. Modeling is only based on the visual, so it’s better for me. I do like to write and make films. Right now I like that more than acting, though I do like to act. I act a lot.”
Just not much in America: “I do a lot of films, but mostly in Europe. There isn’t really much work in America for actresses my age. I was doing an Italian film this year, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, from a bestselling book that was published in America. It hasn’t been released yet. I also did a French-German film by Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian director who lives in France. Persepolis was her first film. The one I just finished, which was shot in Berlin, is called Chicken with Plums.”
The problem is that she doesn’t know if either film will be released in the United States. “When you do European films, generally they go to festivals, where they may find distribution, but as an actor you don’t follow the worldwide distribution. If they do come to American screens, it’s usually in art houses or at festivals. So it could be that the film will be shown in a festival and not have distribution.”
Still, two films sound like solid work. But wait. There’s more. “I’m doing another film, Keyhole [in which she stars with Jason Patric] with a Canadian director, Guy Maddin, with whom I’ve worked a lot. It will come out at the end of 2011. I also made another film in English. It’s a French-English-Belgian production, so maybe that has a chance of being shown in America because William Hurt is in it, and it’s in English. It’s called Late Bloomers for now. It will probably come out next year.”
So that’s four films in one year, in addition to producing 10 new episodes in the Seduce Me line for Sundance and a project for the Planet Green channel. The last is a one-hour show called Manhattan Beef. Is it a feature? “Sort of. It’s a documentary with a lot of fantasy. They call it a docufantasy. This is new for me, my first one hour film.” Is it different from her Sundance work? “The writing is a different structure for two minutes and an hour. You need an arc, a beginning, a middle and an end, but the arc is much wider, and there are more conflicts.”
Sundance’s two-minute videos (produced with a team of 13 collaborators in a Brooklyn film studio) came about because Sundance founder Robert Redford thought that the web was a good place to revive the long-gone era of short films. (She consults scientists for the series, she says, and has visited Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead to check out some of the fish. “There’s so much I have to learn,” she says about her work, which she calls “my playground.”) The channel approached her for an idea, she says, because she’s participated in the Sundance Film Festival several times, including showing her 2005 whimsical 16-minute tribute to her father, My Dad Is 100 Years Old, which she wrote and starred in.
It sounds as though the resilient Rossellini has, at 58, found ingenious ways to overcome the bias that many older actresses face in Hollywood by continuing her acting career in Europe, where the attitude toward mature women is better, and establishing herself as an actor-writer-director on the cutting edge of the Internet. (The series is popular among teenagers and young people, she says, including her own two children.) But she doesn’t see it that way, and she’s blunt about her feelings.
“I can evolve and I can do other jobs, but I haven’t proved anything. I’m not working as an actress at my age in America. It’s a problem for a lot of actresses, like Michele Pfeiffer. I can think of many names of contemporaries of mine who are incredibly wonderful actresses who we don’t see as much. You know—Jessica Lange, and the list goes on and on, and we don’t see them as much. Of course, we see Diane Keaton, not so often but often enough, and of course we see one or more films a year with Meryl Streep. So I think they’re more on the avant-garde of breaking that [bias]. But one person or two persons don’t make a trend. We have to encourage them, and they might be able to open doors for others. But there really isn’t much yet.”
She does appear on American TV shows now and then. “Occasionally I’m asked to be in a series, and if I have time, I’ll do it. If I’m involved in other things, I don’t do it. It’s not my priority. I don’t really watch many series, but they’re popular. So I’m grateful to be part of a show that’s very popular, that is in America. Part of acting is also that you have to remain in the public eye. Otherwise you don’t get offers to do other things. So part of the work is to let people remember you are available. I did two episodes of 30 Rock, which I love. It’s a series I occasionally watch. But generally speaking, I’m personally more interested in avant-garde filmmaking than in television.”
Her most publicized brush with the age problem occurred when Lancôme dumped her in 1996 after her long affiliation as “the face of Lancôme.” Resentment is too strong a word for what she feels about the action, she insists. “Do I believe that ageism exists? Do I believe that we have to improve the attitude that we have toward women, and toward aging women? Yes. But with that word, you cast it in a negative way. I don’t see it as resentment. I see it as, women have a long way to go, so that women are not seen just as a sexual object and so that in old age you are not discarded.”
Imagine Rossellini’s surprise when, four years ago, Lancôme approached her daughter, Elettra Rossellini Wiedemann, 27, to test her for a job as a spokesmodel for the company. “I told her I thought maybe they’re just curious to see you, so don’t keep your hopes up. There has been controversy between me and Lancôme, so chances are by hiring you, maybe they don’t want to dig that story up again. Don’t have high hopes. But instead they took her, and I was delighted.” It’s one of her daughter’s biggest contracts.
Elettra recently returned from two years of study at the London School of Economics. “She got her master’s degree in something called biomedicine, which is an extension of environmental studies. The new generation is very interested in environmental issues. For the moment, she continues to model, because modeling is fun, and it’s very lucrative. Then she will see how to evolve from modeling, and take the next big step.”
Rossellini herself came late to modeling, at age 28, after the renowned fashion photographer Bruce Weber (whose house in Bellport first introduced her to the village) photographed her for British Vogue. Her international career took off quickly. Before that, she’d been based in New York as a journalist and a performer in a comedic program for Italian television, for nearly 10 years. She was famous in Italy, little known outside it.
For the moment, there’s no next big step for Rossellini, who has settled into her peripatetic life with Bellport at its foundation. Like her mother, she loves to clean, she says. In her 1997 memoir, Some of Me, she describes their mutual love of orderliness: “For both Mother and me, cleaning and organizing are soothing, though because it feels good we may do too much of it. It can get obsessive, and we have to watch out for that.”
Like her mother, she’s practical. She doesn’t own many clothes, but her simple layered outfits are always well thought out. She doesn’t use much makeup—and she certainly has no hesitation looking silly for comic effect in her Green Porno videos.
In her memoir, Rossellini wrote that she didn’t know how to drive or how to type well or use a computer. Does she still not drive? She laughs. After moving to Long Island, she had to learn to drive, she says, and now owns a Lexus. And she uses a computer regularly to write her scripts and to do research. She visits local libraries to research her videos and goes about ordinary business. “I go with friends to the restaurants. I go to the supermarket,” she says. “I live here.”
It’s an independent life, one that fits in with her feminist ideals, as she told a questioner from the audience during an appearance at the Hamptons Film Festival, and it’s reflected, triumphantly, in her filmmaking ventures. “As I get older, I get more and more obscene,” she said to the crowd who had come to hear her speak. “I do now what I want.”