Simon Hattenstone – The Guardian
The actor’s latest project is about the joy of sex, as well as its capacity to exploit, control and kill. She discusses the pleasure of life after being written off by Hollywood and the beauty business
‘I come home and there is such life – friends and animals and problem-solving’ … Isabella Rossellini on Mama Farm in New York. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian
Isabella Rossellini is a busy woman. It is hard to know how the model, actor, writer, animal behaviourist and farmer finds so much time to talk about sex. But she does. In recent years, she has made numerous tiny films about the sex lives of animals under the umbrella titles Green Porno and Seduce Me. Now she hopes to take them to a larger audience – or, to be more accurate, she hopes to bring a larger audience to her farm.
With theatre stymied by the pandemic, she is livestreaming a show from Mama Farm in Long Island, New York, where she lives with her sheep, goats, chickens, ducks and dogs. The show, called Sex & Consequences, is part circus, part animal cognition lecture and part penetration.
In Green Porno and Seduce Me, Rossellini dresses up as different creatures to tell us how they mate. She dances, preens, teases and thrusts with a strap-on penis by way of illustration. The films are funny, educative and a little bit bonkers – not unlike Rossellini.
As well as learning about the joy of sex, we also learn about its infinite capacity to invent, exploit, control and kill. Take the female praying mantis, for example. “The female starts eating his head when she is mating with him!” Rossellini says with relish. “Imagine that he has evolved his body so the nerves that control the movement to penetrate her are no longer in his head, but farther down in his spinal cord, so she can still keep eating him and he can mate with her.”
Then there are the hens who eject sperm if they don’t rate the rooster; the fun-loving dolphins who explore any orifice going; the polyandrous Prunella modularis (AKA dunnock), which breeds with multiple males because it makes economic sense. We have barely started. Rossellini introduces us to snakes with two penises that use their spare member to produce a gelatinous plug, barring entry to the female for the next male; Pacific salmon that spawn just before they die; hermaphrodite earthworms and limpets that are happily self-sufficient; strategically promiscuous chimps that have sex with as many males as possible to protect their babies from infanticide; and drones that bleed to death after their penis ruptures while they are mating with a queen bee.
Rossellini is on the farm when we video-call. She is dressed in black – trademark pixie haircut, dash of red lipstick, big yellow glasses, elegant as ever. The only thing that surprises me is the warmth of her smile. The younger Rossellini rarely seemed to smile. In 1982, she signed an exclusive deal with Lancôme and became the world’s highest-paid model. As the face of Lancôme, Rossellini represented an ideal – dreamy, desirable, distant. Meanwhile, in films, her characters were often too tortured (the abused nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet), too cool (the sardonic bad girl Perdita Durango in Wild at Heart) or too macabre (the sultry sorceress Lisle Von Rhuman in Death Becomes Her) to smile naturally.
Rossellini, 68, grew up in France and Italy, the daughter of two movie legends – the Swedish Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman and the revered Italian neorealist director Roberto Rossellini. Her parents were as touched by scandal as they were by glamour – Bergman was still married to her first husband when she gave birth to Rossellini’s older brother. She was denounced by the US Senate as a “vile free-love cultist” and didn’t work again in the US for many years. Her parents divorced when Rossellini was five and she and her two siblings moved into a hotel in Rome for two years, where her parents would visit them. It was hardly a conventional childhood.
At the age of 14, her father bought her a book called King Solomon’s Ring, by Konrad Lorenz, one of the founders of animal behaviour studies. “A little lamp went on in my brain and I said: this is what I want to do.” But she didn’t have the confidence. “The idea of studying zoology or biology intimidated me. But I was a beauty, thank God! So I went into the family business.”
Was she always aware she was beautiful? “Not so much. I was a little chubby when I was young and I was born with a deformity of my spine.” She had surgery for her scoliosis when she was 12 and spent most of the next two years in plaster. Beauty didn’t seem relevant back then. “Because I was sick, I was just happy I could walk.”
Rossellini grew up adoring films, but she opted for modelling. “Because my mother was Ingrid Bergman and my father was Roberto Rossellini, I was intimidated about becoming an actress and a director.” In her late 20s, she decided to act. Did her parents’ reputation help or hinder her? “Both,” she says. “It opened doors, but the judgment was much more severe.” She remembers her first reviews – of The Meadow in 1979. “In the press, they said: ‘She looks like her mother, but she certainly hasn’t inherited her talent.’ It crushes you. If they say it today, you just say: well, maybe that’s true. It doesn’t hurt you so much.”
She beams when she talks about Bergman. “You know she won three Oscars?” (Only one actor, Katharine Hepburn, has more.) “I have not even been nominated for one. But it doesn’t affect me any more. This is the great thing about getting old: things that preoccupied you when you were young cease to preoccupy you. I would have loved to have had one Oscar. Well, too bad. I have six sheep, two dogs, two children.” She bursts out laughing and says she is more than satisfied.
One of Rossellini’s middle names is Elettra, the Italian for Electra – and she has often said she had something of a father complex. Her first husband, meanwhile, appeared to have a father-in-law complex. She married Martin Scorsese in 1979; they divorced four years later. After they separated, Scorsese told her it had been important to him “to think that he was in a relationship with Roberto Rossellini’s daughter”. Family history repeated itself when she and Scorsese divorced; by then, she was pregnant with another man’s child – that of the former model Jonathan Wiedemann. That marriage also lasted four years. She then had a six-year relationship with David Lynch. In 1993, then single, she adopted a son, Roberto.
Three years later, at the height of her modelling success, she was dumped by Lancôme for being too old. She was 43. “I was told advertising is about dreams and women dream to be young, so I couldn’t represent that dream.”
I don’t think I could do the amount of things I do if I have a husband. Husbands are time-consuming
Was she shocked? No, she says, she had seen it happen with other models – and her mother in the movies. “The thing that was painful was that I had become their spokesperson and that was not valued. There is a film by the French actress Delphine Seyrig called Be Pretty and Shut Up, and that’s what I felt.” Twenty years later, Lancôme, now run by a female CEO, apologised and invited her back to model for them, which she is still doing today.
The culture has changed, she says. “Women executives have a different sensitivity. Male executives only understood makeup or fashion as an instrument of seduction, because that was addressed to them. They didn’t understand that we like to put on makeup or dress up just because it’s a game; it’s pleasurable.”
Look, she says. She fetches one of her face masks. The inside is splashed with red. “See. They all have lipstick inside!” She giggles at the idea of wearing lipstick no one can see. “I don’t want to wear beautiful clothes and lipstick because I want to get married.” She almost spits out the word. “I do it because it makes me feel good. I’m single and I’m doing it for me.”
Today, she believes she symbolises something different for Lancôme. “I’m not there now to represent beauty; I’m there to represent a different dream. It may be defined as joyfulness; life goes on and there are many chapters. I think that’s why they keep me.”
In fact, Rossellini says, she is grateful that they gave her the boot a quarter of a century ago – and that Hollywood similarly wrote her off. It was at this point that she decided nothing would intimidate her and that she would do everything she had always wanted to. She wrote books and scripts, went to university in her mid-50s and completed a master’s in animal behaviour, made films for her own pleasure, bought the farm, started lecturing and made Green Porno, which aired on Robert Redford’s Sundance TV.
In 2005, she wrote and starred in a surreal short film about her father, called My Dad Is 100 Years Old. Her father was represented by a huge, heaving belly and she played all the other parts – Chaplin, Hitchcock, her mother and plenty more. “My twin sister was offended by the way I portrayed Dad. She thought it was diminishing.” But Rossellini was happy to be discovering new things about herself. “A friend said to me: you are not the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, you are the result of a threesome between the porno star Cicciolina, Jacques Cousteau and Luis Buñuel! It made me laugh so much. I didn’t know I had this streak of surrealism and comedy in me. It’s probably what made me work so well with David Lynch.”
Your work is such a contrast to your father’s, I say – Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist trilogy (Rome, Open City; Germany, Year Zero; Paisà) is as bleak as it is brilliant. Yes, she says, but as a man he was so different. “My dad made such serious films, but he was so funny. So funny. It was unbelievable. Sometimes I had to leave the room to catch my breath. And so is Marty [Scorsese]. Marty makes all these films about people shooting and brains exploding, but you sit with him and he makes you laugh so much. Sometimes I have to say: Marty, you’re making me laugh too much, you’re suffocating me.”
You seem so much more confident than when you were younger, I say. She smiles. “Ageing brings a lot of happiness. You get fatter and more wrinkles, and that’s not so good, but there is a freedom that comes with it. The freedom is: I better do what I want to do now, because I’ll be dead soon. So this is my last chance. Also, there’s a serenity that comes – I had the career I had, good or bad, I did the best I could, and now I continue pursuing what is interesting to me.”
She mentions the importance of being curious – always learning new things. “I’ve seen actress friends so depressed about losing their beauty. People didn’t want them any more. And I felt that, too. Studying saved me from being depressed about losing my beauty. It gave my life so much joy.”
Do you really feel you have lost your beauty, I say – you look great. “Thank you! Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and think: ‘Not bad!’”
In 2015, Rossellini featured in the film Joy, alongside Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro. At the time, she said it was the first proper movie part she had been offered in six years. “Yes, and it is the last film,” she says. I remind her she appeared in Vita and Virginia, a literary costume drama a couple of years ago. “Ach, yes – a very, very small role.”
But does she want the work? I get the impression that she finds movie life boring compared with all the other stuff she is doing. “It is boring!” she says with thunderous satisfaction. “I don’t want to be in that trailer in the parking lot outside a highway waiting for my five minutes for several days. I come home and there is such life – friends and the animals and problem-solving.”
She says the farm is a haven from the toxicity of the US today. How does she feel about the prospect of Donald Trump winning a second term as president? “It’s very frightening. I always had a question to my parents. How could Italy become fascist, how could Germany have become Nazi? I don’t want to define Trump as fascist or Nazi, but he is authoritarian – a threat to democracy.”
Has she been involved in the Black Lives Matter campaign? “No, but my son is black. He sent me a video that moved me very much. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve said to my son: if a policeman stops you, you answer like this, you don’t put your hands in your pockets, make sure to look them in the eye. If you are threatened, call your uncle, because his uncle, my sister’s husband, is a lawyer. He sent me this video with all these parents teaching their children the same thing and they were all black. When he sent that video, I suddenly thought: oh, that’s my story.”
Rossellini says she has not entirely given up on movies and TV shows – not least because they get her out into the wider world. “I feel I have to work with others, because I cannot just be a recluse doing my tiny avant garde shows. My agent sometimes says: oh, Isabella, stop it, it’s a waste of time, there’s no money in it.”
Despite its title, she insists Sex & Consequences is about more than sex. She explains how the show also explores animal cognition, empathy and altruism. Rossellini looks at me. “See, when I say cognition, already you just fall asleep when you hear the word. Sex is really easy. It makes people laugh.”
There is another surprise in the new show, she says enthusiastically. “I have a husband!” She stands up, walks to her bedroom, and pulls back the duvet. “Look! Look! How can you not love him? He’s in bed. Let me turn the light on.”
“Blimey,” I say, “that looks more like a blow-up doll than a husband.”
“It’s a dummy!” she giggles. “But I treat him as a husband. In the show, I talk to him. At one point, I say to him: ‘Oh, stop it dummy, instead of stop it stupid.” Is that a metaphor? “Yes, exactly!”
This may be bullshit psychology, I say, but you seem more content single than when you were married or in long-term relationships. “No, it’s not bullshit.” She takes me back 20-plus years, to a crunch point in her life. “I was with David Lynch and that came to an end [she seems to forget a subsequent two-year engagement to Gary Oldman] and then Lancôme came to an end and I needed to reconstruct my career. I had my two small children and I just didn’t have room for another boyfriend or husband. I don’t think I could do the amount of things I do if I have a husband. Husbands are time-consuming.”
If you had to restrict yourself to one career, what would it be? “The farm,” she says. Rossellini tells me it is called Mama Farm because it is female-dominated. “We have so many hens, female sheep; 90 per cent of bees are female. I started the farm and I’m a mama, and my daughter has a two-year-old son, and a lot of mothers come to the farm.” Is it a feminist collective? “Yes, it’s nurturing, and maybe there is something feminine in nurturing.” At times, she says, it feels like paradise. “People work serenely, the animals walk about, there are crops and flowers. I always say: if I see a man and woman walking about naked, I’ll know I’m in Eden.”
Rossellini’s daughter, Elettra, who lives next door and works on the farm, has popped round. It is time to go. I tell Rossellini it is wonderful to see her getting so much pleasure from the world. “I certainly do,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s genes, if it’s me or if it’s life. But it works.”
Sex & Consequences will run on select dates from 16-25 October. Tickets for the live stream can be bought at dice.fm.