Learning to rule the roost... actress Isabella Rossellini
Heather Hodson meets actress, model and chicken farmer, Isabella Rossellini, who has always enjoyed surprising her vast audience
When I heard that Isabella Rossellini had written a book about chickens, I was intrigued. What did the actress, face of Lancome Renergie Rosy Glow, muse to Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, and daughter of cinema royalty (Ingrid Bergman, the three-times Oscar-winning actor, and Roberto Rossellini, the Italian neo-realist director), know about hens?
Quite a lot, it turns out. She keeps 100 of them, of a variety of breeds and heritages, on her 28-acre Long Island farm outside New York - along with bees, goats, turkeys, five sheep, two pigs called Pepe and Boris, and a dog named Pinocchio. "They have a coop and a little enclosed garden, and in the morning they love to come out and they can go everywhere," she told me recently over breakfast at the Carlyle Hotel in New York. "I have three coops, so it's three flocks, three families. Chickens don't like to mix. They are flocks of birds, and that becomes an enclosed society, like a tribe."
Rossellini is full of esoteric farm-bird knowledge, such as which breed has white ears (the Hamburg), and how hens form friendships (a pair of hers are inseparable). Another chicken fact: contrary to popular belief, they have a lot going on in the personality department. "Although we recognise only the extreme personalities - the ones that are very extrovert or very shy," she explains, spearing her eggs Benedict with gusto. "So in my flock there is Red, the explorer," she says, referring to an audacious Welsummer hen with an access-all-areas pass. There is Speedy, a Modern Game breed whom Rossellini describes as 'flighty', and a tame little crested Polish bird called Andy Warhol, on account of her eccentric hairdo. But it is Red who is the biggest character of all. "I always find her everywhere. Whenever I see a chicken walking somewhere strange, I say, 'I bet it's Red'. If I leave the door open she comes right into the house." Here, Rossellini chortles with laughter.
Rossellini chortles a great deal, I discover, especially when expounding on the subject of farmyard fowl, or sheepdog trials (she watches them on YouTube), or the mating habits of a turkey. At 65 she is full of beans, whip-smart and congenial, with a maverick streak. It might be hard to warm to a chicken but she loves hers, and her affection for the birds bubbles up on every page of her new book, My Chickens and I, in which they appear in her own line drawings, as well as in photographs taken by her fashion photographer friend Patrice Casanova, who shot them against a white backdrop, as if they were models.
The original intention behind the photographs had nothing at all to do with a book, she tells me. Instead, she wanted to keep a record in order to understand why her first batch of chicks, sent by the hatchery, were developing so differently. "One chick was enormous and after 20 weeks could not stand up. I said, 'What's wrong with it?' I called the hatchery and said, 'Why are there these differences?'" Nobody knew.
As the weeks went by, it became apparent that she had been sent a mixture of the common broiler - birds with a fast growth rate, bred for eating - and rare heritage breeds, which are more robust and able to forage and mother their own, but are no longer considered useful by the farming industry. So began Rossellini's education on industrial farming and its consequences for old breeds of farmyard hens, many of which are now facing extinction. Part children's science book, part visual tribute to her hens, the work is both a plea for heritage breeds, and a rallying cry for biodiversity. "Diversity is essential," she says. "Diversity is what guarantees the survival of species."
When it comes to her flock, Rossellini - who is studying for a master's degree in animal behaviour and conservation, and is an avid reader of books on biology - has the mind of a scholar. It is a trait she attributes to her father, who later in life, after he had directed such films as Stromboli (during which he and Bergman fell in love, despite both at the time being married to other people), devoted his last years to making films on anthropology and historical biography. "There is a continuity," she says. "It's not so obvious when you are in it. You think you are very original and following your own interests and then somebody says, 'Your father did films about science'."
Both her parents were animal lovers. "All the family were," she says. Growing up, she and her older brother, Roberto, and her twin, Ingrid, always had cats and dogs. Her childhood was somewhat peripatetic. When their parents divorced (when Rossellini was four), the siblings split their time between Italy, where their father lived, and Paris, where their mother settled.
In her late teens, Rossellini moved to New York, where her mother was appearing on Broadway, in order to learn English. She began work as a television reporter, "which is how I met Marty", she says, referring to Martin Scorsese, who she was married to for three years and with whom she remains good friends. She did not start modelling until the late age of 28, but then did so at whirlwind speed - four months after her first shoot, she was on the cover of US Vogue. "Five months after that, I was signed to Lancome. It happened very fast."
Her acting career followed a similar trajectory - Rossellini made groundbreaking performances in David Lynch's films Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, and then a critically acclaimed turn in the black comedy Death Becomes Her - but in her 40s the work petered out. By this point she was also raising two children single-handedly: her daughter, Elettra Wiedemann, from her marriage to Jonathan Wiedemann, and her adopted son Roberto, named after her father. "Acting is so demanding for a family. It's more difficult than modelling to reconcile with motherhood. I turned down a lot of work because I wanted to be around the children." At weekends, the three of them would escape New York City for the relative peace of Bellport, a pretty Long Island coastal village close to the Hamptons. "It's easier to raise them outside the city," she says. "In the city, just taking a walk with a child and a dog, you're happy if nobody gets run over."
Rossellini hadn't intended to become part of the animal conservation movement when she first began visiting Bellport 38 years ago, and later bought a 'teeny teeny home' which she stayed in with a young Elettra, and later with toddler Roberto. She went on to buy a bigger property that included a number of beautiful barn structures, which she converted into her home, and became increasingly involved in the community, made up of artists and writers and people born and raised there.
It was Roberto who persuaded her to live in Bellport year-round. "He loved to be in the country: he was very sporty, everybody had a basketball hoop. He loved to be there, still loves it." Rossellini was 52 by then - Elettra had left home for university, and the acting work had thinned out - so she enrolled Roberto in high school and they left the city. "Suddenly you have all this time on your hands, so I started my master's degree, and then this land came about and I started fantasising. I thought, 'My God, I can study animal behaviour, I can have a farm, it will be a wonderful way to retire'.So I really thought about this as my retirement plan."
As the owner of a small farm, Rossellini has also been thrust into the world of the farm-to-table food revolution, which she believes has become analogous with luxury. "I think people desire more to eat from farm-to-table, or to know the farmer, than buy a Chanel bag. It's the younger generation's definition of refinement."
The farm, when she acquired it six years ago, had been under threat of development, but with the help of the Peconic Land Trust, a non-profit organisation established to conserve Long Island's working farms, she was able to turn it into a protected property. "It's like I'm protecting the Coliseum," she laughs. While the day-to-day running of the farm is handled by others, as the manager she has the responsibility of adhering to health regulations, ensuring water sanitation, and keeping on top of myriad other practicalities. "People assume living in the country is quieter, it's so bucolic, looking at birds, that sort of thing. But farming is very hard, a lot of work and a lot of deadlines. I don't feel my life has slowed down."
She hosts parties and fundraisers for local conservation groups, and keeps up with a great many friends, both in Bellport and New York, which she visits regularly, often having dinner in the city with her children. Roberto is now a photographer and model for Dolce & Gabbana, among other fashion houses. He lives in Manhattan but is a frequent visitor to the farm. Elettra, a food editor and founder of the blog Impatient Foodie, has now based herself there with Ronin, her baby son by her partner, the actor Caleb Lane. "She wants to be a full-time mum, so she's living with me and I'm busy being a grandmother."
Rossellini has never conformed to Hollywood's idea of a celebrity, which holds as much interest to her as a height barrier to a swallow. It is one of life's pleasing ironies that at this stage of the game ("Oh yes, I am very old", she says wryly), she is enjoying a renaissance as an actress and model. When we meet, she is about to leave for Europe to shoot a campaign for Lancome, which after terminating her contract in 1996, when she was 43, approached her recently to be its face and spokesperson once more - something she says she never expected. "The first few years you think, 'Maybe they'll call me back, maybe we'll find a way' - 25 years later, you think, 'It's never going to happen!'"
The acting roles have been returning too. She had a part in the Jennifer Lawrence film, Joy, and then in the American drama series, Shut Eye, in which she played a ruthless crime boss, and currently she has two films in the pipeline: the Eileen Atkins-penned Vita and Virginia, in which she plays Vita Sackville-West's mother, and Incredibles 2. She is about to take her Link Link Circus one-woman show about animal intelligence on tour across Europe, appearing in London in October. "Incredibly enough, now my career has started again," she laughs. "So now I have the farm, the book, the modelling, the acting...
"I don't know why it revived. They said I was old at 40, so I don't know why I'm not old now!" Rossellini recalls that her mother had a theory. "My mama said, 'When you are in your 50s, women don't work, because they are too old to play love interests and too young to play the grandmother, so there is a slump in your career'. Then, in her 60s, there was a lot of work coming - the Oscar for [Murder on the] Orient Express and so on. All these things happened when she was in her 60s. The same thing happened to me. When I turned 62, a lot of the work came back." She pauses: "I'm not afraid of retiring and I'm not afraid of the jobs coming to an end, because I have this wonderful thing that I have created for myself."
Which brings us back to her beloved chickens and her farm. She doesn't see it as a business. "It's almost like a laboratory. I always say to the people that come and would like to rent some of it, this is like a lab of your dreams."
She has collected about her a group who use it exactly like that. They include Paddy, "a chef who wanted to become a farmer", and who now has a business growing bespoke vegetables for farm-to-table restaurants in New York; Lida, the Dutch wife of the artist Michael Morley, who wanted to teach her sheepdog to herd, so she rented three acres along with five sheep; Courtney, who was previously an animator and now helps run the farm; and Schuyler, an actor who became a shepherd and knitter and who is now going on tour with Rossellini in her upcoming show. And then there is the artist Lia Chavez, who created an art installation out of roughly 300 of the farm's heritage-breed eggs, stringing them up on a tree in the angle of the sun in the summer solstice, the point at which chickens start laying more eggs again. "It's a masterpiece," Rossellini declares. "I'm going to reinstall it at the farm."
She continues, "What I do, I enjoy tremendously." She pauses and leans in. "So listen to this. You like farm-to-table? Schuyler one day comes in with a beautiful sweater. I said, 'Oh Schuyler, this beautiful sweater, my God, where did you buy it?' He said, 'I didn't buy it, it's Clarissa's wool'. 'Who's Clarissa?' 'The best sheep I have'. I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'I don't sell Clarissa's wool, Clarissa's wool I keep for myself and knit it'. I thought that was the definition of luxury. Yarn-to-table!" She hoots. "I said, 'Now we have reached the level of incredible. Dior does nothing for me any more. I want Clarissa'."
'My Chickens and I', by Isabella Rossellini (Abrams Image, £18.99), is available now
Cover photo: Peter Lindberg for Lancome © 2018
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