Tuesday 25 June 2019

The next chapter: Isabella Rossellini on her latest project

At 62, the roles have all but dried up for model and actress Isabella Rossellini. But, she tells STEPHEN MILTON, being the naughty alternative to David Attenborough is what she's always wanted to do

Isabella Rossellini
Isabella Rossellini
David Lynch and Isabella Rossellini
Ingrid Bergman with her children Isotta, Isabella and Roberto
Jake Gyllenhaal and Isabella Rossellini in Enemy

Stephen Milton

Isabella Rossellini can easily relate with the young children of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. World famous from birth, persecuted by the lens at the school gates, scrutinised and documented…

As a daughter of director Roberto Rossellini, a legendary auteur of Italian cinema, and movie star Ingrid Bergman, she was a reluctant trailblazer of infancy in the spotlight. Growing up in Rome during the Sixties, overbearing fame was simply a normal part of life. She knew nothing else.

"In Italy, there was this phenomenon known as the paparazzi and they rarely left us alone. They followed us everywhere, constantly taking photographs," she says.

"We had nothing to do with my parents' fame or their work but we always had paparazzi, wanting to take pictures of us coming out of school. Or at a birthday. But we were used to it.

"It was hardest for Mama though. She found it very difficult. Crowds would swarm, encircling her. They would follow her every move. Photographers, fans. She couldn't possibly walk on the streets without chaos breaking out."

It's all so strikingly parallel to the lives of the 'Brangelina' brood.

The world was entranced with Isabella's mother, hailed as the most beautiful in the world. Her parents were shrouded by a Hollywood scandal - Bergman left her dentist husband for Roberto, who was also married at the time.

Similarly, Pitt allegedly romanced Jolie while married to Jennifer Aniston. But do the modern-day children, harangued by the international press, have it worse than Isabella, her twin sister, Isotta and their elder brother, Roberto?

"They will think its normal," she counsels. "It's only when you grow older, you find the different ways of living life."

Rossellini's voice is her warm signature - the bounce of a hoppy Swedish inflection spliced with a quivering Roman vibrato. A product of her parentage. Like her beauty; exquisite Mediterranean darkness framed by regal Scandinavian structure.

She speaks to me from her farmhouse in rural Long Island - initially through the crunches and gulps of an icon finishing her lunch.

"People say to me: 'Well you are Isabella Rossellini, there's a status to that.' But it's just me," she snorts. "I don't think there's any status to being me. I can't command anything with it."

Her self-effacement is charming but completely groundless. A supermodel, an actress. Now a director and naturalist curator. She's had a distinguished career.

It started with fashion and beauty. While working as a television reporter for Italy's state broadcaster RAI in New York, Rossellini was encouraged by her then husband, Martin Scorsese, to be photographed by Bruce Weber.

So mesmerised by the images, Weber passed them on to British Vogue and at 28 - unusually ancient by modelling standards - an accidental career exploded. What followed was over 500 magazine covers in an astonishing 25 years; Elle, Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue. And shot by titans of the industry, Richard Avedon, Steven Meisel, Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts and Annie Leibovitz.

At 30, and just divorced from Scorsese, she became the international face of Lancome, an enduring relationship for fourteen years. Previously unheard of in a fickle industry obsessed with youth. "Normally the campaign changes every three, four years to maintain the interest with a new model, new campaign. But it was so successful."

Rossellini, now was no longer "daughter of…" She was a supermodel. Predictably, she scoffs at the term. "Supermodel doesn't refer to me. It's used for a group of women like Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Kate Moss.

"I wasn't one of them. My career started a little before the Eighties but it was maybe because I lasted longer than many others.

"A modelling career normally lasts five to eight years and I worked for 25, very actively getting covers and advertisements. That was very unusual."

Hollywood naturally sat up and took notice. Isabella, married in 1983 to fellow model and subsequent Microsoft honcho Jon Wiedemann, father of her 31-year-old daughter Elettra, landed a supporting role with Helen Mirren and Mikhail Baryshnikov in White Nights.

A year later, she started a relationship with visionary director David Lynch, who cast her as the enigmatic vamp Dorothy Vallens in the controversial epic Blue Velvet. It was her breakout performance, making her a cult star. But the violence and Rossellini's provocative, lurid nudity in the film earned negative criticism.

"People thought David used me because I was Ingrid Bergman's daughter. Because I was the Lancome model. Because I had this clean image to tarnish. And then others said I wanted to spit on my own image in a self-destructive mode. They called it porno because it required nudity. I did it because it told the story best."

Eventually, the hysteria settled and Blue Velvet was heralded as a cinematic masterpiece.

The new actress enjoyed a colourful profile as a dynamic risk-taker, landing parts in Wild at Heart, Fearless, Death Becomes Her and Immortal Beloved (where she fell for co-star Gary Oldman after ending her relationship with Lynch the year before).

She balanced a highly successful juggling act between fashion and film and during this peak, experienced the second joy of her life - after daughter Elettra -when she adopted her son, Roberto, now 21.

A year later however, at age 44, she was famously dropped by Lancome. The allure of youth was too hard to resist.

She sighs. Now 62, the topic has followed her around ever since. "Whether it was about age, or whatever…" she stutters then pauses. "Well actually, it was about age. I would happily model today but no one wants a model in their 60s.

"The very few times I am selected, it's not enough to make money or support my life, or keep me busy mentally. So you evolve. When you see that door slightly closing, you evolve."

As she entered her 50s however, the movie opportunities started to dry up too. Hollywood, once again, showcased its fabled disdain for ageing.

"There are definitely less roles up 'til you're 50 and then they go down. I'm not the only one. Sometimes I feel a lot of actresses like Sissy Spacek disappeared. She is such an incredible actress. And Michelle Pfeiffer, my God, she was so popular, so revered. So loved and then somehow, she's working less.

"They were, are as talented as Meryl Streep. But there are less roles. And you don't work as much. My mum went through it. In fact, she went back to the theatre. As a teenager, I remember Mama not on a set, but on stage more than anything.

"But it's just natural. What you do at 20, you cannot do at 40. Or 60. There are chapters in your life, new adventures."

Bolstered by a move away from New York seven years ago - "away from the prying eyes," as she once put it - to a 30-acre farm on Long Island where she now grows organic vegetables and raises a menagerie of animals (cats, dogs, chickens, pigs, rabbits), Rossellini has turned her concentrations towards directing, mixed with an affection for the natural world.

Ten years ago, she wrote and directed her first short film, My Dad is 100 Years Old. It was a tribute to her father, in which she dressed up as legendary directors, Alfred Hitchcock and Federico Fellini.

It was acquired by Robert Redford for his Sundance Channel, who then asked her to produce, direct and shoot an internet series. She suggested the subject - the sex lives of animals, titled Green Porno.

"When I was a teenager, I dreamed of working on a National Geographic programme or with David Attenborough.

"So when I was asked and the opportunity came to write an experimental film series, I thought maybe I could do what I always wanted, combine film and animals."

And humour. Or at least surely that was her plan when dressed as and then acting out the mating rituals of the common fly and praying mantis, dolphins and the blue whale. To name but a few.

The series was a smash, garnering four million hits on YouTube. Most of those were to see Rossellini resplendent with a six-foot whale penis.


"It makes me laugh," she chuckles. "And I thought there were already so many wonderful documentaries that already existed but what didn't exist was the combination of animals, science and humour. It's comical at times. Rather than being just a straight documentary."

It's a new balancing act for the icon. She finished a new series, Mammas, based round the maternal habits of the animal kingdom last year and starred in a new ad campaign for Bulgari's Autumn/Winter handbag line - the Isabella Rossellini Collection.

And despite a slackening in film work, she finds herself resolutely busy in front of the camera. In her latest film, Denis Villeneuve's Enemy, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a beleaguered professor who spots his exact double in an old movie - and makes the foolish error of tracking him down.

Played out with an unsettling, twisted tone, Isabella is Gyllenhaal's mother and, while it's a small role, her presence tent-poles the peculiar proceedings.

"Maybe if I was younger, I would have said the part is too small. But as you grow older, I've had a career, I've created my reputation. I'm just freer to do what I like to do.

"And I loved my work in the film. It plays on the ambiguity that you really never know what's ahead. I thought that one particular scene was brilliantly written because it's a conversation between a mother and son and it feels casual. Yet it can go either way. That's what I love. It's potentially a portrait of someone going crazy. Very Kafkaesque."

Looking back at her nearly 40-year career, it's an astonishing, ever-evolving odyssey that would, one would assume, make both her parents immensely proud. Or am I wrong?

"I used to say to Mama, 'I don't want to be an actress, people will compare me to you. And maybe I'd always be frustrated my whole life.' And she would say, 'Working on a film, with the incredible talent, focus on that. Not the gossip or what the press would say or the critics. Just think of it as a wonderful job that can give you a wonderful life.'

"And she was right. It has and continues to give me a wonderful life. My father was probably more protective because he always said: 'Actors always wait to be chosen. Waiting for the phone to ring.'

"So I absorbed that advice which was why I was able to evolve my career when a door closed on one chapter. So I went to another."

Neither of her parents, unfortunately, lived long enough to witness their daughter's extraordinary success. Rossellini passed in 1977 while Bergman died of cancer five years later. It remains a sadness for Isabella.

"To lose them in a five-year distance, was a very tormented time for me.

"My dad died when I was 23. Mama died when I was 28. And then I had a nanny who died in that period and my three sort-of parents all died in that five years. It was rough.

"And also because those are the years when you're concentrating on your career and being independent. It's not something you should be dealing with at that age," she says.

"But they would've been incredibly supportive. Through the modelling, the acting, the movies, directing. I know they would have been happy."

And what of her own happiness? On her farm, surrounded by flora and fauna, balancing an intriguing, vibrant career that's forever evolving, does the icon feel sated? Satisfied with her lot?

"Oh yes," she coos, "more than happy. But always inquisitive, always wanting to know more. And discover. I still make movies, I make my own movies. I have freedom."

And with a New Year on us, are there any resolutions to keep? "To eat my chickens," she titters quietly.

I don't follow. She laughs. "Well I'm not a vegetarian and I buy chicken from the supermarket which is ridiculous because I have my own chickens on the farm. I just find it so difficult to eat the ones I know.

"I give them a good life. And when it comes to the time, I need to learn how to eat them."

She sighs loudly. "Although I think might be one resolution I fail to keep…"

'Enemy' is in cinemas now

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