“I have always lived among superstars”

Isabell Rossellini, photographed in 1980

Inspired by silent movies, Isabella Rossellini has made a series of funny films for the internet under the titles of Green Porno and Mammas.  She has developed Green Porno into a new art form, a one woman stage show that she has taken round the world and is currently performing in Australia. In love with animals since she was a little girl, she went to university to study animal behaviour.  Her passion for conservation has become part of her career, and she does it with humour.  Isabella is amazed by the diversity of animal mating behaviour on the planet and finds the thousands of ways there are to make love, to form bonds and to propagate the species in the animal kingdom, hilarious. In Green Porno the actress transforms herself into mating animals, ranging from dolphins and deer to snails and earthworms.

Her great interest in animals and their conservation comes through clearly in the following extracts from my archive Interview, published in Vanity Fair in January 1991.

She lives in a two floor apartment in an old house in Soho, the favourite Manhattan neighbourhood for New York’s artists. Isabella Rossellini is not yet home when I arrive, and so I wait for her in a big room with light wooden flooring, a rustic table and a few chairs. This room is at the same time the kitchen, the living room and the hall. Everything is extremely clean and organized. I am sad for her, because I know her relationship with movie director David Lynch, with whom she had been together for six years, has just ended and that they broke up during his shooting of the film Blue Velvet.

I hear a rattle of keys, the front door opens, it’s Isabella.  She’s smaller than I remember her to be. Her hair is cut short, and she wears grey pants, a white shirt and black suede shoes. We take a tour of the apartment. I see her wrought-iron bed, a little study with its desk on which sits a typewriter, and the new bathroom that, as she comments with a smile, “Is as big as a movie star’s!”  Next to her own room is her daughter Elettra’s bedroom. Elettra is named after her grandmother, Roberto Rossellini’s mother. It’s as clean and well organized as the rest of the apartment.

“I inherited a taste for order and cleanliness from my mother (Ingrid Bergman) and my Swedish family. I love order, in my daily life as well. When I’m in New York I wake up at six in the morning, come to the kitchen and make a cappuccino.  Coffee and cappuccino are the two Italian things that I can’t live without. Then I read the newspapers until seven o’clock. At seven I wake Elettra up, help her get dressed, prepare her breakfast, walk her to school and come back home where my phone calls then begin. The most difficult thing in my life is organizing my ‘Schedule’, allocating my time. I divide myself between my work as a model for Lancôme, which includes photo shoots, travel around the world and the promotion of their perfumes, and my work as an actress. I just got back from three months in Russia, where I shot a film with Giorgio Ferrara.”

What did you think about Russia?

“Most of all, it scared me. I had this feeling that something nasty was about to happen, and then, while I was there by myself in the hotel, I had a phone call from David Lynch in the middle of the night telling me that everything was over. You can imagine how bad that made me feel.  I am a big mamma that becomes very emotionally attached, and if it was left solely up to me I would never end a relationship.  So, when I wasn’t working I spent some very sad days sitting in my room since it was raining outside and I forced myself to read some books.”

Sometimes Isabella smiles and the expression of her eyes becomes more tender, more feminine. Several times she repeats the idea that women are frailer than men.

“Men need free spaces, to be left alone, hopefully to live an adventure or two. Women are different. When they are in love they are faithful to a single man.”

Don’t you think that your extremely busy life and always working could have contributed to the break up with David Lynch?

“No, I don’t actually think it was a problem of closeness or distance. Ours was a long distance relationship, we spoke for hours on the phone…”

Isabella constantly returns the topic of our conversation to discussions about family. She says that she is more of a sidekick than a star. Even today, despite her success in film and her Lancôme contract, Isabella doesn’t feel like a star and doesn’t behave at all like one. In fact, both for me and for others who have known her for many years, she has remained totally straightforward and natural.

“I have always lived among superstars, first with my parents, then with Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, people that were virtually incapable of thinking about anything but their jobs. For them love is, in a certain sense, subordinate to work. I have not been lucky in love. I always look for men who are difficult geniuses that in some way remind me of my own family.  Then, after a few years, they leave me and I don’t understand why. I always take it badly.  Some time ago I saw Martin and he told me that, when we met, it was very important for him to think that he was in a relationship with Roberto Rossellini’s daughter! Now that I’m financially independent, I’m happy because I don’t want to be dependent on the men with whom I live. These great genius types often don’t deal well with contingent responsibilities. Martin and David are alike, they think up great ideas, they think about the problems of the world. I recall seeing David cry while he watched a TV show about children in Nicaragua. The men of my life are visionaries, a bit like my father. I feel extremely inspired by them, overawed in their presence, because when I’m on my own I don’t think about these things, I’m much more pre-occupied by daily life.”

The fact that she has made a lot of money amuses Isabella and she tells me what she has done with it as if she is sharing a cooking recipe. The first money that she earned from Lancôme enabled her to buy this apartment. Then she listened to the voice of her own common sense and decided that she would divide her capital into three parts and that she would have three different people invest it for her, in competition with each other.

“This strategy turned out to be rather sensible, and I have to say that I’m happy with my investments.”

Isabella assumes an expression that on one hand makes her look identical to her mother and on the other likens her to a young girl that has been up to some kind of naughtiness. Then she adds:

“If I hadn’t had enough money to be able to live comfortably with my daughter, I don’t know how I would have been able to bear being left by a man at the age of 38, after six years of being together with David. There is just no doubt that money helps. I have seen some other friends of mine that have been left by their husbands who have found younger women. In many cases they’ve had to change their lives, some have ended up in tiny, horrible houses. It’s not easy for a woman to grow old. That’s why I respect my work so much, why I like it, even though being on the road a lot becomes a heavy burden at the end of the day.”

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Do you read many books?

“Yes, mostly biology books, books about animals. I’ve always had a great interest in biology, and I think that when I’m older I will dedicate myself to study and research. These days, whenever I travel, I always spend time in little known places where they have animal reserves for endangered species.”

How on earth did you develop that interest?

“I was a lousy student at school, but I always liked biology a lot, and history as well. They are passions inherited from my father. He seldom talked about movies and didn’t go and watch them. He would stay in bed, reading for hours, and then when he was with us, with his children, he talked to us about books, about ideas. He liked reading history and keeping up to date with scientific advances. Deep down he was an Italian patriarch who was very attached to his family. He died when I was only 22 but I remember that he was very jealous. He was jealous of the boys with whom I spent the evenings: I always had to be back home early.”

And your mother?

“My mother was an actress in the purest sense of the word. She liked movies, the world of cinema, she loved going out with her actor colleagues. She wasn’t strict at all. We only ever saw each other frequently during the years when she was ill.”

Isabella, do you feel just a little bit Swedish, or are you only Italian?

“I’ve lived in the U.S. for twenty years, and at the end of the day this is now my country. I’m happy to be in New York, where I have my apartment, my daughter and so many excellent friends.  It’s true that during the past year I have sometimes thought about moving to Paris, which may be the most fun city in the world, but I am very attached to New York, to the American mentality. This is a country where you are free to make your dreams come true. You can think of doing something, try it out and often you can succeed. Even if it’s true that during these months we’re going through a big crisis, and that for years there have been problems of extreme poverty. But I think that these are in many ways the best of times for New York and for this country. Moments of hope. This is a tough country, a country of pioneers, and it’s precisely during the tough times that you learn to live better, because there’s a new spirit, people roll up their sleeves and search for something new. I certainly didn’t like the Eighties so much, with all their emphasis on money and the yuppie mentality. Perhaps a little bit of my rebellious feminist past has stuck with me.”

What do you do when you are not working? Do you have loads of friends?

“I do usually lead the high life, but more for reasons to do with charity or my work. Otherwise, Elettra and I remain here or go to Long Island, to our country house. When there, I like to look at old family albums, put the pictures one beside the other and try and make out the resemblances between Elettra, myself and our ancestors. I have always enjoyed Photography, and besides, I owe my modelling career to the great photographer Bruce Weber, who started taking pictures of me ten years ago.”

Isabella has made us coffee, and occasionally during our interview, as if she wanted to create a small pause every now and then, she stands up, opens the fridge, takes out a bottle of Perrier water, pours a glass for me and one for herself and then puts the bottle back. She has small hands that are in contrast to her large and determined personality.  She rests them on the table and moves them nervously.

“I travel all over the world, but most of the time the only people I see are a stylist and a make-up artist, and we spend hours and hours alone together in the hotel bathrooms where they help me get ready for the photo shoots. Speaking about make-up, I remember that once when I was shooting with Mastroianni, I saw him one morning while they were putting on his make-up. He was fast asleep and let himself be worked on without so much as a flinch!”

“I have always liked the world of fashion better than the movies. It’s more fun, it has less intellectual pretensions than the world of film making. For some years now one very important person in my life has been Howard Gilman, an industrialist who created a foundation in Florida where they have a farm for endangered animals, and scientists from all over the world live there. Misha Baryshnikov, with whom I go there a lot at weekends, introduced me to him. I really think that I will dedicate my old age to that field, even if my primary ambition now is maximising my success in movies. When making my last few films it has very much felt to me that I am on the right track.”

Isabella is very attached to Rome, where she spent her teenage years with her sister Ingrid, who these days teaches at Columbia University in New York, and Robertino, who lives in Monte Carlo. But she no longer wants to live in Italy, as she doesn’t feel that she is taken seriously there. She feels that she has to double her kindness, her punctuality, her professional capacity, so as not to be constantly reminded of how extraordinary her parents were.

Isabella has talked very openly with me. And if she speaks with the kindness and the fluency of somebody who is used to being interviewed, I also sense that at heart she is extremely shy.

She has told me all that is needed. She walks me to the front door.  It’s rush hour, and she’s worried that I won’t be able to find a cab. Her parting remark is:

“Deep inside I’ll always be the Italian mamma,” to which she adds, “I worry about everything.”    

The above is taken from Alain Elkann Interviews, published by Assouline (196A Piccadilly, St. James’s, London W1J 9EY)

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Credit: Santi Visalli / Contributor

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