At 66 years old, Isabella Rossellini is enjoying her second, third, or perhaps her fourth career. She came to fame as an actress in the 1980s when, as the muse of David Lynch, she starred in the dark sexual thriller Blue Velvet and surreal jailbreak road movie Wild at Heart. She already had an established career as a model. Her first jobs included work with photographers such as Helmut Newton and Richard Avedon. In 1982, she signed an exclusive contract with Lancôme cosmetics that made her the best-paid model in the world.
A subsequent, gentler career has found her farming a small patch of land in Long Island, New York. In March, she published a book, My Chickens and I, about raising her brood, and she entertains 122,000 Instagram followers with live feeds from the coop.
Next week, she arrives in London to star in Link Link wearing her take on a ringmaster’s suit. A circus-themed one-woman show about the science of animal behaviour, Link Link was written by Rossellini and born of a series of two-minute films she made a decade ago about the breeding habits of other species. The 40 Green Porno films, for which she dressed up in bodysuits to recreate the sex lives of snails, spiders and shrimps, became a viral hit. Link Link is Rossellini’s attempt both to “monetise” her creation and to show off her new-found learning. For the past 10 years, she has been a student of animal behaviour and conservation, and will complete a masters degree at New York’s Hunter College in the subject, just as soon as she gets that dissertation in.
“The first show [Green Porno] was about the waist down. This show is about waist up,” she says, over coffee in New York, where she is rehearsing before her nine-city European tour. Her Italian accent, with its fruity inflections, is undimmed even after 30 years in the US. Her hair is cropped short, black and shiny, her skin still radiantly fair. Wearing a white shirt buttoned up to the neck and black-rimmed spectacles, she recalls an especially luminous headmistress. Rather disconcertingly, she also reminds me of my mother. “It’s easy to make people laugh when you talk about sex,” she adds. “So I was kind of worried that talking about cognition wouldn’t be as easy to make people laugh.”
Should the subject fail to bring the laughs, Rossellini has a dependable fallback: a dog co-star called Pan — who is actually a female rescue dog named Darcy. “She’s there to charm the audience,” Rossellini says. “And she does; she’s really good.”
Rossellini’s life has never been predictable. The daughter of actress Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini, and one of seven siblings, she grew up in Italy before moving to New York. She was married, briefly, to Martin Scorsese, has worked with some of the most charismatic people in film and fashion, and has shared her life with the most powerful men. In her thirties, Rossellini represented a lusty, full-throated and rather dangerous sensuality. Today, she is a grandmother and far more busy with the hens. Yet her stage debut has coincided with a career renaissance. She is taking on more film roles. Having dumped her when she turned 43, Lancôme renegotiated their relationship in 2015. And, despite always having been a “cover star” rather than a catwalk model, she appeared in the most recent Dolce & Gabbana show with her adopted son Roberto, daughter Elettra and grandson Ronin.
Ingrid Bergman once said her career was reinvented when she was in her sixties. Has Rossellini found the same true of her own? “Well, my mother died when she was 67,” she replies. “But it probably is true that there is a certain age where you are too old to play the ingénue or the woman who falls in love and wishes to get married, and too young to play an old person, so there is a long period. Whatever, I don’t know; I’m not a sociologist.” For all the twinkly adorableness of her life on Instagram, Rossellini is a far sharper presence in real life. Acting can be tiresome: “Sometimes I question if I really want to be in films and be away from home for three months.” She is dispassionate about the business of fashion, even though her son is now a model. “Some of the things are very familiar,” she says of the business. “But I’m not there, so I can’t tell.”
Neither does she have much positive to say about social media. “I’m forced to do it [by my managers],” she says. “I don’t have a thought every day that I could share. I find it hard,” she adds. “And I don’t follow anybody because I’m not really interested.”
We always talk about survival of the fittest and use it when somebody’s aggressive or [to explain] capitalism as being the natural way, but it isn’t really.Isabella Rossellini
Does she feel fulfilled, I wonder? “Yes,” she nods. “I like very much what I do.” She softens hugely when speaking of her studies. Ask why domesticated animals are characterised by their patchy coloured fur, for example, or whether animals are capable of altruism, and her manner changes completely. She is an engaging, funny storyteller — she even does the actions, too.
“Often people say, which animal do you study? I try to study them all; I’m trying to argue in Link Link that if we recognise, as Darwin showed us, that the bones that form the hand are the same bones that form the wings, or the fins of the whale, we must recognise there is a continuity among us. So the core of Link Link is to ask if there is then a mental, a cognitive continuity.”
Do animals understand friendship? “The idea of co-operation is interesting because we always talk about the survival of the fittest ... But in the case of the wolf, for example, it was the survival of the friendliest that allowed him to become ... the dog. We always talk about survival of the fittest and use it when somebody’s aggressive or [to explain] capitalism as being the natural way, but it isn’t really.”
As the daughter of two of the most powerful creative talents of the 20th century, Rossellini has been a beneficiary of a highly rarefied natural selection. Did she feel that entertainment was written in her DNA? “I don’t know what it is. I am genetically the daughter of two artists and so maybe it was there already. And, yes, I am the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini. But they didn’t work for success. They worked for things they found interesting and they hoped that what they were interested in they could share. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.”
Rossellini believes in the power of shared instincts. The reason she worked so well with David Lynch, for example, was because she was so attuned to his style. “I understood David; still today, there is a simpatico,” she says. “Sometimes you play the same scene with one actor and what you might call ‘the chemistry’ works incredibly, and with the other one it works OK but it’s not the same connection. I think we have it also when we meet people in life.”
The “mystery of relationships and chemistry and communication” remain a source of fascination for Rossellini, whether she’s making movies, modelling or mucking out the hen house. “Scientists say you cannot quantify that simpatico and so we discard it. But I always say, as an actress, if we discard that we discard the essence of the connection.”
In a career of many profiles, could it be that Rossellini’s animal instincts reveal her most human side of all?
‘Link Link’ is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London, on October 23 and 24.
- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.