Isabella Rossellini, model, actress, film-maker, daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, and a woman who has lived most of her life in the public eye, does not like being observed.
She does not like being judged. She does not like having to explain herself. She does not like the red carpet. She does not like (of course she does not) being interviewed. She does like, however, animals, bugs and their reproductive weirdnesses, which can make for an unlikely conversational stew.
I found this out pretty early on in our rendezvous, which took place at the Mercer, the SoHo hotel where, in my experience, almost every fashion person likes to be interviewed. But unlike the other fashion people, such as Marc Jacobs and Alber Elbaz, I have met there – and, truth be told, though she is a highly successful model, calling Rossellini a “fashion person” might be exaggerating her interest in that world – she did not choose to sit in the lobby, which is where the prime people-watching takes place.
Rather, she opted for a little banquette tucked in the corner of the bar in the café area, where the decor is more haute diner than haute couture. When she came in, wearing a navy trouser suit and navy-and-white striped T-shirt, and spotted that I was already seated, she simply pivoted on a heel, pulled out a chair and sat down, without the slightest glance to see which other someone, if anyone, might be eating nearby. But then it was a Thursday and she had chosen to eat not lunch but brunch. And even at the Mercer there aren’t a lot of brunch-eaters or celebrity-oglers hanging around on a Thursday at 11:30.
Her dislike of the red carpet came up because, although the 60-year-old Rossellini says “basically, I am retired”, as anyone who has looked at a glossy magazine recently knows, she is the autumn/winter face of the jeweller Bulgari. She is sporting a Bulgari watch on her wrist when we meet, the only suggestion that the woman in the simple T-shirt and trouser suit might have a more glamorous alter ego than she initially displays. She has also just starred in two films on release – Late Bloomers (2011) directed by Julie Gavras, the daughter of Costa Gavras, in which she and William Hurt play a couple coming to terms with old(ish) age; and Keyhole, by the Canadian director Guy Maddin, where she plays Jason Patric’s dead (but still vital) wife. She was also involved in hosting a fundraising gala in New York for Venetian Heritage, a charity that aims to restore Venetian art and architecture and to help shore up the city’s land (Rossellini’s father was half-Venetian, though she grew up in Rome).
The gala included a play directed by Guido Torlonia about the life of the Italian film director Luchino Visconti, narrated by Richard Gere and Tilda Swinton, and a sit-down dinner. Rossellini had to make a brief speech and do whatever promotional activities she could stomach. None of which really adds up to the sort of thing most of us associate with being “retired”.
“The red carpet has become like a parallel business,” Rossellini says, after we have ordered: a goats’ cheese omelette and fresh orange juice for her, and mixed berries for me, which I am planning to eat one at a time in order to extend the length of our encounter to something like a conventional meal’s duration.
“The next day, there are TV programmes, and magazines, and it’s all ‘Do you like the dress or not like the dress?’ and ‘Did she look fat?’ To keep borrowing dresses and jewellery is like a full-time job. And you have to be a fantasy, which you can never be, so you always feel depressed. To be an icon is a big job – it’s beyond acting. And sometimes it pays and sometimes it doesn’t. I remember when we were doing Blue Velvet , Dennis Hopper was just out of rehab. We hadn’t seen him in a very long time, and we all said, ‘Oh, it’s so great to see you, you are such an icon,’ and he said, ‘Icon, icon: who will pay my bills?’”
As Rossellini says this, she suddenly breaks into a loud belly laugh, which makes her entire face crinkle up. She does this often. She laughed, for example, when she was going to have a lemon juice, which is what I was drinking, and I told her ordering a citron pressé had created so much confusion in the waitress, who kept asking if I wanted lemonade (the Paul Newman organic kind), that she should probably opt for the orange.
On the subject of lemonade, she says, “I went to this big supermarket the other day, and there were all these Paul Newman products on a shelf, with different pictures of him: a Mexican Paul Newman, an Italian Paul Newman, a French Paul Newman. It was so silly but, you know, his daughter, who is the one behind it, really crafted an impressive empire. I always buy the lemonade and the dog food, because it’s all organic, but not the vinaigrette because, well ... I’m Italian.” And she laughs again.
Five years ago Rossellini left New York City, where she has lived ever since her marriage in 1979 to the film director Martin Scorsese (they divorced in 1982; she later married Jon Wiedemann, with whom she has a daughter, Elettra, before splitting up in 1986). She moved to Long Island in part to get away from everything that comes with being an icon. Her mother, she points out, did the same, moving from Hollywood back to Europe to avoid the “fish bowl” of American fame and expectations.
In Bellport, Long Island, Rossellini raises seeing-eye dogs for the Guide Dog Foundation – she takes care of the dogs in the country, and fellow actress Linda Larkin looks after them in the city – and once the dogs are grown they are adopted by new owners. Rossellini recently bought 30 acres of land that, before the economic crisis hit the real estate industry, had been earmarked for development, and she is in the process of getting permits to transform the land into a working farm. She says she spends most of her time now going to “small farm conferences” and negotiating her way through the bureaucracy of local government, only coming into the city occasionally.
Still, whether she likes it or not, Rossellini remains an icon, not so much because of the often remarked upon “luminosity” of her face but because of what she has done, and continues to do, to defy conventions – especially of the Hollywood kind. A farm is just the tip of the iceberg; this is a woman who puts butter on her bread. I can’t remember the last time I ate with an actress/model who not only consumed bread in the first place but also buttered it. In public.
“Hah,” she snorts, putting some buttered bread in her mouth as her omelette arrives. “They [non-butter people, I’m guessing] said my career was over at 27.” Up to that time her career had largely amounted to a few minor roles in movies and television, including a small part in her mother’s film A Matter of Time (1976). In truth, however, it had just begun.
It was at 28 that Rossellini really started modelling, when her friend the photographer Bruce Weber asked if he could shoot her for British Vogue. This led, among other successes, to to a 14-year contract with make-up brand Lancôme (it dropped her, controversially, when she turned 40, a decision she publicly decried). She had her first starring role in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, going on to appear in Cousins (1989), Death Becomes Her (1992), and the Tina Fey television series 30 Rock (2007).
Though she is famously beautiful, she displays none of the classic signs of aesthetic interference – her face has the crepey skin of ageing women, her middle has thickened. She seems to have liked modelling more than acting (or, at least, modelling for big brands more than acting in big movies), possibly because no one expects a model to articulate her motivation and they are allowed to simply get on with their job.
Aware, however, that her employability in front of the camera might be limited, six years ago Rossellini embarked on yet another professional stage, writing and then directing her own short films. It began with My Dad is 100 Years Old, a 2005 film directed by Guy Maddin that she wrote in honour of her father and acted in, playing Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock and David O Selznick. It was subsequently bought by Robert Redford’s Sundance channel and later, when Redford decided he wanted to make some short films for the web, he called Rossellini, who suggested a series about the sex lives of insects.
“I basically wanted to do a comic where you learn a little something, and I was interested in insects because they are so far from us: they are hermaphrodites, or they change sex,” she says, chomping on some bread. That project, called Green Porno, featured Rossellini dressing up as a bee, a housefly, and so on, and was followed by a series on the reproductive life of sea creatures called Seduce Me. She has also made a longer film for the Discovery channel called Animals Distract Me (2011) about a day in the life of urban animals, and she is currently at work on another series about the maternal instinct of animals, for which she has, she says, been reading a great deal of feminist biology.
“One of the great issues in biology is the origin of altruism – of why you would do something for someone else that could hurt you – and Darwin posited that it might be rooted in maternal instinct, in sacrificing yourself for your children,” she says, forking up her sautéed tomatoes. “But if you look at animals, well, some mothers eat their babies, others let them die, so you really can’t reduce it to that.”
When she started thinking about making films on animal life Rossellini went back to school, starting a degree in animal studies at New York University, from which she will graduate next May. “I wanted to make films about biology, and I thought I needed more information,” she says. In fact, the reason we are meeting at the Mercer has nothing to do with fashion: the hotel is not far from NYU, and she has a class to get to immediately after we finish. Interestingly, her daughter Elettra, who is currently modelling, just received a degree in biomedicine from the London School of Economics (Rossellini also has an adopted son, Roberto, now 19).
Rossellini is enthusiastic about going back to college as an adult. “It’s really much better to go when you are older; you know what you need to learn; what information you are there for. You know your reason for being there,” she says, as the waitress appears to take our plates. Rossellini doesn’t want any coffee, but asks for some sparkling water.
“You know, when I grew up in Italy in the 1950s it was still very agricultural,” she says. “Food was very important, produce was very important. Everyone made their own olive oil. It took me a long time after I moved here to understand that Americans are much further away from their food. I mean, when I was a child I knew the lamb before I ate the lamb at Easter – even if they didn’t tell me it was the same lamb. I always assumed all those people in the Hamptons had their own vegetable gardens. Hah!”
On her Long Island farm she plans to grow vegetables and fruit and keep chickens; there isn’t enough acreage for larger animals. After this degree, she is thinking about continuing her studies to learn about pests. She has also hired some young farmers to work the land, one of whom wants a horse to plough the fields, because the animal compresses the top layer of soil less than a metal plough.
“What interested me was that, as soon as it was public that I had bought this land and wanted it to become a farm, I started being contacted by young people, often very educated young people,” says Rossellini. “In my generation, if you had an education, you wanted to go to the city, you didn’t want to be a farmer, but this generation is very interested in the environment and food, and for them, being a farmer is a lifestyle choice – like being an artist or an artisan. It’s an ideological decision.”
An “artisan” is how Rossellini would prefer to think of herself; if you are “an artisan”, she argues, people judge you on your work, or your product, not your persona, and certainly not your promotional appearances. This is why she has always gravitated towards independent film, which is also much more about “learning”.
It’s why she made Late Bloomers – “I was interested in making a comedy about old age, which is not generally treated as a comedy, but a tragedy,” she says – and why she is attracted to working with the avant-garde Maddin, with whom she has made “five or six” films, and now shares many of the same crew members. (Their first film together was 2003’s The Saddest Music in the World, in which Rossellini memorably played Lady Helen Port-Huntley, a legless beer baroness.)
“When I work with Guy, the films are much more like an installation than a film,” she says. “They could go in a museum, or a theatre. He might make a silent film with live dialogue and a live orchestra. Because the investment is less, when it is independent film, you can be more daring. Financially, though, it’s very complicated.” She sighs. “It’s like saving Venice.” Or taking part in the occasional interview.
Then she shakes her head, stands up and smiles. “I have to go to class,” she announces briskly. And she is off, to plant some seeds in her mind.
Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor
99 Prince Street
New York NY 10012
Orange juice $7.00
Goats’ cheese omelette $14.00
San Pellegrino $7.00
Total (including service) $39.00
A life at a glance
1952 Born June 18 in Rome
1971 Attends Finch College in New York
1976 Makes her film debut in A Matter Of Time
1979 Marries Martin Scorsese
1980 Photographed by Bruce Weber for British Vogue and by Bill King for the American edition
1982 Becomes the face of Lancôme. In August her mother dies; in November she divorces Scorsese
1983 Marries Jon Wiedemann, a model from Texas (now an executive at Microsoft). They have a daughter, Elettra.
1986 Stars in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet as a disturbed singer; divorces Wiedemann
1992 Appears in Madonna’s music video for “Erotica”
1994 Adopts a baby boy and names him Roberto, after her father
1995 Develops her own cosmetics brand, Manifesto
1996 Controversially dismissed from Lancôme
1997 Writes a semi-fictional memoir, Some of Me, and is nominated for a Golden Globe for her role in Crime of the Century
2008 Her Green Porno short films are screened at the Sundance Film Festival