Best of Spring

Lady Bird: Isabella Rossellini Is Living Her Best Life

Musings from the global icon and re-minted Lancôme spokesperson about raising Americans, fortitude, and chickens


The first thing that registers when Isabella Rossellini comes within arm’s reach is that the 65-year-old beauty of international renown does not bleach her teeth. They are white, sure, but naturally so, free of glare, and the fine lines on her face come alive when she smiles. Her face is luminous and bare — that, or she’s nailed the “no-makeup” look — and she is dressed comfortably in a collared black-and-white tunic over dark flowy pants punctuated with a pair of canary-yellow, soft leather shoes. She is exchanging farewells with her model son, Roberto, who stands more than a head taller than his mother. He is holding his newly rescued pup of a few days, and they speak in Italian as he parts.

Rossellini had returned to the city from her Long Island farm for a speaking engagement with the evolutionary biologist Dr. Menno Schilthuizen at the New York Public Library the night before. There it was revealed that a species of beetle — ptomaphaginus isabellarossellini  had been named after the actress, for what Dr. Schilthuizen called “very interesting genitalia.” Fans of Rossellini’s series of comical shorts about sex in the animal kingdom, Green Porno, which debuted in 2008 on the Sundance Channel and now lives on YouTube, may have seen her turn as a duck getting it on and boasting of her “vaginal complexity.” In an email, Dr. Schilthuizen noted that the ptomaphaginus isabellarossellini showed “signs of a sexual evolutionary ‘arms race’ between male and female genitalia,” which reminded him of her duck sketch, thus inspiring the name.

“I read his book Nature’s Nether Regions, and there was this convergence of interest and humor,” recalls Rossellini, who is pursuing her master’s degree in Animal Behavior and Conservation at Hunter College. “I wrote him saying, ‘We are soulmates — we have to work together.’ So yesterday’s talk was the first opportunity.” Having an insect named in her honor delighted and amused the model-actress-filmmaker, who earlier this month released her own book of illustrations and observations on animal behavior, My Chickens and I, which chronicles life on the farm, from their arrival as chicks — some of them endangered heritage breeds — until they reach adulthood by laying their first egg a few months later.

Those in Rossellini’s orbit are unlikely to be surprised by her professional foray into animal behavior. As a young girl, she says she “dreamt to make films about animals, but didn’t know how to get there,” an ambition she’s fulfilled with Green Porno. For this maybe not-so-surprising second act, Rossellini credits her life in the country. After raising her children in New York City — while pursuing a career as the face of Lancôme and starring in cult films such as Blue Velvet and Big Night — she moved her primary residence out to her farm in Brookhaven on the south shore of Long Island.

“I don’t think I would have studied if I were in the city, because there are so many temptations that I think I would have been distracted,” she says, sounding not unlike a homework-wracked undergrad. “You know, the first time there was a difficult chapter, somebody would call and say, ‘Do you want to come see the premiere and Kate Winslet is giving the lecture.’ What am I doing with this, we should go see Kate Winslet! So living in the country allowed me to study, and then to write. And I liked that part, but I didn’t expect this love for animals would translate into another career for me.”

In May, Rossellini will be bringing her one-woman show about recent discoveries in animal behavior and evolution, Link Link Circus, to the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Hudson Yards, following its debut earlier this month at the Teatre Akadèmia in Barcelona. She performs alongside her newest dog and traveling companion, Darcy, in a humorous monologue about the animal kingdom. “My dream would be to just write and maybe direct a show, but not schlep around to 52 cities and in a theater too. It’s fun, but it’s also very difficult and your life comes to a halt, oh my God,” she says, her voice dropping and rising as if to characterize the exhaustion. “That would maybe be the next thing, involving another actress to take on the responsibility, or it’s all animation, where I don’t have to schlep the world.”

“We’re a very celebrity-driven society, but that has also helped my producing,” she adds. “I don’t know that I would find the funds if I’m not me.”

These days, Rossellini is happy to be enjoying time at her farm with her first grandchild, Ronin, the newborn son of her model–food writer daughter, Elettra Wiedemann, who lives in Fort Greene. “She didn’t think she’d like the country, and now that she came, she understands. She likes the city, but I think just walking with the baby and a stroller and two dogs, the garbage and picking up the shit — very hard for mothers!” she laughs. “She said, ‘Oh, maybe I should stay,’ and I said, ‘No, you can’t stay. I mean, I love for you to stay, but you have to work.’ We’re not rich enough that she can just not work. I said, ‘You can do it for a year, but then you have to go back to work.’ ”

The daughter of cinema royalty, Rossellini witnessed firsthand the work ethic of her own parents, the Academy Award–winning actress Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca) and the Italian neorealist auteur Roberto Rossellini. With her siblings, including her fraternal twin Ingrid, now a university professor of literature, Rossellini grew up a global nomad residing primarily between Rome and Paris, a lifestyle driven by her parents’ successful careers. “I see them as artists that worked very hard at their art, whether it was my mama portraying different personalities of women, almost like a psychiatrist, who tries to find all the clockwork that makes a person tick,” says the actress, who also speaks French and Italian, and endearingly jumbles American clichés on occasion. “And my father saw in film a new way of communicating that could transcend reading. He was born in 1906, really the beginning of film, which was like the Internet today. All of a sudden you can see something that looks similar, it’s two-dimensional, but very similar to reality. He always felt a moral imperative to film, and told the story — especially of people who were unheard, about the civilians during the war and how much they suffered — because they couldn’t write the book. My parents were curious and engaged about life, and they very much liked what they did. Their job was important to them, it wasn’t just to make money.”

It’s an approach Rossellini has applied to her own career. “I do things because they’re interesting to me. If you say, I want to do something, but it has to be appreciated, it has to be successful, I have to make money, then you feel like a failure,” she says. “I didn’t know that I was going to start working again. For forty years, you say, ‘Oh, modeling is not lasting, it’s lasting 25 years.’ But I always thought it was going to end, I wasn’t going to get another job. Same thing when you are acting.”

“Acting isn’t going to last,” she says, leaning back into her seat. “You think it’s going to last, but soon they’re not going to call you. By the time I hit sixty, I thought, well, for sure now I’m not going to work.”

By 2016, Rossellini had taken early retirement from the Screen Actors Guild, and long since closed the door on modeling when Lancôme came knocking again, 23 years after they released her from her contract, which at the time had made her the highest-paid model in the world. “I was let go because I was 42 and told that ‘women dreamed to be young,’ ” she says of her original fourteen-year run with the French beauty giant. “I worked so well with Lancôme, we were so successful, and then there was that moment where it was so sad. I didn’t think it was time, but it was the way it was. I did try to fight it, because the marketing research said that women were very positive that I was there, but my executive at the time said to me, ‘The advertisement talks about the dream, it doesn’t talk about the reality.’ Lancôme got to be blamed, but a lot of other companies stopped working with me. A lot of magazines, and eventually it happened with acting. It was part of our culture.”

But, Rossellini notes, the culture is changing, with women in the beauty industry taking charge. “So much of my role at the beginning was to be beautiful and shut up. I wasn’t giving interviews, journalists talked to the director of the brand. As women journalists started to come in, they became curious, ‘We want to hear about the model, what she has to say. Do you use it? Do you like it? Do you get it for free?’ They wanted to know these things. And Lancôme decided I could become the spokesperson because there was pressure that came from the women journalists to talk to models. I was a very good spokesperson — you have to be clear, you have to be honest, you also have to be positive.” She pauses, and then adds, “I think what hurt me the most at the time when I left was that I knew so much about the company. I felt that I had so much knowledge, and they weren’t capitalizing on it, that I could give so much.”

Fast forward to 2015, when a woman, Françoise Lehmann, took control of the company and got in touch with Rossellini. “I was so taken aback because a lifetime went by. It wasn’t like three years, you know? So I said, ‘Let’s have lunch.’ I was a little bit afraid that they might see photos and say, ‘Oh, she looks like a very beautiful old lady.’ Because I haven’t done anything, I just look my age. So I thought, sometimes better to see me in person,” she announces, laughing. “In case there was a fantasy about what I look like, you know?”

Rossellini arrived first to their meeting, and as she waited, a motorcyclist roared up, parked, and removed her helmet. “It was delightful to see a woman, and this Brigitte Bardot hair came down, blonde, and I thought, whoa, is this the new executive?” she recalls. Her first run with the company was dominated by male executives, and she found the change refreshing. There was an honesty, a directness, and I felt very comfortable as a woman with her. I thought that she wanted to really make a point, a difference, and she said something very beautiful, that was very inspiring to me. She said, ‘Lancôme is 85 years old, and as a company, throughout the century where women achieved the most emancipation in society than [any] other century, we were there to serve her with cosmetics, the toys that women enjoy. And forty [of those years] were with you — with the company or outside of the company — and you have to be back.’ And when Françoise said that, I felt so acknowledged. Not about my beauty, but for my knowledge. And that’s when I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be with you.’ Because I want to work for Lancôme, of course, but also now led by a woman, there’s a sensitivity that is different. It is beautiful.”

For the foreseeable future, Rossellini is content to stay local at the farm, where she also keeps goats and six beehives along with a vegetable garden maintained by a team that sells the harvest at the local farmers’ market. The actress’s recent Hulu series Shut Eye, in which she had a two-season arc as the matriarch of a crime dynasty, wasn’t renewed and she admits to feeling some relief at the timing. “I have expectations that always seem to come short: finish my degree, work on the book, work on the theater, take care of my grandchild, run the farm, and then at the end of the day, there are so many pieces,” she says. “Because I think I try to do too much, I always felt this anxiety that I haven’t done everything good enough.”

Life on the farm also keeps her in close proximity to her two adult children, their partners, and her newest “accomplice,” her grandson, Ronin. When asked if meeting Ronin was anything like meeting Roberto, who is adopted, a beatific smile spreads across her face. “I think it’s different. There is something very romantic about adoption, and in a way, it was exactly how I imagined when I was a little girl, because I thought they came with a stork — someone delivered the baby,” she says. “So I received a phone call, and they said, ‘The baby is born’ — Roberto’s birth mother had the wisdom to place the baby in adoption before she had the baby — I remember that phone call, I felt like I was a little girl. For years, I couldn’t see the beginning of Dumbo, where the stork delivers babies to the zoo. I didn’t know Dumbo would move me. I couldn’t watch it, because I would burst into tears because it reminded me exactly of Roberto’s birth, you know? It was as romantic as that.”

On the one hand, Rossellini’s life is as charmed and glamorous as can be imagined. On the other, she’s faced her own adversity — she was raped as a teenager, which she mentions in her 1997 memoir — and seems to have developed a knack for propelling herself forward, no matter the situation. When discussing the physical trauma of scoliosis as a thirteen-year-old, which involved being placed in a body cast for more than a year, she remains pragmatic and says, “What I learned was very simple. It’s better to be healthy than sick. Physical pain detracts from a lot of things. It’s difficult to study, or read a book, anything. Even if they take you to a Pixar movie, if you’re in pain, you will not laugh. I sometimes just feel that when the hardship is gone, I feel a relief,” she says. “That’s what I learned. But I know that Americans, they want people to be enlightened. Everyone in America wants to be a guru, I feel, or expect people to be guru-like. ‘What is your redeeming, happy ending.’ If something bad happens,  there must be a lesson that makes it better.” She finds this American quality, the pursuit of a happy ending, to be absent in Europe.

But she’s also an admitted optimist. “I’m a little bit bored by somebody who says, ‘It’s so hard, it’s so uninteresting, I’m so bored, I wish I was twenty.’ I lose interest, so I try not to see that many people who are like that,” she admits. Rossellini’s distaste for negativity is palpable, as when we discuss the brave new world of social media, she admits to telling her children at one point, “My God, it’s so horrible, it cannot last!” She now has an Instagram account, and takes issue with Facebook and Twitter for having verified accounts under her name, which she says are not her own. “I feel like my grandmother!” she says, with a laugh. “But I think it’s here to stay, because everybody seems to be loving it. I can’t master it, and I think I never will, because I wasn’t born with it. So I will always be catching up, you know. As I said, I hate people that complain, and now you’re trying to make me complain!” Rossellini gives another quick laugh and shakes her head.

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.