LOS ANGELES — The first time that I met Isabella Rossellini, it was at a small gathering hosted by Harper’s Bazaar, high above the clouds in their swish Manhattan headquarters, where her presence made me think of a serene nun.
It had, no doubt, something to do with her beautiful angelic face, her calm demeanor, her dress in unassuming attire—gray, if I remember—and the feeling that her warm, friendly clasp of the hand and her open smile imparted: that one had been met by a representative from above.
The feeling was enhanced further when, this summer, I watched the multi-hyphenate mingle on a private terrace at the French Riviera’s exclusive Hotel du Cap.
A sea of Hollywood actors caked in make-up, made an arrival by tottering or, in some cases, toppling down the stone steps in flamboyant dresses, as Rossellini chatted politely in her quiet outfit, but stood quite apart.
As the A-Z of celebrities tripped over themselves to corner attention, they appeared like the bit players in the presence of a real star.
The daughter of Ingrid Bergman and filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, Isabella Rossellini appeared that night like a luminous incarnation of her mother whose beautiful face watched over this year’s Cannes Film Festival from the posters that adorned the Riviera town.
On that night in May at the Hotel du Cap, Rossellini turned out to support the fundraising work of AmfAR which she has supported many times.
Her cousin Franco, a filmmaker, died of AIDS, she said.
Casablanca star Bergman had been selected as the muse of Cannes this year, as it is the late film star’s centenary year. She died in 1982, and a series of commemorative events at the Brooklyn Academy of Music include Ingrid Bergman: A Film Retrospective that runs from September 12-29.
Rossellini (with Jeremy Irons) will perform a theatrical tribute to her mother at BAM tonight, Saturday, relying on everything from her mother’s letters, her memoir, Ingrid Bergman: My Story, and her own memories.
“We had them available to us all day long, to be able to hear their thoughts, and that was the advantage,” says Rossellini of her parents.
If she seems quite apart, the model turned actress (director, writer, Bulgari handbag designer and former face of Lancôme), was raised quite apart. She was born in Rome and although her parents were, in the eyes of the world, a glamorous couple, they were also very down-to-earth.
“They were in the business. They were filmmakers, so for me it was a different experience. They were part of that world, so it wasn’t scary,” she says, adding that her mother finally decided on replying with, “That’s lucky” when people called her beautiful, as she did not know what to say.
“We grew up in Europe and not in Hollywood,” she adds. “Filmmakers and actresses don’t have the same aura and status as they do in Hollywood. I remember some opening nights as a child, but I remember being mostly worried about the critics, but my parents were more worried. I remember that aspect of wanting to protect them. I remember the glamorous part. But I still don’t like the red carpet or parties and going out.”
Keeping it in the family, she too followed in her parents’ footsteps but partly, she says, because she was rubbish at school.
“Schools are boring. Now they are less boring because they reach a higher level and you can study what you want. A lot of it is scolding, scolding, scolding. I didn’t like school,” she says. “I wasn’t a good student. I tried and failed. So I remained in the domain of my family, and did acting and modeling. The directing didn’t come, though, until now. Of course, I am in film because of them.”
Her first acting role in 1976 was playing a nun in a film with her mother called A Matter of Time.
Like her mother, she too had a famous filmmaker husband (between 1979 and 1982) in the form of Martin Scorsese. “It was great and felt very much like family to me. He is a passionate filmmaker and similar to me. The interest in film bonded us, and we are still very good friends.”
As well as keeping up the family trade, she has also very much developed her own interests. This includes studying animal behavior, running an organic farm, and making films about so-called “animal porn”—meaning everything from animal’s reproductive cycles, to their mating rituals and maternal instincts.
Rossellini has explored these themes in a series of short films backed by Sundance called Green Porno, Seduce Me, and Mammas. The latter debuted in 2013. She wrote, acted and directed in these productions. She will be back on the big screen later this year in the film Silent Life (playing Rudolph Valentino’s mother). Her other notable credits include Blue Velvet. That film’s director, David Lynch, is a former partner of hers, as was Gary Oldman.
Being dropped a model after 14 years as the face of Lancôme, after reaching the age of 40, allowed her to explore new pastures.
“I first worked as a model, and was banished because of my age and started acting. I evolved from being a model to an actress to a director, and, as a director, you can write about what you want,” she says.
As for being dropped by Lancôme, she adds: “I feel that it was a mistake and they know it was a mistake and it was based on ageism and prejudice. We were enjoying a great success.
“I could understand that if they wanted to do a new thing but moving on from me was based on the fact that I was 40. I was the only one at 40. But people said they loved it. They did research and people loved it. So it was a mistake and they recognized it and in the years, we became close and they worked with my daughter.”
I say that today older models like Iris Apfel are now in demand.
“That is wonderful to hear,” she says. “I don’t know if they (Lancôme) want to re-hire me, because it would be a negative. They have worked with my daughter. They always have to be totally positive. We are still very friendly. They send me new products.”
Like her mother, Rossellini feels comfortable in her own skin. When asked if she feels beautiful, she says: “I don’t really ask myself that question so much. I don’t really look at myself in the mirror and ask, do I look so beautiful?
“I think after a certain age, they ask you to do campaigns beyond your beauty which feels even better. When I look at myself in the mirror, I don’t look at myself and say ‘I am so beautiful,’ but I also don’t hate myself and say I must do plastic surgery.”
Thankfully, Robert Redford does not practice ageism. Sundance got in contact after they bought a film she wrote about her dad in 2005, called My Dad is 100 Years Old.
As her three animal-themed films for Sundance testify to, her interests lie in animals, and she is currently pursuing a Masters in animal behavior.
“It wasn’t something I developed for those films,” she says. “ I was always interested in animals and animal behavior. It was not something I was able to express in my work because I did not have the opportunity. Animal behavior is so vast, I thought I would tackle it.” Animals’ reproductive behavior is “comical” to her.
Anyone who has seen any of her animal films will have seen her gamely dress in big fluffy costumes and looking most un-model like, which would seem to be in keeping with her offbeat, free-spirited character. The silly costumes—with Rossellini dressed up as animals as various as a dragonfly, spider, and snail—were a big part of her choice in selecting the animals for the Green Porn series.
“Sometimes I chose animals that were not too exotic or strange because I think it is more fun, if you are familiar with them.”
Ageism in film has affected Rossellini’s work: she is happy to now be writing the parts she wants to play. “I did a film on the life of Rudolf Valentino, and played his mother and grandmother. At this age (she was born in 1952) this is what you play. That is why I am writing my own films. It is great to evolve and make your own films. Otherwise, there are not very many films for my age. I really only work two days every six months.”
Her mother, who was much celebrated for being so down to earth, wearing normal rather than designer clothes, and was independent minded enough to leave her first husband and child in conservative 1950s Sweden and marry Rossellini, would be no doubt proud of all of her daughter’s adventures today.
“My mum was a very loving mum who suffered a lot because she had a huge career and felt guilty about not being there as much. If she had been born a little later, society would not have condemned her as much. I think she knew that today Hilary Clinton would never be home and would have admired her. She always knew that women were going to have their own careers and now it is happening,” she says.
“My mother worked and adored her work and so did my dad. Both of them encouraged us to have a career because it is so interesting.”
Rossellini is likewise proud of both her parents and like the one she made about her father, she made a film about her mother that she screened in Cannes this year called Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words.
“I was a daddy’s girl,” she says, “but it didn’t mean that I didn’t like my mother.”
The mother-daughter relationship is also very interesting to her, as explored in Mammas.
“The format was little episodes, but it is one big film and one big story: me and my mother,” she says. “Maternal instincts were questioned by the new feminists. They also questioned what maternal instincts are which I found fascinating. I have two kids that are now adults. My daughter got married. Both are adults and come to visit a lot but I have had an empty nest feeling. When they are gone, it is hard but I’m finding solutions to not being every day a mum.”
Her parents’ most vital lesson was around fame. “It is not that they were famous,” Rossellini contends. “Fame comes because of something. If someone is famous because they murdered someone then it wouldn’t be as fun. But they were famous based on their talent. Fame per se is not so good. It is why you are famous,” Rossellini says, that counts.