Isabella Rossellini
Photo by Andre Rau

Isabella Rossellini: “Things will come back”

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Short Profile

Name: Isabella Fiorella Elettra Giovanna Rossellini
DOB: 18 June 1952
Place of Birth: Rome, Italy
Occupation: Actress

Ms. Rossellini, after a long and successful career as a model and an actress, you recently started a Master’s degree in animal behavior. Why did you want to go back to university?

I was always interested in animals, but when I was little, animal behavior was still a new science. It was available to become a veterinarian, it was available to study biology, but not specifically animal behavior. In the ’60s Jane Goodall was the founder of this new science. She looked at animal behavior in the wild, not in a lab where we realized we distorted their behavior, and now it has become a full degree at the university. As I grew older, I worked less as an actor and as a model and I went back to what I had tried to do when I was young but wasn’t really available. I’m so glad now to be in my sixties and to be able to go back to school.

It is becoming more common for older people to go back to university.

It’s very common! We live so much longer. Now at 60 or 70, you’re bored of being retired, you have to do something else, and a lot of people, especially women, go back to study what they always dreamed of studying but didn’t because they didn’t think it was lucrative or they had to raise their families. There are about 15 people in my class and about four of them are my age. That’s almost a third of the class. That’s amazing, isn’t it?

It’s great because a lot of people don’t really know what they want to study when they are young or they pick a career based on what is expected from them, but if you study at a later stage you can do what you really want to.

Exactly. A lot of young people say, “I’m interested in animal behavior,” but what, you go to the jungle and sit in a tree for 10 years looking at a monkey? Who is going to finance that? How are you going to live? It’s hard to imagine that. But after you’ve lived your life, and had your career, and maybe even have a little pension so you don’t have to worry, these are the kinds of things that open up. For me, it’s been the best news. I didn’t know that was going to happen when I was old, and I’m loving it.

Did you study when you were younger as well?

No, I didn’t. I went to school and after I found out that there weren’t any schools I could attend on animal behavior, I went for my second love, which was fashion. I graduated from Academy of Fashion and Costume Design in Rome. At first I thought I was going to be a costume designer for films and then I ended up working in fashion not as a designer but mostly as a model.

In recent years you have been able to use that experience again when you created the costumes for your series Green Porno, in which you enact and explain the mating rituals of various animals.

Yes! Sometimes in life, things will come back! Of course, part of it was the studies that I’d done, but also the 25 years as a model really taught me how to create these images. And I worked in advertisement for many years, too, and that helped me to make very compact little short films. Advertisement was the most helpful in that. I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to be in a career where I can translate what I study into money making.

How did the Green Porno series come about in the first place? The idea is pretty far out there…

I did the first series as an experiment for Sundance Productions, the company run by Robert Redford. He wanted to do films that were for the Internet, for mobile devices. They were quite successful and immediately we were also shown on the Sundance channel, on television, before screenings of films… After the first eight episodes, I was commissioned more and more by Sundance. We did a total of forty.

I’m surprised it’s not too graphic for American television. Even though you wear funny costumes, you’re still simulating sexual acts for the camera…

I don’t know if it’s graphic. I’m dressing up like this animal. The intent was always to be funny and to be scientifically correct. My intent was to make people laugh, because I see myself most of all as an entertainer. But I also hope to have people say, “I didn’t know that, that was interesting,” after they laugh. Those were the two emotions I wanted to elicit. There were some institutions where the name Green Porno has turned people off.

Anything with the word porno in it is going to scare some people off…

However, the original title of the monologue that I’m touring right now was Bestiaire d’Amour – it’s a production in French – and nobody in America knew what a bestiary is. You see them everywhere in Europe – you see unicorns and strange animals leaping out of a sculpture, out of a monument, dragons. So everybody knows what a bestiary is, but in America it is confused with bestiality, which is to make love to an animal! That was an even worse title than Green Porno! (Laughs) So we stuck with this title that was catchy on one hand, but also sometimes damaging.

“I still see myself as an entertainer whose inspiration is science.”

Do you think humor is the best way to teach people something new?

Yeah, I think so. Some of these things we’ve learned at school, but they’re taught with such big, complicated words. We can’t understand it. But I see myself as an entertainer, I don’t see myself as an educator. I’ve always been an entertainer all my life, I come from a family of entertainers. I always made, very pretentiously, a comparison with Agatha Christie. Her inspiration was crime, and I’m sure she must have taken courses or read about crime, because it was the basis of her stories. But ultimately it was her own fantasy. So I still see myself as an entertainer whose inspiration is science.

Why did you specifically choose to depict animal sex?

I chose the problem that is most titillating and interesting. I could have picked digestive systems, but I chose sex because I know that everybody is interested in sex. There is one problem: sex is basically just a way to perpetuate the species, but there are thousands of solutions. There isn’t a recommendation, there isn’t like a wrong way to do it, each one evolves according to their own evolution. It is quite amusing, you know?

What animal has the most inspiring sex life?

Well, there are certain animals that change sex, they’re born one sex and they become another sex. I can only say that sometimes, I’m wondering, you know, how would it be to be a man? Is there an essence to being a man or a female? We don’t know. I have a son and a daughter, and of course, I ask myself, “Is there a core of femininity or a core of masculinity?” If I could be one of these fishes that can change sex then I might have the answer. There are certain animals that reproduce without sex – that seems very practical. (Laughs) I have lots of friends who wish to have children but they don’t have a partner. That would be the best, to adapt that way. But of course, we cannot. They’re different than us.