Isabella Rossellini’s Triumphant Return to ‘Porno’

Isabella Rossellini sits on the edge of a couch inside the Sundance Channel offices in midtown Manhattan. One of her legs is crossed tightly over the other, and as the 57-year-old icon motions to shake my hand, she lets out a honeyed gasp. “What a wonderful chain you’ve got,” she says, noticing the gold monocle hanging from my neck. “I had one just like it when I was younger, a piece of glass used to look at gems and jewels.” “Or bugs?” I reply, stupidly, reminded of an episode of Friends, the one where David Schwimmer tries to hit on her. Only now do I forgive “Ross” for being such a bumbling schlemiel. The model-actress has, throughout her career, embodied some of the most absurd characters in film history—a legless beer baroness in The Saddest Music in the World, “Perdita Durango” in Wild at Heart, and, most recently, a swarm of copulating insects in last year’s short film collection Green Porno—but, magically, has continued to build upon her reputation as the one of the most beautiful talents of all time. In person, she is poised, articulate and, yes, stunning. This week, as she saddles up to play ejaculating sea creatures in Green Porno 2, the daughter of cinematic royalty (Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini) discusses sadomasochism, Joaquin Phoenix and the unbearable lightness of strapping one on.

The first series of films, Green Porno, was very well-received. Everyone from Playboy to Scientific American seemed to love it!

That certainly wouldn’t have been the case had these little vignettes been about, you know, the excretory habits of animals. [Laughs.] I know! Not everybody is interested in animal behavior, but everybody is interested in sex. It’s a worldwide fascination.

Have you learned more about human sexuality, having examined the sex practices of insects, and now marine animals? I didn’t even think about the relationship between the two. I was expecting people to react to Green Porno by saying, “Wow! Worms are hermaphrodites? Is it possible that snails are sadomasochistic? Fish change sex? The barnacle has the longest penis in the animal kingdom?” Instead, people have said, “So how does this relate to me?”

Part of what makes these films so fun to watch is the absurd costume design. Am I right to assume that, throughout your career, you’ve chosen certain roles to deglamorize yourself? To separate your acting career from your modeling past? I think that Green Porno is actually quite glamorous. Sam Levy did the lighting for this project, and he’s worked with people like Peter Lindbergh. So, I don’t think there’s an intentional de-glamorization, but I do think that the most important thing here is the content. I think I concentrate on content more than some others in the industry, and here’s an example: I spent the weekend with my daughter recently, and her boyfriend was talking about a friend of his who had moved to Hollywood and then got plastic surgery, hoping to get more roles. But, look, I was married to Martin Scorsese. I don’t think Martin Scorsese has ever said, “Did she have plastic surgery? If not, I won’t hire her.” That’s absurd.

Still, I’m sure you swallowed your vanity a bit to strap on a giant sea creature penis. When you work as a model, you can’t be a comedian. When you are beautiful—and I was beautiful—nobody ever says, “Make us laugh!” The great Marilyn Monroe combined beauty and humor, but that’s seldom the case.

How fantastic, then, to have the freedom to do this kind of stuff. It comes with age. When you’re younger, you have to analyze your decisions, and you have to prove yourself as a grownup. Everyone complains about their wrinkles, but nobody ever talks about the fact that, now that I’m 57, I’m done my career. What has been has been and, for better or worse, it’s done. So now I can experiment, and because I like to laugh, I can experiment with comedy. This is some of the most fun that I’ve had in my entire career.

Was there a palpable shift, some point in your career when you stopped caring about the way you were perceived? I think it just came when I was no longer getting jobs. For so long, I was always working and modeling and I had certain responsibilities to the advertisers, the magazines and the agencies. But as that work ended, I started acting more. And now I’m making a comical film about animals, which, incredibly enough, I’d thought about since I was a little girl. Part of me still thinks, Shit, I should have done it earlier! And what does Robert Redford, the founder of the Sundance Channel, think about this project? It’s a perfect marriage, really. Redford is experimental, but he also wants things to be commercially viable. Sundance has always created independent films, but at a certain point, independent film became a real industry. Sometimes, when you work with individual artists, they only want to focus on their original ideas; they never think of the business side. But Redford marries the two. He’s extraordinary in that way. Would it be callous to ask what restaurant you go to when you’re craving seafood? [Laughs.] I don’t particularly like to eat animals, but I do. One has to be very careful with seafood restaurants. There is one in New York called Esca that I’m told I have to try. It has a very responsible menu, which is so important, because the ocean has been depleted of fish.

Judging by your recent film choices— Two Lovers?

Yes, let’s talk about that one. Joaquin Phoenix has displayed some really— Strange behavior lately! Yes, I’m sorry that he is doing that. I hope he’s not serious about leaving acting, because he’s such a fantastic actor. But he suffers through it. There are some artists who go through these torturous processes to deliver beautiful performances. I’m lucky that my muse is laughter.

Do you think it’s all a big hoax? I’m not sure, because I haven’t seen him since we shot the film, which was a year ago.

I wanted to show you this quickly, before I leave. In a recent issue, we transformed the actress Emily Blunt into your character from Blue Velvet. Oh, look at this! How wonderful! This looks very much like the same set, with the same lighting. Oh, and the makeup! I designed that look. David Lynch always allowed me to create my little characters, like Perdita Durango with her one massive eyebrow in Wild at Heart. I came up with that awful blue eye-shadow and red lipstick! How fantastic!

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