Isabella Rossellini’s Insatiable Curiosity

UPDATED: March 2, 2010
PUBLISHED: March 2, 2010

Isabella Rossellini is proving that science can be
funny and sexy and an unforgettable learning
experience. In the process, she has given herself
a makeover, gone back to college and found her
joie de vivre in writing, directing and acting out on
animal instincts.

Her latest book, Green Porno, published in 2009 by HarperCollins,
contains stories, photographs and a DVD starring Rossellini as you
have never seen her. In a quirky transformation, she goes from
standing in a kitchen—cooking risotto with shrimp—to showing
how a shrimp gets in the mating mood. She invites you to laugh, to
look closer and to think, “Oh, I didn’t know that about animals!”

Green Porno is based on a series of short films she created for the
Sundance Channel. (Her first series of films showed common insects
hooking up; the new series has sea creatures in love.) Online, the
films have grabbed millions of viewers. Her cheeky,
playful depiction of sex in the sea could just be the most
fun she’s ever had in front of the camera—and Rossellini
has had a lot of exposure.

I didn’t muster the chutzpah to make my writing and
directorial debut in my late 50s, I probably never would.”

“It’s my favorite thing, to play, so I don’t deny it; I
encourage it in myself because being playful, it’s very
pleasant,” Rossellini tells SUCCESS in her elegant, lilting
accent with Swedish, French and Italian influences.
“I understand that some people might feel embarrassed,
especially when it comes to science, because you always
have to prove yourself to be a serious person, so there is
resistance to making science comical. But the fact that I
come from entertainment allows me to do it. And actually
I have a lot of support from scientists now. I receive a
lot of fan mail, and most of it is from scientists, so it fi lls
me with pleasure.”

The scientific interest surprises her “because when
you read their books, they’re always so serious and
sometimes boring and tedious,” she says. “There isn’t
much fun. I think they’re craving it.”

Pursuing Her

Green Porno is an offbeat and original result
of Rossellini’s lifelong interest in animal behavior.
Experience has given her great freedom to concentrate on
what she likes, now that she’s proven herself as a model and
actress, says the 57-year-old Rossellini, who is also active in environmental
issues and preservation efforts.

When you see one of the world’s most photographed faces of the
1980s turning herself into an amorous anchovy or luminous squid,
you recognize the beauty of her brilliance. The result is pure amore
for her art. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given her background
in storytelling.

Rossellini is the daughter of screen legend Ingrid Bergman and
Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Raised in Paris and Rome, she has
a twin sister, Ingrid; a brother,
Roberto; and a half sister, Pia
Lindström (and four other half
siblings). The life she depicts
in her first book, Some of Me,
published in 1997 by Random
House, is an illuminating, if not
always bright, picture.

Her upbringing was unconventional
and sometimes chaotic.
At 13, she was diagnosed with
scoliosis, a rotation of the vertebrae
that twists the spine. She
spent two years undergoing
painful body casts and surgery.
Rossellini says the physical pain
taught her to “go marble,” her
term for checking out of her
own body. Miserable and feeling
suffocated in the classroom, she
dropped out of high school. She
drew comfort in her numerous
pets and cultivated a lifelong
fondness for animals. At 19, she moved to New York to study English
and attended Finch College.

At 27, she made her first film, The Meadow, and experienced deep selfdoubt
when critics called her “too green.” At 28, she began modeling.
The engaging results were featured in her 2002 book, Looking at Me:
On Pictures and Photographs
, published by Schirmer/ Mosel.

Her striking features—dark eyes, full lips, famous cheekbones—
landed her on hundreds of magazine covers internationally, including
Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair. For 14 years, she was the face
of Lancôme cosmetics, until one day the
curtain fell—a result of the company’s
concern about her age. Rossellini got back
into acting with films like Blue Velvet,
Cousins, Wild at Heart, Fearless, Immortal
Beloved, The Funeral
and Big Night. She has
also appeared in numerous TV shows,
including 30 Rock.

Today, Rossellini acts, writes, produces,
laughs and lives on Long Island (with
an apartment in Manhattan). She has
a daughter, Elettra, 26, and a son,
Roberto, 16.

Mustering the

Like the firefly
that lights up in
search of he
right connection,
Rossellini glows
with new ideas,
sketches and a devoted curiosity for the
natural world. You hear it in her voice
when she talks about Darwin’s work with
animals and see it when she dresses in
her firefly costume, a black body leotard
with a blinking light on her fantail. She’s
having enormous fun lighting things
up—why hide it?

Actor, filmmaker and Sundance
founder Robert Redford had the idea that
the Web could be an important outlet for
short films with environmental themes.
And Rossellini recognized an opportunity
to adapt her love of classic short films
like those of Charlie Chaplin and Buster
Keaton for small screens, such as mobile
devices. Redford gave her the green light
and the funding to get started.

“I knew if I didn’t muster the chutzpah
to make my writing and directorial debut
in my late 50s, I probably never would,”
she writes in Green Porno, which launched
the week of the Toronto Film Festival, where Green Porno films
were screened.

In the films and book, she imagines herself as a particular animal
and demonstrates the associative lovemaking. The content is witty,
concise and scientifically correct, as are the anatomical terms.

A Lifelong Learner

To get in the spirit of the thing, she begins her creative
process in a classroom at New York University, where
she takes a course each semester. Her research gives
the films their authenticity. “It’s helpful because
they [NYU officials] guide you through fulfilling
your curiosities by editing for you which books you should read,”
she says. “I like to make these comical films about science, but I need
the information.”

Rossellini embraces the learning process. She finds it easier now
than when she was a child who didn’t like school. Back then, she
would make up content when writing school reports. Teachers were
quick to scold: You didn’t follow the assignment. Instead of studying, you
just used your imagination. You don’t need that for school.

“School, inevitably, is a place of great authority and hierarchy, and
I was so very afraid of the teacher. There was something about school
that intimidated me, scared me,” she says. “Now, as an adult, I am not
as afraid. I’m the oldest one, not only of my other students, but I’m
much older than my teachers. The fear of them has subsided.”

Now that her new book is out and her studies continue, her next
steps are in the development stage. “I am discussing with Sundance
the possibility of doing a new series that I call right now ‘Sexual
Selection.’ And it would be on how animals seduce each other. It
would be on courtship, because it’s very interesting how there are
different strategies to court and conquer a mate. That is one possibility,”
Rossellini says. “I’m also thinking of doing a more classical
format, the hour format for television…. I would like also to branch
out, because of the success of Green Porno, and take advantage of
the success to become a more official director/producer/writer. This
would count for maybe my getting into the Writers Guild and having
my pension. All these are considerations in life.”

Rossellini says she wishes she had listened to the wisdom of her
famous parents sooner. They told her: Follow your heart and do what
you like, and there’s a good chance you’ll discover where your talent lies.

Having found her path of creative expression, Rossellini focuses
today on that nugget of wisdom. “I do what I like,” she says. “Do
what you like.”