Three Great Things: Isabella Rossellini

The iconic actress, who can now be seen in the new drama La Chimera, shares her love of her farm, filmmaking and animal-themed art.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the March 29 release in theaters of the acclaimed Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher’s new drama, La Chimera, starring Josh O’Connor, Carol Duarte and Isabella Rossellini, the legendary actress shared some of the things she cares about most in her life. — N.D.

Being on My Farm
I love to stay home, because I live on an organic farm. I have about 150 chickens, 20 sheep, some ducks and 10 hives with bees. I also have vegetables on the farm, but a friend of mine takes care of the vegetables and I take care of the animals. We have many dogs, because everybody in the family has one or two dogs, so sometimes we have more dogs than people around the table. It’s very pleasant. I love to live in the country, I love to see nature, to understand animals. I have a master’s degree in animal behavior, so living very close to animals, they constantly make you ask yourself big questions like, Do they understand? Do they have feelings? How complex are these feelings? How complex could their thoughts or their memories be? This is what I find most fascinating, and when I work in film, I miss my animals and my farm a lot.

I’ve had the farm for 12 years, but I’ve lived in the country for about 20 years. Before that, I was living in New York City and coming to the country on weekends. The city is all about hustle and bustle, but I’m 50 times busier on the farm. It’s a very hard life, but very interesting and very satisfying. The seasons dictate what you do on the farm, and I’m really in touch with science here. I always observe, for example, that chickens lay more eggs as soon as the days become longer and fewer eggs when the days become shorter.

I’m not very intellectual, so I understand things from being hands-on. When I read science, the terminology can be very enigmatic, like the language of lawyers or doctors, so the science of animal behavior, which is called ethology, is occasionally really hard to understand. But if you read a paper and have the animal in front of you, it’s easier to understand. I didn’t understand bees until I had my hives, because they are like aliens, they are completely different than us. One fascinating thing about them is that the male bees have a grandfather, but they don’t have a father. (It’s a phenomenon called haplodiploidy.) This totally baffled me, but once I had bees myself and saw their cycle, I observed that only 10 percent of the population is male and the queen bee is the only one that is fertile. The queen lays eggs, but she has to first take a nuptial flight to be screwed by many drones, the male bees. She collects and stores that sperm and for three years she uses it to make eggs. But she uses the sperm to make females, not males. Males come from unfertilized eggs, not fertilized eggs, so male bees have a grandfather, but not a father. If I see that described in the language of science, I find it impossible to understand, but if I have it in front of me and I can translate it with words like “baby,” “grandfather” and “father,” I can then get it.

Making Films
I like to make films. I grew up in a family that made films: my mother was an actress and my father was a filmmaker, a very successful one. They were troubled, because they had difficulties with their art, but nowadays they are revered and considered enormous talents. When I was little, I was often on the set and I came to love the camaraderie and solidarity of being on set.

I like to be an actress because it’s like taking a trip into the mind of different directors and writers and seeing their point of view about life, or an event or a feeling. I love being around artists and working with directors who also write their own scripts. Finding these different voices, these different talents – like Alice Rohrwacher, who made my latest film, La Chimera – is interesting.

When I am thinking about a potential film, I ask myself, Who are the people that are involved in the film? I look at the director, principally, but also the other actors. I want people who will be fun to play with. Those are the two principal criteria, but the script is always very important, too. I read the script to make sure that I’m not doing something that I don’t want to do, but the script is always only an indication. You can’t really tell from the script what the final result would be, because a film is a composite of many arts coming together. If you work with David Lynch, there is no narrative, so you can read the script, but it’s hard to know what the film will truly be. It’ll be what he makes of it.

My Art Collection
I live in a barn on my farm and I collect art. I don’t collect pieces by big artists – I don’t have that kind of money – but I collect images connected to animals that I find along the way in my life. It started by collecting a few posters. I love Chuck Jones cartoons, like Wile E. Coyote or Tom and Jerry, so I started collecting animation cels from those, because at the time nobody was interested in them and they were almost throwing them away. Now they’re very valuable, though.

When Chuck Jones cels became too expensive, I moved to circus posters. I have two Barnum and Bailey posters from when the circus used to have animals. Apparently not only did they have elephants, but there’s a hippopotamus and a rhino on the poster; I would imagine it’s true that they had them, along with tigers and lions, which I saw when I was a little girl. I also have an old poster of the metamorphosis of a butterfly.

I also have some posters from my parents’ films and a little collection of photographs. I worked as a model for many years, so I have some photos from photographer friends, mostly the great Eve Arnold, who died in 2012, when she was 99 years old. She was part of the Magnum agency, which was founded by photographers like Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who saw themselves as artists. At Magnum, the photos belonged to the photographers, so if anyone wanted to reproduce them, they had to ask the photographer’s permission, and they had to pay them. Eve was the first woman to join Magnum, and she was a great friend of mine. She took photos in harems and of babies being born or women breastfeeding, photos men were not able to take. She created fantastic photography for women.

Isabella Rossellini is currently starring opposite Josh O’Connor and Carol Duarte in Alice Rohrwacher’s new film, La Chimera. She is the daughter of actress Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini, she graced the cover of over 500 magazines as a model, and as an actress worked with a wide range of directors including Robert Zemeckis, David O. Russell, Robert Wilson, Taylo rHackford, Peter Weir, David Lynch and Guy Maddin. Her most notable films include Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, White Nights, Rodger Dodger, Cousins, Death Becomes Her, Fearless, The Saddest Music in the World, Big Night and Joy. She has a recurring role in the HBO-MAX series Julia, and recently toured her theatrical monologue, Darwin’s Smile. She lent her voice to several animations including the Academy Award nominee Marcel the Shell, Disney-Pixar’s The Incredibles and Julio Torres’ film Problemista. Isabella has a master’s degree in Animal Behavior and Conservation. Her comedic short film series that she wrote and directed about animal behavior, Green Porno, Seduce Me, and Mammas, are currently streaming on the Criterion Channel. Isabella is the founder of Mama Farm, an organic farm in Brookhaven, New York, where she resides. She is a mother of two and a grandmother. (Photo by Tabercil, via Wikimedia Commons.)