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Why Isabella Rossellini is still finding Joy on the silver screen

At 63, Isabella Rossellini has landed one of her biggest roles yet, alongside Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro. But as she tells Susan Griffin she's always been just as happy playing to smaller crowds.

Published 30/12/2015

Bella, Bella: Isabella Rossellini
Bella, Bella: Isabella Rossellini
Bella, Bella: Isabella Rossellini
Isabella Rossellini in Joy with Robert De Niro and Jennifer Lawrence
Isabella Rossellini in Joy with Robert De Niro and Jennifer Lawrence

Isabella Rossellini might hail from cinematic royalty, but she wasn't immune to the nerves triggered by the anticipation of working with Robert De Niro.

"On the one hand, I was so absolutely super-thrilled to work with such an enormous talent, and on the other I was thinking, 'Am I crazy? How am I going to live up to him in the moment?'" admits the 63-year-old half-Swedish, half-Italian actress, who is the daughter of late screen star Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini.

"But Bob exudes a benevolence that soon made me comfortable," she adds.

They play lovers in Joy, an emotional comedy written and directed by David O Russell, the man behind The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

"There are so many actresses and so much talent, I felt so lucky they wanted to work with me," admits Rossellini, with a pronounced Italian inflection. "It feels flattering and an incredible opportunity, and also a little bit intimidating. You hope to be a good partner and that you can live up to it."

The movie's another star vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence, who's already garnered a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of the titular character, a single-mum-turned-business magnate, based loosely on the rise of inventor and home shopping star Joy Mangano.

Rossellini portrays Trudy, a wealthy Italian woman who enchants Joy's garage owner father (De Niro), and whose inheritance becomes Joy's one last hope for getting her business off the ground.

"I've always wanted to work with Isabella; I've always wanted to find a role that felt perfect for her," filmmaker Russell reveals. "And I love that she has this chance to play an Italian woman, who is a fictional invention for the film."

Trudy is a widow who invests in Joy's mop idea, but having never invested before, tries to handle it according to the standards of her late husband. "These are the kinds of specificities that make me love humans," adds Russell. "It's always in the details."

Rossellini believes Trudy's constant scrutiny is a defence mechanism.

"She's insecure. She's never invested before, so she's afraid she's making a big mistake, which leads her to constantly critique Joy's decisions. She's constantly saying to Joy, 'Oh, you think you're a businesswoman? You don't know what you're doing', as if she knows - but she doesn't know either. And Joy is the one who has the vision," explains the actress.

Describing Trudy as "a rich character", she applauds Russell's "ability to create full human beings in a very few strokes".

"Trudy feels a little lost in America, and I think that's why she attaches herself to this family who lead lives so different from where she came from. A part of her is still clinging to who she was in Italy, so you see her dressed to the nines in Rudy's greasy auto shop," continues Rossellini, who sports a black Twenties-style bob and looks chic today in a grey shift dress, high-neck blouse and wide pearl necklace.

"I think their relationship starts out as opportunistic for both of them. They're both in need of something, but it becomes like family.

"That's another thing David is so good at: he understands that family is the place of greatest conflict and greatest love in all our lives."

And family, as is so often the case in Russell's films, is central to the movie.

"Yes, love with your partner counts, but love with the family is very important to women," says mother-of-two Rossellini, who was briefly married to Martin Scorsese, and had high-profile relationships with David Lynch and Gary Oldman.

"You might fall in love with your husband and live the romance of the couple, but as soon as you have babies or in-laws, it becomes family, and the film really illustrates that well."

Born in Rome - she also lived in Paris as a child - Rossellini travelled to New York at 19 to study at the liberal arts centre, Finch College.

Her big-screen debut was a brief affair in her mother's 1976 movie A Matter Of Time. In 1980, she appeared in Il pap'occhio alongside Scorsese, and then in 1986 starred in Lynch's controversial movie Blue Velvet, opposite the late Dennis Hopper.

Other notable credits include Death Becomes Her, Crime Of The Century - which garnered a Golden Globe nomination - and her memorable cameo in Friends. From the age of 28, she worked simultaneously as a model and was the face of Lancome for 14 years.

"I worked for many years as a model but I stopped that, and also you work less as an actress when you get supporting roles, so I went back to something that was interesting to me as a child, which was animal behaviour," she explains.

"At the time, when I was the right age for university, it really wasn't a formalised discipline, but now I realise it's quite common to do it so went back to study it," adds Rossellini, who's also written, directed and starred in a series of short films, as well as a one-woman show, about the mating rituals of animals, called Green Porno.

"I've continued to work in entertainment and as an actress but often done my own (thing), and when you work in theatre or avant-garde, it's still the same amount of work as doing something like Joy but you might have a lesser audience," she remarks.

"You don't reach millions of people, you just reach thousands, but I've never felt like I was not active."

Joy is released in cinemas on Friday

Belfast Telegraph

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