Belfast Telegraph

Isabella Rossellini on acting with her dog, giving Darwin a comic twist and coming to Belfast

 

The voice, over the phone from Long Island, is an uncanny echo of the long-gone screen legend Ingrid Bergman. There may be a little more of an Italian inflection in Isabella Rossellini's sonorous tones, yet - from 'allo? - her mother's famous Swedish lilt is omnipresent.

At 66, Isabella is approaching the age Ingrid had reached when she died after nine years with breast cancer (in August 1982, on her 67th birthday).

Confined to her home in London's Chelsea area for her final three years, the Casablanca star - who liked to smoke cigarettes and eat up to four ice-creams a day - was looked after by Isabella and her three siblings, who took it in turns to mind her.

Isabella's own mid-60s, three decades on, have been very different to her mother's. Blessed with good health and Ingrid's ethereal beauty, she is still acting, writing, directing/producing and modelling. She even finds the time to run a 28-acre poultry farm in Bellport, a 90 minute drive from New York city. So devoted is she to her flock, that she will sit with the new-born chicks in their boxes until "they get used to me".

"I have 100 hens and lots of bees and some sheep and goats, and I'm going to get some turkeys for their eggs - not to slaughter: that's gruesome," she tells me.

"And I'm getting ducks for the pond, and quail, just to experiment with the eggs. I grow vegetables and sell eggs and honey in my local farmer's market every week.

"There is a lot of work, but I don't mind to get my hands dirty when I'm not busy with the theatre."

She breaks off to go see what her dog and co-star is barking at, calling out in her native Italian. A mixed terrier, Darcy performs with Isabella in Link Link, her self-penned, light-hearted "theatrical lecture" on Darwinian themes, which comes to the Grand Opera House at Halloween as part of the Belfast Arts Festival.

Her other dog, Pinnochio, prefers to chase the hens but he has had his murderous instincts curtailed by his owner, who also happens to be an expert in animal behaviour.

The multi-tasking beauty recently studied for postgraduate qualification in the subject, having earned a degree as a mature student in her 40s, when "nobody wanted me as a model or actress".

Yet, here she is, four years off 70 and back with the cosmetics giant Lancome, which has cleverly reinstated her as an ambassador 24 years after ending her original contract, signed in 1982 when she was 31 and at the height of her beauty. After more than 10 years making a fortune for the French brand, she was dropped at 42 and replaced with younger but forgettable faces.

"Women protested a lot when I left," she recalls. "Lancome were surprised. The campaign had been so successful, yet they were taken aback by the reaction to the decision. They wanted beautiful younger women in their campaigns.

"There was insecurity on the board then. Now there is a woman executive and she is behind me. The beauty industry is changing as women are becoming stronger. Women don't just use cosmetics to look young - that idea is very limiting. Women want to be elegant, to enhance ourselves, like men want to ride motorcycles. It's not just to be sexy and to find a man."

Her return to Lancome is part of a major sea-change in the beauty industry, which has Helen Mirren, at 73, and 80-year-old Jane Fonda fronting L'Oreal advertising campaigns.

The rise of Botox, fillers and medical grade skincare, along with stricter trades description rules, means the industry can no longer get away with the claim that their generic moisturisers and "illuminating" foundations can turn back the clock.

The aim, now, is for customers of a certain age to look as fresh as these famous older actresses. Yet, the concept is inherently disingenuous. Jane Fonda has admitted to various cosmetic surgeries.

Isabella has a face unaltered by injectables or plastic surgery, which she compares with the ancient Asian practice of foot binding.

"It's not for me but if others feel they want to do it - fine," she says. "I'm too scared for unnecessary surgery; I had enough for a curved spine when I was younger.

"As for Botox, it paralyses your muscles completely - and my farm is organic. So, I mean, to eat organic but then inject myself with a poison, I cannot reconcile it philosophically.

"But, yes, I do use Lancome - I have no other beauty secrets," she adds with a husky laugh. "I'm lucky they give me lots of things for free. They are very expensive - I am very spoiled. I'm lucky; I can provide my friends with all these products."

Isabella's daughter, 35-year-old Elettra Rossellini, has followed in her mother's modelling footsteps but then reinvented herself as a food writer. She recently returned to the Dolce & Gabbana catwalk at New York Fashion week with her baby son, Ronin, and his glamorous grandmother, who has modelled for the Italian brand for nearly three decades. They were joined by Isabella's knock-out handsome son Roberto (25), whom she adopted, and Elettra's husband, actor Caleb Lane.

Elettra's father is Jon Weiderman, a former model turned IT design manager whom Isabella married in 1983, a year after her divorce from director Martin Scorsese (10 years her senior). Both marriages lasted less than four years.

She fell in love with arty filmmaker David Lynch, "the big love of my life", while making the cult hit Blue Velvet (1986). The break-up of their relationship after six years, in 1992, landed her in therapy. Two years later, she met actor Gary Oldman, who reportedly postponed their planned wedding to dry out, then met someone else in rehab and called it off.

No wonder she now seems to prefer to share her home with her dogs and growing menagerie of farm animals, which include two enormous short-legged pigs, Pepe and Boris.

"My dog - that's her barking - is always surprising me," she says. "I will be sitting writing, or on the phone, and I'll just think to myself about going for a walk, but the dog will be way ahead of me - when I turn around she'll be standing at the door with the leash.

"It's an ability they have to pre-empt, whether it's by a change in our heartbeat or breathing, or a smell we emit. They have different senses to us. They're certainly able to read our thoughts, no matter what their breed.

"All my dogs are mutts - rescue dogs, always from the pound. They're genetically stronger than pedigree dogs; they aren't in-bred."

For Link Link, however, she had to find a dog that was trained for the stage.

"My dog was too easily distracted by the audience - if someone caught her eye, she would get off the stage and go straight over to them and then she would have to say hello to everyone in the audience," she laughs.

"And in the outdoor shows in Italy and Greece, she would see the moths and bugs around the lights and try to eat them. So, I had to get one that liked the stage and that is light enough to travel in the cabin on planes with me, and she had to have certain characteristics - floppy ears and patches, which are signs of domesticated animals. In the wild, dogs don't have patched coats or floppy ears.

"Darcy came for training for eight months; she's mine now. She's very sweet."

Securing the Irish premiere of Isabella's one-woman (and one dog) show is quite a coup for the Belfast International Arts Festival whose principal funder is the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The Hollywood Reporter described her performance as "impossible to resist", while The New York Times critic wrote that "it is hard to deny how pleasurable Ms Rossellini's company is".

During the circus-style, witty presentation, Isabella transforms herself into Charles Darwin, Aristotle, medieval theologian Rene Descartes and Harvard professor BF Skinner to explore what distinguishes humans from animals. The monologue is accompanied by projections of her short comic films, home movies, photos, and drawings whilst 'Pan', the dog, 'plays' various animals, assisted by puppeteer and animal handler Schuyler Beeman.

As with her previous theatrical production, Green Porno, (hailed as 'hilariously weird'), Isabella performs Link Link in three different languages, depending on her audience. Her linguistic skills are rooted in a peripatetic childhood, accompanying her mother on films sets all over the world, and developed during her own international career.

She was in Dublin recently, for a small role in a film about Virginia Woolf, but the Belfast Arts Festival will be her first time in Northern Ireland. "I'm delighted to come - Ireland is always in the press over here; there's big Irish community in the US," she says. "My mother was from Sweden, not too far away; northern European, and I grew up Catholic, although I am not particularly religious.

"We always had dogs at home when I was growing up in - I used to play circus with them, and with my toys, as in Link Link. I still have my old toy monkey, which I use in the show, but I had to buy some of the toys all over again."

Although her show ponders existential themes and Darwin's theory of evolution, Isabella is keen to point out that Link Link isn't heavy, describing it as comical.

"I see myself as mostly an entertainer. I'd like people in the audience to laugh, but also to think, 'oooh - I didn't know that'," she reflects.

"To be entertained but also to find it interesting. I've studied these themes in school but I don't present them in heavy terms, or in religion versus science.

"But yes, it comes back to Darwin and our link to animals. Our genealogy is not so different - that was a revolutionary idea 200 years ago. Still, today, some people are uncomfortable to hear that we are animals, that the fine bones in the backs of our hands are the same as in the wings of a bird and the fins of a whale.

"We are the link - the hand can become a wing or a fin. The difference is in degrees, not in kind."

On a different note, she is currently playing a sadistic matriarch of a Italian clan in Shut Eye, a dark TV comedy drama series set in the world of Los Angeles storefront psychics and the organised crime syndicate that runs them.

"I've been filming for the last two years in Vancouver and LA - I've been away six weeks at a time and it is very difficult. I get homesick; I miss my children and the animals - even my bed!

"But I am looking forward to coming to Ireland."

Isabella Rossellini is at the Grand Opera House on October 31 with Link Link, as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival. Tickets are available now at belfastinternationalartsfestival.com

Isabella on looking great at 66

Isabella's approach to ageing is to simply "embrace it", while taking care of her skin and enhancing her best features.

Every morning, she applies an eye cream and face cream before sunscreen.

"In the winter, when it looks grey, I tend to forget the SPF, but by this season I became very religious about putting on my sun protection," she said. "I use Lancome Multi-Glow, to try to be sophisticated and elegant throughout my life."

She believes positive thinking is very important to looking good.

"I'm lucky that I was born joyful, whereas my twin sister is very shy. But when I look at myself in the mirror, I do see my neck - it drives me crazy!

"It's not that I'm immune to that voice. But I try not to listen and to say, 'Hey, but the lipstick still looks pretty good!'"

She keeps her fine hair - "my weak point" - short and emphasises her full lips. She experiments with different shades of lipstick, using brighter reds in the summer and reds with darker tones in the winter. She prefers matte lipsticks, as opposed to gloss. "If you put on lipstick, exercise, eat healthy, dress nice, and clean your house, you become happier and things look better."

Isabella uses a lip liner that is a shade or two darker than her lipstick, citing Lie de Vin by Lancome, as one of her favourites.

"I apply straight from the tube, blot with tissue, then swipe it on again."

World-class arts on the Belfast stage

Highlights of the Belfast International Arts Festival, which runs from October 16 to November 4, include:

Dear Arabella

Lyric Theatre, from October 16

World premiere of Marie Jones’ new play with award-winning director Lindsay Posner. The play presents three tales of love, regret and loss involving three women and the significance of a simple act of kindness.

Nina — A Story about Me and Nina Simone

The MAC, October 19 and 20

Inspired by the life and music of Nina Simone, Olivier Award nominee Josette Bushell-Mingo presents story and song as she performs tales from the life of Nina Simone and her own career.

Harlem Gospel Choir

Ulster Hall, October 28

The world-famous Harlem Gospel Choir presents its power vocals, glorious sound and infectious energy in this fantastic show, which mixes contemporary gospel with jazz and blues.

Angelique Kidjo Remain in Light Tour

Grand Opera House, October 29

Angelique Kidjo performs her interpretation of Talking Heads’ classic Remain in Light album, which is still considered one of the greatest records of the Eighties, and was strongly influenced by music from west Africa.

137th Royal Ulster Academy Annual Exhibition

Ulster Museum, from October 19

Emerging and established artists are given the chance to exhibit their work together in this display of sculptures, paintings, prints, photography, video, mixed media and more.

Cultural Walking Tours of Belfast

Three unique tours will explore Belfast and its history and architecture: Cathedral Quarter Tour on October 17 and November 1; Linen Quarter Tour on October 19 and 27; and City Tour on October 20 and 26.

For the full programme, visit belfastinternationalartsfestival.com

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