Over the course of her 62 years, Isabella Rossellini has worked as a TV reporter, model and actor. The latest chapter in her career finds Rossellini, the daughter of actress Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini, as what she calls an "environmental artist." It all began in 2008 when she created and starred in a series of whimsical, dryly funny short films about animal mating habits for Sundance with the attention-getting name "Green Porno." The project spawned two follow-up series, a book and even a one-woman show depicted in a one-hour, behind-the-scenes special, "Green Porno Live," airing Sunday on Ovation.
It's a busy time for Rossellini, who this month is presiding over the jury for Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, where a documentary about her late mother, "Ingrid Bergman, in Her Own Words," will be screened. In the meantime, she's also pursuing a master's degree in animal behavior and running a farm on Long Island.
You've done short films about animal mating, courtship and motherhood. What subject will you tackle next?
I have written something new on intelligence and communication, but I haven't showed anybody yet because I don't know that I'm ready to go on another tour. The short films, you have to do a lot of promotion supporting them. It's always difficult. That part is becoming more and more demanding on actors. There's nothing more that I hate in life than the red carpet.
I feel like a monkey on a string. I'm here to talk about art. I'm not here to be judged by the way I look or the way I dress. That's not very appealing to me.
Was there any particular person or piece of work that ignited your passion for animal behavior?
I read a book called "King Solomon's Ring" by Konrad Lorenz when I was about 14, and I really loved it. He is the founder of ethology, which is the science of animal behavior. I said, "Oh, this is what I want to do." But, of course, universities didn't have it as a discipline then. Jane Goodall in the '60s really popularized the science of animal behavior.
I saw that [animal science professor] Temple Grandin, who is an incredible lady, was giving a lecture [at Hunter College in Manhattan]. I discovered that Hunter had just opened a program on animal behavior. That was the dream of my life, so I signed up immediately.
How close are you to finishing your degree?
I'm still pursuing it. In order to get the degree, you have to have math and statistics. I looked into getting a tutor, but it's so much work in a subject I'm not interested in that I may just continue studying but not finish my degree.
Did you find that you were more focused as a student because you were older?
Yes, but also because I'm studying what I'm interested in. It's a different focus. I'm not doing this degree to open up career opportunities; I'm doing it for curiosity's sake. That has to be my priority: How do I get the information and satisfy my curiosity, and not just the paper?
You're going to be at Cannes this year as a jury member. Do you keep up with the movies?
[I am] going to Cannes to try to keep up! [Laughs.] I travel a lot, I live in the country, so I haven't seen all that I want to see. I feel like this year it will be great because I will see them before everybody else. Next November when they say, "Have you seen this film?" I'll say, "Yes! I've seen it!"
A new documentary about your mother will also screen at the festival. Which of her films is your favorite?
"Notorious" is very good. I think it's really a masterpiece. I love the work she's done with my dad, of course. "Journey to Italy" and "Stromboli" are my favorites. "Autumn Sonata" with [director Ingmar] Bergman, it would be great to redo the film now from a woman's point of view. My mom plays a very successful pianist and she neglects the children, so as adults they are angry at the mother. They shot that in the '70s. It's very much a man, Ingmar, looking at a woman with a career as the family would have to pay a price. I think nowadays the story would be different. A successful mother could be inspiring to the daughters instead of the daughters feeling neglected. But Mamma is great in the film.
You didn't really start acting until you were in your 30s. Did you resist getting into the family business?
Yeah, I think so. When I came [to New York], I became a model. Fashion was fun, but the photography was what really interested me. It turned out to be very successful, and that gave me the courage to start acting. I realized that part of modeling was acting in front of a still camera. There was a lot in common with acting, so I thought, "Well, I can act." When I was younger, I felt intimidated. I felt that I should not be doing what my family did, so when I did modeling, I felt like it was my own turf. Actually they are very similar, but I didn't know it at the time.
You've lived in New York for most of your life. Do you think of yourself as American?
I think of myself as a New Yorker. It's its own thing.
You also have a farm on Long Island. That's very on-trend.
I have goats, sheep, pigs, bees, dogs, cats. I've always been a beekeeper, and now we're boosting up the honey production. It's a great, revolutionary movement about food, especially in America. In Europe, there is such a culinary tradition, but in America it seems to be a new discovery, and in a way it feels very close to the way I grew up.
Have you thought about selling your honey?
I don't think so. It would be more promotion. I just give it to my friends.
Is there an animal you found the most interesting or shocking?
The female duck selects [who will be the father of her baby] after she's penetrated. If she doesn't want that duck to be the father of the baby, she has a vagina with many, many channels, so she sends it to a dead end if she doesn't like that duck. It's called "cryptic females." I love that name.