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Profile : Independent Isabella

Times Staff Writer

She started her career as a respected broadcast journalist in Italy. The camera liked her, the full lips, the satin skin, the dark eyes. At 28, she moved to modeling, signed a multimillion-dollar cosmetics contract and became an international superstar. At 33, in need of greater expression, she turned to acting, where critics have exhausted their vocabularies trying to describe her mysterious appeal.

Those were all carefully considered career choices made by Isabella Rossellini. In fact, “the only thing I haven’t chosen was to be my parents’ daughter,” said the child of actress Ingrid Bergman and Italian director Roberto Rossellini, whose love affair gave Hollywood troglodytes one of their most deliciously wicked scandals to chew on in the late 1940s.

Rossellini, whose American film debut came in 1985 as Mikhail Baryshnikov’s wife in “White Nights,” shocked critics in 1986 as the destructive, loveless nightclub singer in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” and in 1989 earned critical nods opposite Ted Danson in the romantic comedy “Cousins.” She said she might have turned to acting sooner had it not been for her parents’ legacy.

“I think it has been somewhat intimidating to become an actress, because I felt that the people in my family have succeeded so much, and it was maybe better for me to get involved in another career,” Rossellini, 38, said recently in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, where she was promoting her latest project, Wednesday night’s thriller “Lies of the Twins” on the USA Network.

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“When you’re young you always feel like you have to distinguish yourself from your parents,” she said. “In my 20s, I tried to distance myself from them. You know, you feel the pressure. You feel like you have to make it on your own. And then when you grow up, you realize you make it on your own no matter what, because life will force you to make it on your own.”

Rossellini spoke mellifluously, her deep voice rising and falling with her Italian-Swedish accent. Rossellini the Actress has not yet found the success of Rossellini the Reporter, who achieved celebrity in Italy, or Rossellini the Model, who graced the covers of Vogue, Vanity Fair and Elle and still has a high-profile modeling contract with Lancome.

Her last project was the TNT movie “The Last Elephant,” and she hasn’t had a starring role in a major film since “Cousins.”

“I haven’t reached my mother’s success,” said Rossellini, who lives in New York with her daughter, Elettra. “And if I wouldn’t have had other careers, like the modeling and the journalism, to tell me that I am a capable person, it might have been much harder to take it. Instead, because I have succeeded in other careers, I have a good sense of myself and my ability.”

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Although Rossellini did an early film when she was a reporter--for the Italian brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, who in the tradition of European directors cast a non-actor in their movie--Rossellini really turned to acting in 1983. A top model at the time, she was pregnant with Elettra and used the opportunity to take serious acting lessons.

Today, Rossellini auditions a lot because she has a hard time finding good projects. In today’s American-made movies, there are not many roles for women with decidedly European looks and speech. That’s why in the last year, because of her multinational ties (her father is Italian, her mother is Swedish and she represents a French cosmetics company) Rossellini shot two foreign films, one in France and an Italian-Soviet co-production.

“I thought, well this is my strength,” Rossellini said. “It is such a rare thing to have, that I should not neglect European films for American films.

“But after I’ve done that experience in the past year, I have doubts. Maybe I made the wrong decision. And mostly it was due to the fact that there is so much traveling, so much being away. I felt so lonely. I felt so isolated. I felt so,” she paused, then smiled coyly and said, “American. I felt like I’d become an American and I had to be home.”

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So in America Rossellini must take what she can get. At first glance, “Lies of the Twins"--about a former model emotionally torn between good and evil twin brothers--looks like your basic made-for-cable schlocker. But a closer examination reveals otherwise. The film’s director is Tim Hunter, who won raves for his dark debut “River’s Edge” in 1986. And playing the twins is Aidan Quinn, who starred in TV’s acclaimed movie about AIDS, “An Early Frost.”

“I didn’t know Tim Hunter, but after seeing ‘River’s Edge’ I had called him up and told him how much I liked it, and that I would like to work with him,” she said. “So it was nice to hear five years later that he remembered me.”

Rossellini confirmed the end of her five-year relationship with director Lynch, who also used Rossellini in his latest film, “Wild at Heart.” She doesn’t have a project at the moment, but has kept busy with her two sisters and brother setting up an archive, not currently open to the public, of her parents’ film work at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

“My lineage isn’t something I’ve chosen,” she said. “But I finally decided that it was such a great gift, you know? And to inherit my parents’ papers and documents and films, with my brother and sisters, it has been an enormous pleasure, and a responsibility. Because you have so many options and offers, from making a TV series, to selling everything in auction, to doing a serious scholarly work.

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“And once we decided to make the scholarly work, and keep the privacy, I felt it was such a good decision. And also a courageous one. Because not only the temptation, but the pressure to commercialize from powerful people was beyond belief. But we did the right thing, and I feel very, very proud of it.”

“Lies of the Twins” premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on USA (cable).


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