On the farm with Isabella Rossellini, as she readies a streaming theater piece with cameos from her animal friends.
Isabella Rossellini at home, rehearsing for her new show.Credit…Camila Falquez for The New York Times
By Laura Collins-Hughes
BELLPORT, N.Y. — From the sheep’s point of view, rehearsal had been going on long enough. On the lawn in front of Isabella Rossellini’s house, an elegant barn-to-home conversion in a chicly rural corner of Long Island, a few of them stood around baaing, waiting for their person to emerge.
With their comrade Pinocchio the dog, they soon saw vigilance rewarded. Rossellini stepped onto the porch, filming herself on her phone as she spoke lines from her new livestream theater piece, “Sex and Consequences.” But then — the nerve! — she walked back inside.
So O’Keeffe, a five-month old Lincoln longwool sheep, clomped up a ramp, onto the porch and through the open doorway to join her. The show does, after all, have a strong domestication theme. And honestly? If you name the members of your flock after trailblazing female artists, as Rossellini has, you’re almost asking for that level of assertiveness.
Still, O’Keeffe found herself swiftly, comically, awkwardly bundled back over the threshold by Rossellini, who on a late September afternoon in the middle of a pandemic had no crew to attend to wayward sheep.
“Stay out, stay out,” she whispered firmly, shutting the double screen doors and plunging back into rehearsal as her director, Paul Magid, watched over Zoom from Northern California — and as Katya Ekimian, the 21-year-old knitwear designer doing an artist residency at Rossellini’s neighboring organic farm, collapsed in giggles at the opposite end of the porch. Full disclosure: So did I.
There is a liveliness, then, amid the tranquillity of Rossellini’s six-acre spread, which she shares with two dogs, a half dozen heritage sheep and even more chickens, and where she will give four online performances of “Sex and Consequences” starting Friday, each followed by an audience Q. and A.
“I’m launching myself maybe in a suicidal mission; I don’t know,” she said after rehearsal, sitting on the porch in a director’s chair and unleashing a long, bubbling laugh. At a safe social distance from me, she wore a floral mask that she removed only when she sipped from her bottle of kombucha, and added in her Italian lilt, “But it is an experiment.”
The show is a biodiversity sequel of sorts to “Green Porno,” the theatrical lecture she adapted from her captivatingly odd Sundance Channel series of film shorts, in which a surreally costumed Rossellini would act out the mating habits of bees, say, or earthworms, relating scientific facts with dramatic hilarity.
“Sex and Consequences,” which alternates live performance with shorts both old and new, is about genetic inheritance and social evolution, filtered through absurdity and abetted by playful design. The sheep will make an appearance, so keep your eyes peeled for Garbo, the shy, spotted one. Rossellini’s dog Morsi, who was billed as Pan in her 2018 stage piece “Link Link Circus,” — and who turns out to be an incorrigible chaser of chickens — grabs a bit of spotlight here, too.
And Rossellini, who is 68 and has a master’s degree in animal behavior and conservation from Hunter College, will once again don the costume she calls “my naked suit,” which she wore fleetingly in “Link Link.” It’s like a cheerful cartoon version of an unclothed female form.
Magid, the director, is best known as a founder of the juggling comedy troupe the Flying Karamazov Brothers. To him, the deadly serious topic beneath the humor of “Sex and Consequences” is what he sees as Rossellini’s real interest, “the very essence of life itself.”
“What she’s playing with,” he said later, by phone, “is everybody’s narrow vision of what sex is, and what is appropriate sex. She really blows out of the water all the different ways that nature has found to make life continue to regenerate.”
‘Because I was a beauty’
A curious thing about Rossellini, the daughter of famous parents — her mother was the Swedish film star Ingrid Bergman, her father the Italian neorealist director Roberto Rossellini — is that what she became famous for herself was not what she had originally hoped to do.
“I always wanted to make films about animals, and I always looked at David Attenborough, National Geographic,” she said. “I wrote to them, you know, when I was 19, 20, 21. I wrote to all of them saying, ‘I would like a job. Can I work? Can I apprentice?’”
But her career turned instead to acting and modeling.
“Because I was a beauty,” she said simply, and if there was vanity in that, there was truth as well.
She started to cite another factor, but cut herself off to mention a French film she had seen: “Sois Belle et Tais-Toi,” which translates to “Be Beautiful and Shut Up.” Then, quickly, she moved on to another point.
When I emailed later to follow up on the film, it turned out she hadn’t meant the 1958 Jean-Paul Belmondo comedy by that name but rather Delphine Seyrig’s 1981 documentary, in which famous actresses discuss the industry’s expectation that they do as the title says: be decorative, keep their thoughts to themselves.
“I was surprised by it,” Rossellini emailed back, “because I heard many actresses express the desire to direct but didn’t think it was a ‘women’ job. I remember even my mamma saying, ‘I think I can direct. I worked with so many good directors, I learned.’”
The notion of that job as a male preserve was so entrenched, she added, that “women, including my mamma, accepted it to a certain extent.”
Sexism and consequences, if you will.
But as Rossellini told me in the interview, she used to doubt her own filmmaking ability, too.
“Because I saw the crew my father had,” she said. “I was married to Martin Scorsese; I was for years with David Lynch. A hundred and fifty people — they’re like generals. ‘Action!’” she commanded with a martial gesture, imitating them on set. “I said, ‘I could never do it. Nobody’s going to listen to me.’”
It was only when she worked with the Canadian avant-gardist Guy Maddin and his small crews — “seven, eight people,” she said — that she saw a path to directing, which she began doing with “Green Porno” (2008) and continued with her later Sundance series, “Seduce Me” (2010) and “Mammas” (2013).
Thanks to Robert Redford’s advice to retain the rights to those properties, she can now freely mix their shorts into her live shows.
“If I were a salmon,” Rossellini muses in “Sex and Consequences,” and the next thing we know, she is — in trippy fish headdress and goggle eyes, off to spawn in a clip from “Seduce Me.”
Through the generations
The puppetry in those shorts is sometimes extravagant. “Sex and Consequences” goes for a plainer aesthetic with a life-size stuffed man sewn from off-white cloth. His sole distinguishing features — he has no eyes, no nose, no mouth, no hair — are his gruesome, bloated hands.
In the show, Rossellini introduces the puppet, deadpan, as “my husband,” which is what she casually called him post-rehearsal, too. The second time I asked a question about him, she nipped into the house, hustled his looming figure out, perched him on her lap and held his hand. When I laughed at her squeezing it gently, as if he were real, she made the hand caress her cheek.
Which is to say that offstage, too, Rossellini has a weird and delightful sense of humor — an inheritance from her parents, she thinks.
Because “Sex and Consequences” is about what gets passed down through generations, Rossellini takes the audience on a tour of family photos, including of her own children, and of her paternal grandfather, who died in the flu pandemic that swept the globe a century ago.
In March, as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, she returned from France just before travel shut down. The 2020 projects she’d planned, like everyone else’s, got shifted and delayed: the work on the HBO Max series “Julia,” about Julia Child; a film with Shirin Neshat; performances with Magid at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
“But meanwhile,” she said, “I haven’t been bored.”
With her daughter and toddler grandson living nearby, she has weathered the crisis with ample company. She has a heater for the porch so she can gather with friends even when it gets cool, and she’s thinking of adapting a method for outdoor dining that she’s seen in Egypt, with a “huge tablecloth that you can wear like a blanket,” and heaters under the table.
Her affinity for experimentation, which she traces to her father, is one reason she said yes when her agent suggested making a piece of livestream theater. Another is the way he framed it: Performing the show would be like touring the world from home.
Which, as it happens, is an evolution Rossellini would be up for keeping post-coronavirus — not stopping touring, just doing less of it, letting more of the audience experience her shows online. Because it is lonely to be a solo artist on the road.
“You know,” she said, looking out on an expanse of well-grazed grass, “here is paradise.”
Her animals make her laugh. And it is hard to fit a flock of sheep in your suitcase.
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