Isabella Rossellini talks Late Bloomers, Blue Velvet, and more

Isabella Rossellini talks Late Bloomers, Blue Velvet, and more

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: The offspring of the then-scandalous union between Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, Isabella Rossellini was destined for stardom. But no one could have predicted the form that stardom would take. After establishing herself as the face of Lancôme, Rossellini made her first major impression as the bruised and abused small-town singer in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and since then has consistently lent her talents to such idiosyncratic auteurs as Abel Ferrara, Peter Greenaway, and Guy Maddin, while keeping up a high profile with appearances on 30 Rock and Friends.

Late Bloomers (2011)—“Mary”
Isabella Rossellini: I’ve done comedies before. Most of my films that I direct are comical. So it’s not a new form to enter. Every time you work, it’s a new film, and generally when you work with auteurs, people that write and direct their films, there’s always an originality. Maybe that’s why Late Bloomers feels like something I haven’t played before, because it isn’t a film where you make the sequel. It’s not conceived to be of that kind.

The A.V. Club: Your character is wrestling with turning 60, but in a way, that doesn’t seem so old these days. 

IR: Well, you know, I’m turning 60 this year. When I shot the film I was 58 instead of 60. I was playing someone who was 59, so I was playing somebody who was maybe a year older than I. There wasn’t much difference. I don’t know how old exactly [co-star] William Hurt is, but he must be in his sixties—62, 63, something like that. So we are playing our age. That’s the age of retirement, that’s the age where generally you have a job that you imagine you have to wrap up, depending on what job you do. But it’s certainly a new chapter in anybody’s life. It’s a landmark, like 18 or 21, when you can drive, when you can vote. You become officially a senior citizen, you’re given discounts, you can take your pension. They are chapters in life; they are landmarks in life. And 60, 62, 65, certainly is that. And the film addresses that, two people who might not be completely decrepit but are entering this chapter in their life and wonder what kind of life they can have. Is it the same life? Or is it going to be different? It’s true that our generation lives so long—we might live another 20 or maybe even sometimes 30 years. But it wasn’t very common, even for the last generation, so all of a sudden you have a long stretch of your life in front of you and you wonder, “What am I going to do for 20 years now?” There is not really a path that is clear. And I think the film addresses that in a comical way. It addresses this longevity of our generation.

My Dad Is 100 Years Old (2005)—“Ingrid Bergman/Alfred Hitchcock/Charlie Chaplin”
AVC: You chose Guy Maddin to direct a short film in tribute to your father, the great neorealist director, even though Maddin’s style is as far from neorealism as it gets. 

IR: I didn’t want to make a neorealistic film, you know? I wanted to make a film about my dad, a sort of love letter, and explain what I understood of his cinema, which was so utopian. I also wanted to give the sense of his cinema, because they have never been very big box-office but they were very influential. It’s very difficult to keep them restored; it’s difficult to fundraise for them, because they’ve never had a very strong commercial value, but they’ve had a very strong cultural value. A lot of the prints of my father’s films are ruined and scratched; they are not in very good condition. So the aesthetic of Guy Maddin appealed to me. To have a film that had the fragility of time, Guy has the best aesthetic to convey that. Guy definitely is different than my dad, but on the other hand, there is a similarity between the two. They’re not very commercially viable. They’re very influential to other artists. They’re very loved and very protected and respected by a small group of film-lovers that count enormously in the community, though they’ll never be big box-office. So yes, they do have two different styles, but there are commonalities between the two.

AVC: At what point in the process did the idea you playing all of the different characters arise?

IR: It was actually Guy’s idea. I really appreciated it. I wrote the film, and I knew I would play the part of myself, but I imagined that other actors would play the different directors. I was sort of wracking my head on who could play who, and it was Guy’s idea that I would play everybody. He explained to me that it would have been clearer that it was my own fantasy about my father, my own idea about my father. He said if I would have used actors, it might have looked like a documentary, or that I had the presumption to give the ultimate answer about what my father’s films were. The great thing about Guy is that he resolves all of the technical problems, the special effects, in such ingenious and simple ways, so that it wasn’t very complicated for me to play all of these roles or be on the screen with all of these other people, because we used rear-projection screens and all that. So, it was a delightful way, and we shot the film—it was a week, five days. We shot it very fast. Also, they are charming and not-expensive special effects, which also adds to the charm of this film.

AVC: It’s obviously a movie about your relationship to your father’s movies as well as to him. The title itself is a kind of subtle lie. It was the centenary of your father’s birth, but he died long before. 

IR: Right, right, well that was the title. [Laughs.] The film was conceived to accompany the [centenary] retrospective. It seemed to me and the director and the producer that the title was nice, and of course it didn’t mean a documentary about a 100-year-old father. I don’t know, Blue Velvet—it isn’t about the textile. You give a name and you always hope that people understand that it is not the literal translation. It’s just the title. It sounds good, it’s easy to remember. My Dad Is 100 Years Old just sounded nice.

Blue Velvet (1986)—“Dorothy Vallens”
AVC: This was very near the beginning of your film career.

IR: Yeah, it was my third film. I’d done a film in Italy and I’d done a film called White Nights. So it was my third film, yes.

AVC: Given that you were working as a fashion model, there’s a striking lack of vanity in the performance. Was that a function of your trust in David Lynch, or just a conviction that the part had to be played that way?

IR: You know, I’m not absolutely sure what you mean about lack of vanity. It was a story about a woman who was abused. So once you accept the role, you try to play the best way you can. You don’t say, “I have to play someone who was shot in the brain, but please make the brain come out in a way that will make me look pretty.” I was playing the part of a woman singer in a small town. She was obviously very distressed and confused. I don’t look at the film in particular and say, “Oh my God, I look horrible.” I hadn’t even thought about it. The reason of my life is not to be the most beautiful woman in the world. I’ve done a lot of advertisements and commercials. For me it was just another role. When they retouch the photo, there is a lot of work you do to create that image. So it’s not the purpose of my life. I’m just trying to fulfill what I am assigned on the job in the best way possible. And I’m not the only one. You know, if the Lancôme photos look very beautiful or the Vogue cover looks very beautiful, it wasn’t only my face. It was how it was lit, the angle of the photographer chose, the retouching afterwards. There’s a lot of processes and a lot of people collaborating, whether it’s one photo or one frame or whether it’s a series of frames to make a film. But when I looked at Blue Velvet, I had to commit to playing somebody who was stressed-out, mentally disturbed. So I had to play that, and I tried to play the best I could.

AVC: Actors are often preoccupied with protecting their image, for very practical reasons, but perhaps having come to acting relatively late, and already being successful in a different career, you approached it differently.

IR: The same can be said about Guy Maddin’s film [The Saddest Music In The World]. My agent said, “If you make a film with Guy Maddin, I’ll slash my wrists.” I think some people prefer to have a career that is conducted by agents, who have more of a commercial eye and make sure that you make money. I was able to select films that are more avant-garde, with directors that are more avant-garde, and therefore don’t have the money, because the way you make your salary is that you’re paid for each project a certain amount, and then the following project will have to match that amount and give you a little bit more. Once you start making films like I do, where in one film I’m paid more and the following film is Guy Maddin, he has no money, so he pays scale, then the agent cannot help you develop a quote for your performance. So it’s damaging to your quote, and that’s why I think agents don’t like to work with me. Not so much for the choice of films I make, but because I operate in a way that, financially, is so confused that you cannot say, “If you want to work with Isabella Rossellini, you have to pay her $250,000, or $150,000, $1,000,000.” They cannot do that. 

I think that’s why my agent said, “If you work with Guy Maddin, I’ll slit my wrists.” I don’t think it was a comment on Guy’s work or artistry. I come from a family of artists, so I was a little bit confused about this “quote” thing. I didn’t understand it. It took me a long time to understand this simple thing because it wasn’t explained to me. And also, I had for many years worked in advertisement, especially with Lancôme. So for 15 years, I had quite a big salary. I thought I was taken care of financially, and then anything else I would do, I could dedicate myself to art or prestigious project and not worry about finances. That’s why maybe my career looks slightly different than other peoples’, because I had this exceptional relationship with Lancôme that lasted for so long and gave me the financial independence that if you don’t have as an actor, then you have to rely on your agent, who will find you jobs that will build that quote that will allow you to pay your expenses every year. I thought of myself as a model for many years. I didn’t think of myself as an actress. So then I would venture into the film business just to try it out or have an adventure or meet an interesting director and say, “Oh it would be interesting to work with him for two months.” I didn’t think of it as a career.

AVC: You didn’t have a movie career to ruin, which is a very valuable thing.

IR: [Laughs.] It is, but it isn’t valuable in terms of finances, and it’s also very difficult for agents. In fact, I don’t have an agent. It’s very difficult for agents to work with me, and they don’t like to work with me.

AVC: It sounded like you were heading in the direction of not having an agent.

IR: [Laughs.] Yeah, I haven’t had an agent for six, seven years.

30 Rock (2007)—“Bianca Donaghy”
IR: A lot of these television shows—Friends, 30 Rock, lately I’ve done Treme—they need guest stars. And, actually for us, it’s great. I obviously love to be in 30 Rock because I’m such a big fan of Tina Fey. It’s nice to go and be a guest on a television sitcom. It pays well, it’s easy because generally it’s a supporting role, so you go, you do two or three things, you’re in touch with people there, they’re widely popular so they’re seen by many people. An actor has to be slightly concerned about being recognized, otherwise people don’t think of you—especially me, in that I don’t have an agent. I’m not on the casting list and all that: A director would really have to think of me, so sometimes they don’t. There may be lots of parts and it’s wonderful and they are delighted to work with me, but they haven’t seen me for a long time so they might have not thought about my name. That’s also where an agent is useful: They package you. So these guest appearances are always welcome, and they’re fun and you meet wonderful other actors and directors. It keeps you in touch with the community of filmmaking.

AVC: How did you end up on 30 Rock?

IR: I have a manager called Cindy Ambers, so if people call the union and they look for my name they will be sent to Cindy. It’s very easy to get in touch with me. You don’t have to know a friend of a friend of mine to reach me. [Laughs.] You call the union and then Cindy’s information will appear and so she contacts me and that’s how these appearances happen. I think she also occasionally calls—maybe she has another client in a series, or she knows somebody and then she suggests my name, and that’s how these things come about.

AVC: How does shooting 30 Rock compare with making Treme

IR: Well, it’s similar. Well, Treme is shot on location and the other one is shot in the studio, but pretty much it’s the same rhythm of an episode. I don’t know how many episodes they shoot for 30 Rock. I’ve done it a few years ago, so I do not remember. Treme might be a little bit slower in producing because you have to change location. But I mean, those are very experienced people most of the time. They can shoot an hour of television in 10 days, you know, they’re very fast.

AVC: Feature films are often thought of as more relaxed than TV, but it’s hard to imagine that Keyhole, which you recently made with Guy Maddin, was shot on any less of a tight schedule. 

IR: Yeah, I don’t know why it takes longer to make feature films than television. You could see it. This is more of a question of the production and how much money they have. I think that the Martin Scorsese series about Atlantic City…

AVC: Boardwalk Empire?
IR: Boardwalk Empire—they have a little bit more days to shoot than a regular series. So maybe HBO gives more money and wants more production value. I’m not part of the production, so I’m not sure. I do know, that yes it’s true: An hour of television would shoot much faster than a feature film. Of course, a feature film is two hours. You shoot an hour of television in a week or two weeks. You can shoot a film in a month for two hours, but it’s rare. Generally it’s longer—six weeks, and then if you do a very big Hollywood films, it can even be three months or six months, but less and less there are these kinds of films.

Animals Distract Me (2011)—“Darwin”
IR: Did you see Green Porno? We changed the name to Seduce Me, so it was similar to the series. In fact, Seduce Me, everybody knows it as Green Porno as well, but we changed the name because Green Porno was quite successful,l but sponsors didn’t want to sponsor it because of the name “porno.” So then we did a series, slightly different, about the seduction techniques rather than sex, and called it Seduce Me in the hopes of finding a sponsor, but we didn’t find a sponsor. [Laughs.] The sponsors always say, maybe they were polite and they didn’t want to sponsor it, but they politely said, the reason is for the word “porno” and we believed it. Then we called it another title and they didn’t sponsor it, either.

AVC: How did making those shorts, which are primarily for the web, compare to shooting TV?

IR: They’re even faster and for less money. This is also, you know, where it’s going. I think that’s where the people who give the money always want it. They want it cheap and beautiful. So the constant pressure that you have is to work with the cheapest amount of money. And cheap means fast because a crew—if you work one day, even if you shoot digital, it still takes a camera operator, an electrician to place the lights, a sound person, maybe a fourth person to help, a director, a continuity [person], so even my crew that I do for my smallest film, we end up being nine or 10 people on a set, and then everybody will earn some money that varies between $300 to $1,000, whatever is the salary. So if you add in the rental of the location, it could easily add up to $10,000 a day to shoot—very easily. You can get there very fast. And so that’s why everybody, the producer or the financier, they want to shoot very fast, because it’s the process of filmmaking that’s very expensive. So you have to do a very careful job in pre-production. Sometimes there is a little bit more luxury in post-production, because you are just doing the editing and there’s maybe one machine you are renting and one person that helps you edit. But yes, the Internet is asking even faster and cheaper production than television, and it’s a very big pressure.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987)—“Madeleine Regency”
IR: I mean, of course I was immensely interested to work with Norman Mailer. If you receive an offer to work with a writer of that caliber, on a script that he wrote, it was very appealing and tempting to say yes. Now, probably, I think when you’re very famous in one domain, people tend to be even more severe, because I thought the film was good, but it got panned. You know, Madonna’s film is quite wonderful, W.E. If it wasn’t Madonna directing, I think she would be praised. If it was a first-time director, as she is, doing that film and being unknown, she would have gotten very good reviews. So she was sort of punished for being Madonna. They say, “Ah, she can also direct?” And so they picked at everything that was wrong in the film, but the film is quite good actually. I think Norman Mailer in Tough Guys Don’t Dance had the same thing. People could not accept that Norman Mailer could also be a good director. Maybe the film isn’t perfect—W.E. may not be perfect either—but, it was, both of them, a very good film.

AVC: Was it different than working with someone whose background was mainly in film?

IR: No, if anything, I was more intimidated. He was very famous, he had directed other films, he was very strong and funny. I was a little bit more intimidated in working with him. Sometimes you’re intimidated in working with a director that has a big reputation or an actor that has a big reputation coming to the set. But once you get to know them, it goes away. I didn’t play a very big part. I think I stayed for a couple of weeks in Provincetown to do Tough Guys. But I remember it was a very interesting experience. It was a little bit intimidating to work with such a superstar, such an intelligent man, and I was really at the beginning of my career. At the time, there was a big controversy regarding Blue Velvet, so I was very grateful that he came to my rescue, in a way. My agent dropped me then, saying that Blue Velvet was obscene and that they didn’t want to represent any actresses that would make an obscene film. It was the first time that it had happened to me. Now I’m used to it, so it doesn’t matter. At the time I was shocked and I couldn’t understand why the controversy was so enormous about the film. So it was wonderful to have Tom Luddy, the producer, and Norman Mailer, who loved Blue Velvet and came to my rescue, offering me another film and sort of honoring me. I felt very good about it. It certainly did help my career. Even if the film went badly, at the time, the fact that Norman Mailer had hired me instead of another actress because he liked me in Blue Velvet was wonderful.

The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Part 1: The Moab Story (2004) and The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Part 2: Vaux To The Sea (2004)—“Mme. Moittessier”
IR: Peter Greenaway, his reference is painting, so it’s quite interesting because he’s very different than other directors. Most of them have theater or literature or film references. But Peter references painting. He shows you different paintings and talks to you about paintings, so it’s infinitely interesting to work with him. He’s one of the most interesting directors. And of course I like photography and I like paintings. I have more knowledge about photography than paintings, but it’s the same visual art, so it’s wonderful to work with Peter.

AVC: Those films are a small part of a much larger project, spread across many different media ranging from art installations to CD-ROMs. Did you feel like you understood your place in the grand scheme of things? Does that matter?

IR: Some of the films are completely understandable and some of the others maybe are a little bit more mysterious. The trilogy that he did that I was part of was a little bit more difficult to follow, but the latest film that he has done, where he looks at the painting and reconstructs a murder imagining that it is full of symbols that he does investigate—I thought it was an extraordinary film. I mean it was immensely original. What was it called? I thought it was going to be nominated for an Oscar. It was so wonderful. 

AVC: Rembrandt’s J’Accuse.
IR: That was an absolutely incredible film, and completely comprehensible. When you’re very original, it’s difficult, because with films and books, the distributor creates a niche. I remember when I wrote a book that was partially illustrated and part was written, the bookstore kept asking me, “Where do we put it? In the photography section or the novel section or the biography section?” I hadn’t thought about it when I wrote it. And I think Peter Greenaway is that. He doesn’t do a thriller, a comedy. An artist doesn’t think of that, doesn’t think, “What is my niche so I can have that spot in the layout of the bookstore or I appear in that movie theater or in that movie theater.” They just do their films. And Peter Greenaway is extraordinarily talented. For that Rembrandt film, he didn’t get the distribution. If the Weinstein brothers would have picked it up, they have a great ability to market things, so there’s so many things that can happen.

AVC: In the U.S., it’s just a bonus disc with the Nightwatching DVD.

IR: Right. Even Late Bloomers: I’ve done two interviews today for Late Bloomers. I do a 10-minute film for web and I might do 30 interviews—so why is that? It’s because the distributor probably has, more or less, different skills about contacting and pitching to journalists, but we’re not at that end of the work so I don’t know what to do. 

AVC: Maybe it’s not too late to work the word “porno” into the title.

IR: [Laughs.] Right.