Isabella Rossellini’s Entire Life Is a Zoo

She went back to school for a Master's in Animal Behavior and Conservation, and the result is her new show, Link Link Circus by Isabella Rossellini.

Seeing Isabella Rossellini, looking well-coiffed and elegantly dressed in a white blouse and chic, printed evening jacket, in her CNN American Style interview, earlier this week, few viewers would suspect that the fashion icon ever gets her well-manicured hands dirty.

But these days, when the model, actress, and writer isn’t pursuing one of these creative passions, she’s running a small organic farm on Long Island, N.Y., where she — among other duties — breeds and feeds 100 chickens, cares for half-a-dozen sheep, raises bees, and grows vegetables to sell along with eggs, honey, and wool.

The penthouse and the plough aren’t mutually exclusive where she comes from.

“It has a lot to do with being Italian, where the farm work is not so separate from the urban world as it is in America,” Rossellini says. “When we grew up in Italy, you just drove half a mile from Rome, and you were in the countryside. So we were in touch with the farmers and bought food directly from them, something that in America has only recently become a fashion. So it’s not a very big stretch for me. It’s not like I never saw a chicken in my life and then started a farm.”

Working with animals is fun and educational for Rossellini. Since she was a young girl, wondering if her cherished little dog could think and feel emotion, she’s been obsessed with animal behavior. So after a successful career appearing in numerous films (Blue Velvet, Death Becomes Her, Fearless), on the TV series Alias, on two-dozen Vogue covers, and as the face of Lancôme cosmetics, she decided to pursue a longtime dream of getting a Master’s degree in Animal Behavior and Conservation, at Hunter College in New York, as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

She’s since produced an award-winning series of three funny but still academic shorts — Green Porno, Seduce Me, and Mammas — about animal behavior, which aired on Sundance TV, and developed a stage adaptation of Green Porno, which toured 50 cities in 2015.

Now, the actress who recently lent her voice to The Incredibles 2 animated movie, returns with Link Link Circus, in which she uses acting, puppeteering, projected drawings, home movies, animated videos, and dog tricks courtesy of her own pooch, Pan, to demonstrate the link between animals and humans.

Rossellini spoke to SF Weekly about the show, which hits The Chapel for five nights, starting Thursday, Jan. 17, her lifelong love of animals, taking the bull by the horns and going back to school in her late ’50s, and the advice her parents — silver screen legends Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini — gave her that served her well throughout her career.

I keep reading that you’ve been obsessed with animals since childhood. What was so meaningful to you about them?
You’re born with certain tendencies, certain interests that are innate, and I think I was just born with this interest in animals. Of course, we had animals growing up — cats and dogs, but also hamsters and canaries — and that probably influenced it, too. But I would say that just like I was born with brown hair, I was born with this love for animals. I always enjoyed taking care of them.

So a lot of people are interested in animal behavior, but they just watch the Nat Geo channel to satisfy it. But you went the extra mile to get a degree in it. Was this something you’ve always wanted to do?
I would have liked to do it when I was younger. When I looked into it, I was of college age and in Italy, and the university there had biology and zoology. But it really didn’t offer animal behavior, which is a relatively new science. Later, there were some courses at Oxford and Cambridge, but I already lived in New York and had kids and a career. So this has always been my hobby, but, of course, I had to make a living.

Then as I became older and was working less as an actress and not at all as a model anymore, I went to a lecture on animal behavior at Hunter College. There, they were handing out brochures, saying they just opened this new department where you can get your Master’s degree in Animal Behavior and Conservation, which is what I always wanted to do. So I signed up that evening and, little by little, I got there.

Were the other students aware of the celebrity among them?
Most of the students didn’t know me, because they were too young to know me as a model and actress. Some people knew me for my Green Porno film, which is quite popular on the internet. So if anything, I was recognized occasionally, but not that much, from the students who’ve seen my Green Porno, which fills me with a great sense of pride.

You’ve said it was easy to get audiences into Green Porno because it was as much about sex and relationships as animals. But how do you seduce audiences into paying attention when you’re talking about animal intelligence and emotion?  
The core question of my show is, “Do animals feels and think? Are they capable of having emotions?” But I thought it might lend itself to be less comical, and everything I do is comical. 

So I did it in the form of a little circus, and I have a little doggie with me, Peter Pan, who dresses up as different animals. The format is like a circus, where we can show clips, photos, and animation, so the tone is comical and light. But what I say is really scientifically sound.

What are you passionate about outside of acting and animals?
I pretty much live the life I want to live so it’s interesting to me. I’m interested in films and theatre, so I follow those things. Then I have my animals and I study, write, and work.

I am working again with Lancôme who I worked with for many years and then they let me go and then they hired me again at 63. So it’s fun to work with them again. Not only for the creams and makeups, which are fun to play with, but it’s also interesting to see how the advertising campaign evolved, because women have evolved so much in this century, and this evolution is also reflected in the communication of the advertising.

You’ve been so successful in so many different arenas. When you were just starting out in front of the camera, did your parents give you any career advice that you follow to this day?
I think I learned from them to do things that are interesting to me and fulfill my curiosity and hopefully find an audience rather than sit at the table and say, “How can I be successful?” and then plan something that will make me successful.

My shows are relatively small. I perform them at small theaters, and they’re considered avant-garde. It certainly isn’t lucrative, but it’s interesting to me. And I think that ability to be in a big Hollywood film or, this year, I was a voice in The Incredibles 2, but then do something in the theater about animals that I wrote myself, that definitely comes from my family. They did the same.

Link Link Circus by Isabella Rossellini, Jan. 17-19, 9 p.m.; Jan. 20-21, 8 p.m., at The Chapel, 777 Valencia St. $45-65;

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