index magazine
indexed

Lena Dunham's hilarious web series. Click here to watch seasons one and two!
gray
Name:
Email:
Daniel Day-Lewis spoke with poet, Eileen Myles in this 2002 interview. Photography by Terry Richardson.
 

Read Bjork's2001 interview with Juergen Teller from the index archives.



Kathleen Hanna discusses writing and making music in this interview from 2000 with Laurie Weeks.


Isabella Rossellini spoke with Peter Halley in this 1999 interview.


Check out our interview with Crispin Glover by Richard Kern from 2000.
Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.
 
  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

Isabelli Rossellini, 1999

WITH PETER HALLEY
PHOTOGRAPHED BY TERRY RICHARDSON

She walked into the photographer's studio, briefcase in hand, dressed in her "uniform," a gray suit and white button-down shirt. The room, full of activity just a moment before, was suddenly quiet. She came forward, smiling graciously, shaking hands, a "lovely to meet you" for everyone, and then, taking us all by surprise, came the laugh — a full belly laugh, the kind you wouldn't expect from Isabella Rossellini. But then meeting her you realize how unreliable one's expectations can be.
Known from hundreds of magazine covers, from movies like Blue Velvet, Immortal Beloved, and Big Night, and as the daughter of the great Italian director Roberto Rossellini and film legend Ingrid Bergman, Isabella in-person is approachable, funny, and smart. She's private yet open, European but very New York, an imposing presence but someone without pretense. We talked about modeling, movies, her parents, and Manifesto, her new line of cosmetics. After an hour, it was time for the pictures to be taken and we decided to hang around.
With a quick change into a white Halston dress, Isabella slipped in front of the pink seamless, and the performance began. Isabella simply radiates in front of the camera, and Terry, laid-back and friendly, bristles with electric concentration once he's working. There was an instant rapport between them. And when Terry, with a Blue Velvet reference that caught even Isabella off-guard, shouted from behind the camera, "Don't fucking look at me," Isabella's laughter was echoed by everyone all around the room.


Peter: I just love your book.
ISABELLA: Oh really? Oh thanks. That's very nice — especially from you.

PETER: It's not like an "I did this" and "I did that" autobiography. I was wondering how you put it together.
ISABELLA: Well, I didn't really want to write a book. But I was asked to write it, and it could have taken any form, from a memory book on my parents to my exercise routine, to my beautiful body — which is not even beautiful, but once you're a model everything works. [laughs] Then when I was about to start Manifesto, somebody said: "You know, it would really be nice to have a book on style written in your own words." And then it took a life of its own.

PETER: So what was your starting point?
ISABELLA: Although it seems very random, the core of the book is the conflict of styles. For example, in talking about my parents, it isn't about how to be a good mother or a bad mother; it's more about what an actress does ... what kinds of movies. Should they be commercial or should they be artistic? And so I started writing down all the questions that I'm always asked and I cannot answer. Because among those questions, the biggest ones are: What is beauty? What is style? [laughs]

PETER: From your book I feel like I know all about you — whether or not I do. So I have to raise one of these intellectual questions you're always stuck with. The way you think of your persona and, as a result, your celebrity, really interests me because you seem sort of detached about who you are in the world in a kind of ego-less way.
ISABELLA: It seems to me that I'm a tourist to life. I live life, I'm an observer of it. So I don't know that I am detached. I do enjoy immensely the observation and the adventure of it.

PETER: Actually, I just saw The Impostors, which I thought was enormously charming ...
ISABELLA: With the director Stanley Tucci. The intent was to do a kind of screwball comedy from the '30s, like vaudeville.

PETER: But in almost every segment of the film that you're in, your head is covered. I mean, it's almost perverse that the famous Isabella Rossellini is completely veiled.
ISABELLA: Yes. Throughout the film. [laughs]

PETER: And I believe only one line is an actual sentence. All the others are utterances.
ISABELLA: Blrr blrr blrr ... yes.

PETER: When I think of the roles that you've chosen, going back at least to Blue Velvet — and also the other Tucci movie, where you play the mistress ...
ISABELLA: Big Night.

PETER: It seems that you've chosen a film persona that is very much in contrast with your optimism and energy. I don't know if the women are doing things they're not supposed to ...
ISABELLA: I don't really know how I choose films. It very much depends on the moment I'm asked. There are moments where I feel: "I don't need another job." And there are moments where I'm sitting there thinking: "Oh, it would be great to go on location and just shoot and shoot. I wish somebody would call me." Then all of a sudden somebody calls and says, "Do you want to go to Spain?" And I say, "I can't believe it. That's just what I was thinking."

PETER: Wow.
ISABELLA: And I say, "Yes." But I do read the script first. It's often who you work with, who the other actors are, who's the director. I always say that the bad side of movies is that they have to be seen. It ruins them. And then they judge your criteria of choosing them according to this big life plan that I don't have.

PETER: I watched Blue Velvet again the other night, and your role just blew me away. It almost seemed like you were an actress from Open City walking onto that set.
ISABELLA: I just finished an Italian movie called Heaven Is Falling. It's about the war, and about Albert Einstein's family. He had a cousin who married into an Italian family. And eventually the cousin's family was killed because he was Jewish, and he was in hiding, and then he committed suicide. So there's a big dramatic ending.

PETER: And what's your part?
ISABELLA: I do a scene where the SS come and they separate me from my children. That reminded me very much of that scene in Open City, where Anna Magnani runs up to the truck. You realize that there are contemporary Italian directors who are very inspired by the Neo-Realists. It's an Italian tradition. And it's what's still successful. You know, Cinema Paradiso is in that vein.

PETER: Do you think there's something intrinsically Italian about Neo-Realist cinema?
ISABELLA: I know that what really made it happen was the time. I think there was an absolute urge to witness the War — not from a point of view of the soldier or of military propaganda, but of everyday life — just standing on lines for bread, and then you get there and there's no bread, and how do you feed your children? It's the real life of civilians during the war. There was an absolute urge to testify, to remember what life was like then.

PETER: And then as a tradition within Italian filmmaking, it grew ...
ISABELLA: You know, my father used to say, "I didn't make the style of Neo-Realism. I had no money. That's the only way I could shoot." Then that became the style — to shoot with the camera never moving, and they didn't have enough film to shoot close ups ...

PETER: I'm actually a fanatic about your father's late historical TV films.
ISABELLA: Oh really?

PETER: Like Louis XIV and The Age of the Medici ...
ISABELLA: Oh, you're among the very few on earth who like those. But I love them.

PETER: They're so incredible.
ISABELLA: But why didn't they work?

PETER: They did work. I think they've influenced the whole docudrama phenomenon since the '80s. The economy of style, and the way they're written ...
ISABELLA: I love the economy of style. You don't see the revolution, you just hear all the noise and chaos going on outside. You see the fear of this man sitting by the window, not wanting to go out. You may not see the revolution, but you really feel it, and it didn't cost $100 million to make.

PETER: The Medici film is also great.
ISABELLA: I missed a plane once and I had to stay in an airport hotel. It was eleven o'clock in the morning, which is not prime time in Italy, and I turned on the TV and one of my father's films was on — the one on the Apostles.

PETER: I don't know that one.
ISABELLA: It's called The Act of the Apostles. It's so moving, and yet nothing happens — nothing happens and yet everything is so real. You need almost a Zen-like state to look at these films. They cannot be seen with the rush and the adrenaline of modern life. And in this film of the Apostles the faces were so authentic, there was not a single costume, not one beard.

PETER: Have you heard about Dogme 95?
ISABELLA: Yes. Yes. It's a kind of moral ground for filmmaking. Because filmmaking has become so much about seducing people with camera moves. And if you want to make an advertisement, it's all about that. For me it was terrible, morally, to do commercials at the beginning.

PETER: Yes, I can imagine.
ISABELLA: Coming from Neo-Realism, it was the essence of manipulation. But then later on I decided that it was fine to do commercials because you know very well what's going on. You know when you look at a commercial that you're going to be shmoozed.

PETER: Right.
ISABELLA: And so you look at who's shmoozing you the best.

PETER: You know that it's theater.
ISABELLA: Yes. I want film to be more honest, because films are considered art. But I'm comfortable doing commercials because it's a declared manipulation. [laughs]

PETER: Well, let's talk about how you started Manifesto. I don't know if everyone knows this story, but at a certain point Lancôme decided you were too old.
ISABELLA: Too old. Well, in Lancôme's defense, they kept me till I was forty-two. It's not their fault. It's a tradition in cosmetics, in fashion. Now, why is it that way? I don't know. But on the other hand, if you ask any woman, even a young woman, they're resentful of it. Because when you're twenty you know that one day you're going to be forty or fifty. And the fact that beauty is never represented at those ages ... it's offensive and scary. If you're young, it's scary. If you're old, it's offensive. So all the way through it's bad news.

PETER: It's changing though.
ISABELLA: I think a little bit is changing.

PETER: All the models and actresses that are such big superstars aren't so young. I mean, they're all at least thirty-five.
ISABELLA: Yes.
PETER: I mean, to really develop ...
ISABELLA: And what happens? They become mythical. But then nobody gives them a job. Linda isn't working. And Claudia I haven't seen much. So they become mythical and their names still go around, but they don't really work. And that happens to a lot of actors. I remember working with Dennis Hopper on Blue Velvet. He had been in rehab, and that's why he hadn't worked for a long time before that film. I had such an admiration for him in every sense, for Easy Rider, for the fact that he had gone to hell and come back and was still such a cool guy. And when I asked him about not working, he said, "It's
terrible to be a myth. It's awful. I can't get a job. I'm just looked at at parties like I'm already dead."

PETER: I'd never thought of that.
ISABELLA: Oh, it's awful to be a myth.

PETER: I wonder if Jasper Johns feels that way.

ISABELLA: Oh, I'm sure. I met Jasper Johns once at a dinner. One of his paintings had just been sold for millions, and I could see that he was happy but kind of paralyzed. Because now he could never doodle as he spoke on the phone. All of a sudden everything might take on a proportion. And you could see that he was looking at his hands like he was hoping they would drop off so he could live again.[both laugh]

PETER: So with Manifesto, instead of getting mad you decided to get even and start a company of your own?
ISABELLA: At the beginning I was a bit offended. Rage is a good fuel for — what am I going to do to make me feel better? And then the rage kind of dissipated because I got involved in a project that was really interesting. And I began to think about how a destiny can develop. An actress can eventually become a producer or a director ...

PETER: There's life after modeling.
ISABELLA: Exactly. You can be born beautiful, and they make you live your beauty as if it's a gift from God. It's like winning the lottery and that's it — it stops right there. Meanwhile, for ten years you've traveled the world, chances are you've learned two or three languages, you've met every designer, you've seen all the collections. There's tremendous knowledge built up; sometimes more knowledge in models of thirty than in people working regular careers that go on forever. But you don't think about it while you're working.

PETER: What happens?
ISABELLA: While you're working it's always the next six months. "I'll save my money and then maybe open a restaurant, or marry, and I'll have a little bit set aside so I won't have to bother my husband for constant cash." So I was very proud to find a way to develop. I felt it was good.

PETER: I'm impressed with Manifesto. All the packaging is very elegant, it's very chic and understated. How'd you get there creatively?
ISABELLA: To a certain extent it was: do what I like with absolute optimism even if what I like personally is maybe not liked by everyone. But in the end it must be liked by others. If you have one idea that you hang on to, you're doomed to suffer. So we started with many ideas and then tested them. Collaboration with others is great if you can listen — which is hard.

PETER: You sit down with the designers and the color people for all the meetings.
ISABELLA: I've almost become an editor. It's still very personal, but other people come and they feed into your ideas. In a way, I don't even think of makeup in terms of colors. Because any color can work. But a lot of journalists have asked me: "What is your favorite lipstick, what is the lipstick you can't live without?" [both laugh]

PETER: They sent the wrong guy to do this interview.
ISABELLA: You don't know about makeup, but foundation comes in big heavy bottles. And we had the idea of things coming in portions, and that it could all be portable.

PETER: That it's something you can carry around is very important.
ISABELLA: Exactly. Like the way my lipsticks have little mirrors built into the caps. Even if the mirrors are small — I have to close one eye to see my lips — I thought it was better to have a little bit of mirror than trying to look at your reflection in a knife at a restaurant. [laughs]

PETER: And is the creative team that you work with American or European?
ISABELLA: Mostly American, but some of them came here from Europe. The Lancaster/Coty headquarters were here when I started to work four years ago, and since I live in New York ...

PETER: Of course both your parents are European, and you grew up in Rome until you were nineteen, but since you've lived here for so long, I also consider you a New Yorker.
ISABELLA: I came here in '71. Can you imagine?

PETER: But reading the book, it almost surprised me that you don't live in Paris or London. Why did you come here?
ISABELLA: To study English. Because every European child is obsessed with learning English. So I came here and I stayed. I think I like the American way. It's just as simple as that. Well, maybe I like the New York way.

PETER: When you arrived in '71, was it more the hippy New York or the glam New York?
ISABELLA: No, it was glam. It was that time. But I wasn't really part of that scene because I was young and I felt foreign. It took me ten years to decide to stay. I kept on coming back and taking a little job, and then I would be nostalgic for Europe. So it took a long time to really commit. And what ultimately made me commit was my marriage to Martin Scorsese. In a way, when you marry, we girls think — this is home.

PETER: And what year was that?
ISABELLA: '79.

PETER: And you lived in Tribeca?
ISABELLA: Yes.

PETER: The reason I ask is that I live in Tribeca too. And maybe about seven years ago — did you have a dachshund?
ISABELLA: Yeah, I do. Ziggy, she's still alive.

PETER: Well, I also had a dachshund. And your housekeeper was out with your dachshund and my housekeeper was out with mine, and your housekeeper propositioned my dachshund.
ISABELLA: [laughs] Oh, really?

PETER: It seems she felt that your dachshund wanted to have babies and wanted to know if Henry might be available? [both laugh] So then we called the vet and the vet said no because he was afraid it would be bad for Henry's back.
ISABELLA: The poor thing. A missed opportunity.

PETER: So what's your favorite period in New York — culturally speaking?
ISABELLA: You know, I think I like this period a lot.

PETER: It is kind of nice, isn't it?
ISABELLA: Yeah. Because in the '70s I was still integrating and coming in, and all the drug scenes out there at the time scared the hell out of me. I never really, thank god, fell for it — but just out of luck. Because I thought, like most people, that it was good for you to take some drugs. But I couldn't — I got sick.

PETER: You're one of those super-sensitive people.
ISABELLA: I'm just lucky. Now we all know that drugs are ultimately bad, but at the time it was not that clear. And I don't know if it was because I was young — Marty was ten years older than I, so I was around people who were older. And when you're twenty-six, twenty-seven and trying to be cool, you always feel your shortcomings.

PETER: There are some people who just don't like drugs because they like reality the way it is.
ISABELLA: Whatever it was, it scared me. But then when I was modeling, it was pretty wonderful to discover New York ... Nothing like a job makes you own a city.

PETER: And that's starting around '82 with Vogue?
ISABELLA: Yes. When I started with Vogue, the photographers became my friends, and the stylists and other models. All of a sudden, it wasn't my Italian friends who lived here, or Martin's friends; the fashion people were my own people. And that really rooted me.

PETER: I love how in tune you are with all your photographers over the years. So I was really excited about the opportunity to bring you together with Terry.
ISABELLA: But you know, Terry, I've been trying for so long ... I'm so pleased.

PETER: Where have you seen his work?
ISABELLA: In magazines. I recognize people's work. I have a love for photographers, maybe the same as my love for directors. I can look at any magazine and tell you who's the photographer. It's like handwriting for me.

PETER: Is there anybody sort of coming up that you're interested in?
ISABELLA: Tim Walker. Because I always look for humor in things. As we were talking about one essence of Manifesto — to overcome the problem of youth — I thought, if I have to choose between beautiful and boring or old and fun, I'd rather have old and fun. So I figure, let's base the cosmetic line on that principal, and try to make something that is cheerful, happy, elegant, whimsical. So Tim Walker is someone that eventually I would love to collaborate with.

PETER: And who shot the publicity material for Manifesto?
ISABELLA: Miles Aldrich. Miles had some photos that were very charming, but I think ultimately we chose him for his huge closeups.

PETER: That's hard.
ISABELLA: They're so beautiful.

PETER: There's something else I think you just have to tell us about, which is your childhood back operation. You were in a painful cast for two years?
ISABELLA: Two years. From when I was eleven.

PETER: That must have affected you so much.
ISABELLA: It was a major thing in my life.

PETER: You had scoliosis. And the treatment was a painful body cast.
ISABELLA: First, a body cast to correct scoliosis. And then they took a bone from my leg and they put it in my back, so I'm completely rigid. That's why I got the role of the queen in The Impostors — because of my posture. [laughs]

PETER: So that's your secret.
ISABELLA: That's the secret.

PETER: Spinal fusion leads to good posture.
ISABELLA: I get all these roles like the queen, as the one with dignity ... [laughs]

PETER: But on the other hand, I don't think many people know that when you were practically a kid, you did Italian TV and comedy.
ISABELLA: Yeah, with Roberto Benigni. That was my first job, it was twenty years ago. It was a huge success, and broke a lot of rules. It was like Saturday Night Live — in Italy it had the same impact.

PETER: Meeting you, it's really clear how you could do comedy. But that line just ended for you?
ISABELLA: Well, I wish it could continue. But I'm not really a stand-up comedian, like Roberto. Now everybody knows him, so finally I can talk about him without having to explain it all. Roberto is an incredible monologist, almost like Peter Sellers. He can improvise a show in front of 100,000 people. I could never do that. I was ... how do you call it? In Italian, you are the right arm to the comedian — the sidekick. But you can't make a career as a sidekick if you don't have your leading man ...

PETER: I'm of the same generation as you and it seems that so many creative people in our generation have gone from the creative side into the business side. Do you sense that?
ISABELLA: Yes, I do. [laughs] And it feels so good to be the boss.

PETER: Now I know you have to go and be photographed for us, but I do have a final question: the wig in Blue Velvet. I'm always amazed at how willing you are to play with your appearance, and your lack of vanity. How did the hair for Dorothy Valance come about?
ISABELLA: Well, the makeup was mine, and the hair was David. He saw the character like she was country-western. But I had this thin, thin hair. It was too model-like, too modern. So we tried different wigs, and they all looked so bad. But then I could see his eyes saying: "Ahh, with a bad wig it would look really good."

PETER: We should stop because that's the perfect ending. A bad wig makes a great part.

© index magazinegelatin1
Isabella Rossellini by Terry Richardson, 1999
© index magazinegelatin1
Isabella Rossellini by Terry Richardson, 1999

Copyright © 2008 index Magazine and index Worldwide. All rights reserved.
All photos by index photographers: Leeta Harding, Richard Kern, David Ortega, Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson, and Juergen Teller