Isabella Rossellini Wants to Teach You About Animal Sex

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To borrow a phrase from Auden, Isabella Rossellini has always had a sense of theater. The daughter of filmmaking legends Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini (and a very accomplished model and actress in her own right), the 68-year-old describes herself as an “entertainer at heart”—and with Sex and Consequences, a new work of virtual theater, she continues to probe a subject that’s long delighted her: the workings of the animal kingdom.

Directed by Paul Magrid and streaming live, starting this Friday, on four different dates over the next few weeks, Sex and Consequences—a follow-up to Rossellini’s award-winning television series and touring stage production Green Porno—is basically about evolution, but more specifically about domestication and morality, tapping into fairly recent discoveries by animal scientists. (Rossellini herself holds a master’s degree in animal behavior and conservation from Hunter College.) As a piece, it promises all of the thoughtful inquiry—and the artful absurdity—of Rossellini’s other film and theater projects, including the 2010 series Seduce Me and her “one-woman, one-dog show” Link Link Circus; the only difference now is that she’s producing it from home, with a skeleton crew.

Calling from Bellport, Long Island, where she’s been communing with the dogs, sheep, and chicken that share her sprawling farm, Rossellini spoke to Vogue about Sir David Attenborough, Darwin, that nude bodysuit, and her recently established residency program with Parsons.

How did you decide to put a new show together?

It was actually my agent at UTA that had the idea. When COVID arrived, everything was canceled in the theater, including musical concerts. But some musicians have facilities in their homes—they have sound-recording studios to compose their songs—and so they started to [livestream] their concerts and what they were working on, and they found their own fans coming to the streaming. So my agent called me and said, “It’s working for musicians, it could also work for monologues.” And I had done monologues before; I’ve done two shows, one called Green Porno Live and another one called Link Link Circus. So I am going to do a new version of this monologue. They’re basically the same format: It’s me talking, and then showing some of my videos that I’ve done—I had been commissioned by the Sundance Channel to do short, comical films about biology. And so we’re going to use these films, and I’ve made some new ones. So it could be a new way of doing theater, you know. Who knows? We’re trying to reconnect with the audience, basically. We’re desperate. (Laughs.)

What gaps in understanding of animal behaviors have you wanted to address with your performances?

Well, I’m an entertainer at heart, and my muse is animals and biology—it’s also sex, because it’s about animal reproduction. I could have done animal digestive systems—it’s very interesting, some of them have no teeth, have four stomachs—but don’t think I’d find the audience. (Laughs.) I was always interested in animals, and when I started to work less, both as a model, and then as an actress, I went back to university, and I have a master’s degree in animal behavior and conservation. So what I’m saying is very correct scientifically because I’ve learned it, and I have some wonderful scientists—like Diana Reiss, who studies dolphin communication, like Brian Hare, who writes wonderful best sellers, books about dogs and the domestication of animals—all of them participate and help me in the writing so that I am absolutely sure it is scientifically correct. And then I try to translate it into comical form.

Isabella Rossellini in Green Porno.

Photo: Jody Shapiro

And humor is an important element because—

I have to say that animals make me laugh. It started like this. I’ve always liked animals since I was a little girl, and I would have always loved—I always dreamed to work with David Attenborough, to be his personal secretary when I was a little girl. But he had a personal secretary; he didn’t need me. So one day, when I started to make my own films, I thought, well, there are so many wonderful films about animals. What do you think I can say that has not been said? And it was the comical aspect.

What material are you covering in Sex and Consequences that you didn’t in Green Porno or Link Link Circus?

We’re talking about evolution. Everybody knows about evolution, more or less, but there are aspects of evolution that I learned more recently, and when I verified them with my friends, they were also unaware of them. Domestic animals all evolve from wild stock, so the wolf became the dog, but how did this happen? I’m going to tell the story of how we speculate it happened, but there was something unusual. All domestic animals have white patches; they have smaller teeth than their wild cousins, they have flatter skulls, and they have curly tails. If you think of goats, pigs, rabbits, cows, sheep, dogs, cats—they all can be spotty. This is something that occurs in the domestic stock, but not in the wild. Why? This is something that science has discovered recently, so I’m addressing that. Another aspect is we always know about environmental pressure changing an animal—so a fox that lives in New York and migrates north after a certain point will become white, because it’s in the Arctic—but behavior can change animals, and it can change it quite fast. So my line is: There are consequences to sex between nice and kind individuals. If kind and nice individuals mate and have babies, they could eventually have domestic animals.

Darwin also wondered how morality evolves. We generally associate morality with religion, but Darwin wanted to know if there was a biological origin of it. And he discusses finding it in motherhood, because mothers have to take care of their babies. And so, maybe from this maternal instinct, that was the first ingredient to evolve to empathy, to altruism. So that’s very interesting too, because it gives us females a lot of power. So I’m discussing these things that are being discussed among scientists, and some, like the evolution of morality, probably discussed, but maybe never funny, because the word makes you feel not so funny. (Laughs.)

Photo: Courtesy of Isabella Rossellini

I’d love to hear a bit about the wonderful bodysuit you’re wearing in the promotional imagery.

I am very involved with fashion still; I work at the Parsons School of Design promoting old wool. I have students who do a residency at my farm to work with my animals, to work with feathers, to work with wool. A wonderful company called Fanny Karst did this fantastic costume for Link Link Circus, and Brigitte Lacombe, the great photographer, took this photo, and we never used it. I thought that maybe it should be the poster for Link Link Circus, but Link Link Circus was really about animal cognition, and that extraordinary, strong image was really talking more about sex. So I always kept that photo, saying, “one day…one day” I could use it. And then, when I wrote Sex and Consequences, I called Brigitte and I said, “Can it be the poster?” And she allowed me to use it. So I’m very happy to use that photo, because I find it arresting and totally comical.

You mentioned your residency program with Parsons. How did that come about? 

About a year ago I discussed with Parsons the possibility of an association with my farm here in Long Island, which is called Mama Farm. Farm-to-table cuisine, CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture], the farmers market—they had all become very popular. But there isn’t the same for fashion. So we started a program where students, especially the ones that are interested in wool,  could come and meet the sheep. We shear them and they learn the process of what to do with the wool. What I wanted to give them, what I had when I went back to university, was the ABCs—you know, you always see wool already spun, and you just think, well, what color do I like? But where does it come from? How is it done? All these things get lost. And so I wanted to give the students the possibility to come only 60 miles from New York, to talk to the sheep, and to see that some fibers on the animal are rougher, those are good for carpets, and some are very soft, those are good for sweaters. It was just to discover a world that may not seem as connected, because we always connect at the end of the process.

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