Isabella Rossellini is shtupping sea creatures as star of her short film series about animal sex, Green Porno 2, which surfaces April 1 at SundanceChannel.com. Internationally admired for her 14-year stint as a Lancôme spokesmodel, the Emmy-nominated Swedish-Italian actress made her directorial debut with the buzzworthy 2008 series on insect intercourse. This time around, Rossellini, who also wrote and coproduced the six one-minute flicks, dives deeper to explore the mating habits of marine life, using anatomically correct paper cutouts and sculpture. Here the Blue Velvet beauty schools us on the power of six-foot erections and other wild, wet wonders.
By Brandon Voss
Advocate.com: When did you first get turned on to the sex lives of animals?
Isabella Rossellini: Since I was a little girl I've always loved animals. When I was about 14 my father gave me a book called King Solomon's Ring, written by Konrad Lorenz, who won a Nobel Prize and founded ethology, which is the science of animal psychology. I loved it. So that was a hobby of mine, as I was working in modeling, fashion, and acting. Then the opportunity to work with Sundance Channel came, and [creative director] Robert Redford wanted to take advantage of the Internet by making short films to revive the genre. One of the concerns of Sundance is the environment, and I always wanted to do something about animal behavior, but only a few people are interested in animal behavior. There are a lot of people interested in sex, so I thought, I can do short films about the sex lives of animals and appeal to everybody. [Laughs]
Did you have any unusual pets growing up?
I've only really had cats and dogs, though people do find it strange that I train guide dogs for the blind. My father once bought a kangaroo for me, but we quickly learned that it's not a good idea to keep wild animals, so we gave it away three days later to the Rome Zoo. If you are a real animal lover, you learn what we're all learning these days: You cannot have wild animals because occasionally they kill you. But it's also not good for them. My son is dying to have one of these enormous lizards, but I say, "No, wild animals have to stay in the wild." I wish I lived in a country house where I could have sheep, ducks, and chickens. Maybe one day I will.
When watching the Green Porno shorts, I couldn't help comparing the various mating practices of the sea creatures to those of myself and of my friends. Like the asexual starfish, for example — we all experience a dry spell from time to time. Did you discover a sexual kinship to any of your subjects?
Not really. But a lot of people do that, and I was very surprised. It wasn't a goal of mine. A lot of people react to Green Porno with confessions. [Laughs] I wanted to know what the great men like Aristotle or Darwin thought about animals, and the greatest preoccupation throughout the centuries always seems to be about how man is different from animals, how man is capable of thinking in a way that animals can't. So I didn't think that by telling them how animals mate, people would ask how it relates to humans. I read a long interview with Konrad Lorenz where he was talking about ducklings, and the interviewer constantly asked how it related to us: "They do that? My father does that!" It's this sort of egocentric human vanity.
I suppose a major difference is that sex among other species is always about procreation, never recreation.
We don't know that. Darwin believed that domesticated animals are more promiscuous than wild animals. Our dogs sometimes embarrass us when guests come over and they screw their legs.
I couldn't help but notice the prominent phalli on many of the male sea creatures, particularly the whale's six-foot penis. Does size matter universally?
Well, size matters a lot if you're a barnacle, because you can't move. Proportionally, the barnacle has the longest penis. When you read about the variety in the world of sex, you get this feeling that anything is possible. The idea may generally be male-female with us, but there are lots of animals that are hermaphrodites, like the limpet, and penguins are often gay. Nature is infinitely scandalous, so it's some consolation to see that it's not always so black-and-white.
You often play the male member of a species in the shorts. Is it empowering to strap on a paper phallus?
Often it's the male that moves, not the female, so I play the male because it's easier. Because all of my partners are big paper cutouts, it's mostly just a technical thing. I never even thought about the fact that I was playing males until people mentioned it. But as the whale, who has this huge six-foot erection, was it empowering? To tell you the truth, I'm not convinced about Freud and his penis envy, but it certainly was fun.
Did you get any embarrassing paper cuts?
[Laughs] Generally, I destroy my partners because they're very fragile.
Words like "erection," "penis," and "vagina" seem to roll off your tongue as if you were a sailor. Are you always so sexually candid?
I take advantage of a puritanical streak in America. I know I can make people gasp and giggle just by saying "vagina." But I don't really do it to scandalize people. I want my films to make people laugh and then say, "Oh, I didn't know that about nature."
You portrayed one of Truman Capote's "swans," Marella Agnelli, in 2006's Infamous. Do you have a similarly special gay friend?
I had a very close friend who died about 10 years ago, unfortunately, of AIDS. I was married twice, so I called him my "third husband." And I do have a "fourth husband" now in Paris named Jean-Paul Scarpitta. He's sort of my gay confidant. There's nothing for companionship like a gay guy is to a woman.
Which of your projects do gay fans respond to the most?
Death Becomes Her! [Laughs] Because it's like female impersonation, in a way. I also think Green Porno could have a gay following. We're thinking about creating some Green Porno costumes for Halloween. Someone said, "Well, maybe for children." I said, "No, not for children. For the gay Halloween parade in the West Village!"
What's the closest thing you've found to that magic elixir for everlasting youth in Death Becomes Her?
I wish I had a happier answer than, "Don't drink, don't smoke, eat well, and exercise," but unfortunately, that's the truth.
Have you ever played a lesbian role?
No. But if I did, my first choice for a love interest would definitely be Kate Winslet, because I admire her and her choice of work. She never plays a baby; she's always a woman, and I love that. Lately, though, I always play Jewish mothers. I don't know why. There's a film out now, Two Lovers, and it's my fourth time playing a Jewish mother.
Specifically, you play Joaquin Phoenix's character's mother. Do you have any motherly advice for him in response to his recent unusual behavior?
I do feel protective of him. I don't know what's going on with him, but I'm worried. I hope he's OK. We did the film a year ago and I haven't seen him since, but I could tell then that he was an eccentric. I hope that he's happy, but I'm not sure.
No disrespect to your illustrious film career, but my favorite character you've ever played is Bianca, Jack Donaghy's ex-wife, on 30 Rock. While arguing over who would get a full stake in the Arby's franchises they bought, you memorably uttered the line, "Damn it, Johnny, you know I love my Big Beef and Cheddar." Have you ever actually had a Big Beef and Cheddar?
No. [Laughs] It took me so long to learn that line because I didn't know what I was talking about. It was fascinating to work with Tina Fey because she has such an incredible ear for comedy. She had me go through a series of lines about food from this sort of Americana menu, none of which I'd eaten, and she picked which one sounded most ridiculous in a foreign voice. I couldn't tell because I don't hear my accent and I didn't even know what I was saying.
Advocate.com, March 2009.