Isabella Rossellini Talks Why She Lost Her Agent

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Photo Source: Courtesy Andre Rau

Isabella Rossellini was born to be in film—literally. The daughter of iconic actor Ingrid Bergman and acclaimed neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini, she spent a lot of her childhood wandering around film sets. But an acting career almost didn’t happen. After college, she attended an academy “to study to be a costume designer,” she says, which fed her interest in fashion and led to a modeling career. It was only when she was around 30 that she asked, “Why don’t I give acting a try?”

We chatted with Rossellini—who will be in Dallas Friday, Nov. 20, to receive the Art of Film Award from the Dallas Film Society, lead a master class in acting at Southern Methodist University (SMU), and introduce a 29th anniversary screening of “Blue Velvet,” for which she won an Independent Spirit Award—about her evolving career, how hard it is to keep an agent, and her upcoming role in David O. Russell’s “Joy.”

You are the child of two important film legends, and have been romantically linked with two acclaimed American film directors (Martin Scorsese and David Lynch). Did those relationships inform your film work, either as an actor or filmmaker? I always liked films and filmmaking. I paid attention. I went to my father’s sets and occasionally my mother’s, but actors are often not allowed visitors as directors are! I always liked it and knew early on that, somehow or another, I was going to be involved [in film].

You dove in feet-first; after your debut American film, “White Nights” (1985), you made “Blue Velvet.” I shot “Blue Velvet” right after “White Nights,” which wasn’t even out yet. I didn’t know it was going to be so popular of course; you never know when success strikes. But I really liked the work that David Lynch did—very experimental and unusual. Now [it is considered] one of the classic art films, and cult movies, in America.

It certainly divided people. It was very controversial. I remember not reading the reviews at the time, but being told by several people that Roger Ebert felt very protective of me and felt I had been “used” [by Lynch]. It was a surprise! I am an adult—no one uses me. Rex Reed said my mom [Ingrid] would have walked out of her tomb and [made] a citizen’s arrest if she saw it! But a lot of people defended the film very strongly, including Pauline Kael, a very influential critic.

Was there any concrete backlash you experienced from the film? I was fired by my agent at the time. I never was very lucky with agents. They read it as a scandalous film, and they didn’t want to be associated with that. That was damaging [to my career]. It took me months to get another agent… then years later they fired me!

Your career path has evolved in recent years. How did that happen? As you get older, you’re not [as in-demand as an actor]. So I went back to university [and studied animal behavior]. That led to my monologues [and short film], called “Green Porno.” But on Christmas Day, I have a film coming out: “Joy” with Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro. It was my first film in America after not working there for seven years.

Do you prefer film or stage work? I like film work more than stage, but I enjoy pretty much my monologues. The thing about being onstage is, the first two minutes you think, “I’m going to have a heart attack!” And sometimes the traveling is hard, so I don’t know if I can continue to do it. I get homesick. When I do popular things, I am delighted. I like doing my own things, but “Joy” will have more exposure more than my little monologue!

Rossellini will lead her master class on Friday, Nov. 20, at 10:15 a.m. on the SMU campus; open to all arts school students. She will receive the Art of Film Award at 7 p.m. at The Space at 171 Oak Lawn Ave., and introduce a screening of “Blue Velvet” at 10:30 p.m.

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