Isabella Rossellini talks Joy, drag and discovering Death Becomes Her is a ‘gay film’
By Chris Azzopardi | Photos by Denis Makarenko & Twentieth Century Fox
Isabella Rossellini is leading me into the light. There, in front of an almost full-wall window in a hotel suite at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York City, we stand, beaming, as her assistant snaps a pic. Good lighting is everything, as Rossellini notes in her thick Swedish-Italian accent – otherwise, “it’ll get all black.”
She should know. Rossellini embarked on a career in front of the camera when, at the age of 28, the classic Rome-born beauty fell into modeling, hawking Lancôme as the company’s spokeswoman for 14 years and posing for an array of eminent celeb photographers, including Annie Leibovitz and Robert Mapplethorpe.
“When I worked with him, he was quite sick with AIDS,” Rossellini recalls. “I remember how sad I felt, because he was very handsome and he celebrated in his photos the male body, the human body, and to see him paying such a toll, not even just physically. But he seemed to be in good spirits. I wondered… of course he knew he was dying. It was a very difficult time, the ’80s. And it was the last book that he made. They wanted him to photograph women and he did beautiful portraits of several women.” (Also featuring Yoko Ono and Susan Sarandon, Some Women was published in 1989, the same year Mapplethorpe succumbed to AIDS-related illness.)
Rossellini’s striking appeal wasn’t only dark room-worthy, however.
While modeling, Rossellini also began mirroring the career of her iconic mother, Ingrid Bergman (Rossellini’s father is Italian director Roberto Rossellini), reaching beyond the glossy pages of Vogue to become a film star. As abused nightclub vocalist Dorothy Vallens in David Lynch’s 1986 trippy thriller Blue Velvet, a role that required Rossellini to sing, Mapplethorpe’s muse demonstrated more than a pretty face – she could really act.
Rossellini also happens to know a lot about animal sex. In 2008, she directed, produced, wrote and starred in a series of short films for Sundance titled Green Porno, illustrating the various mating acts of insects and other non-humans with, of course, cardboard and foam rubber. And if you ever wondered how dolphins do it (who hasn’t?), the actress also created the 2014 web series Seduce Me, wherein she discusses “blowhole sex” as she pseudo swims in a diorama-inspired scene among some very frisky Flippers.
Rossellini’s latest is certainly less niche. In director David O. Russell’s Joy, the veteran actress is back on the big screen as Jennifer Lawrence’s affluent, finger-wagging stepmom, Trudy, a tough-love foil to the based-on-real-life titular character.
“It’s empowering to women,” Rossellini says, nuzzled into the corner of a sofa, “and it’s also about the struggle of success. Generally, when a person is successful people imagine, ‘Oh, overnight success, luck,’ instead of how arduous it is. The film portrays it very well. Family encourages you and discourages you because they are protective.”
Though Rossellini recognizes Joy’s unwavering ambition to seize businesswoman status – a path she blazes after inventing a fancy mop – her own life, she says, has been “completely different,” a truth she attributes to her European background as well as her famous film-industry family.
“You know, I was more successful than I thought I’d be,” she reveals. “I’m old enough to have belonged to a group of women who thought, ‘I’m gonna get married and be a housewife.’ Instead, a career came, and it was really modeling – modeling is almost like winning the lottery.”
Rossellini’s modeling career continued to blossom in the ’80s, when she graced the covers of countless women fashion mags: Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair and Elle. She could’ve been a stay-at-home mom. She could’ve cleaned and cooked and called it a day. And she thought, for many years, she would. But in her 30s, she changed her mind.
Rossellini says, “I understood that being financially independent meant also to be independent.”
“You don’t really do anything to become a good model,” she adds. “You’re either chosen or not chosen, liked or not liked. If you are a bitch, they’re not gonna hire you anymore. And modeling really teaches you the discipline of work. So modeling for me was a wonderful revelation. Though my mother worked – my mother was Ingrid Bergman, had a big career – it was seen as she had a gift, she had a talent, that it was extraordinary. It was a kind of a call for her, but it wasn’t percolating down to the family that all the women should have a career, no.”
In 1976, Rossellini shot her movie debut, playing a minor role in her mother’s film A Matter of Time. Ten years later, Rossellini became an icon in her right, achieving cult status after starring in Blue Velvet.
It was Death Becomes Her in 1992, though, that secured the actresses’ queer cred. And god bless that film – it featured a dream trifecta: Rossellini, Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, an ensemble cast who punched up the film’s camp commentary on pre-Botox-fad superficiality. “Now, a warning,” her potion-touting character, Lisle Von Rhuman, cautioned Meryl’s Madeline Ashton to the delight of supremely geeked gays everywhere.
Rossellini reveals that Death Becomes Her was always meant to be one of the gayest films about beauty you’ve ever seen – even if she, and director Robert Zemeckis, didn’t know it at first.
“Robert Zemeckis told me,” Rossellini says about discovering that she was, in fact, starring in a “gay film.” “When the film came out, Robert Zemeckis was so successful after Roger Rabbit and the films that he did at the time were big, big, big. Also, they were family films, so when he did Death Becomes Her he also thought it was going to be a family film, but then they did all this marketing research and said” – Rossellini unleashes a whooping laugh – “‘Oh, it’s a gay film!’”
It took almost no time for Zemeckis and the cast to realize they weren’t making the next Roger Rabbit. (Sorry, kids.) “Within three, four months he said, ‘You know, our audience is a gay audience,’” Rossellini recalls.
Rossellini has become accustomed to swooning gay adoration. She’s inspired drag queens, and not just with that vampy nip-hiding-necklace coverup she wore in Death Becomes Her.
“They do me in drag in Blue Velvet,” she admits, heartedly amused. “I had a friend who was gay who died, unfortunately, and he would go out on Halloween and dress up like me. I had a Blue Velvet robe, and I had my wig for a while, and he would borrow it every year.”
Rossellini is smitten with the idea of men resurrecting her most iconic screen characters in drag. She calls it a “compliment.”
“Oh, it’s fun,” she adds. “I know there are certain women like Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand who are particularly liked by the gay culture. I know that strong women are liked, and I wonder why strong women and not weak women.” She pops a laugh. “I don’t know what it is in the gay culture! What is it that makes the gay culture to be so supportive of Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, images of these iconic women? Why did you like so much stronger women instead of, like, a housewife?”
I explain that, when it comes to empowered female icons, young gay men like myself aspire to their strength and power. Naturally, Madonna is mentioned. Rossellini famously appeared in the Material Girl’s “Erotica” video, and also photographed for her controversial Sex book, both out in 1992. The latter, she says, was not what she had hoped.
“I didn’t like it totally,” Rossellini says of Sex.
“In a way, I found it a bit moralistic in the sense that Madonna is playing the sadomasochistic, Madonna playing the gay. It was teaching us to be open-minded, and she didn’t really reveal anything about herself. It wasn’t vulnerable. Vulnerability is not what she exudes, and what she did was powerful and unique. There was something about the book that was not erotic, and not moving either. It was aesthetic. It was guarded. It wasn’t empowering.”
She goes on: “But she is an incredible lady. I’m looking at her, because she’s now in her 50s and I’m 63, and I would like to have a role model of a woman who is older. I want to see these powerful women. How do they fight ageism? What do they propose to fight ageism?”
Regarding Hollywood ageism, not much has changed, she admits. “I see that, at 40 now, you’re still considered beautiful, but I don’t see it defeated. They stretch the younger age longer, but I haven’t seen acceptance.”
Rossellini celebrates Streep and Helen Mirren, actresses who have “given old age an energy that is beyond that” without sucking down an age-defying potion. At the same time, she notes, “there are fewer roles (for older women), and they go to them.”
It’s a reality she’s come to terms with, and instead of sulking over Streep and Mirren’s lock on roles for women over 60, she’s blazed her own quirky path. The titles alone are telling (and this is not counting her horny dolphin doc): The Saddest Music in the World, My Dog Tulip and 2011’s Chicken with Plums.
It’s no surprise, then, that she’s also voiced a hamster. In the gay-themed coming-of-age drama Closet Monster – from out producer Niv Fichman and first-time director Stephen Dunn, who’s also gay – Rossellini takes on a rodent. Her involvement, she says, is partly due to the fact that she’s friends with Fichman, and also, she says, “maybe because I study animals, or maybe just because I have a foreign voice.”
For the film’s protagonist, a sexually confused boy named Oscar, the hamster is an illusion, his muse for comprehending life tropes like “mortality, lying… that life is tough,” Rossellini says, laughing.
Though it won Best Canadian Feature Film at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, the indie isn’t meant for mainstream consumption, like Joy, and that’s just fine by Rossellini.
“Since I was always interested in animals, I went back to university to study animals and then I made my own film and I do monologues,” she says, regarding her peculiar one-offs. “The work that I have done doesn’t have the exposure of Joy. I am still working and doing a lot of work but more in an artisanal way.”
After all, someone has to enlighten the world on the sexual habits of sea animals.
Q&A: Orange Star Dascha Polanco
Actress on being a Hollywood minority, breaking the ‘stigma’ and why Joy will resonate with the LGBT community
By Chris Azzopardi | Photos courtesy Netflix and KathClick
“I want you to smell me.”
It’s not your typical conversation starter, sure, but Orange Is the New Black star Dascha Polanco does smell nice, like fresh flowers. Seated in a New York City hotel suite to talk about her new film, Joy, the 32-year-old actress invites me to cozy up next to her, because then, she jokes, I can experience the fact that “not only is she beautiful but she also smells delicious.”
It’s weird seeing you out of an orange jumpsuit.
Is it?! I love the fact that I got to play with decades: the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. But it’s two totally different worlds, TV and film.
What’s that transition been like for you?
Professionally, it’s always welcome (laughs). It’s a new challenge. It’s a new area of acting and being able to be play with characters and stories more creatively. I think with (director) David O. Russell and this project, it was intimidating.
Because it’s David O. Russell?
David O. Russell. Jennifer Lawrence. Bradley Cooper. Robert De Niro. Diane Ladd. Virginia Madsen. Isabella Rossellini. You just want to make sure you have your A-game on, and for a Latina being in this industry for the last three years, it takes you by surprise.
How does being Latina change things?
Well, there are not many Latin actors in Hollywood. There’s still a lower percentage of them breaking into Hollywood, but we’re seeing more diversity, especially with David O. Russell’s film. You’re seeing diversity there, to that caliber, and for me, that’s a big responsibility.
There’s been a lot of talk about diversity in Hollywood lately, and not just when it comes to race, but when it comes to women. And this movie is very –
It is. It’s all about female empowerment. It has a feminist message. How does that personally strike a chord with you?
I can relate so much to the story and to the elements of the movie: having obstacles in your life, being a woman and having to be a parent, having to be a daughter, taking care of not only your personal self but also your family. It shows how much women throughout the years have been the backbone and have, at times, struggled to even take a risk or try to live their dream or move forward because of other commitments or because of the stigma that we are supposed to be at home.
From the perspective of someone who is Latina in Hollywood: What is the current state of finding roles in Hollywood for a minority?
I thought to myself for the last two years: I’ve gone on auditions – so many auditions – in comparison to when I first started. Maybe it’s because of _Orange_, maybe it’s because of my representation, but there’s a need, a desire now. You see more offers; you see more shows that want to include diversity because of the success of shows like Orange Is the New Black. Anybody could’ve been cast as Jackie in Joy, and that’s the beauty of it. The role that I play, anyone could have, but he didn’t make it exclusive (and say), “I’m gonna make Jackie a white actress.” No. She’s ambiguous. She can be black. She can be Spanish. The fact that this is a Golden Globe-nominated movie – ah, it takes me by surprise that I’m part of this project, not because I don’t have the potential, not because I don’t believe in myself – but because of what, historically, I’ve seen growing up. And now that I’m part of it, there’s hope and there’s an opportunity that was rendered that I’m not taking for granted.
You credit Orange Is the New Black for diversifying TV. What does it mean to you to be a part of that movement?
We have to look at a movie like Joy for a minute, and I’m going to talk about how it includes LGBT. It’s funny: I’m very supportive of the LGBT because I have family, I have friends, and they’re a big part of my life – and even so, I respect a human regardless of what their sexual orientation is, or who they feel they are. It has nothing to do with LGBT, or that I have a friend who is. It’s human to accept another human. Not everybody thinks that way. But you see a character like Joy who’s trying to just be… She’s trying to belong, she’s trying to accomplish her dreams; she can be a mother, she can be a wife or a divorcee and not have the backlash, because there’s so much backlash in the movie. There are so many obstacles. “You’re a woman and you can’t do that.” And I’m pretty sure the LGBT community can relate to that. So whether she was a lesbian or not, it has nothing to do with that – it’s about her feeling like she’s part of something and building her empire.
Because anybody can see themselves in Joy.
When it comes to Orange Is the New Black, how do you feel about being a part of a show that embraces inclusivity?
I’m proud! So proud. It’s done a lot for the gay community around the world. It shows how much the industry might be oblivious to what’s needed, but the fans and the viewership have just been so boisterous and open to all these different sexual orientations – to transgender. There’s so much more acceptance, and that’s the beauty of it. We, (show creator) Jenji (Kohan), the actors, the story – we took all we had and the essence and being underdogs and being self-made and coming from nowhere and that passion and brought a project that everyone can relate to. That’s what’s succeeding now – when you have a project that everybody can relate to. We have Joy now. Anybody can watch the movie and I guarantee they’ll walk out of the theater and want to take over the world.