Isabella Rossellini Talks Ageism, Reinvention and Her New One-Woman Show

isabella rossellini

Credit: Jody Shapiro

The actor and model discusses the twists and turns in her career and her new show Sex & Consequences

Isabella Rossellini is a master of the pivot. When at 42, her contract modeling for the cosmetic company Lancôme was canceled and her acting opportunities began to dwindle (which she blames on ageism), she went back to school to earn her master’s degree in animal behavior and conservation. 

“I was only 46, I felt full of energy and my life has come to an end,” Rossellini told KCM. “For a while I didn’t know how to go on. And then I just followed my curiosity.”

She began creating short films for the Sundance Channel and opened an organic farm on Long Island. She also eventually returned to Lancôme under new management, led by a woman who understood that it’s not youth women yearn for, but rather glamour and sophistication, Rossellini said.

So when the pandemic closed theaters, Rossellini didn’t flinch. She created a one-woman show she could perform on her farm — using her chickens and dogs as costars — that streams live online. Rossellini said she’s enjoyed the chance to experiment and the thrill of working in a new medium, a trait she says she inherited from her father, the Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. 

KCM spoke to Rossellini about her show, Sex & Consequences, which streams Friday, ageism in the industry and making the leap from actor to filmmaker.

KCM: You’ve had a prolific acting and modeling career. What was it like for you to transition to filmmaking?

Isabella Rossellini: I had worked a lot as a model and actress, and as I got older there was less work available to me. So I went back to university to study what I had always been interested in, which was animal behavior and conservation. And then maybe because I’m an entertainer at heart, I started making short films that the Sundance channel commissioned. They were put on YouTube and became very successful. It was really at the beginning of this new world of streaming entertainment.

I like to experiment, kind of like my father. He was a film director who experimented a lot in the neorealistic style. I think I have it a little in me to try new things. I find it exciting, problem solving. Really what I want is to narrate and share stories, no matter what medium it’s in.

You touched on this, but what are your thoughts on ageism in the industry, and how has it affected your own career?

I represented the cosmetic line Lancôme for 16 years and when I turned 42, although we were really having a lot of success, they decided to discontinue my contract. When I asked them why, they said the advertisement is about the dream and women dream to be young, so we cannot use a model at 40 because they don’t represent that dream. 

And I always had a doubt that that wasn’t really the women’s dream, but I didn’t have the marketing research or capacity to make that claim. Then years later, they called me. I was 63 when they hired me back. I remember when the CEO called me, I said, it’s 20 years later, I haven’t gotten any younger. You left me at 42, has the woman’s dream changed?

She was the first female CEO of a big cosmetic company, and she said that like me, she felt that the woman’s dream was not to be young, but to be glamorous, to be elegant, to be sophisticated. She was a young girl when Lancôme didn’t renew my contract, and she felt very offended by that. And she wanted to retell the story. 

I think attitudes around ageism are changing, but I also think that executives are becoming women so they can have a discourse that is more inclusive. If you have a man who is an executive, they’d feature a woman using makeup only as an instrument of seduction. But of course it’s something that’s also playful and pleasant, and that’s an aspect only another woman can understand. 

Due to ageism, I also found myself in my 40s not working for Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar or everybody else. Acting continued but my roles became more and more secondary roles. My children were also growing up, they were going to university and leaving home. So I was a little lost for maybe a year. I was only 46, I felt full of energy and my life has come to an end. 

For a while I didn’t know how to go on. And then I just followed my curiosity. 

Can you tell me a little about how Sex & Consequences came to be, and what the piece is about?

It came about because of the fact that theaters have been closed and my partners felt that we wanted to still perform. So we thought, let’s use Zoom and do a live performance. 

Sex & Consequences, of course the title is very provocative, but we’re talking about evolution. We’re also talking about animals. It’s comical but also it’s scientifically based.

Credit: Brigitte Lacombe

Livestream theater is a new medium for you. What was making this piece like, and do you think you’ll do more of it in the future?

Yes, I think we will because my feeling is that the theaters are not going to open at full capacity very soon. So I’m experimenting like everybody and wondering if the theater can become like sports, where some people go to the stadium but a lot of people watch it from home and you have two different kinds of ticket prices. So we, as a theater community, are trying to see what works.

The Zoom live model being used by musicians who were giving concerts in their own homes and explaining their process seemed to be successful. So the idea was to repeat that experience. My show is 45 minutes long and it is from my home, about 60 miles from New York City on an organic farm, and all my animals are part of it.

So what are you working on now?

I’m in an HBO series about Julia Child. We’re going to start shooting in April or May in Boston. I play Julia Child’s French friend, the one who really taught her how to cook. And then I still have my Lancôme contract, which has been renewed. I’m very excited about that. 

I’m also preparing two, what I call, theatrical lectures. They are lectures in the sense that I am onstage alone at a podium, but they’re also very funny and I’ll be in costumes. I’m preparing them for the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which commissioned me to do two pieces on Darwin. One is called Darwin’s Smile and the other is called Darwin’s Headache

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Written and reported by Rachel Uda.