How Isabella Rossellini Went From Model/Actress To Chicken Farmer/Animal Behaviorist

A publicity photo for Isabella Rosselini's Link Link Circus. (Photo by Jody Shapiro)

Isabella Rossellini has a new show at the Broad Stage this weekend. She also recently published a book about chicken farming. That one's not what you'd expect from Hollywood royalty, the daughter of Oscar-winning actress Ingrid Bergman.

Rossellini starred in movies like Blue Velvet and Big Night, served as the longtime face of luxury perfume and cosmetics house Lancôme, and was a muse to filmmakers David Lynch and Martin Scorsese.

But her interest in the animal kingdom has become as prominent a feature of her career in recent years as her longstanding work in film and fashion.

"Sometimes, people who might have just known me as a model imagine that I wear a lot of makeup and only talk about facials. They say, 'You are a farmer?! I didn't expect that,'" Rossellini said, strolling around the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco recently. "But I just do what is interesting to me. And there are many things that are interesting to me, from cosmetics to animals."

Animals have always been a fixture of Rossellini's life.

"We are a family of animal lovers," she said. "There was a photo of the family recently. We are five people. And we were photographed with our dogs, and there were six dogs. The dogs outnumbered us."

Beyond raising chickens on her Long Island farm and supporting wildlife-related causes, Rossellini is studying for a master's degree in animal behavior at Hunter College in New York. She's also created a series of short experimental films and live performances about the mating and parenting habits of animals including spiders, hamsters, and bees.

These projects grew out of her longstanding association with Sundance.

"They asked me, 'Would you like to make a series of two-minute films? If they are about the environment — because Robert Redford is such a great environmentalist — we will be more inclined to finance them,'" Rossellini recalled. "At first I said, 'I don't know what to do.' And then — boom! — I said, 'Oh! We could do the mating rituals of animals!' They ordered the series. And it was very successful. It really opened up a whole new career for me in my 60s."

A publicity photo for Isabella Rossellini's Link Link Circus. (Jody Shapiro)

Building on this work, her latest theatrical production, Link Link Circus, is about the links between members of the animal kingdom — including humans. It dives into animals' emotional intelligence.

"It is pretty clear that they are capable of thoughts and emotions," Rossellini said. "We have MRIs that can see the parts of the brain that light up."

But Rossellini concedes that human beings are cognitively superior to other creatures.

"Yes, of course, we recognize that we can do more than animals," she said. "We can design rockets and fly to the moon, we can cure diseases, learn languages, and write novels."

In Link Link Circus, Rossellini, dressed as a circus ringmaster, explores how scientists and philosophers through the ages have theorized about animal behavior. At one point, she quotes Charles Darwin on the subject. "The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind," the British naturalist famously wrote in his 1871 book, The Descent of Man.

From a publicity photo for Link Link Circus. (Brigitte Lacombe)

Far from being a scholarly lecture, Link Link Circus skews towards silly. Rossellini's dog, Pan (short for Peter Pan), plays a prominent role in the proceedings. The terrier dresses up as a variety of different creatures, including a dinosaur, a lion, a sheep, and — most adorably — a bumblebee, complete with antennae. The dog steals the show.

"Everyone wants to meet her at the end," Rossellini said of being upstaged by Pan. "They come with treats. No more flowers for me."

Link Link Circus plays Friday through Sunday, Jan. 25-27, at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Find out more here.

Thanks to Kelly Mendez and Bart Shepherd of the California Academy of Sciences for their assistance on this story.