Isabella Rossellini: A great actress enters the animal kingdom as a bee and a hamster

In her new film, the actress dresses up as a rodent – it's all part of her interest in maternity, she tells Geoffrey Macnab

A snowy morning in Berlin and Isabella Rossellini is sitting on the top floor of a high-rise apartment, discussing the domestic arrangements of hamsters, wasps and cuckoos. Dressed in black, Rossellini, now 60, still cuts a glamorous figure. She looks remarkably like her mother Ingrid Bergman, star of Casablanca. She has the same big eyes, high cheek bones and melancholy demeanour. It's easy to make the comparison because there is a big pile of booklets promoting a new photo book about her mum on the table in front of her: Ingrid Bergman: A Life In Pictures (which will be published later in the year.)

The reason Rossellini is discussing hamsters is that she has just made Mamas, a series of short films exploring the maternal instincts of animals. This is a follow up to her earlier Green Porno (in which the subject was mating.) The point about hamsters is that they sometimes eat their babies – although they are very good mothers otherwise. "I take classes at the university about animal behaviour and biology. I came across a book by a woman biologist called Marlene Zuk," says Rossellini, explaining her inspiration for the project.

We all assume we know what maternal instinct is. Rossellini makes the point that there is "much diversity and variety" in maternal behaviour in nature as there is in courtship strategy and lovemaking. "It's comical. I find animal behaviour to be humorous."

Mamas is indeed a funny and eccentric endeavour. To illustrate her points, Rossellini dresses up as the animals she is describing. We therefore get to see her in her hamster outfit, munching on her little ones.

"Before Darwin, our world was very religious. People saw altruism as something given by God for us to be good so that we could go to Paradise. Darwin was looking at the biological origins of altruism, which would contradict (the idea of) natural selection," Rossellini ruminates, beginning to sound more like a university lecturer than a model and actress.

Her film picks up on research from women biologists such as Zuk into self-sacrifice in the animal world. This research underlines the part that "incredible managerial skills" play in being a mother in nature. It's not all about altruism: "The example I always give is a hamster. If a hamster has too many babies she knows she cannot carry, she not only abandons them but she eats them. That means she doesn't have to go out and hunt for food for herself."

When I ask about her own mother, Rossellini seems a little startled. "Well, you know, it's hard to jump from a hamster to Ingrid Bergman." The leap from the maternal behaviour of rodents to that of one of the most glamorous stars in Hollywood history doesn't impress her. Nonetheless, she answers.

"She (Bergman) was rather an exception because she had a huge career in the Forties and Fifties when, of course, there were other actresses but it wasn't common for women to work," Rossellini reflects. "My mother acted because she wanted to act. She never saw that as a job. She always said, 'I am surprised that people wanted to pay me. I would pay them!'"

When Bergman appeared in Casablanca, she wasn't on close terms with her co-stars. "She had that funny line," her daughter recalls. "She said Humphrey Bogart didn't socialise much. He would retire to his trailer. 'I kissed him but I don't know him very well,'" Rossellini recalls Bergman saying.

Nor did her mother know how Casablanca would end. She used to pester the director Michael Curtiz, asking which man she was supposed to be in love with: "Humphrey Bogart or my husband?" Curtiz would reply unhelpfully, "We don't know yet." The script was still being revised even after filming had begun.

"It is actually the in-between that makes the film so great," Rossellini says of the uncertainty on set during the making of her mother's most famous movie. And, no, she doesn't mind too much being asked about it. "In a way, it's wonderful that there is a film that has become a bit like Beethoven's Ninth that everybody has seen. When I speak to very young people, they know my mother from Casablanca."

I ask how she reacted when she saw her mother's other films like Stromboli and Voyage To Italy, directed by her father Roberto Rossellini. Very raw, intense and disturbing dramas about troubled relationships, these were far removed from the escapism of Hollywood. When Ingrid Bergman left Hollywood to work with (and eventually marry) Rossellini, it caused a huge scandal and derailed her career. "It's as if a big actress nowadays, like Anne Hathaway, would go and make a film in Afghanistan," Bergman's daughter says.

Bergman wasn't allowed back to Hollywood for many years and became a persona non grata at the studios that once fawned over her. "It was tough. She couldn't see her first daughter from her first marriage for eight years because she wasn't allowed back to the States and the father didn't allow the daughter to travel to Europe. That was very painful. Of course, she loved making films and she had many friends – Hitchcock, Cary Grant etc. They came to Europe to visit her but it wasn't the same as continuing to work with her, which she would have liked."

In spite of Bergman's eventual "forgiveness" by Hollywood, the Oscar she won for Anastasia and the later films such as Indiscreet, Bergman never wanted to return to the US. "She got frightened of how America can turn and persecute you, so she remained in Europe where she felt, at that point, safer."

Rossellini's own childhood was more Stromboli than Warner Bros. "The first time I went to Hollywood, I was 25 years old. My background was mostly Italian." Her career is as varied as her background. She appears in independent movies. She is an author and model. She is active in wildlife conservation and is a champion of silent cinema – she is very involved in film preservation. Having just finished Mamas, she is now working on Bestiaire D'Amour, a dramatic monologue with she is co-writing with Luis Bunuel's old screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. This is about "love among animals" and will be told in the same comical way as Green Porno and Mamas.

She had a second new film in Berlin this week, The Zig Zag Kid, an adaptation of Israeli novelist David Grossman's picaresque coming-of-age story. True to her usual screen image, Rossellini plays a femme fatale. The film is directed by young Belgian Vincent Bal.

Like her mother, Rossellini has always stayed in touch with her European roots. When Bal invited her to appear in The Zig Zag Kid, a modestly budgeted Dutch movie, she was happy to accept.

"I live in New York but I am always delighted to come to Europe because I am European and grew up here until I was 20. I am not only Italian, I am partly Swedish. When my parents divorced, I was three years old and went to live in Paris… when I am offered a film in Europe, I come with great enthusiasm!"

This article appears in tomorrow's Radar magazine


Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine