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Isabella Rossellini: 'Nature teaches us a lot about us'

October 16, 2020

DW's David Levitz spoke to actress and model Isabella Rossellini about her new passion in life: explaining how animals court, mate, reproduce — and love. Her virtual show is highly educational and even more entertaining.

A scene from "Sex & Consequences"
Image: Jody Shapiro

Italian lessons in becoming one with nature: Isabella Rossellini's 'Sex and Consequences'

David Levitz: Miss Rossellini, your show is called "Sex and Consequences." The sex part is pretty clear. What are the consequences?

Isabella Rossellini: Well, I bet the sex part is not very clear for you either, because I’m talking also about animals that mate that are hermaphrodites, animals that have asexual reproduction. 

I’m going to give you a surprise answer about the consequences of sex: if you mate — generation after generation — a species that is a kind (gentle) species will come out with patches. Think of dogs, their ancestor is the wolf. But once the wolf was domesticated, the dogs had patches. So have cows. So have goats. So have cats. 

There are consequences that are unexpected if kind, more cooperative individuals mate. I bet you didn’t know that. You just thought — the consequences are pregnant or not pregnant. We'll talk about that, too.

The start of "Sex & Consequences" dressed as a bug
Isabella Rossellini took her show into the digital realm when stages across the US closed due the COVID-19 pandemicImage: Jody Shapiro

Let’s talk a little about animals. You’ve been in rehearsals for a while now with your dogs, your chickens, your sheep. Which of your animals is the most talented?

I have a little circus dog that I toured with in a show called "Link Link Circus," because all my shows are about animals. I have a master’s degree in Animal Behavior and Conservation, so I do comical shows around animals, whether it is their reproduction or cognition, which means intelligence, courtship, motherhood — different subjects about animals. 

The dog, of course, is trained for the circus. She is the most obedient. The hardest ones are the sheep. Because they are big animals, and the other day they just broke into my house. I went outside, I had them with me on my porch, and somehow the door was ajar and they just charged into the house.

So talent is one thing, obedience is another. You said you have a master’s degree in Animal Behavior. Have animals taught you anything about humans?

I think biology and nature teaches us about us. Anything is humbling because we’re part of nature. Some how we perceive ourselves as us versus nature, but, of course, we are part of nature. We evolved from a common ancestor we had with apes. So, when I study science I always remind myself of this, and it makes me feel more connected to nature.

Two people dressed as snails
There's nothing sluggish at all about Rossellini's open approach to animal sexImage: Jody Shapiro

In all of your work about sexuality in the animal world, do you think that there is anything that animals get right when it comes to sex that humans don’t?

I was talking about that to another professor, Diana Reiss, who studied dolphins. And dolphins are very amorous; they swim together, they stroke each other, there is same-sex sex.

And dolphins are very intelligent — they have a brain that’s bigger than ours and they are considered among the most cognitive animals. So they also have a sexuality that is not just used for reproduction, as it has been the case with us. It is also used for bonding, for understanding each other, to create alliances.

So we wondered if in our culture, we imposed only the goal of reproduction on sex. Sometimes (it seems) our culture has skewed our perception of sex.

You spend a lot of time studying animal behavior. What are your thoughts about human behavior in the year 2020?

We’re still evolving. I don’t know where we’re going but we’re destined (to get) there. You see, we know very little about animals. A lot of people even still think that animals are incapable of thinking or that they don’t have emotions and thoughts. And thoughts are so private that it’s really hard for the scientific investigation to really make sure what the animals are thinking.

Isabella Rossellini with her arms raised
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Isabella Rossellini was touring the globe with various shows centered on themes related to the animal kingdomImage: Mario del Curto

Nowadays, we have instruments like MRIs and all that, which can show certain activity of the brain. So we know that the animal might dream, and if it dreams therefore it has an ability to imagine. We know that mice laugh. We know that chimpanzees laugh — there I’m not surprised. But smiling and laughing are two different things. So now we have the instruments for (animal) behavior to be calculated more accurately.

I don’t know if it teaches anything but that we are connected. That we’re all a continuum, and I think that was Darwin’s great revolution, because (before) we always imagined that we humans were different than animals; we were made in the image of God, and then God created all the animals for us to steward or to eat or to do whatever. But that isn’t true.

I’m going to do an exhibit at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, where I’m going to do two lectures. And the museum is going to do an exhibit on how art changed since Darwin understood that there was this continuum; that it isn’t us against nature but that all of us are together. And that is a thought that makes us very nervous sometimes — because if we are animals, what does that mean? What about morality? But according to Darwin, animals have morality. Especially animals that live together share a code and use rituals to get along.

And conservation is very much linked up to all this: you create a national park, but you also have to understand the animals’ behavior to get the borders of the national park right for the behavior of the animals. Because you might cut out a watering hole or a passage of a certain animal that goes there to avoid a certain predator.

So you need to understand animal behavior to become a better conservationist. 

A scene from "Blue Velvet"
Rossellini's career as a model and actress skyrocketed in the late 1980s, with her featuring prominently in David Lynch films like "Blue Velvet" (pictured above) and "Wild at Heart"Image: picture-alliance

Speaking about evolution, in what ways have you evolved the most through your time at home during lockdown while doing this online show with your animals?

I think we are very resilient. I think we are seeing the evolution of technology in front of our eyes, like you and I even doing this interview. I think the problems that COVID-19 have created have sped up the process of finding different ways of being together and communicating. And this has been a problem that I’ve had to deal with as well.

I mean all the theaters are closed in America, and I think they’re going to stay closed for another year, if not longer. Then how do you reconnect with your audience? How do you keep narrating stories? 

 I saw that a lot of businessmen were using Zoom. So I decided to do a live show on Zoom. And it might not be technologically perfect, but if you think about the origins of cinema, it was all silent movies with big audiences. It was all in black and white, and there still was an audience. It isn’t the technology that is the essence. Yes, of course, we want stylish, beautiful things, but that isn’t the essence. The essence is what you have got to say.

Isabella Rossellini with chickens
Far from considering retirement, the 68-year-old actress continues to combine her passions of animal welfare and stage performance -— even during a global pandemicImage: Patrice Casanova

That is an optimistic outlook. And I’ve got one last question for you that’s about optimism: You’ve made your home in the United States. Are you optimistic about life in the US after this election?

It is hard. We’ve never seen an experience of such social tension and turmoil before. I think we are all feeling very nostalgic about civility and civil discourse and unity. Because this country is a great country. 

In the last few years, there’s been an incredible division among people, and the discourse has become quite violent. You know, as a mother and grandmother, I always tell my children and grandson not to be a bully, to be polite, to have different opinions but to respect other opinions. I tell (them) that if you listen to others carefully, you might actually learn something. 

So I would just like to go back to that kind of civil discourse. I think that’s the base of democracy.

So to sum it up: I’m not going to vote for Trump.

Isabella Rossellini unplugged # 18.02.2011 # Arts.21