Global Nature: Back to Her First Love

Isabella Rossellini’s Fascination With Animals Finds a Place to Grow

By Richard Firstman

When Isabella Rossellini was a girl growing up in Italy in the mid-1960s, her father bought her a copy of King Solomon’s Ring, a famous book about animal behavior by Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian zoologist who later won a Nobel Prize and may have been the world’s first animal whisperer.

Isabella Rossellini, with the elephants, in Africa

Isabella Rossellini, with the elephants, in Africa

Rossellini had always been enraptured by animals, and half a century later she becomes animated at the memory of devouring Lorenz’s book about the intricate social interactions of creatures great and small, airborne and aquatic. “I was only 12 or 13,” says the 62-year-old actress, “but he wrote it so it was comprehensible, and I loved it. It was like — how do you say it in English — a lamp bulb went on. ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I have always been fascinated with animals because they are so mysterious. They are also comical. There’s something about them that always made me smile. But when I went to college there really weren’t classes in animal behavior because it was a new science.”

There weren’t classes of any kind before long. Rossellini came to New York at 19 to attend tiny Finch College, a women’s college on the Upper East Side that had started as a finishing school in 1900 and was to close for lack of students in 1975. She worked as a translator while in school and as a reporter for Italy’s public television station. And then Rossellini, whose parents were Ingrid Bergman and the director Roberto Rossellini, left school to join the family business. “I started to work, which is what actors do,” she says. “It’s really a job for young people.”

Over the next few decades, there were movies (most memorably her turn as a torch singer in the art-house classic “Blue Velvet”), modeling (14 years as the Lancôme “spokesmodel”) and marriage (the first, for three years, to Martin Scorsese). But she eventually found her way back to her childhood fascination with animals — and back to school to study them. About six years ago, nearly four decades after she dropped out of college, Rossellini finished her undergraduate degree, in art and environmental studies, at New York University. And now she’s a CUNY grad student—enrolled in Hunter College’s master’s program in animal behavior and conservation.

Rossellini at BAM in “Green Porn,” a one-woman show on mating rituals in nature

Rossellini at BAM in “Green Porn,” a one-woman show on mating rituals in nature

It was a confluence of art and science in her career that put her back in a classroom. In 2008, urged on by Robert Redford, Rossellini wrote, directed and starred in a series of video shorts for the website of the Sundance Channel: “Green Porno,” in which one of her generation’s most glamorous cover girls portrayed creatures from barnacles to bedbugs explaining the peculiar and sometimes downright bizarre ways in which they have, or approximate, sex. (“Bedbugs have penises like knives …  Chase with me! Mate with me! Seduce me! Doesn’t need a vagina at all! Ha — he ejaculates in my wound. The sperm will travel on their own to my ovaries.”)

Naturally, “Green Porno” got some attention. Critics and viewers loved its cheeky inventiveness — “strangely hypnotic,” said the Daily Beast — and the series grew to 40 webisodes and won a couple of Webby awards. Rossellini brilliantly tapped her appreciation of the comical nature of nature, but just as important to her was the Web show’s biological accuracy — every detail researched and verified with a scientific consultant.

“Green Porno” morphed into a book and then a stage performance — a one-woman-many-animal show that Rossellini spent last winter touring from the Brooklyn Academy of Music to concert halls in Europe and Australia. Researching the series and then developing the other projects reignited her interest in animals as an intellectual pursuit.

“After I finished my degree at NYU, I was looking for where to study animal behavior, but I could only find schools in Minnesota and Florida,” says Rossellini, who lives in Bellport, Long Island. And then a bit of serendipity. In 2012, she had major back surgery and hired a nurse named Jemma Futterman to help her recuperate at home. “I was writing the stage performance then, and I was telling her what I would like to do. She was getting an advanced degree at Hunter, and she said, ‘I think I saw something like that at Hunter.’ Six months later, I had my first outing. I got a ticket to hear a lecture at Hunter by Temple Grandin” — the prominent animal behaviorist and autism advocate — “and there was a table with brochures about the animal behavior master’s program. I couldn’t believe it.”

Not only was Hunter nearby, but the program was in its Psychology Department. “All the other programs are very scientific, so there is comparative genetics and I would have to do so much chemistry. It would be interesting, but I’m 62 and there’s not enough time. When I first started back at school at NYU, I arrived with great fantasy and humor. But taking exams and writing papers was very daunting. I didn’t understand why they wanted the papers to be so boring. The first paper I wrote, we were studying Darwin. He was so interesting; he would go to the zoo with fake snakes to see if they were recognized. And I wrote a paper that was a fantasy. The professor must have said, ‘This crazy lady, completely wacko.’ But he never laughed. I never had a C. All As and Bs. I still have that fear of exams. It’s incredible at my age I want to have at least a B, otherwise I get depressed.”

Rossellini decided to apply to the Hunter animal behavior master’s program for the Spring 2013 semester. “I needed Jemma to help me with the enrollment process. It’s not easy. Maybe for a young person it is.”  She laughs out loud at the memory of arriving for her first class not just as the only older student but looking like a parody of one. “I still couldn’t move that well so I asked the teacher, ‘I have to come with a nurse. Is that all right?’ So she came with me to my first lesson. But by the third lesson I came by myself. It was a course in animal welfare. Joseph Barber was the producer — the professor.”

Since then there have been courses in animal behavior in captivity and the wild, the biology of conservation and her favorite, Psychology 757 — Animal Thinking and Communication. It’s taught by Diana Reiss, a prominent behavioral psychologist who directs a research program involving dolphin cognition and communication at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

“She has done studies to see what kinds of human behaviors animals have, such as deception and humor and acquiring a sense of self,” Rossellini says. “Children recognize themselves in a mirror at a year and a half, and she applied that experiment to animals and found that bottlenose dolphins and Asian elephants can do that.”

Rossellini is working first toward the Hunter program’s master’s certificate, which requires most of the courses for a full degree but not a thesis. Then she  hopes to continue on to the master’s degree. “When you’re enrolled, there is a psychological commitment,” she says. “But there are always pressures — theater performances to do, going away, opportunities to work. Then you say, ‘Well, maybe I should do that and not go back to the studies.’ So much of this has happened in my life. I postpone something that is a passion to respond to something that is money or whatever. This love for animals is so skewed from my career.”

Maybe not so much, if her recent career is any indication. “I was so impressed by ‘Green Porno,’ ” says Reiss, who was a theater set designer before she became a scientist. “How she got the scientific information and the details and wove them into a beautiful tapestry that was inventive, dynamic, engaging — and accurate.”

Rossellini wanted to take Reiss’ course in animal thinking last spring, but she was out of the country touring in “Green Porno” so often that she decided to audit the course and take it for credit in the fall. Reiss has been Rossellini’s mentor in the master’s program, and the two have become friends outside the classroom. They gave a talk about performance and behavior earlier this year at the Rubin Museum of Art. And Rossellini has been working on adapting some of Reiss’ Psych 757 coursework into her next theater piece: how animals think and communicate when they’re not having sex.

“Isabella is remarkably perceptive,” says Reiss. “She’s one of my star students, all puns intended.”