Just when you thought you'd seen it all, Isabella Rossellini, one of the world's most beautiful women, turns up on the Sundance Channel swimming in a construction paper sea beside two male dolphin puppets engaging in blowhole sex. No, you didn't read that wrong, and no, this isn't some kind of sick joke. It's part of the new season of Green Porno: Seduce Me, Rossellini's brilliant short-film series (she serves as the star, director, and writer in collaboration with John Bohannon), which examines the unusual sex lives of animals like deer, spiders, sea horses, and the lowly earth worm. Recently, the stunning filmmaker stopped by the Out studio to chat about Seduce Me, her thoughts on sexuality as she's gotten older, and what she really thinks of Madonna's Sex book.
Out: I know you've always been a huge fan of animals, but why did you decide to do a series on their sex lives?
Isabella Rossellini: This came about specifically to make films for the Internet for SundanceChannel.com. We felt that on the Internet, very short films are what people like -- YouTube has created a little bit of this tradition -- so I was commissioned to make films that were two minutes long. I knew it was for the Internet and it would also be seen on small devices, so I needed colorful, very clear images. And that gave the art direction of paperwork -- very colorful, almost like cartoons. I've always loved animals and I was commissioned to do something environmental -- something about animal behavior. But I knew everyone was interested in sex, specifically about the behavior of sex -- how animals reproduce. And they reproduce in very scandalous ways, so that's even better.
Tell me how involved you are with the creation of each film.
The pieces come about with research about the animals, and also it's the varieties of things out there that are interesting. So whenever I'm commissioned to do five or 10 films at a time, I make sure that I represent an animal that has males and females, and then maybe one animal that might be a hermaphrodite -- an individual that has both sexes or an animal that changes sex in the middle of their life -- all these varieties, so that everything is represented. Then the specific selection really depends on how I figure out the costumes and the sets. I also work with two fantastic artists, Andy Byers and Rick Gilbert, who help me come up with all of this incredible paperwork, because all of our sets and costumes are made on paper. They are quite fantastic and glamorous.
I love your nonchalant, fun approach to sex, because America can be so dreadfully puritan about it.
[Laughs] I can't comment on sex in America because America is how many, 300 million? It's hard for me to generalize and say this is what's good for America. And it was not really meant to be anything other than entertaining and fun films. It may be for people to first laugh in one episode and then say, 'Oh, I didn't know that about a worm. I didn't know that about a spider.' There was no pretense to teach about sex. Just a good laugh.
It's also interesting from a queer perspective. So many of our enemies like to say, "Homosexuality is unnatural because it doesn't exist in nature."
It's very interesting to debate if gay is nurture or nature and that's the core of the debate. The scientific world is addressing this issue on animals right now. We all witness our dog doing something, and people say, 'What is that? Oh, it has nothing to do with sex. It's just a domineering behavior.' And now with penguins at the zoo where two males are raising babies or two females are raising babies, people are confused, saying, 'Why is this couple a same-sex couple?' They always say their behavior has been deformed by the zoo. But now there is a whole movement of scientists saying, 'Now wait a minute. Maybe it just exists. It's not something we did by keeping them in zoo or keeping them in houses. Maybe it's unnatural or distorting the animal's behavior. Maybe it is nature." The last episode I did for Seduce Me addressed this issue. Sundance Channel has a program called Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, so they specifically asked me, 'Is homosexuality specifically addressed in science?' And I took deer and dolphins as two examples of animals where there have been studies where this is clearly the case -- same-sex sex is explicit.
Throughout your life, you yourself have been sexualized as a model and an actress -- you've been called one of the world's greatest beauties. What are your thoughts on being objectified?
Women never really like it, you know. I was born one way, with a certain look that allowed me to be a model or even an actress and it was to all my advantage. It's incredible what a beautiful woman has in terms of power. [Female] models earn more than male models, which is an unusual situation because in most other situations the male earns more money. So I can't really complain. But on the other hand, we don't just want to be sexual objects, that's clear. But I think if I had to choose a period in history to be born in, I would choose this one. It has been the moment when women have been able to express themselves not only as sexual object -- that was a given from the beginning -- but also, look at me. I've been a model, I became an actress, I'm a writer, I'm making my film, I'm becoming a filmmaker. I don't know that this was allowed a few years ago, when I would have just stayed a beautiful woman. That was it and then they would say, 'She used to be beautiful. Life is tough.' Now, I can evolve. I think that's what this generation allows.
Speaking of evolution, as you've gotten older, how has your approach to sexuality changed? Do you look at it differently now than when you were in your 20s?
I look at it differently now because I was born in Italy, a Catholic country, where I grew up thinking you should be a virgin at marriage. And now if somebody says, 'I'm a virgin and I'm getting married,' I would be a little worried. Maybe she hasn't had enough experience, like, oh my God, how can she even say that word? How much you can change. I was born in a country where gays were looked as something that had to be re-educated. Maybe they weren't the most compassionate, they would look at it as a disease, and most radicals had to be thrown in jail. My cousin was gay and he was hiding it and not talking about it and by the time we were 40, I was going out with him and his gay friends. There was an enormous change in my generation. Finally, a feeling that my cousin -- he died, unfortunately -- that he was great and it was such a waste of time that he had suffered for so many years to keep this a secret. It's all for the better to be more open.
Lastly, I'd be a failure as a gay man if I didn't ask you about Madonna's Sex book. It's been almost 20 years since you were shot for it -- looking back, what do you think of the book now?
I was working a lot with the photographer Steven Meisel. I didn't know Madonna and Madonna had approached Steven to do a book about sex. And of course, sex is very interesting. Even me, when I'm making my own little films, I address how animals have sex. It's very interesting, sex. And Steven was tempted -- instead of doing a book about all his photos he did for Vogue and all the past photos as a r'sum' of his life -- to do something challenging. So I thought he had a point. Sex is interesting. But I don't think the book worked, even though the photos were extraordinary and some of them quite memorable. I think there was a little bit of a moralistic sort of "I'll teach you how to be free!" and that bothered the hell out of me. Because I think if you want to practice abstinence and that makes you happy, you are OK. If you want to be gay, that's OK. If you want to screw anything that moves, that's OK. It's funny to use the word moralistic for that book because people probably don't put those together, but it was a little bit of "I know better!" and didn't like that.
The new season of Green Porno: Seduce Me airs on Sundance Channel on December 8th at 8:00 p.m. EST and PST. The series is also available via Sundance Channel video-on-demand and at SundanceChannel.com/GreenPorno.