Isabella Rossellini looks radiant seated on a sofa in a room high up in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York City. It’s a Saturday morning weeks before the film Joy, in which she plays a supporting part in the David O. Russell ensemble cast, will open on Christmas Day, and she seems perfectly content to be repeating her story to a stream of journalists for the film junket. Typically I avoid such events, but I’d agreed to do it only if I could meet Rossellini face-to-face. This was before I’d seen the film or knew anything about her role in it. I didn’t care: Rossellini is iconic, the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, and I’m an unabashed fan of her due to her quirky career and creative choices.
Luckily, I’d loved Joy. Somehow a film based on the life of an inventor of a nifty new mop and her rise to a QVC star had me on the edge of my seat—despite it being a love-letter to capitalism The 63-year-old actress plays Trudy, the latest lover of Joy’s father (played by Robert De Niro), who he meets through a personal ad on a 900-number. It’s a small role, but Rossellini seems to relish her part as the benefactress who provides the seed money for Joy’s budding mop business. In one pivotal scene, she asks Jennifer Lawrence who plays Joy four questions about business, and Rossellini manages to turn the ridiculous lines into pure comedy.
Sometimes it's best to avoid meeting people you admire, but Rossellini is everything I want her to be: elegant (she’s dressed in a crisp white shirt and has sort of black kimono wrapped around her body), wise, and oddly humble.
Out: You could do so many things. What made you choose to play this part?
Isabella Rossellini: I was so surprised! I never even knew David thought of me. I didn’t even know he knew who I was. But this cast! To join Jennifer Lawrence, Bob De Niro, Bradley Cooper, these names, they are like a family and have been so great working together. I couldn’t believe I was so lucky.
Had you ever worked with De Niro before?
No, but he was the witness at my wedding. I was married to Martin Scorsese in 1979, you know. Bob and I remained friends, but I hadn’t seen him in a long time. I was a little bit intimidated to work with him, especially because there was this family connection, and then I divorced Marty. But Bob’s very benevolent.
I saw you in another film this year, well I heard you, since you voiced a hamster in the gay indie film Closet Monster. You seem free to choose the things you want, what motivated that?
I see a continuity in what I do. Incredibly David O. Russell works for a studio, but he feels very much like an artist. It’s avant-garde, it just happens he does things a lot of people like. He is artistic but has a wide audience. That is why we are at the Mandarin instead of the Holiday Inn down the road, and I was driven in a car instead of biking or taking the subway.
At the end, I think I’m attracted to artistic people. Artists have very distinctive personalities. It’s what I’m attracted to David O. Russell, as well as Guy Maddin. One might have a bigger audience, another has a smaller audience, but they are both artists and have a vision.
Especially, being an actress, I feel like I’m a tourist in the brains of these artists to understand what they want, learning how to work for them. It’s an exercise, like I’m clay, and you have to take many shapes. And I love that. I can get there. David talks during the take. A lot of actors felt thrown, and I felt thrown at first. I’m talking to Bob De Niro, and [David] says, “Move to the left.” Then you get used to it.
Actually, it’s like in the silent movies, the director directed like that. And my father directed like that, because he came right after the silent movie era. So there was this collaboration: The director was saying, “Tilt your head, cry more, get angry.” So it’s like an orchestra director is playing you instead of waiting for that moment for the music to be finished and waiting to say after it’s finished, “The violin do it this other way tomorrow.” You get it right at that moment.
Tell us about Trudy. At first she seems to have a joyful personality, but then she turns dark. You have some intense moments with Jennifer as Joy.
Joy has a vision. She wants to have an empire and make money. Trudy has the money that Joy is desiring to obtain, but she doesn’t have a vision. She is parroting her dead husband Morris. She doesn’t understand anything about business. She invests in Joy because she has learned how to obey men. And her man is Rudy, Bob De Niro, so she is following what Rudy is saying, and then panicking that he’s not Morris, not a businessman. Trudy has a double message of supporting Joy and then withdrawing her support. Which is the message that Joy gets from everyone in the film.
It’s not just a feminist film—this message that there’s no prince charming that helps [Joy]—it’s also about success and how hard it is and how you have to have a vision and clarity. It’s an exercise of clarifying of how to obtain it. So in that way, Trudy supports her and torments her.
The scene where you ask Joy the four questions about business was great. But it’s also where we see the darker side of Trudy. What do you think is going on there?
I see myself as a mother first, and I know as a mother, I’m saying on one hand to my children, “Be free, do what you want!” Then when they do what they want, I say, “What are you doing? Are you crazy?” I’m protective of them, and then my protectiveness may deter their sense of risk. They take a risk, and it gives me nightmares. If you could take an X-ray of what is in my brain when they haven’t called me, it’s: “I saw you dead in the street, shot!” The images that a mother has are frightening. I imagine Trudy to be that. Trudy doesn’t have a particular love for Joy, she’s not her daughter. But there’s an agitation about money. Trudy’s inability to have that vision—she’s the woman of a generation where she was probably a perfect housewife.
I’m a huge fan of your work on the Green Porno series, so I wondered, since you are obviously an expert on this, what sort of insect or animal do you think Trudy would be?
Oh! [Smiles big.] Well, the first answer that comes to mind: the insects that predate on men. The spiders that eat their husbands. Husbands have strategies to avoid their wives because they will get eaten. Trudy’s a little bit like that.
So many of us are fans of you from your role in Death Becomes Her, and I wondered: Would you take that potion?
I don’t know, I think I would take the potion of health. There’s something to be said about old age. Age helps to be free. When you’re younger, you want to impress your teacher, your parents, yourself, you have to prove something to yourself. As you get older, all that goes. It’s not that you resolve it. You may never impress these people in your life. But you say, “What the fuck do I care? I only have so much to live, so let me live the adventure I dream.”
So with older age, there is an acquired freedom. Physically you might decay, you might grow ill, so I would drink the potion of health. But I would like to have the freedom that comes with age.
Joy is in theaters Dec. 25. Watch the trailer below: