Isabella Rossellini: Actress, model and, now, a farmer

An 11.3ha tract in Bellport, New York, is where Isabella Rossellini rears chickens (left) and leads farm tours, where she encourages visitors to plunge their fists into a compost heap (below).
An 11.3ha tract in Bellport, New York, is where Isabella Rossellini rears chickens (above) and leads farm tours, where she encourages visitors to plunge their fists into a compost heap.PHOTO: NYTIMES
An 11.3ha tract in Bellport, New York, is where Isabella Rossellini rears chickens (left) and leads farm tours, where she encourages visitors to plunge their fists into a compost heap (below).
An 11.3ha tract in Bellport, New York, is where Isabella Rossellini rears chickens and leads farm tours, where she encourages visitors to plunge their fists into a compost heap (above).PHOTO: NYTIMES

Besides being an author and film-maker, Isabella Rossellini is also a hands-on chicken breeder who grows organic vegetables

NEW YORK • On a recent spring day, Isabella Rossellini barked out an order to her spotted mutt not to maul a hen that had strayed from her coop.

"Can't take your eyes off them, can you?" she chided.

These days, when she is not acting, writing, making films or modelling - she recently signed a new contract with cosmetics company Lancome - she is minding her Long Island farm.

On an 11.3ha tract in Bellport, New York, with the help of some friends, she breeds chickens, grows organic vegetables and produces honey and eggs. She does not mind getting her hands dirty.

After leading visitors to a hillock that turned out to be a compost heap, she plunged a fist deep inside, urging others to do the same, so that all of them could feel the heat generated by its rotting leaves.

It did not bother her either to scatter dried worms to the turkeys and 100-odd heritage chickens that trailed her wherever she went.

"When they are small, I sit with them in their boxes," Rossellini said of her oddly speckled and spotted brood. "That way, they get used to me."

A hands-on breeder, she delivers their eggs - round, oval or oblong, in motley tones of green, blue and brown - to the local farmers' market every week.

Their variety came as a surprise. "That's why I wrote the book," she said of My Chickens And I, a slim volume of poultry lore published in March.

The book is simultaneously whimsical and blunt, like Rossellini herself, who discussed her roller-coaster career with uncommon candour.

As she told it, she was hot, with no fewer than 23 Vogue magazine covers to her credit; riveting film roles including David Lynch's 1986 noir mystery Blue Velvet; and a long-term, lucrative modelling contract with Lancome.

Then she was not in the spotlight, the casualty of a youth-fixated culture.

"Now, I'm hot again," Rossellini said without rancour.

Indeed, at 65, she is having a moment, her farm a physical manifestation of her assorted passions.

Certainly, she has not idled while waiting for a second wind.

"Nobody wanted me as a model or actress, so I went back to school," she said matter of factly.

She kept busy with several wittily instructive films, among them Green Porno, a 2008 Sundance miniseries about the mating behaviour of animals; and the 2013 Mammas, an alternately absurd and scary short describing variations in maternal instinct among the species. She appeared as a spider that gobbles her young.

Now, she is about to complete her master's degree in animal behaviour and conservation at Hunter College in Manhattan.

She is also acting again, playing the matriarch of a Romani-American crime dynasty in Shut-Eye, a two-season series on Hulu.

She will direct and perform in Link Link Circus, a touring "theatrical lecture" as she calls it, highlighted by her funny, perceptive observations of evolution and barnyard life.

It is scheduled to open on Wednesday at the Baryshnikov Centre in New York.

On this balmy spring day on her farm, she spotted a turkey and said: "See that, he does a domineering dance. He is like a man, lording it over the other birds. The males can be very aggressive, you know."

That comment was unambiguous, but she seemed reluctant to venture further into highly charged terrain.

In her 1997 memoir, Some Of Me, she referred glancingly to having been raped as a teenager by a slightly older boy.

A feminist who attended consciousness-raising groups in her native Rome, she has no quarrel with the #MeToo movement.

But she tends to stop short of airing her personal traumas and has declined to revisit the rape.

"Why would I dig out this story 48 years later?" she told David Marchese, a writer for Vulture, the New York Magazine culture website.

She refused to name the perpetrator. "If I said who did this, I would destroy him," she added. "I have no heart for it."

But she has a soft spot for her Long Island menagerie which includes, besides poultry and bees, three goats, a small herd of sheep and Pepe and Boris, her lumberingly overgrown pigs.

Bred for slaughter, they have legs that are too short to carry them far.

"You can see that they suffer," she said. But letting them loll in their shed is preferable to carting them off to the slaughterhouse.

The farm, which she created with the Peconic Land Trust, is a boon to the community.

Children sometimes visit in school groups or with their parents.

"Their mothers are delighted to show them - 'This is how asparagus grows. This is what eggs look like.'"

Not a moment too soon, it would seem. "Some of these children," Rossellini noted wryly, "don't even know where an egg comes from."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2018, with the headline 'Actress, model and, now, a farmer'. Print Edition | Subscribe