Isabella Rossellini gets ruthless

The tides are changing for older actresses, says Isabella Rossellini (above).
The tides are changing for older actresses, says Isabella Rossellini (above).PHOTO: FOX NETWORKS GROUP

Even as the actress laments the lack of roles for older women, she is back with a new television drama, Shut Eye, as the matriarch of a crime family

It is hard enough breaking into modelling or acting for women who are young and beautiful, but for those entering their 40s, job prospects are especially grim.

Just ask Isabella Rossellini, who spent 14 years as the face of Lancome cosmetics before being unceremoniously sacked, at age 43, for being "too old" before being rehired in a stunning turn last year.

Yet, even as she calls out ageism in such industries, the 64-year-old continues to defy the odds and carve out a career as an actress, model and film-maker.

Rossellini, who landed her first big acting role with the cult film Blue Velvet (1989), is back on screen with a new television drama, Shut Eye, as the ruthless matriarch of a Romani crime family behind a chain of fortune-telling parlours.

The show debuts in Singapore tonight on FX (Singtel TV Channel 310 and StarHub TV Channel 507).

In a one-to-one chat with The Straits Times in Los Angeles, she recalls that fateful conversation she had with Lancome in 1996.

"When they let me go, they said, 'Women dream of looking young and an advertisement represents the dream, it doesn't represent reality.

"'So we have to let you go because you are 40something years old.

"'People are happy to see you now, but in five years, they will not and younger clients will not identify with you, so you will damage the brand.'

"It was hurtful," she admits, but adds, matter-of-factly: "This prejudice exists in society and this company is not a political movement - they're there to make money. So some of it is a reaction to what the audience asks for. I understood that."

Twenty years later, Lancome had a change of heart.

"When they hired me again, I asked them what happened - I didn't get any younger. They said things had changed.

"And, in fact, if you look at their advertisements, they use some models, but most of the people are (actresses such as) Julia Roberts, Kate Winslet and Lupita Nyong'o - women with big careers and also women that you know are in charge of their careers. They're not created by some agent or svengali. So that has allowed me to come back."

Meanwhile, the proliferation of new TV platforms - which include streaming services such as Hulu, which airs Shut Eye in the United States - means bigger audiences and more work for actors, she says.

But roles for older women are still scarce. "When you reach a certain age, there are fewer roles, it's true. I've had supporting roles, but I still think it's true that there's less for women my age."

While she is pragmatic about how certain industries have to follow the demands of their youth-obsessed market, she believes the boundaries can and should be tested.

"Hollywood and companies such as Lancome can perpetuate and reinforce prejudice, so it's important for them to try to open up new ways - occasionally, I'm not saying invest your principal money.

"Because maybe there are other ways to include women my age," says Rossellini, who has a daughter, 33, with ex-husband Jon Wiedemann, and an adopted son, 23.

The situation is getting "a bit better".

She says: "I had not been working prior to this. I did Joy (2015), a film with Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro, then I hosted a television show in Europe and then I came to do Shut Eye.

"In the last year and a half, I worked much more than I did in the previous five or six years and I think it has to do with this new way of watching and downloading, so there's a bigger audience and more work for all of us."

Having more outlets for TV and film also means that offbeat projects such as Green Porno - a series of short films where she acts out the mating rituals of animals and insects - can find an audience.

The series, which she wrote and co-directed, aired on the Sundance TV channel in the US in 2008.

Twenty years ago, a show like that "wouldn't have existed", she says.

"But I found three or four million people (to watch it), which is enough to continue."

Rossellini - the daughter of two movie legends, Oscar-winning Swedish star Ingrid Bergman and Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini - is also sanguine about the future of arthouse cinema despite Hollywood's relentless focus on action movies and franchises.

Those who want to make non-commercial art have always struggled, she notes, pointing to two of her famous exes as examples.

"I was married to Martin Scorsese, so I saw how difficult it is for him to make films, for all that he is recognised as one of the greatest film-makers of all time," she says of the legendary director, whom she was married to from 1979 to 1982.

"And I've seen how David Lynch has struggled," she says, referring to her former partner and Blue Velvet director.

"And how difficult it was for my dad. But I always saw them surviving, so I feel positive.

"Of course, it's more difficult to make a film that doesn't make a lot of money and difficult to find your audience when you don't have a big budget for advertising.

"But art has always existed from the beginning of time and it will continue to exist."

•Shut Eye debuts in Singapore tonight on FX (Singtel TV Channel 310 and StarHub TV Channel 507) at 9.05pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2017, with the headline 'Isabella Rossellini gets ruthless'. Print Edition | Subscribe