In 1982, when Lancôme tapped Isabella Rossellini to be its new face, the term spokesmodel seemed right for the 31-year-old. Already a sought-after beauty in the industry, she had a commanding gaze and the sort of lips—bare or brightly painted—that spoke volumes in photographs. (Her budding acting career, which took off in 1986 with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, confirmed as much in motion pictures.) More than three decades later—with Rossellini, 65, fresh off the heels of her latest campaign for the French cosmetics house, with whom she resumed working in 2016—is there a word that encompasses all she has become? Lancôme opts for ambassadress, but you can also add writer, producer, director, and master’s degree student with a focus on animal behavior. (Fans of her series, Green Porno,have reaped the fruits of her unorthodox curiosities.)
Allusion to a diplomatic envoy, though, makes sense for a woman born to a Swedish screen star (Ingrid Bergman) and an Italian filmmaker (Roberto Rossellini); in a vestige of her upbringing in Rome, the longtime New Yorker still has a lilting way of transforming two-syllable words into three. That’s why she goes by the old-world name for her most recent role: Nonna to daughter Elettra Wiedemann’s 3-month-old son, Ronin. “He has just started to smile, so every time he smiles at us—ah!” Rossellini says, beaming, on a recent sunlit afternoon.
The delights of older years have come with caveats—ones that Bergman recognized, as well. “I know that she, like me and a lot of other actresses and models, started to work less as she aged, and that was painful to her because she loved it,” says Rossellini, describing how her mother renewed her career on the stage—first on London’s West End, then on Broadway. Rossellini, for her part, is carving her own path as a performing artist: After playing the sinister Romani matriarch on the recent Hulu series Shut Eye, she mounts her one-woman (plus one dog) show, Link Link Circus, next month at New York’s Baryshnikov Arts Center; fans of Blue Velvet can also catch a screening and talk as part of Lynch’s Festival of Disruption in Brooklyn.
But the reprised contract with Lancôme is Rossellini’s most surprising next act. “When I received the call, I was kind of stupefied—but I was also very delighted,” she says, giving credit to general manager Françoise Lehmann, who has grounded the brand with a fresh (and feminine) sensibility. (When Rossellini was let go at age 42, executives told her “advertisement is about dreams; it’s not about the reality.”) In truth, not everyone chases youth; in fact, some might very well aspire to a future that looks a lot like Rossellini: generous, wise, and radiant, as seen in an unretouched image from Peter Lindbergh’s campaign shoot. Here, she shares her insights on aging well—from positive mirror talk to her true motivation for success.
On Skin Care
Since I was a little girl, I’ve always used cream for my face. I have an eye cream, a face cream, and then sunscreen. In the winter, when it looks gray, I tend to forget [SPF], but by this season I became very religious about putting on my sun protection. [For Rénergie], this was the advertisement that we did 30 years ago. The photo was by Paolo Roversi, and if you read about it, it’s about wrinkles, anti-aging. This new version says “Multi-Glow”; it’s the same cream, but it’s the story of “I’m looking for an instrument to be sophisticated and elegant throughout my life.” I’m very happy that there is now this evolution in the communication to women, that it isn’t anymore: “You have to look young.” I like that switch, and I think I can represent it well only because it corresponds to me.
On Cosmetic Procedures
My take is to do nothing—for myself. I think it’s a very personal choice; if people want to do it, I’m not against it. But I was born with a spinal deformity and had several operations that were very painful, and the idea of going back to the hospital for another operation fills me with fear. So I decided, what’s the name of that wonderful French actress? Simone Signoret, who was still beautiful. Or Anna Magnani, still beautiful—and they hadn’t done anything. In terms of Botox, it really paralyzes your muscles, but I have an organic farm; to me, to eat organic but then inject myself with a poison, I cannot reconcile it philosophically.
On Positive Thinking
Partly it’s my nature; I think I was born joyful. I have a twin sister who is very shy. When she was younger, she often looked at the glass half empty, and I used to say to her, “You know, happiness is a discipline. Happiness is to look at what we have and feel grateful.” It’s not that I look at myself in the mirror and I say, “Everything is all right! Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Of course I am like every woman. When I look at myself in the mirror, I do see my neck—it drives me crazy. It’s not that I’m immune to that voice. But I try not to listen and to say, “Hey, but the lipstick still looks pretty good!”
On Age-Appropriate Dressing
I don’t think there is one way to be elegant. Dressing or wearing makeup is like a language, something that you want to tell the other person. It’s how you present yourself. There are women who dress up incredibly, like Iris [Apfel], and then somebody could be very minimalist. I think elegance is when you express a thought—to me, that’s what is interesting. When I see, for example, some women obey all the orders, I don’t see the same elegance as somebody who says, “This is what makes me feel comfortable.” The elegance is the expression of the mind—of a specific mind.
On Female Bonds
What is very touching to me is how close I am to my daughter—that there is a moment where the daughter needs the grandmother. I’m studying animal behavior, and I don’t think that, if we didn’t have these kinds of female solidarity, we could have given birth. It could have only evolved first with this cooperation because it’s so demanding. I’ve been a mother for so long; when Elettra was 10 years old, I adopted my son, Roberto, so in a way I was a full-time mom for more than 30 years. At a certain point you have the empty-nest feeling, when your children move on and you have to redefine yourself. Now with Elettra and the baby, there’s this sense of family again that is so strong.
On Curiosity as Motivation
In terms of creativity for me, it’s narrative that I’m interested in, as an actress. Then when I started to write stories, after my studies about animals, and started to direct them, that was another evolution of my career. Modeling to acting to directing and writing: It all evolves. I do it because I follow my curiosity; the engine at the end is to satisfy curiosity, and then you express what you discover and hope that you find an audience that you can share it with. That has always been more important than being successful. That’s another voice that you don’t want to listen to too much: “I want to be successful.” Then you end up not doing very good work because being successful might mean that you have to repeat a pattern that has already been established. It’s better to follow your curiosity, and then hopefully you’ll be successful as a side effect!