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Isabella Rossellini Talks 'Green Porno' — And Biology

Isabella Rossellini in 'Green Porno' (Mario del Curto).
Isabella Rossellini in 'Green Porno' (Mario del Curto).

Isabella Rossellini's life and career has been nothing if not eclectic. She’s the daughter of cinema legends Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini; an accomplished actress and indie film favorite best known for David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" and Peter Weir's “Fearless"; and one of the most iconic models of her era, who graced the cover of Vogue and endured as the high-cheekboned face of Lancôme cosmetics for 14 years. But a few years ago, she became something wholly unexpected—an early viral video sensation thanks to her "Green Porno" online short film series.

Sundance TV's Webby Award-winning shorts, which began appearing in 2008, centered on the strange and surreal mating habits and reproductive wonders of various animals, insects and marine life: harems of elephant seals lolling on a beach; barnacles with elongated penises 40 times the length of their own body; female praying mantises who bite the heads of their mates during intercourse.

Donning droll and absurdly charming costumes—a giant bumblebee, an 18-tentacled squid, a whale with a 6-foot-long phallus—Rossellini spotlights the various oddities of creature copulation, from sadomasochistic snail foreplay to gay dolphin blowhole intercourse. She speaks of hermaphroditic lifeforms that can change their sex and others that eat their partners or newborns.

Rossellini, 62, followed those up with similarly cheeky online shorts about motherhood (“Mammas") and coupling ("Seduce Me"). The nearly 40 installments of the series garnered millions of online viewers and also aired on Sundance. Then a few years ago Rossellini teamed up with legendary screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere to write a theatrical version of the show. "Green Porno, Live on Stage," which has toured across Europe and around the world, comes to the Cutler Majestic Theatre this weekend, Feb. 13-15, presented by ArtsEmerson and World Music/CRASHarts.

During a recent phone conversation from her home in New York, she still marvels at the unexpected success of the series. "They started a life of their own. I didn't expect to still be working on these ideas eight years later, developing them and branching out into theater and all of that," she says, in her distinctively accented voice, which in the web series can be soft and lilting one moment and bellowing and husky the next depending on the creature she's portraying.

"When you do experimental filmmaking, with a very minimal budget, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. But the intention is to experiment and to try to find new ways of telling stories. So we were very lucky that it turned out to be quite successful," she says.

Rossellini had collaborated with the filmmaker Guy Maddin on a 2005 short film, "My Dad Is 100 Years Old," that she wrote as a tribute to her father, the famed Italian neo-realist director. That led Robert Redford and Sundance to approach her with an idea to help resurrect the short film format.

Animal biology, she says, was always a subject that intrigued her, even as a little girl. For most of her life, she considered it a hobby. But she was already taking graduate courses in animal behavior at Hunter College in New York when Sundance first began discussions with her eight years ago about spearheading a short film series with an environmental theme.

"As I became older, and I didn't work as much as an actress and a model, I went back to school just to sort of fulfill my curiosity about these subjects," she says. "Now I'm back to working a lot because these films have turned out to be successful."

Isabella Rossellini as a hamster in "Green Porno" (Mario del Curto).
Isabella Rossellini as a hamster in "Green Porno" (Mario del Curto).

The "Green Porno" shorts may be quirky with a mischievous, deadpan sense of humor, but it is paramount that the videos—and the stage show—remain rooted in real science, even if Rossellini sees herself as an entertainer first.

"I don't think that the films are funny if the audience doesn't know that the science is correct. If it is correct science, it's funny. If it's just a crazy old lady making things up, it's not as funny," she says.

It's the biodiversity in nature, she says, that makes "Green Porno" interesting.

"There isn't an animal that is more interesting than another or an animal that has a better solution for reproducing than another species. The series exists because we're dealing with one problem, reproduction, and the many thousands of ways to solve that process—how to reproduce and propagate the species."

The idea for "Green Porno: Live on Stage" was first suggested by Rossellini's friend Carole Bouquet, a French actress and former Bond girl. Bouquet envisioned it as Rossellini directing an animal behavior conference or scientific lecture from the stage. Rossellini had never written a monologue or even done much theater before. "I said to Carole, 'How am I going to go from two minutes to an hour-and-15-minutes?'" she recalls.

So Bouquet connected her with illustrious French screenwriter Jean-Claude-Carrière ("Belle du Jour," "The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie"), who helped her pen the script.

The show, with artistic guidance by Muriel Mayette (the first woman to lead the legendary Comédie-Française), employs puppetry, various props, and projected illustrations and video clips from the "Green Porno" Web shorts. Like the films, the show also touches on wildlife conservation, the dangers of overfishing and the dumping of human detritus in the oceans.

Isabella Rossellini in 'Green Porno' (Mario del Curto).
Isabella Rossellini in 'Green Porno' (Mario del Curto).

While the short films feature Rossellini in a series of imaginative, DIY get-ups made of cloth, cardboard and construction paper, she only changes her outfit three times in the stage show, ending up in a furry hamster costume.

"It's not a Las Vegas stage show, you know, where I arrive with a trunk of costumes," she says. "The show is quite simple. I travel with two huge bags, and my show is in there, and then off I go to different theaters."

One of the hooks of the show, Rossellini acknowledges, is that "everybody is interested in sex." But despite the title, those who come to the show looking for salacious or stimulating discussion of sex will be disappointed. It's far more cheeky and absurdist than titillating. And don't expect any personal revelations from Rossellini herself—despite her famous couplings with ex-husband Martin Scorsese and former boyfriends David Lynch and Gary Oldman.

"I'm interested in biology, but I'm not using biology to talk about my personal sex life. I'm talking biology for biology's sake," she says. "But the show is also about things that come along with sex—courtship, parenting, and all of that."

Indeed, one of the things Rossellini discovered in her research is that homosexuality in nature appears to be common. When scientists saw homosexual behavior in captive animals, she says, they wondered if it could be the distorted result of the animal living in captivity. But recent studies of animal sexual behavior in the wild have confirmed that it appears in many species.

"So now [scientists] are looking at the act of [animals] having sex not only for the purpose of reproduction, but that it has a social purpose as well," she says. "It's incredible that it took us so long to arrive at this conclusion, because we know that in our own human nature, it's that way. We don't make love only to reproduce. People make love for many other reasons. It creates bonds. It creates alliances and family feelings. We know that the act of sex doesn't just have one function. So that is probably true in the animal world, too."

Christopher Wallenberg is a freelance arts and entertainment reporter and a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, the New York Times and American Theatre magazine. You can email him at chriswallenberg@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @chriswallenberg.

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