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When the pandemic-prompted lockdown began, Isabella Rossellini was touring her one woman show Link Link Circus, a brilliant, funny “theatricalized lecture” about relationships between animals and humans that she wrote while pursuing her Master’s degree in Animal Behavior and Conservation at Hunter College. For the last few months, she’s been hunkered down on her Bellport, Long Island, farm, taking care of her menagerie, spending time with her children—daughter Elettra and son Roberto—and writing short films about Charles Darwin.
As Lancôme Trèsor, the fragrance she has been the face of since its launch, celebrates its 30th isabelanniversary, Rossellini takes a moment to ponder her own life’s treasures, and what she most looks forward to when quarantine is no longer a consideration.
What has a typical day been like for you during lockdown?
Summer is magic here, so we are enjoying that. My daughter and son are here with me, and my grandson. But we are busy. Our farm works as a CSA, and produces duck eggs, chicken eggs, turkey eggs, honey, and vegetables for about 50 to 60 families locally. I mostly take care of the animals. I just raised about 50 chicks, and yesterday I received 12 ducks.
This year we’ve been doing most of the work ourselves because of Covid, and it’s been hard but it’s also been fun. We see what’s most difficult, and it helps us understand the experience of our employees. I think it’s a very good lesson. I get up at about 6 a.m. By the time the chickens go back into their coop at sundown and I’ve had dinner, I’m ready to go to bed.
Have you watched or read anything you particularly loved?
I thought with quarantine I would watch lots of films, but I haven’t watched a single one. I do keep writing my scripts. An artists’ foundation has given me a grant to do little films about Charles Darwin, so I’ve been doing them at home with a minimal crew, consisting of my son and his girlfriend, and my friend who is an actor. That’s what we do when we’re not farming.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Trèsor. How is that significant for you?
The most interesting part has been to witness how women have evolved in society. Lancôme really responds to women’s needs and women’s definitions of beauty. And having been with the company now for 40 years, I see how things have changed. When I first started, it was all about the anonymous beauty—the model that nobody knew who she was. That’s what was revered: A woman who was beautiful and never said a word.
When models became spokespeople, that changed. You could see that they were women with careers and personalities and ideas. Even product development reflects that change. Before, products were presented as Godsend—the solution to all your problems. Now they are presented as instruments for things you want or need. It’s not a dictum. The buyer defines themselves, whereas before, they were defined.
There’s a wonderful story about how the perfumer who created Trèsor, Sophia Grojsman, was originally inspired by watching your mother, Ingrid Bergman, in Casablanca—something not known to Lancôme when you were chosen as the face. Did that strike you as kismet?
Isn’t it incredible? She certainly didn’t know when she created the fragrance that Lancôme was going to want it and that I would be the face. It was so strange. And even more so, because I connected so strongly with it when I first smelled it.
What did it trigger for you emotionally?
When I first smelled it, I just thought it was warm and romantic and earthy. There was something very close to nature and not chemical about it. That was my first reaction. It wasn’t like, ‘It reminds me of my mama in Casablanca!’ it wasn’t that obvious. But it was so warm and sensual, and it did have something of family and love in it. So, when Sophia told me it was the atmosphere of Casablanca that inspired her—the sophistication, the sensuality, the romantic sensibility, the exotic location—and that all of that was in the perfume, I could smell it. And today it has evolved so much to become a part of me—even when I go to a hotel I spray a bit of Trèsor on my pillow.
What perfume did your mother wear?
My mother always wore one perfume, L’Air du Temps by Nina Ricci. I loved my mother’s smell, and I thought it was a sophisticated way to wear a perfume, to have it become a part of you, like a second skin. I wore it, and my sister did too. It became a family smell.
When Trèsor came along, I felt like I was betraying the family scent. It took me a while to convert. I wasn’t looking for a perfume, I had a perfume. But I had to try this one because it was a job opportunity—and when I fell in love with what Sophia Grosjman did, it liberated me. I had found my own signature. I’ve been using it every day for 30 years. My children always say when we look for mama, we follow the smell of Trèsor.
Are you using it every day even in quarantine?
Oh yes! Even twice a day! I use it around the house, too.
Were there other beauty lessons you learned from your mother?
She never really sat me down and gave me a makeup lesson, and she never gave me a way to dress. I think I actually have a better sense about how to dress than my mom did. She was very anxious about that, so I’m familiar with the anxiety a lot of women have about what kind of style they should have. Working as a model for years helped me because I worked with so many stylists. There are so many ways to be elegant, and understanding that is important—you should define your own way, pick what you like.
My mom, like a lot of actresses, had a kind of basic makeup that she wore every day, and I do too. I’ve worked with so many talented makeup artists that I’m a little intimidated to try to do major makeup on myself, but I do basic makeup. I always use the same colors. Sometimes I go on a shopping spree and I come back home and realize I’ve bought what I already have.
Of course, I wear a lot of makeup for work. When I did Blue Velvet I designed my own makeup look, and the same when I did Wild at Heart. Some directors, like David Lynch, let you create your own character, and then the makeup becomes an instrument of creating a psychological portrait. It’s an expression of that person.
Trèsor is all about the notion of treasures. What are some of yours?
Having my children here has been a treasure. And there are my brothers and sisters and their children as well. And I love my farm. I love reading and studying about nature, and the farm allows me to be hands-on with my passion. It was passion as a little girl but I couldn’t study what I wished to study—biology and animal behavior—because instead I worked in fashion and films. I loved that, but I always loved animals and biology more.
What’s next for your animal behavior projects?
It’s difficult now, because all films and all theatre is suspended. I was touring Link Link Circus, and all of those performances have been cancelled. I don’t know when theater is going to start again. I feel as though it will be 2021. And film? I don’t know either. I was hired by HBO to do a series based on Julia Child, I was playing her best friend, her French friend who taught her so much about cuisine. We shot one week and then it stopped and I haven’t heard back. I talk to friends and they’re all waiting for the virus to be more under control. But both theater and film require a crew. It’s not like working from home instead of an office. You can’t quarantine the entire crew and expect them to not see other people or family for six or eight weeks. I’m glad that I can work on my short videos. It’s a good time to experiment.
Do you have any mementos of your parents that you particularly treasure?
Richard Avedon gave me his contact sheets from when he photographed my mother. I have photos of my mom by Cecil Beaton, Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa… but I don’t have any memorabilia like costumes or pieces of things from films, because she has a very vast archive at Wesleyan university. All of her scripts, Oscars, and clothing are there.
What’s the first thing you hope to do when quarantine is over?
I’m a little worried about having to go back. What worries me most are the demands of social life. I’ve always known that I didn’t love to go to cocktail parties, but I can never say no because so much is linked to my work or to friends I don’t want to offend. And it’s so time consuming. When you go to a dinner, including the time it takes to get ready, it can be six, seven hours. Without that, my days are so much more productive. Also, the incredible demands of travel. I’ve never been in my home for more than three straight weeks in 45 years. Isn’t that crazy? So that part is something I don’t really know if I want to resume. I want to see my friends. I want to resume acting, working in the theater—I’m looking forward to going to see my friends perform and performing myself. But I think that will take a long time to start again.
I find myself thinking about Paris, and that I’m more nostalgic for Paris than Rome. That surprises me, because Rome is where I grew up. I’m very familiar with Paris because that’s where my mom lived and we went there a lot, and there is just something about it. There’s that song by Josephine Baker—“I have two loves, my country and Paris.” I sing it to myself, because I miss Paris!
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