Q&A: Isabella Rossellini’s long-awaited return to Wilmington, Blue Velvet and her new show

The face of Lancôme. The acting credits. The daughter of Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman and Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. The magic of Isabella Rossellini is so many things. Including Wilmington.

In 1986, Rossellini shined in the Port City as jazz singer Dorothy Vallens in David Lynch’s Wilmington-shot "Blue Velvet." The film, "a woozy surrealist masterpiece," according to the BBC went on to inspire Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers, and much of late last century's more gripping cinema.

Rossellini takes the stage on Nov. 19 to showcase themes she has explored in recent years including art, animals, and science. So passionate is Rossellini that she graduated from Hunter College in New York with a master’s degree in animal behavior and conservation while easing away from acting. Now she pours her creativity into short films and monologues about nature. They blend humor and curiosity in ways that critics say offer unique access to the great mystery of existence. The StarNews recently spoke to her.

But the Rossellini magic has not returned to Lumberton, as Wilmington is known in Blue Velvet, until now. Next week she comes home to perform her new one-woman show "Darwin's Smile" at Thalian Hall downtown as part of the 28th Cucalorus Film Festival, which runs Nov. 16-20.

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Note: The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.

StarNews: You shot Blue Velvet in Wilmington. Is this a homecoming for you?

Isabella: Blue Velvet is probably one of my most renowned and famous films. But I haven't been back to Wilmington since it was made. So I'm delighted to return. And I'm coming to a truly wonderful theater here to perform the show, which is very exciting. As for Wilmington so many years ago, it was a magical shoot. Magical. We all became very good friends. In fact, we call ourselves the family. Laura Dern, Kyle MacLachlan and David Lynch. We're very, very close.

StarNews: Film critics consider Blue Velvet a classic . That reputation took some time.

Isabella: I'm very happy that it now has a reputation for being a very good art film because when it came out, the movie was very controversial. It was perceived as displaying violence against women. There was, of course, nudity and violence and all this creates a lot of controversy. But now the film has a wonderful reputation, and it seems to me a lot of people have seen it and like it.

StarNews: Memories from that time about the city?

Isabella: I remember Wilmington being a very beautiful part of the world. Incredible beaches. We stayed in a bed and breakfast, it was very elegant and lovely. When you work in a film, there isn't really much time to visit. The hours are very long, you work 14-15 hours a day. You start very early in the morning and finish very late, and you work six days a week. Generally, on Sundays, we did laundry with all the family (she laughs). I'm so delighted to come back. I have such good memories of Wilmington.

StarNews: How did the film come to be shot here?

Dino De Laurentiis was the producer. Before Blue Velvet, David Lynch had made a film for Dino called Dune (a major 1984 Hollywood studio science-fiction film), which was not successful. David was in a very depressed state, so Dino, who was a fantastic producer said – here is a little bit of money -- go make a movie you want to make.

Dino wanted David to regain confidence in his art (Lynch had previous success with the smaller art-house film Eraserhead). And it happened to be Blue Velvet and it was shot in Wilmington because, you know, Dino had a studio here (the present Screen Gems Studio and heart of Wilmington's film industry). Dino died a few years ago.

StarNews: You worked as an international model for a long time, in addition to acting. How did your career evolve?

Isabella: When I was about 55 years old, I wasn’t working as a model anymore because that work isn’t for old ladies (laughter). Lancôme had been a wonderful and prestigious contract to have and gave me financial security. But there were other things. Because I always loved animals, I went back to university and took a degree in animal behavior and conservation.

And then I started writing. I didn't write to relaunch my career. I wrote because it was fun to write. Probably the entertainer in me was still there. I also moved to the country and started an organic farm.  I thought that was going to be my life as a retired person. But my career picked up again due to my monologue and my luck. Now I'm super busy acting and farming.

More:What to see at Wilmington's 28th Cucalorus Film Festival: Best movies, performances

StarNews: How did you start developing monologues / one-woman shows?

Isabella: I initially worked on short films. When I did my shorts, Green Porno, they were commissioned, it was Robert Redford who commissioned them with the idea that film could be shorter. It doesn't have to be an hour and a half to have a distribution in a theater. Television formats were also very rigid. So at first, I wrote films that were two minutes long. Then the question was, how do you go from two minutes to an hour and a half?

A friend put me in touch with Jean-Claude Carrière (a legendary Oscar-winning French writer), one of the best screenwriters in cinema who worked with Peter Brooks, Luis Buñuel and François Truffaut. A mythical name, who passed away recently. He took me under his wing and we wrote the first monologue together. That was followed by a second. And this is the third called Darwin’s Smile.

StarNews: I read that your inspirations for Darwin’s Smile came during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Isabella: I had time to reflect on my great passion for both theater and science. These interests were both distinct and separate. One satisfied my heart, while the other satisfied my brain. When I understood that they could be integrated, my heart and my brain finally became reconciled and harmonious.

Then I got out and moving around. At the Musée d’Orsay, the great museum in Paris, they had a marvelous show on Darwin’s theory of evolution and its impact on art, which was profound. The museum then asked me if a could create a show on this subject, so I did, with a French producer. It started at 45 minutes and developed into a full length monologue.

Ideas came from Darwin’s book “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” which looks at similarities between humans and animals, especially through expressions and gestures of emotions. There are also moral questions. If there is a connection between us and animals, does it mean that animals have feelings and thoughts and emotions – and if so – is it very difficult for us to eat them, right? Or to cage them?

Isabella Rossellini performs in one-woman show, Darwin's Smile
Isabella Rossellini performs in one-woman show, Darwin's Smile

StarNews: And the expressions of animals?

Isabella: Darwin explored smiles, frowning faces, turning your nose because something disgusts you. Darwin wondered why are these expressions understood all over the world, and others not?

An example I give onstage. I’m Italian. I gesticulate a lot when I talk. I can have an entire conversation with gestures. Of course, some expressions are understood in America, like the middle finger, where it’s understood as an insult. But if you do that in another country, they don't know what you're doing.

Darwin wondered, if the smile is universal, had it been shaped by evolution, like bones or lips? Of course, studying expressions was incredibly hard because they are so fleeting, but photography had just started, so Darwin relied upon that. He also worked with actors – who are great students of emotion – and neurologists.

StarNews: The universality of certain expressions. That’s where your title comes from, right? Darwin’s Smile. The smile is universal.

Isabella Rossellini, the iconic actor, model, activist and lover of Wilmington, returns to the Port City this month to perform her one-woman show, “Darwin’s Smile,” which will headline at the upcoming Cucalorus Film Festivl.
Isabella Rossellini, the iconic actor, model, activist and lover of Wilmington, returns to the Port City this month to perform her one-woman show, “Darwin’s Smile,” which will headline at the upcoming Cucalorus Film Festivl.

Isabella: Exactly. The smile is universal.

This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Isabella Rossellini interview on Wilmington and Darwin's Smile