Isabella Rossellini’s show at Emerson’s Cutler Majestic Theatre this weekend is called “Green Porno, Live on Stage” and she knows she’s got some explaining to do.
“I want to reassure you this monologue is not pornographic, in spite of the title,” Rossellini says on the phone from her New York home. “Is it obscene? It might be the most obscene thing you’ve ever heard because we talk about an incredible amount of different ways of having sex. Is it erotic?”
Rossellini pauses. “I don’t know because I don’t know your taste.”
So, it’s a show about sex, but it’s not about human sex. It’s about aquatic sex, insect sex. It’s a multi-media presentation and the theatrical offshoot of the “Green Porno” series Rossellini has been doing online and for the Sundance Channel since 2008.
Why “Green Porno”?
“People are interested in sex,” she says. This she would know: Rossellini posed in the altogether for Madonna’s controversial 1992 photo book, “Sex” and appeared in the singer’s “Erotica” video. “Nature is very incredible, bizarre, fantastic – an endless source of material to write, that’s for sure.”
“Maybe if I had done the digestive system in animals, it would be less interesting,” she continues, with a laugh. “Doing it about sex was a way to appeal to a larger audience. But, really, the way that I did the first series was an experimental film for the web which turned out to be a lot more successful than we expected. If you go back about seven or eight years, I wouldn’t have known we’d have done 40 short films, a book about it, and a monologue I’d have toured in 35 cities over four continents. This was something that grew and became bigger than we had ever dreamed of.”
Rossellini, now 62, began life, quite infamously. She and her non-identical twin Isotta, were tagged as the “love children” of director Roberto Rossellini and actress Ingrid Bergman. She began modeling at 28 and made a huge mark in the fashion world.
Rossellini began acting in the late-‘70s, and her first American film part was in1985’s “White Nights.” She came to cult fame the following year as the sexy, S&M-inclined torch singer Dorothy Vallens in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” Rossellini was Lancôme’s spokesmodel for 14 years and was sacked in 1995. This prompted her to create her own line of cosmetics, Manifesto, and a perfume that bears her name. She was a vice president of the Lancaster cosmetics group until ten years ago.
“Right now, I’m not really thinking about working,” Rossellini says. “I’m at the age where you’re thinking more about how to retire than working. I don’t really work thinking I have to have a career. Of course, there are lesser roles for women at my age and I am also limited by having an accent. And I don’t work as a model anymore.”
“Sometimes it just evolves on its own,” she continues. “Since I was a little girl I was always interested in animals and biology – it was my hobby. So I went back to university to study biology and specifically animal behavior which is called ethology. I’m finishing my Masters in New York.”
“When I was studying, I had this opportunity to work with Sundance who wanted to experiment and that’s how this format came about. I just did it because I had the material and then it grew to be much bigger.”
The idea about expanding “Green Porno” from a web series/TV show into a monologue came from her friend, actor-model, Carole Bouquet. Rossellini: “I said to Carole, ‘I have no idea how to translate a series of two-minute films into a monologue,’ and she put me in touch with a wonderful, legendary writer, Jean-Claude Carrière, who last year won one of the Oscars. [He received the Academy Honorary Award in Nov. 2014 for lifetime achievement.]
Jean-Claude and the producer had the idea to ask Muriel Mayette who was the director, at the time, of Comedy François, an old institution in France that started in 1600. She directed it, adding a lot of zaniness to the show. So, I was surrounded with a lot of very talented people. We did it in about eight months – we wrote it and work-shopped it – and premiered it almost two years ago in France. The original work is in French. I do it in English, French and Italian, which is my language of origin.”
Rossellini explains the original idea for the theatrical “Green Porno” was to “conceive it like a conference. Then, this conference becomes increasingly more crazy, if you want, and it transforms into a little theater, and a puppet show, more zaniness.”
One of the humorous, but edgy short films is about squid – or calamari, as Rossellini says, preparing to eat one as the film begins. But things mutate and Rossellini “becomes” the squid. At the end, back to being a human, Rossellini tells us she’s lost her appetite for calamari.
It came about this way, Rossellini says. “I was working with a marine biologist who liked my film and asked me if I could do a series that had more of a conservation message. We did three and one was about squid. There’s an incredible amount of squid that are fished. These days, there are fisherman that put nets in a 50 mile radius so they really empty that sea of all the fish – penguins, seals. This massive way of fishing is emptying the ocean. He wanted me to call attention to it and he actually had some incredible photos that I use in my film so I can throw myself into them as a squid as I tell the story about the squid.”
On the TV series, Rossellini frequently sometimes becomes one with the fish or insect, using various prop devices to illustrate sexual behavior. Some of that will happen – on video – during the theatrical performance, but Rossellini says she will have just three costumes.
She begins the show, she says, in “this black gown and pearls, conservative looking, and I tear it off. Underneath, I’m dressed as a man and then, once, at the end I come dressed up as an ant, for a series called ‘Mama’ about animal parenting.”
How much acting is involved?
“There is no acting where I have to play another character,” Rossellini says. “I’m talking to the audience. I’m not pretending to be anybody else.”
So, no one should come expecting to see “Blue Velvet’s” Dorothy?
“I don’t know if someone is expecting me to break into “Blue Velvet,” but I feel if they are familiar with my short films, no,” says Rossellini. “I’m delighted to have worked with David and to have been in ‘Blue Velvet,’ which is considered one of his masterworks. Eight or so years ago, it was the 30th anniversary and I saw it. It still looked very modern, very avant-garde in spite of all these decades that went by.”
“Green Porno, Live on Stage,” Feb. 13-15. Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theater, 219 Tremont St., Boston, 617-824-8400 www.artsemerson.org Friday and Saturday at 8, Sunday at 2. Tickets; $25-$89.