Isabella Rossellini. Picture: Supplied

When Isabella Rossellini's mother, the great Swedish- born actress Ingrid Bergman, left her husband and fell pregnant to the legendary Italian film director Roberto Rossellini while waiting for her divorce to come through, it blew up into one of the biggest scandals of the era, a transgression that made her a pariah in Hollywood.

It was also one of those tabloid tornadoes that brought into focus the divide between the liberalism of Europe, where directors such as Rossellini, Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman were allowed to deal frankly with sexuality, and the hysterical puritanism of postwar America.

When I raise the matter with Rossellini she says that half a century on, things haven't changed quite as much as you'd think. "Peoples lives are still being ruined when somebody falls in love with someone they shouldn't have," Rossellini tells me over the phone from Long Island where she has lived for the past 27 years.

"Common sense tells us not do it because the consequences can be disastrous but our hearts and our bodies demand we do otherwise. It's hard to go against our nature," explains Rossellini in the accented English, which is why, together with the face that launched a thousand magazine covers, she's still the epitome of transatlantic elegance.

With that scandal looming large in her family history it's perhaps not surprising that Rossellini has taken to exploring our baser instincts, producing a series of short films on the sexual behaviour of animals and provocatively titled Green Porno.

However, instead of Rossellini adding her famously sensual voice to the standard David Attenborough-type wildlife footage, the one-time muse of Martin Scorsese and David Lynch climbs into costumes of creatures several rungs below us on the evolutionary ladder - a bee, a spider, a snail, a preying mantis, an earthworm, a dolphin, an anchovy, a salmon - and acts out their mating rituals. They're like X-rated episodes of Play School.

"I have sex several times a day, any opportunity, any female," Rossellini announces, decked out as a housefly, her thin wispy wings flapping at her back as she thrusts with the exuberance of a porn star.

When I suggest to Rossellini that she is a little sex obsessed she says that the opposite is true. "I find it embarrassing to talk about my own sex life or even the sex life of other people. But it feels ok to talk about the sex life of animals because it is science - science but done in an entertaining fashion."

Rossellini, 61, says that she has been obsessed with the animal kingdom since she was a young girl growing up in Italy but in the 1970s nature studies was not a subject offered at university.

So she slipped into a career as a model, becoming one of the world's most famous faces, and later joined the acting troupe of de rigueur director Lynch - most memorably playing the abused lounge singer in Blue Velvet, one of the defining American films of the 1980s.

However, as Rossellini moved into her 40s and 50s the movie and modelling work dried up, so she decided to diversify, working with acclaimed Canadian art-movie specialist Guy Maddin on a tribute to her father, My Dad is 100 Years Old, in which she played every role including Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock and her mother.

About the same time Rossellini enrolled in New York's Hunter College to pursue her childhood dream and study animal behaviour, a drastic career shift which led to her being commissioned by Robert Redford, who loved her Rossellini tribute short, to make Green Porno for the Sundance Channel.

"It came at the perfect time for me," Rossellini says. "I was being offered less and less acting and modelling work, so I was feeling old and unwanted. So combining directing and acting in a medium that has the potential to reach more people than all of my other movies combined has given me a new lease of life."

The success of Green Porno, which garnered more than 4 million views on YouTube when it debuted in 2008, led to two further seasons and two other animal-themed productions: Seduce Me: The Spawn of Green Porno, about the topic of animal courtship, and Mammas, in which she plays the maternal versions of animals such as spiders and hamsters.

Now Rossellini, with the help of the great French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (The Tin Drum, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) has evolved her short films into a full-length stage show, which is touring the world and will soon travel across the land of the kangaroo, koala and emu (it will be interesting to see if she deals with sex life of Aussie critters).

Rossellini wants the short films and now the stage show to be educational but she does not want to get preachy.

"I don't want to be moralistic or tell people how to behave," says Rossellini, who lives on a farm not far from the village of Bellport in Long Island.

"When I showed my monologue to some of my professors at Hunter College some of them felt I needed to address conservation issues because they are so pressing. So I added a sentence but that is the only time I mention conservation and global warming and so forth.

"I thought that the best way to bring an audience around to your way of thinking is to seduce them. If you can get people to fall in love with these creatures then maybe they will want to protect them. Bombarding an audience with bad news is tiresome and alienating. People will just switch off," she says.

"I want people to laugh and learn. Dragonflies are common in every garden. You look a little closer and you learn that the male has a sexual organ that can clean the female's sexual organ because the female tends to be extremely promiscuous. I have always found things like this very amusing."

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

Compare & Save

Follow Us

More from The West