“Pinocchio, basta! I see you!” Isabella Rossellini was scolding her spotted mutt, hoping to keep him from mauling a hen that had strayed from her coop. Can’t take your eyes off them, can you? Rossellini was shaking her head, her watchfulness maternal.
These days, when she is not acting, writing, making films or modeling — she recently signed a new contract with Lancôme, the cosmetics company — she is minding her Long Island farm. On a 28-acre tract in Bellport, New York, with the help of some friends, she breeds chickens, grows organic vegetables and produces honey and eggs.
She doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. After leading visitors to a hillock that turns out to be a compost heap, she plunged a fist deep inside, urging us to do the same, so that we could feel the heat generated by its rotting leaves.
It doesn’t bother her either to scatter dried worms to the turkeys and 100-odd heritage chickens that trail her wherever she goes. “When they are small, I sit with them in their boxes,” Rossellini said of her oddly speckled and spotted brood. “That way they get used to me.”
A hands-on breeder, she delivers their eggs — round, oval or oblong, in motley tones of green, blue and brown — to the local farmers’ market every week. Their variety came as a surprise, she said. “That’s why I wrote the book.”
She meant “My Chickens and I,” a slim volume of poultry lore published in March. Illustrated with photographs by the artist Patrice Casanova (a friend and neighbor), and her own pleasingly daft line drawings, it documents the maturing of her first chicks from the time they arrived, huddled in boxes, until they started laying eggs.
The book is simultaneously whimsical and blunt, like Rossellini herself, who discusses her roller coaster career with uncommon candor.
As she tells it, she was hot, with no fewer than 23 Vogue magazine covers to her credit, riveting film roles and a long-term, lucrative modeling contract with Lancôme. Then she was not, the casualty of a youth-fixated culture, as perishable a commodity as her gaily feathered flock.
“Now I’m hot again,” Rossellini said without rancor. Indeed, at 65, she is having a moment, her farm a physical manifestation of her oddly assorted passions. “Nobody wanted me as a model or actress, so I went back to school,” she said matter-of-factly.
Yet, despite a years-long hiatus in her performing career, she has kept busy with several wittily instructive films, among them “Green Porno,” a 2008 Sundance mini-series about the mating behavior of animals, and the 2013 “Mammas,” an alternately absurd and scary short describing variations in maternal instinct among the species. Rossellini appeared as a spider that gobbles her young.
Now, she is about to complete her master’s degree in animal behavior and conservation at Hunter College in Manhattan.
Rossellini is acting again, playing the matriarch of a Romani-American crime dynasty in “Shut-Eye,” a two-season series on Hulu. She will direct and perform in Link Link Circus, a touring “theatrical lecture,” as she calls it, highlighted by her funny, perceptive observations on evolution and barnyard life; it is scheduled to open next Wednesday at the Baryshnikov Center in New York.
Rossellini’s book is just another way to show off her inventiveness. Populated by her varicolored chickens, it draws on her observations about their diversity and intelligence. There are comic riffs as well on poultry plumage, a kind of critter couture in her view. A Cochin hen with fluffy tail feathers appears alongside Rossellini’s drawing of a tutu-clad mannequin.
“This one reminds me of Dior’s New Look,” she writes.
On this first in a string of balmy spring days, Rossellini wore a weathered toggle-jacket by Shanghai Tang over torn pants. “There are always holes in my clothes,” she said, smiling unabashedly as she strolled the property, which once belonged to the Marist brothers.
She chattered, unfazed, above sudden gusts of wind, shrilly gabbling turkeys and the occasional cricket-like ringtone of her phone. Sighting a turkey, she stopped in her tracks. “See that,” she said. “He does a domineering dance. He is like a man, lording it over the other birds.”
His flashy posturing once prompted a visiting professor to suggest that the animal may have been courting her, Rossellini recalled. “The males can be very aggressive, you know,” she said.
That comment was unambiguous, but Rossellini seemed reluctant to venture further into highly charged terrain. In her 1997 memoir, “Some of Me,” she referred glancingly to having been raped as a teenager by a slightly older boy. A feminist who attended consciousness-raising groups in her native Rome, she has no quarrel with the #MeToo movement. But she tends to stop short of airing her personal traumas, and declined through her publicist to revisit the rape.
“Why would I dig out this story 48 years later?” she told David Marchese, a writer for Vulture, the New York Magazine culture website. She refused to name the perpetrator. “If I said who did this I would destroy him,” she added. “I have no heart for it.”
In a “machista” culture, she went on, “a lot of men are told that if women say no, they mean yes.” There are other erroneous assumptions, she said the other day, including that women dress and make up entirely to provoke or seduce, that they dream of eternal youth.
It was precisely that sort of thinking that led Lancôme to fire her a couple of decades ago. At the time the company was run by a closed tribe, what she described as “men of middle age in a very paternalistic culture.”
The loss of that job, and with it her chief source of income, shook her. “I was depressed,” she said. “I was worried financially.”
She remembered asking a company executive: What am I supposed to do? “I’m not your wet nurse,” he replied.
A more progressive era dawned with the arrival last year of Françoise Lehmann, Lancôme’s 55-year-old motorbiking general manager. She quickly persuaded Rossellini to rejoin the fold — part of a move toward inclusion, not just of skin color but also of age.
Rossellini was skeptical, concerned that her controversial history might damage the project. Lehmann argued otherwise. “She told me very bravely, ‘You can tell your story better than anyone,'” Rossellini said.
Spinning narratives is her business, after all — “actors are storytellers,” she likes to say — her own tales often underscoring a conviction that no creature, hairy or quilled, is disposable.
It’s a precept that covers her Long Island menagerie, which includes, besides poultry and bees, three goats, a small herd of sheep and Pepe and Boris, her lumberingly overgrown pigs. Bred for slaughter, they have legs that are too short to carry them far.
“You can see that they suffer,” she said. But letting them loll in their shed is preferable to carting them off to the slaughterhouse.
By contrast her goats work a little. “We let them out,” Rossellini said. “They eat a lot of weeds.” The farm, which she created with the Peconic Land Trust, is a boon to the community. Children sometimes visit in school groups or with their parents.
“Their mothers are delighted to show them, ‘This is how asparagus grows. This is what eggs look like.'” Not a moment too soon, it would seem.
“Some of these children,” Rossellini noted wryly, “don’t even know where an egg comes from.”