Isabella Rossellini Reveals the Link Link Circus Between Humans and Animals

The cinema icon completes her master’s degree in animal behavior at Hunter College and takes the stage at the same time.

Audiences have loved Isabella Rossellini onscreen for decades, both as an actor (Blue Velvet, Death Becomes Her) and model (she was the face of Lancôme cosmetics from 1982 to 1996, and was re-signed in 2015).

What her fans may not know, however, is that Rossellini is a passionate lover of animals. This interest is what spurred the creation of her lauded Sundance Channel series-turned-stage show Green Porno, which explores the mating rituals of various insects and animals, and also led her to Hunter College, where she's currently completing a graduate degree in animal behavior.

At the same time, Rossellini is also presenting her latest theatrical work, Link Link Circus, as part of the university's new Hunter Theater project. This one-woman, one-dog production explores a challenging subject: the way animals think. While she knows that the topic might turn people off, Rossellini promises that her goal is to make audiences laugh, while also sparking a great deal of curiosity.

Isabella Rossellini and Pan in Link Link Circus.
Isabella Rossellini and Pan in Link Link Circus.
(© Brigitte Lacombe)

Tell me about the origin of Link Link Circus.
This show is about cognition: How do animals think and feel? The structure is a little bit similar to Green Porno in that I will be talking and showing clips of films. Two of the films are from the old Green Porno series that I did for the Sundance Channel, including "Seduce Me." And then there are new films that I did for this show. I like to say that Green Porno is from the waist down, and this show is from the waist up.

Cognition seems like a weighty subject for a stage show.
Cognition, just the word, doesn't make you smile. I was afraid that it would be boring, and I want to make people laugh. I want everything I write to be comical. Of course, it's much easier to do that with sex. But I thought if I do it as a circus and have a little dog performing with me, it would add the comical or charming aspect.

Have you always been an animal lover?
I've always been an animal lover, and I've always been interested in animal behavior. When I finished high school in Italy, there wasn't really a program for animal behavior [at universities]. There was zoology and biology, but that's not what I was specifically interested in. Then I started to work and had my family. My children grew up and left home, I started to work less, and six years ago, I went to Hunter to attend a lecture by a wonderful lady named Temple Grandin. They were handing out leaflets about a master's degree program that they just started in animal behavior, so I signed up that evening.

Is that how this Hunter production came to be?
I've been doing Link Link Circus for about a year now. We started at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and I took it to Europe and the West Coast. So much of it is based on what I've learned at Hunter College completing my master's degree in animal behavior. The director of the theater program, Gregory Mosher, is an old friend of mine, so we made an arrangement that I would do it there. The tickets are very cheap for students; they're $10.

What do you want the audience to take away from seeing Link Link Circus?
The words "Link Link" refer to Darwin, to the fact that Darwin said we share an ancestry with the apes, so we're all linked. Some of the things that we do are present in animals; some of the things we do are unique to our species. But this is very seldom accepted. Culturally, we've been ingrained with the idea that we're not animals, that we're something different. So in my show, I give several examples of evidence about these links, and I hope it's surprising. People know evolution exists and that there is a link between us and the animals, but on an emotional level, it's hard to imagine. I'm trying to lead you to a place where you connect with that. I want people to go "Ha-ha-ha" with a laugh, and then go "Ohhhh" with wonderment.