role call

Isabella Rossellini Answers Every Question We Have About Death Becomes Her

On using a body double, her critique of Madonna’s Sex book, and why she’s glad she missed out on a role in a certain “exploitative” film. Photo: Universal Pictures

Isabella Rossellini appears in approximately 15 minutes of Death Becomes Her, and she nearly steals the movie. Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn are every bit as delicious, playing longtime Beverly Hills rivals who fork over hefty sums for a potion that promises everlasting youthfulness, but it’s Rossellini’s performance that comes as a surprise. When the film opened in 1992, she was known for being an A-list model and a highbrow actress, having most famously lent her gravitas to Blue Velvet, David Lynch’s provocative masterpiece about the shadowy underside of suburbia. Then along came Death. Robert Zemeckis’s movie — a decent-size hit whose pioneering CGI won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects — coats its satire about Hollywood narcissism in zany charm. Rossellini’s humor bursts through the screen, casting her in a kitschy new light. As Lisle von Rhuman, the wealthy peddler of said potion, she is decadent, sensual, and knowingly ridiculous. Who better to spoof the aristocratic quest for unremitting beauty than the spokeswoman for Lancôme?

Rossellini hasn’t been given enough opportunities to capture that same comedic thunder, though she does leave a major impression as a talking grandmother shell named Connie in this year’s charming Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. Offscreen, the Italian-born multi-hyphenate maintains a 28-acre farm on Long Island. That’s part of what inspired her ongoing one-woman show about animal behavior, called Darwin’s Smile, and it’s where she was located when she called up Vulture to discuss Death Becomes Her 30 years after its release.

Thirty years ago, you had Death Becomes Her and Madonna’s Sex book come out back to back. Do you look at that period fondly?
Yes, I do. I forgot that they were the same year. One was so linked to my life as a model because the Madonna book was done by Steven Meisel, who’s a great fashion photographer with whom I worked a lot. For me, Madonna and Steven Meisel were my life as a model, and Death Becomes Her was cinema. I wanted that role very much. Robert Zemeckis, who’s such a lovely director and wonderful person, told me I was one of the first people to test, so he needed to test more people because the studio wanted that. I kept on saying, “But I work for Lancôme! I sell anti-aging cream! I’m the perfect one!” He called me a month later and said, “You know what? The role is yours.” I was so delighted.

So you saw the role as ironic?
Sure. Absolutely. I thought it was ironic and funny.

Were you auditioning a lot at that point in your career?
Yes. I don’t know what happened, but they don’t audition me anymore. I don’t know if it’s my age and everybody’s younger and so they’re a little bit afraid of me, or if they don’t do it as much.

Don’t you think it’s because people are more familiar with you now?
Maybe, but I remember for The Bridges of Madison County, which Meryl Streep then did with Clint Eastwood, I found myself sitting in a greenroom with a lot of French actresses. Even Catherine Deneuve was there. We were looking at each other and laughing: “Are we here to audition?!” The story was that the main woman was a foreigner. It was so strange, but we were all respecting whatever America wants to do. But it’s not that they’re testing your talent. They test other things. There’s chemistry between actors, many things. You feel so judged, and the way I was able to overcome it is by thinking I am also auditioning them. I sit down and I immediately know if this is a group of people I’d like to work with, because you have to spend three months away from home. That gave me a sense of control. I did say to my agent, “I will audition, but it’s also a way to meet the people in case something happens and I want to withdraw.” That gave me a lot of physiological strength to do the testing.

I’ve never heard an actor frame it quite that way, and it makes total sense. Often when actors talk about the audition process, they feel a little powerless. And it sounds like you found a way to reclaim some of that.
Yes. One director said he wouldn’t test me because he wanted to have total control. He said, “If you come and test, it’s up to me to say yes or no. We don’t want to waste any time if you come, we like you, and you turn us down.”

By the time you’re auditioning with Zemeckis, had Meryl, Goldie Hawn, and Bruce Willis already been cast?
I don’t know. They don’t tell you this information. But already it was good enough to know it was Robert Zemeckis, one of the greatest directors we’ve ever had. He’s so original. It was interesting to work with him because he’d made films that were so big for Hollywood studios: Forrest Gump, Roger Rabbit, huge successes. And yet when I worked with him I had the feeling that I was working on the kind of film that my father did. Sometimes on an independent film, there’s a group of friends that makes it. My father was one of those. I was surprised to see that Robert Zemeckis was so inventive with the special effects. He worked with friends from high school; they were inventing special effects since they were kids together, and the film was written around that. Yes, there were big trailers and studios, but the core of the film was almost executed as an independent film because of the creative team. And they had the most wonderful producer whose name is Starkey. You would think Starkey is the name of someone who wants to intimidate people, but he is the nicest man I ever met. It was a wonderful experience.

The movie was a hit at the time, but it’s really taken on a cult status.
Yes. We didn’t know that. We thought it was going to be like Roger Rabbit, a film for families. But it has a cult following, and mostly a following from the gay community. That was surprising to us. We appreciate it, but it wasn’t the aim.

There’s something about your performance that is incredibly exotic — and, if I may, erotic. How much of that came from you, and how much came from Zemeckis’s direction?
I think it came from me. Being a model and selling beauty, you exaggerate that. Working with Lancôme, I represented another voice of fashion. But there is a voice in the fashion world of absolute beauty, absolute perfection, not inclusiveness but exclusive to the max. That was the inspiration. In a way, Lisle is a caricature of the fashion victim. That was the model I had in mind. All my movements were very studied — the way I stand up, sit down; everything was poised. I thought that fit the character of this crazy lady who does everything for beauty.

And the costumes are the other part of that.
Oh my God, the costumes were so much fun. Some of them were even better in life than what resulted in the film. When Bruce Willis wakes up next to the pool where Lisle is swimming nude, for example, that moment I said to the producer, Starkey, that I don’t think I have that body. It has to be incredible. It has to look like Barbie, and I don’t have a Barbie body. So I did have a body double because I said to Starkey that Sylvester Stallone was with a woman who looked so beautiful. Remember her? What was her name? She looked unreal.

Brigitte Nielsen?
Exactly. It needed to be someone who looked like that. I don’t have the perfect body — I’m rounder, my legs are not as long. We got a body double, and I love that she comes out of the pool still wearing high heels. She swims with high-heel shoes. Then when the scene continues and I talk to Bruce Willis, I have a coat. Remember the coat that has the big collar up?

Yes, I love that coat.
That coat in the front had magnets, and every time I turned around, I would do it in a way where the magnets would open and close the dress. I don’t think it was completely captured in the film. Then when we did the other dress where I only have the necklace and the skirt, that one we pasted the precious stones on my nipples so they could be covered.

I was curious about the body double because obviously you had done Blue Velvet and the Sex shoot, even though you’re one of the more clothed people in the Sex book. I wondered if having a body double had something to do with the fact that the nudity in Death Becomes Her is a lot sexier than the nudity in Blue Velvet. 
To me, I do everything to serve the film. It was important in Blue Velvet that it be me with all my imperfection. I remember the night before I was eating pasta, and one of the actors said, “You’re eating pasta and tomorrow you have a nude scene? I would have been on a diet for two weeks.” But I didn’t think about it because my character — it’s not that she was not beautiful or appealing, but she didn’t have that Brigitte Nielsen appeal. She was a victim of her beauty because maybe she was a nice, beautiful girl from the neighborhood who attracted the violence of the character of Dennis Hopper, who probably was a rapist anyway.

There is a scene in Blue Velvet where I sing, and I remember how moved I was. When I looked down and saw Dennis, he was crying as the character. I didn’t expect that. I thought it was so exceptional that Dennis would have done that because I only see his character, Frank Booth, as a violent man and a rapist. But in fact he’s in love with me, and that’s what makes him angry. Because if you’re in love, you’re vulnerable. He loves me, but he hates his vulnerability and that’s what makes him violent. I said to him, “Dennis, that was so moving, this choice you’ve made that I did not expect.” It was so amazing, that layer of complication.

When I did the nude scene where I walk in the street naked, my character, Dorothy Vallens, comes from a rape or a very violent scene where her clothes were torn. She’s in shock and she’s walking in the street alone. David Lynch told me that when he was a little boy he was coming back home from school with his brother and they saw a naked woman walking in the street and they didn’t get excited or aroused — they burst into tears because they understood that something very wrong had happened. David wanted to reconstruct that scene. I called David and said, “This only image that comes to mind for me is total helplessness.” I think of that photo by Nick Ut, who was a war photographer who took that photo of a little girl who was burned by napalm. The way she walks is so helpless because she’s totally exposed with her arms out. If I cover myself, psychologically it might mean this woman still has an understanding of what’s happening and is protecting herself. Instead, she shouldn’t have anything. That gesture, to me, is so much the gesture of total helplessness, and David agreed. David’s visual references were more Francis Bacon paintings. Francis Bacon sometimes had a cow hanging on a hook in a butcher shop — nudity but clearly translated into something brutal.

It’s violent.
Right. But in Death Becomes Her, the nudity had to be a bodily nudity. That’s why I personally suggested a body double. I think it’s important, if you do a nude scene, to take responsibility — and also you’re there, so you can say to the director when something makes you feel uncomfortable. But in the case of Death Becomes Her, the body double had to be Barbie and I just didn’t have that body. Later on, I thought it could have been me because they could have photographed me in a certain way.

I do admit that nudity is complicated. Steven Meisel is this fantastic, fantastic photographer that I worked with. A lot of photographers publish books with retrospectives of their photos, and Steven was offered to do a book. He was very young, and he said, “I don’t want to make a book of the photos I’ve done. I would like to take advantage of the idea to make a book about photography, and Madonna wants to make a book about sex. Maybe we’ll do that.” So Madonna, Steve, and I went to dinner, and Madonna explained to me — and she was right — that sex is such a taboo. It can be the most tender moments of our lives, and also the most violent. She said, “I would like to do a portrait of sex, but all me, kind of like a Frida Kahlo idea.” I thought that was a very interesting idea, and I thought she had a lot of authority to talk about sex. She wanted it to be openly bisexual. She was very liberating. So I agreed to be in it, but I did say, especially after Blue Velvet, that I didn’t think I had it in me to do another naked scene. I was so persecuted. There were so many complaints. I said, “I am willing to do any portrait of two women in love. That’s no problem. But I don’t want to do another nudity because there were so many repercussions. I don’t have it in me anymore.” That’s why I agreed to be in the book but without nudity, instead portraying two women in love.

A few years earlier according to the internet, you’d turned down Fatal Attraction because you didn’t want to be cast as a femme fatale.
No, I tested for 9 1/2 Weeks and they chose Kim Basinger.

Oh, a different Adrian Lyne movie.
Right. I auditioned for that. After seeing the film, in a way, I was happy I was not chosen. I thought that Adrian’s films were a little exploitative.

Between you and I — well, not between you and I, because you’re a journalist — at the end of the day, I told Madonna and Steven the book is beautiful and the photos are beautiful but I don’t think she went deep enough. It came across as, “I am liberated and you are not.” I understand she may have wanted to say, “Sex has many facets and I am exploring them all.” In that, I appreciated her effort. But somehow the book missed something. I said to Steven, “If you photograph a man naked but he’s an athlete, it’s going to be a different impact than seeing a businessman naked. If you see a businessman naked, it will hit you as more shocking.” Madonna is almost too perfect. She arranged everything: the makeup, the pubic hair. In a way, it was too slick. There was no vulnerability.

It’s almost a little clinical in how perfectly art-directed it is. It also has people like Naomi Campbell, who is superhumanly beautiful. 
Yes. If you don’t want to portray the violent aspect of sex, part of sex is also opening yourself and being vulnerable. I think there was no vulnerability in the book. But I did appreciate the attempt, and some of the photos are memorable. Steven is one of the people I appreciate the most. I also appreciated his attempt to say “I don’t want to do a retrospective of my work. I only want to look forward.” He was doing photos for Vogue and wanted to do something else. I didn’t think it was 100 percent successful.

With the Adrian film, I thought it was not very deep. His films are a little exploitative. I was lucky not to be chosen. Sometimes God helps me. I may not help myself, but God does.

Did you know Meryl Streep before this movie?
No, I didn’t. I met her during Death Becomes Her, and I had met Goldie Hawn, who was a delight. They’re great people.

Goldie had worked with your mother on Cactus Flower, a movie I adore.
Isn’t it amazing? And she won the Oscar!

Did you two swap stories about Ingrid?
Yes, of course. I remember meeting Goldie with my mom and how delightful she was. My mom thought she was the cutest thing on earth, and she is the cutest thing on earth, and fun. Goldie and I have a very good friend who unfortunately died of AIDS. His name was Charlie. He was my best friend and Goldie’s best friend, so we had Charlie in common. Charlie was gay, but he always said, “I don’t know if I’m going to marry you or Goldie.” So we were always joking, “I want Charlie to marry me; I don’t want him to marry you!”

Charlie was lucky to have such great options. Originally, the movie ended very differently. That ending involved a scene with Tracey Ullman, who you’ve also worked with. It was more poignant and hopeful, which audiences at test screenings did not appreciate. Zemeckis did last-minute reshoots to change the ending, which left me wondering whether you shot anything that isn’t in the movie.
No, I didn’t. Now that you say it, I vaguely remember that. But that happens with a lot of films.

Death Becomes Her arrived at an interesting moment because plastic surgery had a big boom in the ’90s. Meryl talked at the time about it being such a hot topic within Hollywood. What were your feelings about plastic surgery at the time?
I feel ambivalent. I haven’t done any plastic surgery. Some day I woke up and said, “We have all these new technologies in surgery. Why don’t I take advantage of it? I’m going to call a plastic surgeon.” Then when I started to call a plastic surgeon, I ran out of courage. Most of the time, I have to say, I’m thinking, Is this based on misogyny? Now I’m too old. I’m not going to do plastic surgery at 70; my skin will not sustain it. But in the years before — around 45 or 50 — I didn’t do it. Now I look back and say, “Maybe I was right.” I think it is misogyny.

I had a friend, for example, who always hated her nose. Luckily, she fell and broke her nose. She said, “I took advantage of it!” So that I understand. But I always say, jokingly, because I run an organic farm and try to eat healthy, that I can’t reconcile eating organically and having Botox. How do you reconcile the two? Meanwhile, I became old and I’m working with Lancôme. They hired me back, and a lot of people send emails and comments saying they feel represented by me. The photos are all about cosmetics and looking your best, and they’re very appreciative that there is a 70-year-old woman doing it and not even attempting to look like what I’m not. I think I was right not to do it.

It’s a complicated thing. A lot of people who do it obviously feel empowered by the decision, but you have to wonder what that empowerment is rooted in and whether it’s satisfying some misogynistic ideal. 
I have many friends and relatives who have done plastic surgery, and I’m not against it. Also, I can gladly announce that even though I haven’t done it, I am still working all the time. The fear is that maybe if I don’t do plastic surgery I’ll work less. But it hasn’t happened to me.

Several years ago, Robert Zemeckis talked about doing some kind of Death Becomes Her TV spinoff. It never got off the ground, but did you guys discuss it?
No, and lately I heard there’s going to be a Death Becomes Her musical. I forgot who told me, but I said, “I want to be part of it!” Then COVID hit. I could play the one that has not drank the potion. [Laughs.]

That would be some interesting meta-commentary considering what your casting represented then and what it would represent now. That would be great. Isabella, thank you for your time today. 
You know, I have to say, it’s been so interesting to talk to you, especially about nudity. It’s a subject that people are avoiding. Either they’re scandalized and say, “Why did you do it?” or they say someone is exploiting you or you’re an exhibitionist. No! There’s a big reasoning behind it every time, so I’m so glad I was able to express it.

American-studio movies have become very sexless in recent years, and we’ve lost the pulse on the pros and cons of nudity even though we’ve become more sexually liberated as a culture. It’s a weird contradiction.
Yeah, it is strange. In some countries, if you’re gay or transgender, they kill you or put you in jail. In America, you’re protected and can get married. And yet there’s a puritanical streak. There are many things I loved about becoming an American, but this is the part I can’t quite figure out. What is the logic? How does it work?

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Italian neorealist master Roberto Rossellini directed Stromboli (where he met Isabella’s mother, Ingrid Bergman), Germany Year Zero, Paisan, and Rome, Open City. That would be Steve Starkey, who has produced most of Zemeckis’s films. Catherine Bell, who has since starred in JAG, Army Wives, and the Hallmark Channel franchise The Good Witch. When Cactus Flower came out in 1969, Ingrid Bergman was one of the most respected actors alive, having made Casablanca, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Gaslight, and multiple Hitchcock movies. Streep said in an interview, “What I like about this [movie] is that it takes the subject, which sort of does haunt everybody in Hollywood, and makes fun of it and puts it into perspective, I think. … Plastic surgery? Ask me when I’m 70. Or 107. Maybe I’ll consider it.” Rossellini’s upcoming movie slate includes Cat Person, a sci-fi drama with Adam Sandler, Julio Torres’s directorial debut, and an Alice Rohrwacher film co-starring Josh O’Connor.
Isabella Rossellini on the Making of Death Becomes Her