How to Grow Old Like Isabella Rossellini

If you go to Isabella Rossellini’s Instagram page — and I recommend you do — you will see the 71-year-old actress/director/model/farmer wearing a giant woolly hat and vest, beaming with joy in the sunshine at her farm on Long Island. Another photo shows her staring off into the distance, her face proudly unretouched. Scrolling through, I often wonder how Rossellini is so comfortable in her own skin at an age when many women struggle in theirs.

Rossellini’s early life was, in some ways, defined by other people’s fame. She looks strikingly like her mother, the Swedish Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman. Her father, the director Roberto Rossellini, was a giant of Italian cinema. She was married to Martin Scorsese, and another partner, David Lynch, famously directed her in the 1986 film “Blue Velvet.” But she also built her own interesting and varied career, becoming one of the most recognizable models in the world as the face of Lancôme until, in her 40s, the beauty brand dumped her for being too old. Rossellini was suddenly faced with a question, she told me, that she’s still working through today: “Who am I, and how do I fulfill the rest of my life?”

The short answer is that she wrote books, went back to school, bought a farm, learned to be single, got rehired by Lancôme and kept acting. In the film “La Chimera,” directed by the Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher and opening in theaters on March 29, Rossellini plays a Tuscan matriarch who’s aging with a lot less equanimity than Isabella herself. (She also has a small part in the new film “Spaceman,” starring Adam Sandler.) Rossellini just started “a little experiment with sheep” at her farm, partnering with design schools to help students better understand wool, and describes herself as diligently following whatever amuses her. “I just play,” she says. “I’m playful. And I became increasingly more playful with age.”

I will confess that I have been slightly obsessing over your farm, where you are right now. It’s clearly both a refuge and also hard work. Did you always think this is what you’d be doing in your 70s? Because when I dream of my 70s, I’m not working quite as hard as you are. Well, you know, I say you need two ingredients to open a farm: optimism and ignorance. Optimism is like: Oh, it’s a piece of a dream, wouldn’t it be great to have it? Sure, I can do a farm! And ignorance is how hard it is — how hard it is workwise, but also to make it financially viable. All these little farms in the Hudson Valley or in Long Island, we are all struggling. How do you make it? Yet it’s such a contribution to the community, and it opened up so many possibilities and fills my mind with wonder, and I have to study hard to understand how to run it well.

What is it about the hard work that you find so compelling? There are little farms that don’t exist anymore, because there’s no money and it’s a lot of work. So why do it? It started with my love for animals. I always had dogs and cats, and then my father, when I was 14 years old, gave me Konrad Lorenz’s book “King Solomon’s Ring.” Lorenz is a founder of the science of ethology — the science of animal behavior — and I read that book. It was like an illumination. This is what I want to do. And when I became older and there was less work as a model and as an actress and my children were grown up, I thought, Well, maybe I’ll go back to school and study ethology. And so in my 60s, I signed up.

Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini in 1954 with their children, Isabella, Ingrid and Roberto.Credit…Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Images

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