A Lychian reunion between old friends and true cinema royalty, Willem Dafoe and Isabella Rossellini, star of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
Other topics covered include: rolling your Rs, the incomparable satisfaction of cursing in Italian, eggplant parmigiana, puppet theater, loving a strong director, going towards the vision, the freedom of abstraction, meeting David Lynch for the first time at dinner with Helen Mirren, Isabella’s master’s degree in animal behavior and conservation, taming Abel Ferrara, working with Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet (and Willem almost getting cast as Frank Booth), stumpy-tooth dentures, uniform dressing, and the true meaning of elegance.
Willem Dafoe: Hi. Hi, I'm Isabella Rossellini. Hi–-
Isabella Rossellini: Hi, I'm Willem Dafoe, or the other way around. We are actors, so you'll never know. And this is the podcast for A24.
Willem: Hey, how are you?
Isabella: I'm fine and you?
Willem: Good. Where are you?
Isabella: So I'm in New York.
Willem: I'm outside Rome.
Isabella: Outside Rome. That's what I thought, because I can see on Zoom the door behind you and I said, "That's not America."
Willem: No, it's in fact, it's an Indian door actually. But-
Isabella: An Indian door.
Willem: ... I could be India, but I'm in Italy. And a decidedly Indian decor room actually, yeah.
Isabella: So do you speak Italian by now, Willem, you do?
Willem: [Italian 00:00:58].
Isabella: Oh really? Are you taking lessons or you just speak –
Willem: Little bit. Once a week, I take a lesson, but I read a little bit in the morning.
Isabella: Well, the Italian grammar is very complicated, but if it’s of any consolation, we Italian make many mistakes when we talk.
Willem: [Italian 00:01:17].
Isabella: Especially the verb. The verb are so difficult so we make mistakes.
Willem: I know the verbs are a killer. Yes, it's true. I always remember when I first started learning Italian, sometimes I meet someone and I'd say, "Giada, I really have trouble. I don't understand this guy." And she'd say, "Well, he doesn't speak Italian very well." And I'd say, "What do you mean, he's Italian?" And she'd say, "Well, he's used to speaking dialect and his Italian's a little rusty," which was an introduction into some areas, people still speak dialect and –
Willem: ... And also, the fact that Italy's such a new country.
Isabella: Or you use it as a slang. Yes. You use it also dialect as a slang as in English.
Isabella: You would get an accent to be cool, or you would speak with certain terms that define if you are a rock and roller, or a lawyer. Yes, when I grew up the dialects in Italy were much stronger, but it was also the beginning of television when I started, and it always was attributed to television. It was very popular to unify the language in Italy.
Willem: I can always tell when Giada is dealing with a tough Roman contractor or a plumber or something, her accent changes. She throws a couple of words of dialect in there and I think, oh.
Isabella: To each other, you speak English or you mix up the languages?
Willem: For example, sometimes in the situation, a lot of friends can speak English, but I hate to have everyone in the room speak English for me. And also, I'll never learn if people speak English so I sort of insist when we're with friends that we all speak Italian. If there's anything really important to say, we tend to go to English. But recently I've found out I can actually fight in Italian, you know when I'm angry.
Isabella: Very, very good. Sometimes though saying big words in a different language, it allows you because sometimes when I say... Well, we can't say it now because, but I don't know if it can be censored or not this podcast.
Willem: Oh, go ahead. Go ahead.
Isabella: But if I say fuck in English.
Isabella: It doesn't resonate in me as strong as it probably resonates into an American. So when I fought with my husband, I often switched to English... I felt I was very violent in my language in English, but I couldn't used the same strength in Italian because those words hit me and then I thought, "Oh, I don't want to be that hard." So I'm sure you have a lot of bad words.
Willem: Oh God. That's the first thing you learn.
Isabella: Oh, yes. And in Italy they elaborate. They can invent new words. Yeah.
Willem: The other ridiculous thing is, of course, maybe it's partly because I'm an actor and I like to mimic things, but you learn gestural language.
Isabella: Yes. And many... Did you know I just found... Somebody gave me a teeny book with all the Italian gestures and it's wonderful. And some of it is references to very long history of how they came about, and I didn't know it. Of course, I do Italian gesture, but I didn't know how they came about. And so much of the gestures, yeah there also used in [Italian 00:04:54] in all these improvised theater of Italy, where there was a little... They were character that were set and little bit of stories, but all this gesture also came to make the audience understand what were the subtext of the character. I'll send it to you. It'll be very interesting. Talking about the theater-
Willem: That would be wonderful.
Isabella: ... Willem, I think I've met you when you were living in Tribeca and I was living in Tribeca–
Isabella: ... and you had your experimental theater.
Willem: Right. The Wooster Group. Yes.
Willem: I was with that company for many, many years and they still exist, but because of various reasons I had to leave but they still go. It's not the same, but that was a big part of my life. And that was my–
Isabella: It was a big part of your life, I remember.
Willem: ... Yeah.
Isabella: I remember, that was what, maybe 40 years ago, is that so?
Willem: I started in '77 and I stopped in about 2003 or '04, I think.
Isabella: That's a long–
Willem: That's a long time.
Isabella: ... stretch.
Isabella: Do you miss theater? Because you did that, but when I–
Willem: Yeah, I've done theater. After I finished with the Wooster Group, I worked with three directors that I loved. Very fortunate, I worked with Richard Foreman, who I had worked with before, who had a beautiful theater that was in St. Mark's Church for a long time. It was a little chamber theater called the Ontological-Hysteric Theater. I loved working with him. I did a piece with him at the Public. And then I worked with Bob Wilson a couple of times. In fact, one time with Baryshnikov, which was based on kind of a surrealist writer, Russian writer named Daniel Carns. And it was principally a movement piece, which was great fun for me because one of the beautiful things about the theater that sometimes you aren't afforded in film is you get to use your body so fully.
Willem: So it was a great piece because we played twins. We were dressed alike and sometimes we'd mimic each other and that was a great experience. And then also, I worked with this great Italian director named Romeo Castellucci. Do you know his work?
Isabella: I don't know his work because although, I am Italian and I often go to Italy, I have lived in America for 50 years–
Willem: I know.
Isabella: ... and I don't go so much in Italy. I do go to visit my family or some friends. Literally, for the first time I made a film in Italy with Alice Rohrwacher, but generally–
Willem: Oh, yeah.
Isabella: ... Yeah, Alice's very, very talented. But I don't know for what reason, I don't really work much in Italy. I work mostly in America and France a lot, but not so much in Italy. When I asked why they say that they feel that I'm a little bit of a hybrid. I'm not completely Italian because I lived all my adult life abroad, but then I'm Italian, so they don't know how to place me. I always had that problem that I could never be cast as a family, because in English I have an accent and all of a sudden they'll say, "Why is that sister speaking differently?" So, that was always... And in Italian, although Italy, Italian is my first language, but my mom was Swedish. She was the actress, Ingrid Bergman–
Isabella: ... and I grew up in France. So even in Italian, I don't have an accent, but I don't roll my Rs, which is, I say the French R. So for example, my last name is Rossellini.
Isabella: But in Italian it would be Rossellini.
Isabella: Roma. I say Roma.
Isabella: So I have also, it's not an accent, but I have some letters that I pronounced differently, so.
Willem: Oh. I recently for the first time dubbed myself in Italian.
Isabella: Oh that is really hard. Dubbing is so hard.
Willem: Very difficult. And I hate dubbing because you lose a lot.
Willem: You lose tone, you lose breath. And the Italians are very proud of their dubbing, quite frankly.
Willem: It's terrible. I prefer subtitles any day, even though there's a feeling of reduction of the text and all that. You into it a lot just by the tonal-
Willem: ... and the breath and sometimes even the accent, even if you don't understand the word, it's music. But I did it and it was very difficult and we got it to an okay place I thought. But then I couldn't resist because I was kind of curious because it was a release for, it was the film that I’d shot with Abel Ferrara, who I've worked with a lot in Italy. But for the video release, it was dubbed. And so I was curious, so I went online to see the trailer dubbed. Anyone that has any interest in following me, they're used to hearing me dubbed in another language–
Isabella: In another voice.
Willem: ... in someone else's voice. So it was disturbing to hear my voice in Italian and I played a foreigner so I could have an accent still. It wasn't great.
Isabella: But now that you mentioned that, that would also be the reason why I don't work so much in Italy because I am known, because also my parents were very known and all that, but–
Isabella: ... and they know my voice because I worked on television in Italy. I don't dub my film because I found it so different. So, just to explain, if there's somebody that hears this podcast. In Italy, all films that are foreign are not subtitled, but they are dubbed. And often the people that dub the film are very known in Italy and very revered, but you might have Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman have the same person dubbing them, so the voice is gone, is a fantastic interpretation of what they do, but it doesn't make the person. You don't identify actors by their voices, especially foreign actors.
Isabella: But Fellini said something interesting because in America, everybody was so shocked about Italian dubbing great actors. And Fellini said when, because he worked with my father and I knew him when I was a little girl. He said, "I don't understand it but I can create a whole character by using dubbing because I can take a very big man and have a little girl dub him and there you were." You have a character that immediately stank, but he was a caricaturist. He made a lot of drawing with caricature. And so, I understand that use of, you can create a person or you create a character. But I find it when I grew up in Italy, I went to see all the film including my mom, Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, Notorious. I've seen them all dubbed at first and it didn't disturb me. But now that I hear the original, I have a hard time hearing films that are dubbed.
Willem: Sure. When you're talking about the same voice for Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, famously, this movie Heat and De Niro and Pacino had scenes together and they were in crisis because they have the same voice in Italian. So when it was released in Italy, it had a lot of trouble finding commercial traction, even though they were wildly popular actors because people confused that one of them did not have their regular voice. Pretty strange, huh?
Isabella: It is strange. Just one second–
Isabella: ... because I put something in the oven.
Willem: Oh, okay.
Isabella: But I want to turn it, I don't want to burn my lunch.
Willem: What is it?
Isabella: Just a second.
Willem: What is it? Ah, okay.
Willem: Oh, okay.
Isabella: And it just smelled like something was burning.
Willem: Okay. It's okay?
Isabella: Willem, you've worked with so many directors. I'm going to list a few, because I don't think there is anybody who worked with so many directors that you have. Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Lars von Trier, Tony Scott, Oliver Stone, David Lynch, Paul Schrader, Vin Vendors, Julian Schnabel, Abel Ferrara, of course, David Cronenberg, Spike Lee, even Theos Angelopoulos. I mean, amazing. I don't think there is anybody who has worked with so many different directors, and sometime you work in said films with the same director.
Willem: Right. Director's very important to me. I love a strong director, because I feel like then I can relax and really give myself to the project. I don't worry. I feel much freer. But I appreciate that because if I'm left to my own devices, I'm sure I'd go to the same well all the time. It takes a certain kind of intervention or certain kind of discipline to be open each time–
Willem: ...To kind of recreate your process. And I think that's very important. And of course there's some go-to things or there's some tendencies you have, but I always find it most rewarding if that's taken away from me.
Willem: If I know why I'm doing a project, then I don't worry about the result. If I like the people, if I like their work, if they inspire me, then I try to be there for them. And that frees me.
Willem: Ultimately, it's a selfish goal because then I feel like I do my best work that way. But the truth is, if you go towards someone else's vision, that's not yours, it makes you freer. I think.
Willem: So, you want someone with a really strong and personal view of things. You don't just want the stylist, then you're interchangeable. And then it kind of becomes a craft game.
Willem: You want to get in their head and try to complete the world that they create. I mean, look, something as simple as when we both worked with David Lynch on... You worked with him on couple of films.
Isabella: Wild at Heart, we did it with...
Willem: But Wild at Heart we did together. And I remember that was like the... There's a logic. We were there to–
Isabella: I agree with you. It was–
Willem: ... complete that world.
Isabella: To complete that world. Yes, I too. For me working with different directors, if they have a brilliant mind and if the... You just... I would say, you enter into their brain, it's like taking a touristic trip into some other's person intelligence.
Isabella: And I also... The most satisfactory is when you can make their idea come more alive. So that instead of saying, "I see the character like this and fight it," you say, "No. Okay. What do you see?" And you search with them because sometimes the idea is...
Isabella: David used to say to me, sometimes the idea is like thin ice. I know it's right, but I need... And I mean, David directs like this. He doesn't really verbalize what he wants, but you start the scene with some mood and you can see from his face if he's happy or not.
Isabella: And if he smiles and he is very happy, you go more in that direction. And it's a back and forth until it's shaped, the scene is shaped. And that, to me, I like that process. I like the process of making film very much because it's a collaboration.
Willem: Me too. Me too. And personally, that's always more interesting than the film.
Isabella: Yes. Or when a film comes out, people think... I mean, sometime I say the best film is the one that we don't have to present to the press and have all the reviews and read all the bad reviews and the red carpets.
Isabella: I mean, to me, it's really the process, not so much the release when the films are released. Of course, we have to be released and we want them to be successful, but that is the part that I like the least.
Willem: Yeah, I agree. But I like that fine too, because it's so connected to doing more and getting the film out there. And I'm down with that. I guess I feel more like, I love the adventure of making a film and it's probably why I'm not a director.
Willem: I think you have to let a little responsibility go about where you're going, what the film's going to be, and you have to just be there to receive what's going on.
Willem: And if you can get in that place and you can have the right situation and whether it's an exotic thing or something very close to you, whatever it is, it's a good way to live.
Willem: It's stimulating and it feels useful because you're working with a team to make something that's either going to inspire them or distract them or make them laugh or something. So, I'm happy as a clam when I'm working.
Isabella: Yeah, me too. I like that. Did you find yourself happier to work with some director and some were more difficult where some, their search to express what they were looking for was more difficult than others? I would imagine.
Willem: I think so. I always get scared when a director thinks he knows what the actor's process is.
Willem: And tries to speak actor's language, because they... Everyone's different and I've met... I've worked with some directors. I'm sure you have too, where they're smart enough to note that they have to deal with every actor differently, particularly in the state, but not just in the state.
Willem: But beautiful thing about film is there isn't a cookie cutter education for it. So sometimes you're working with people that used to be models or people that used to be a cook or someone that was a driver. It's a mixed bag. Some are classically trained. Some are theater actors. It's a mixed bag and everybody... There's no uniform system.
Willem: So, you have to treat everybody kind of... See what they need and see what you need. And it's a nice social meeting every time, I think.
Willem: You've got such an interesting career. Last time I saw you were... It's a long time ago actually. I've probably seen you since, but I mean, the last time I saw you at a screening or something of something you did was Green Porno.
Isabella: Oh, you saw Green Porno. Sure, I have become a director myself.
Willem: No. And also, you always surprise me by the choices you make and they're so different and so eclectic. And I like it a lot. I don't catch everything, but I'm always happy to see you, and I'm always...
Willem: And personally, I've said it before and I don't want to embarrass you, but maybe it's your upbringing, but you're so elegant. And so–
Isabella: Oh, thank you.
Willem: ... graceful with people socially, I think. And a lot of actors don't have that quality because they're scared.
Willem: And they're worried about offending people or speaking their mind.
Isabella: Yes. So, actors generally... I mean, it's hard to generalize it, but actors are shy. Surprisingly, most people are very shy. I mean, my mom, for example, she said always she wasn't...
Isabella: She was a very shy person, and acting, because she wasn't herself, she felt, "When I'm on stage or I'm in a film set, I feel like a lion." And also knowing the story, she always said, "I'm always anxious about life, but in a film I know what is the next scene. And I know what the character is ending up."
Isabella: So in the moment that she was acting, she felt a great release; a great freedom; and happiness. I'm not as shy as my mom, but I think I'm a raconteur. So I like to tell stories and I like to work with directors, me too, on these very important...
Isabella: Sometime I read a script, but most of all, I want to know who's going to direct. And sometime a script is just a vague indication of something. But if I-
Isabella: ... meet the person or have seen the work that they've done before, that's what I want to work with. I have to tell you a story about Bob Wilson because I worked with Bob Wilson too.
Isabella: So, Bob Wilson proposed to me a play by Umberto Eco. And I read the script. I didn't understand anything. So I read the book, Umberto Eco, I didn't understand anything. So I went with... I said, "I have to have the courage to do]"
Willem: Bob wants it that way.
Willem: Bob wants it that way.
Isabella: You know it. So I went trembling saying, "Bob, I want to work with you so badly. And I'm so happy that you asked me to do this thing, but I have to be really sincere, I don't understand the script. And I read the book and I don't understand the book."
Isabella: He said, "Me, neither." "You don't understand it?" He said, "Of course, I don't understand it because I'm attracted to mystery. But there is a rhythm in the words, isn't it. And when you read Umberto Eco, it doesn't really make sense, but you're a little scared."
Isabella: I said, "Yes, I am a little scared. That's what I want to capture." And that to me was such a lesson. First of all, he freed me from this narrative that it has to always make sense because abstract paintings exist. It's not only figurative painting. So, a film can also be abstract.
Isabella: And it's the mood that you look and David Lynch to talk about and now the surrealist, one day where I said, "Well maybe here, the film is not... I don't understand the story." He said, "Why? Do you understand life?"
Isabella: So also for David, it was capturing the mood. We don't understand life. We enter into a room and there is already a mood and people are convivial, there is tension. We don't know, we just adapt, but we don't know what's going on or what had happened before. And that's what is interesting to David. And that was, to me, so liberating when you work with directors like that.
Willem: I agree in both those cases. Bob Wilson is famous for saying, "I never ask an actor to know what he's thinking." That's not really what he's interested in.
Isabella: No, he's not.
Willem: He wants an actor to submit to his form, to his language.
Willem: You're like a marvelous marionette is the–
Willem: ... ambition [inaudible 00:24:07].
Isabella: Absolutely. If you–
Willem: When you have that form, you can live and you can explore what's going on in a very deep way, because a part of your brain and a part of your energy is submitted to a kind of perfection. And also artificiality that creates sometimes a mystery and a question.
Willem: It isn't always a narrative that you can hop on and then you can be emotionally engaged, but then the story ends and you relate to it and it's complete and you feel good.
Willem: But I think in many ways I'm interested in a more poetic theater and a more poetic film that, yes, it engages you, but engages you through your brain. Because when things are puzzling or things are curious, you don't know. And ultimately, they involve you more emotionally in the end, I think.
Willem: Because when things are recognizable, it's a beautiful, fun thing, but you hop on a train and you enjoy the ride but you're not going step by step. You aren't experiencing it in the same way that you experience poetry, poetry in the broadest sense of the word.
Isabella: And poetry also by its nature has always an ambiguity that life has. Do I like this, but I don't like that. I like it and don't like. That ambiguity is the brain that...
Isabella: So for me, animals make me laugh. So I'm looking at David Attenborough, I look at National Geographic and it's great, but it exists already. So when I wanted to express something that was in my heart, I said, "The animal are so funny and so mysterious and so crazy." And so, I created-
Willem: That's so perfect.
Isabella: ... this little... Yes. I created this little puppet theater with myself that I think captures the humor. And I always give the scientific... Because not only that, I even went back to university to get a master degree in animal behavior and conservation, because the subject interests me–
Willem: That's fantastic.
Isabella: ... so much. And I have to say that having worked with many other directors, although I make this teeny film and these monologues... I can't compare myself to the greatest. And it always starts from a point of poetry. It always starts from a feeling that I have and I want to share.
Isabella: And the style that I make the film is the consequence of it, to represent the best, the feeling. It never starts with the style and then goes into the feeling, at least for me.
Willem: Yeah, no, no. I'm with you. I'm with you.
Isabella: Can we talk about Abel Ferrara? How easy... He was the craziest–
Isabella: ... director I worked with. Is he behaving a more... Is he tamed? Have you tamed him?
Willem: Well, he's got a high... His habits and his character are very forefront. So to talk about him is never gossiping, I guess, because he lays it all out there.
Willem: I worked with Abel when he was living a certain kind of life and then I've worked with him since he's cleaned up his life, and he's basically the same person.
Isabella: That's very good news.
Willem: It is actually. He's basically the same person. I'd say just there's a trust there. When someone is addicted, they have a God that always separates you from them, particularly when you're working on something and he says, "I got to go. You guys do the same. I'll be back." That's–
Willem: That's a problem, but there's none of that anymore. He's living. He's my neighbor here in the city, in Rome, and we're very good friends and we've made many films together. He's made two lately, very quickly without me, bastard. But no, actually we keep in touch. I was busy and one of the beautiful things about Abel is he works with nothing and he likes to make movies. He's a shooter. So he–
Isabella: Absolutely he's the best quality
Willem: He's always working. And his sets are wild. They're chaotic as hell. And one of the most difficult things to do in post is to remove his voice from the shooting because even when you're shooting the most intimate, most vulnerable, sex scene or something, he's screaming the whole time. So it's like a discipline, he's screaming directions sometimes.
Isabella: I have to say that I didn't know, sorry. I didn't know when I did with him a film that is very beautiful. I really liked called The Funeral–
Willem: I remember, The Funeral, yeah?
Isabella: [inaudible 00:29:27] wonderful.
Willem: Yeah, I know it. Yes.
Isabella: And I also love to work with Abel. It was very chaotic and I really didn't know because most film is action, cut. And then you know where your scene is on. I didn't know, it's so much chaotic that I just stay in character all the time, because I didn't know. And there was a lot of improvisation of little dialogue, but even in these scales, there was a clarity of his direction and what he wanted to capture. I really admired him. But talking about addiction, because I mean, there's no secret that Abel had the problem and he's now solving it. I worked with Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet and Dennis had just come out of rehab for three years. And I remember I had been already hired in Blue Velvet and David Lynch was looking for the character that Dennis Hopper played in Blue Velvet.
Isabella: And when he found Dennis Hopper, I said, "Oh Dennis Hopper." Because of course he had the worst reputation in the business. I said, "How is he?" And David said, "It's like sitting next to a ticking bomb." That's how he described him. But actually working with him, it was one of the most profound experiences I've had because Dennis had no more judgment. He had been so down on himself and he had experienced really hell and came out of it, that working with him in these very difficult scenes of rape and all that, he was the perfect partner. I felt completely protected by him as a human being that he was playing this evil man that was a raping my character in a ritualistic way.
Willem: I remember. I remember very well.
Isabella: And I asked him, "How did you end up being a drug addict and having to come out of it? And he said, "Maybe it was the '60s, the drugs were around and all that. But I believed for a long time that I needed the drugs in order to act because I was so shy and so intimidated and I was so afraid that I wasn't good enough that the drug gave me that confidence. And this is the first film that I do completely clean." And it was so happy to work so well. And the film went so well and it got so much praise. So sometimes the people that go through that journey, are the most wise, isn't it?
Willem: I'm hesitant to say, because I always dislike when actors talk about woulda, shoulda, coulda stories, but I was at the Gulf Western building and they told me to go up to Dino De Laurentiis' office to meet him. And that's where I first met David and they had me read Blue Velvet and they said basically, we think we've got Frank Booth role cast, but we're not sure.
Isabella: Because you could have played, because you often played Dylan. So you were going to do the Dennis Hopper role. What happened?
Willem: Don't say that, clearly they probably were a little nervous about Dennis or the deal wasn't done. And they wanted to have someone waiting in the wings.
Isabella: Well, I met David Lynch in a restaurant and I was having dinner with, do you know De Laurentiis' wife who died recently? Martha, such a wonderful lady.
Willem: Yes, yes.
Isabella: And another friend and David was sitting in a table, the same restaurant with Dino De Laurentiis' son-in-law. So we joined the table. We all sat together and I didn't know, David had not, I mean, he had done Elephant Man, maybe, I forgot, but he wasn't as normal of course as now. And I had just finished a film, but I also worked with Mikhail Baryshnikov in a film called White Nights. And the other actress was Helen Mirren and then the great Gregory Hines. And David wanted so badly to have Helen Mirren for Blue Velvet for the role that I ended up playing. And all the night he tormented me about do you have Helen Mirren's phone number? Can you give it to me?
Isabella: I want to talk to her. And the next day, and Helen turned down the film because the film of course is very controversial and she didn't want to be part of something as controversial that required nudity and all that. So anyway–
Willem: That's surprising because she's famous for being able to deal with that.
Isabella: Yes. I think that the way she explained it to me... But the next day after the dinner, I received the script–
Willem: Yeah, sorry, go.
Isabella: And David a note saying on second thought, maybe you can play Dorothy Vallens, that's the name of the character.
Willem: Wow. Sure, I remember.
Isabella: So then we sure rehearsed a scene. And I spoke to Helen and I said, "Why did you turn it down?" But Helen said, "No, it isn't the script. It is right now, this moment in my life." Because her husband was getting a divorce to marry her. And she didn't want to be in that moment of divorce and complication and children in a controversial film. And then nobody could have predicted that Blue Velvet became so known.
Willem: No, it's a beautiful film and who would've ever thought that it wasn't totally conceived around you.
Isabella: David told me, I don't know that it was conceived around Helen Mirren. David told me that one day when he came back from school, he saw a woman naked walking down the street and he started to cry because he understood that something very wrong had happened. He wasn't excited. It wasn't titillating. And that was the image that fragmented that sometime a director grabs and creates a character. And I think that that was the fragment that inspired a character of Dorothy Vallens. What happened? What was the story behind this woman who walked naked in the street? And then we repeated the scene and that's why it required that nudity that I walked down the street nude, bruised, because I come from probably a ritualistic, sadistic, a torturous rape.
Willem: Wow. That's an incredible story about the origin of that.
Isabella: But then we worked together in Wild at Heart and I remember it too. It was quite fun. And did you, so David allowed me in the films that I did with him to create a little bit of the look. So for the character that I played was named Perdita Durango. Wonderful name.
Willem: I remember you were my girlfriend, basically.
Isabella: Yes. I was your girlfriend and I, because you were such a bad guy and we were such sleazy people, that I wanted to have both to be repellent, but also sexy.
Willem: Sexy. You did it.
Isabella: And I thought of Frida Kahlo because the painter Frida Kahlo, she has eyebrows that is one big brow. Sometimes she has a wee bit of mustache and yet she's so appealing and attractive. So I copied a little bit the Frida Kahlo look. I remember asking David, can I have just a little bit of mustache? He said, no, that's too much. Although Patti Smith occasionally has a little bit of mustache and I found that would be quite powerful, quite intriguing, striking, frightening but attractive. But David didn't allow me the mustache, but I had the one eyebrow. You had those teeth, so strange, who chose those teeth?
Willem: It was in the script and little story that I always tell, it shows how actors sometimes limit themselves in their imagination. I've read on the script, it says he has stumpy, discolored teeth. And I assumed, it wasn't a huge, huge budget film. So I figured they would just discolor my teeth because I don't have the most beautiful teeth in the world as it is. And then when I went to see David, he was like, we got to get you to the dentist. And I thought he said we got to get those teeth. And it ended up that they made full dentures that went over my teeth for these huge gums, these not too healthy-looking gums and these very stumpy teeth. And the thing that became the key for the character because when they put the dentures over my teeth, I couldn't close my mouth. So all the time I was like this, and I say, if you had to do this, it immediately makes you feel kind of lascivious. You want to suck on something or you want to say something vulgar. It was a key to the character. I feel like Wild at Heart I had so many externals that worked as triggers for my imagination that I didn't sweat about preparation or anything. I felt very happy just to show up on the set.
Isabella: Of course, David is a painter and his imagery is so strong. That's only photographic, the way places, the camera, the set. I always find costume to be a very important process, costume, makeup, because he defines so much the character I play. Is it the same for you?
Willem: Yes. Not only it defines it, but sometimes it can be a real mask. It can do a lot of work. It's almost like sometimes, I'm not this cynical, but sometimes you're like, ah, the costume's going to do this one. If it's very strong, sometimes you don't have to work it. You have to just be and wear that costume well, and then that makes your body move in a certain way. That makes you imagine how people are looking at you in a certain way. If you have something that you really feel good in and you feel like it's strong, then you're going to take on that strength in your performance. If you feel like it's something really repulsive, then you're going to slide into that repulsion. Or if you feel real handsome and you got to be handsome, then, clothes make the man, what can I say? Or the person.
Isabella: Do you have the same thing... Sorry, because I'm also a model. I'm not only an actress. Do you have the same thing with fashion? I mean, as fashion does, wearing your clothes gives you occasionally a mood, or helps you get a mood or not?
Willem: Definitely, but I feel like I don't enter that black hole that is fashion. I like nice clothes and when you feel good in clothes, it's great. But I tend to wear a uniform. I always think of that Ingmar Bergman with his closet of 30 turtlenecks and one jacket and one pair of trousers.
Isabella: But to me that is a great definition of elegance. I always think that the summit of elegance is when somebody finds a kind of a uniform. I remember working with David, he also wears the same clothes. And I remember going to a French designer called agnès b. and just helping him pick out the shirt and the khaki pants and the shirt. And I think he's still probably wears that. And yes, there is something to be said about having a uniform because it becomes your second skin, but also clothes tell who you are. Of course, when we play, the costume can create an extreme or something that isn't us, like my big eyebrow in Perdita Durango in Wild at Heart or blue eye shadow, red lipstick, black wig in Blue Velvet. So in life I cannot do that extreme, but I do tend to also have a wardrobe like Ingmar Bergman, the same thing.
Willem: Also because you're revealing yourself through your choice of your clothes. Maybe that goes back to the thing you say about shyness. I don't think I'm particularly socially elegant. I guess I'm a little shy. I don't want to reveal that about me. I reveal myself through characters and things, and then who I really want to reveal myself is a very small circle. So, when you think about presenting yourself to the world, that's why the uniform appeals to me. Because it doesn't express anything specific. It puts more emphasis on your body or something. I don't know.
Isabella: I don't know. I would say that the elegance is the definition... When I'm asked, "What is the definition of elegance?" I always say, "The definition of elegance is not a combination of clothes. It's a thought behind the clothes." When you see that thought, even for you, "I'm an actor. I want a uniform, very simple. Black t-shirt, black pants. It means I'm a puppet or a puppeteer. I'm both." So to me, that's the definition of elegance.
Isabella: You said that sometimes the clothes create a character. I remember reading about Audrey Hepburn, when she did My Fair Lady. That she has to come out in My Fair Lady, and Professor Higgins finally sees Pygmalion, sees her finally as this beauty. And she said that the clothes she wore were so beautifully done that she also felt the same. She said, "I don't have to do anything. I just have to stand there, because the clothes would do it for me." And, of course, I always think of that scene, because it's that silhouette, that beautiful outfit, that she wears, and her very simply standing, that convey that moment of revelation to Professor Higgins. "Oh, this is a beautiful woman."
Willem: It's fun to talk about this stuff, because it always reminds you that when you make a film, or you do a play, it's such a convergence of all these different choices, and all these different contributions that sometimes we get a little too, I'm not being falsely modest, or coy, or anything, but really I'm obsessed by this. We get obsessed with the actor too much. The actor, of course, is the thing we see. But the best thing an actor can do is be receptive to what's in the air, and what they're making, and what's given to them, and what they make from what's given to them. And all these conversations about external things, or process, or director, all indicate that.
Willem: As I get older, I want to disappear more, and more, and more, into the role. Not in a typical Method way. But a great thing that I learned from being with the Wooster Group, which was a real gift, is the technicians were as important as the actors. And sometimes the actors served like technicians, and sometimes the technicians served as actors. There was kind of an equality. Not only did it take off a certain pressure, but it made you feel more flexible. You were always clear about when you had to drive, and when you had to react. And that's a very important thing to know. And what your function is in the overall thing.
Willem: Sometimes there are great actors, and they stand out, and you love to watch them do their thing, but they don't integrate into the movie. I won't name any names, but sometimes that happens. And okay, that's fun. But on some level, I think that becomes very limiting. For me the ambition, and it's what I like to see in actors, is this integration, this lack of neediness or need to take the stage. Sometimes, okay. You got to, as I say, drive. But I like these things where you can't help yourself. There's a logic, there's an objectivity. There's a clarity. You're the product of many things.
Isabella: Exactly. No. Exactly. Can I ask you... I have one curiosity. You have children?
Willem: Yeah. I have one.
Isabella: One. Does he want to be an actor?
Willem: Two grandchildren.
Isabella: Two grandchildren. I have two grandchildren too. Is there any one of the grandchildren, or your child, want to be actors, or are in the business?
Willem: No. My son, he's 40 years old. He's a lawyer that clerks for justices, for judges. That's his job. And he used to work for an environmental law concern down south.
Willem: His mother was a director, and me, his father, an actor. And I think, somewhere deeply, he didn't want to compete. He didn't want to have that life. And he also grew up in the theater, and also performed with us. And he was perhaps the most beautiful dancer I ever saw, when he was a child. And he would perform with us, when he was a child, and he was fantastic. And so much so that other people wanted to use him. Not a conventional dancer, but people downtown making films, and that sort of thing. Jo Andres, for example, the late wife of Steve Buscemi, used him in her films. But then when he hit adolescence, identity-time came, and I think he didn't want to compete or be in the same world. And he was always–
Isabella: I understand. I mean, I'm the daughter of somebody famous, and I became an actress in my thirties. I worked as a model and I loved it because I had nothing... I thought then, that had nothing to do with acting. Then little did I know, once I was deep into modeling, I said, "Well, it is a bit about acting."
Willem: Similar. Similar.
Isabella: Don't have words, but you have to say you're emoting. You can't just stop there in front of the camera, you have to do something. And so that's what gave me the courage. But I think it was because I was a known model, that I had the courage to try acting. I was asked, like your son, I was asked to act, and I always turned it down. And then I was around 30. And the first film I made in America was with Misha Baryshnikov, with whom I've stayed very good friends. I totally-
Willem: Say hello to him.
Isabella: Yes. I adore Misha. And I adore that he continues to dance. I don't know how old he is. 70. 75. He continues to dance. For him, his movement is the expression of the body. It isn't jumping high. Yes, he did that when he was young. But he's such an inspiration to me.
Willem: I agree.
Isabella: And then the second film I did was Blue Velvet with David Lynch. I was lucky to start with such wonderful people that encouraged me to continue.
Willem: Yeah. I got to go back to what you said about modeling. I haven't modeled-modeled, but I've done photo shoots, and I did a campaign for Prada, and I even did the catwalk once for Prada. You know what? I like it. It's fun. It is performing.
Isabella: It is fun. It is performing. And also when you do the catwalk, to me, the most interesting part of catwalk is that you understand the designers' point of view. And the designers can be like a director. They have, if they're a strong designer, like Prada, they do have a point of view. And sometimes, when you go in a shop, the shop is already edited, what they think will sell, so you don't see the complete collection. But once you see the complete collection, you really understand the process and the creativity. And it is very interesting.
Willem: And also, I like the relationship with the photographer. Because maybe you know their work, maybe they're famous, maybe it's a wild card, you're taking a risk, but it's a very immediate call and response. They have a rough idea of what they want to do, and then they lay it on you, and then you either fill it or you take it someplace else.
Isabella: Sometimes it feels to me that it is the same relationship that we have as actors. We say acting is reacting, and a lot of it is listening and reacting. And sometimes you can have a partner that really works, and you play off very well. And sometimes it works less well. And it's the same, to me, the same relationship between two actors, is the relationship that I have with the photographer. I often find myself reacting to the photographer, looking at him in the lens, and reacting to what he sends me back. If he's smiling, I smile back. If he's worried, I'm worried, trying to please. And that's how I shape my expression, and then wait for him to click whenever he wants.
Willem: But I feel like it's a very instant thing. And I like it. When it works well, it's a lot of fun.
Isabella: When it works well, it's a lot of fun. And I agree, it's brief. Probably I dedicated myself more to modeling than acting. Also because I had two children, and modeling, I always knew that, even the big job, was finished in three, four days. A film might ask you to go away for three or four months. And that was much harder when you have a family. So I always favored modeling, until I got too old, and then I can't model anymore.
Willem: No, you're still modeling.
Isabella: I still occasionally, but not as when I was young. Willem, this was so great. Talking about... I have to go, because I'm working with Dolce and Gabbana next, talking about another-
Isabella: Fantastic designers. But it was so great to see you. Say hi to Giada.
Willem: Yeah. It's nice to do this. I will. She's well.
Isabella: We are so proud to have you in Italy. And speaking Italian. And integrating in Italy. And a huge hug to Abel. Your neighbor, Abel Ferrara.
Willem: I will. I will. Okay, great. Take care.