When I first saw Blue Velvet back in 1986, I actually felt kind of bad for Isabella Rossellini. Her performance was brilliant, but I always suspected that she was the sole sane person in a cast and crew of perverts and sociopaths. Maybe she didn’t know exactly what she was getting into until it was too late, and being the consummate professional, she didn’t protest when asked to, as the Guardian so eloquently described it in their movie review, submit to “a myriad of indignities.”
Twenty-four years later, the now 58-year-old actress is the star, writer and co-director (with Jody Shapiro) of Seduce Me, a series of online shorts created for the Sundance Channel about the sexual proclivities of animals. Last August, her strangely erotic take on bedbug fucking went viral, thanks to a perfectly-timed bedbug epidemic in New York City. There was something revelatory about watching Rossellini get stabbed in the gut with a penis-knife while muttering with orgasmic enthusiasm, “He ejaculates into my wound!” It was a moment when many of us realized that Blue Velvet might not have been entirely a product of David Lynch’s twisted imagination.
The latest season of Seduce Me — which premieres next Monday, November 22nd, on the Sundance website (and then on VOD on December 8th) — promises more of the same slack-jawed “What the fuck am I looking at?” hilarity. This time, Rossellini explains more than you really wanted to know about the mating rituals of deer, seahorses, spiders, and the gay and/or transexual passengers of Noah’s Ark.
In a happy coincidence, a few weeks ago the Savannah Film Festival offered a double feature of Blue Velvet and the new season of Seduce Me. So I took a trip to Georgia for the opportunity to watch both in one sitting, with an audience that included Rossellini herself. Judging by the shrieks of disbelief from the audience, there really wasn’t much aesthetic difference between the two. Whether Rossellini was orally raping Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet or watching dolphin penises float past like a gyro spit in front of a starving fat man in Seduce Me, it really did feel like two cinematic takes on the same theme. And weirdly, I left the theater with more respect for Frank Booth than I did for dolphins.
I was thrilled for the chance to speak with Rossellini about Seduce Me and all things animal sex. I’m still not sure exactly how it went wrong.
Eric Spitznagel: I think the main thing I learned from Seduce Me is that the animal kingdom is almost entirely perverted.
Isabella Rossellini: (Laughs.) Exactly.
Did you have any idea before you started making this series, or were you as surprised as the rest of us?
I was interested in animals since I was a little girl. I’d bird watch and lift rocks and look at bugs. I was that kind of a person. So I always knew about animal behavior that was interesting to me. But for Seduce Me, I concentrated on their sexual habits, some of which I knew and some of which I had to learn more details so I could make the films.
Most of your sex partners in this series are cardboard cutouts. Is that challenging as an actress?
(Long pause.) How do you mean?
You’ve done love scenes in movies before. How does Seduce Me compare? Is it more awkward when your partner is one-dimensional?
Well, you know, I wrote the scripts. I designed the basic solution of the cardboard mates. It was meant to be funny. I don’t need to go to the Actor’s Studio to play it.
You’ve worked with a lot of animal penises. What’s your favorite?
A favorite? I don’t know what you mean.
Have you ever kept one as a memento?
They are made of paper, so they are hard to keep. We did an exhibit at the Royal Museum in Toronto, which is a museum of natural history. And then they were taken by a new museum called the Lightbox, which is a museum of visual art. It has taken all of our penises, 22 different penises, some of which are six or seven feet tall. They asked us, they wanted it to be kept so we gave it to them. And then, with the new series and some of the other work of my collaborators, which are Andy Byers and Rick Gilbert, we’re preparing an exhibit for the The Wolfsonian museum in Miami.
You didn’t keep even one penis for old times sake? It’d make a great conversation piece at dinner parties.
(Laughs.) No, no.
Thanksgiving is coming up, so we should probably talk about turkeys. What can you tell us about turkey sex?
I don’t know much about turkeys. Birds are not so interesting generally. In terms of sexual organs, birds have a cloaca, which is an opening where everything happens, from feces and urine and also sperm. I imagine turkeys also have a cloaca, but I’m not absolutely sure. I think maybe it would be interesting to know about their method of courtship. I’m sure it would be very colorful and very strange.
I’ve heard that a lot of turkeys have virgin births.
Really? No, that cannot be right.
I swear that’s what I read. It’s called parthenogenesis, and the percentage of virgin turkey births is something like 40%.
I don’t think so, I don’t think so. Birds are not like aphids, where an animal can reproduce by cloning itself. You can segment the worm and the worm can become two worms. Or you can segment a starfish. But I’ve never heard of that happening in a higher animal such as birds.
If it’s true…
No, no, I don’t think it is.
But let’s assume for a moment that it is, if we eat turkey for Thanksgiving, is it possible that we could be eating the Son of God?
(Laughs. Long pause.) I don’t really want to go there, I’m sorry.
I’ve also heard that many of the turkeys sold at grocery stores are physically incapable of having sex. They’re genetically bred to be so fat that they have to be artificially inseminated.
That’s a possibility, because there is a big difference between a domesticated animal and a wild animal. With domesticated chickens, they’re meat chickens, and that meat grows very, very fast. If they were let to live more than a year, their legs would crack under their weight. That is not something you’d find in the wilderness or the natural selection of Darwin. It is very sad what we’ve done to our domesticated animals.
Let’s say you don’t want to eat turkey, because you don’t want to eat an impotent, morbidly obese bird that may be the second coming of the Messiah. What are some Thanksgiving meat alternatives? Duck maybe?
Yes, but ducks have the same problem. The Peking duck, for instance, if not eaten within the first year of his life, will grow to a dimension where he will not be able to hold himself up. It’s legs would crack under its weight.
And also, ducks have those damn corkscrew penises, which you showed us in the last season of Seduce Me.
Yes, that’s right they do. I think it’s interesting because the female has evolved a vagina in which she can control the male. The male rapes the female basically.
I don’t think any sex involving a corkscrew penis could be called consensual.
Yes, yes, but the female duck has evolved a way of deciding who will father her babies. She has a vagina that dead ends, so that if she dislikes a male, she can make his sperm go nowhere. But if she likes the duck, then she will let his penis go into the alley that arrives at the eggs and then he will be the father of her babies.
Sometimes I’ll watch Seduce Me and think, “Wow, that was kind of erotic.” Is that something I should feel weird about?
Really? (Laughs.) You’re kidding me, yes?
Um… well now I am.
I don’t know what to tell you. I meant to be doing very funny shorts. I wanted people to laugh, and maybe also learn something they didn’t know about animals. But I did not intend it to be arousing in any way. But if that’s the effect, then good.
Patton Oswalt has a great joke about pornography, where he says — and I’m paraphrasing — if there’s a sexual fetish that you think is so unique and dangerous and shameful, there’s probably a porn magazine somewhere devoted to it. Could the same thing be said about animals? There’s no sexual activity so bizarre that they haven’t tried it?
I don’t think I understand what you mean.
Say there’s somebody who thinks they’re too promiscuous. But then they watch Seduce Me and think, “Wow, I’m got nothing on the housefly. Those things are whores.”
I don’t know what you want me to say. My intent in doing this film was not to examine human sexuality or to give anybody a guide or a tip towards their or my sexuality. It is purely about my interest in biology, which I’ve had since I was a child. You see the film and you are saying, “It arouses me! It liberates me!” I’m very happy with that. I’m okay, as long as you behave within the law.
I promise you that I have no intention of trying to fuck a housefly.
The whole idea of even asking this question seems preposterous to me, to look at the animals and then you say, “How do I apply it to my morality or to my physical changes that I need?” I would never be looking at a hermaphrodite worm and then decide that I also want to be a hermaphrodite. I don’t know what to say. I never thought about it, and I’m not interested.
No, no, I’m in total agreement. Animals probably aren’t the best sexual role models. From what I’ve seen on Seduce Me, their idea of sex usually involves painful penetration or holding down their partners or doing something equally as horrible. What ever happened to making love?
You make generalizations that are too vast. There are certain animals that go into heat. A human female is able to get pregnant every month, but for some animals, like dogs for example, it can only become pregnant twice a year, when they are in heat. So they are always receptive to have sex during that period. It depends on the animal.
Yes, I understand that, but I’m talking about the animals that are jerks. I just watched your Seduce Me episode on dolphins, and it makes them out to be pretty pervy. But you never mention that they’re also rapists.
(Deep sigh.) It’s very difficult.
Is that not true? I read somewhere that dolphins are the only mammals besides humans that rape.
Maybe, probably, I don’t know. (Long pause.) It’s hard to know. Some animals seem in their behavior that they don’t want to be mated. If you see a duck, sometimes the female gets drowned because the male attacks her in groups. That can’t be very pleasant, you know? But you’re using many concepts from civilization and law and expecting the animals to correspond to it.
I’m sure that as an American, I’m probably not a good judge of healthy sexuality. We’re very nervous and repressed about sex in this country.
(Laughs.) Yes you are.
You didn’t have to agree so quickly.
Doing my films, I realize how the Americans are particularly prudish, more so than other nations. It’s funny in a way, because it’s also a country that is very open. I live in New York, and we have entire neighborhoods with different cultures and ideas. It’s difficult for a European to understand how in one hand you can have so much freedom and in another there’s this prudishness. It’s very difficult to grasp as a foreigner. It’s not really rational.
I guess you saw that a lot last August, when your bed bug video went viral. The reaction in the U.S. seemed to be mostly nervous tittering.
Yes, yes, I know. I saw the Jon Stewart piece where he was making fun of me and it was very funny. I enjoyed it. But it’s hard for me. Listen, if you want to say, or you are seeming to say, that I am of a particular sexy morality, or that I’m a European and so that leads me to do things that an American would never do, I don’t know.
I don’t think that’s what I’m saying.
I’ve lived in this country for a long time and that’s never been my intention. It was really something that I intended to be funny and your thesis seems to be far-fetched. I don’t think it is because I’m European or immoral, according to American standards, that I make this film. And I think most Americans find them funny and enjoyable.
I agree. I’m just saying that for some Americans, because we already have so many inhibitions and anxieties about sex, watching a woman get stabbed in the stomach with a penis knife can be a little harrowing. But that’s a reflection on us, not you.
Some people find it repugnant. I don’t think that I’m particularly strange. It’s just that I’m an actress and a model, and animal behavior has always been an interest of mine. And now I’ve combined my personal interest with short films and something I know how to do. But there is also my reputation as a model and an actress and a beauty icon, so to speak, so there is a feeling of “Ah, she is beautiful, but she is also dirty. The woman has become foul.” Obviously I can not agree with that.
Well sure, that’s silly. Anybody who calls you or Seduce Me dirty must be very new to the Internet.
Listen, this is becoming too theoretical. You can write anything you want. There is freedom of speech. If you want to say I’m a slut, go ahead. I don’t care.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Why would I do that? I don’t-
I find it far-fetched that you’re trying to imply in any way that I am dirty and that’s why I make these films.
I don’t think I ever said that. If anybody’s dirty, it’s the bed bugs. I’m not shooting the messenger.
I find that offensive. But anyway, you write whatever you want.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)