Karen Valby
May 14, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Isabella Rossellini is looking at herself in the mirror, wiping wig glue from her brow with an alcohol swab. She’s fresh from a standing ovation for her matinee performance in Terrence McNally’s Off Broadway production of The Stendhal Syndrome and has a few hours to kick back before the evening show. Backstage, her dressing room is littered with flowers and fan mail, crushed almonds and echinacea. With her gold evening-gown costume hanging behind her, she’s relaxed in black Shanghai Tang Chinese pajamas. Her hair is cropped close and a slash of red lipstick is all that interrupts her famously creamy face, a 51-year-old face unmarred by a plastic surgeon’s knife.

After this, her American stage debut, Rossellini will fly to Los Angeles to shoot two more episodes of Alias (she plays Jennifer Garner’s fierce aunt Katya). Then there’s the release of Guy Maddin’s deliciously weird new movie The Saddest Music in the World, in which she stars as a Canadian beer baroness, a double amputee who struts around on lager-filled crystal legs. Then back to New York to wrap up Stendhal’s extended run, off to Vancouver to shoot the Sci Fi Channel’s miniseries Earthsea, then to Spain to shoot Luis Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat. ”I’m working like crazy,” she says. ”When you are a foreigner and you’re over 50, you can’t work. Well, I dunno what happened to me, but I’m hot.”

Rossellini, the daughter of triple-Oscar winner and Casablanca dame Ingrid Bergman and Italian neorealist director Roberto Rossellini, says she never expected to make it in Hollywood. ”I started at 30, when generally careers start to wrap up,” she says. ”I had an accent. And I was a brunette. There were so many commercial things that worked against me, so I never — how you say? — bet on that horse. They ask you to do a couple Hollywood films and you’re delighted. But you think you’re going to make it into a career like Julia Roberts’? That is like winning the lottery. And you can’t plan a life like that: ‘Once I win the lottery, then I’ll marry a multimillionaire who’s very kind, who loooves me…”’ And she’s laughing now, long and loud. (When Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni was once asked by a journalist to describe Rossellini, he said, ”Can’t you photograph her laugh?”)

She resisted for a while, starting out as an Italian-TV journalist before sliding into a lucrative career as a model. (She was famously, ungraciously dumped by Lancome after 14 years when she turned 42.) But she’s always been bound to the movies. Her father’s father built the first cinema in Italy. As a young boy, her father was waved in for free and fell in love. He’d go on to helm groundbreakers like Paisan and Open City. Her mother’s father owned a photography shop in Sweden and was the first to capture Ingrid Bergman’s face on camera. Rossellini’s acting debut, Vincente Minnelli’s 1976 stinker A Matter of Time, costarred her mother.

”I grew up with film,” says Rossellini. ”I love film, but it’s beyond loving it. It’s my life, my background. I also hated it. Like family. There are moments where you resent it and moments you love it and I can’t think of my life without it.”

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