Isabella Rossellini’s TV alter ego, brooding, larcenous Romani crime boss Rita Marks, paced around “Shut Eye” last season like a caged tiger waiting to strike — and now she’s been unleashed.
The Season 2 premiere of Hulu’s quirky drama, premiering Wednesday, finds Rita dealing with a murder rap and the possibility of turning against her vengeful family — as we finally learn what’s been fueling her simmering fury and how it will impact everyone in her orbit.
“Rita is an interesting character,” says Rossellini, 65. “We’ve developed more of her background [this season] and we show where she comes from and why she became that way.” The season opener focuses on Rita’s history back in her native Yugoslavia (now Serbia) vis a vis the violence and harshness that accompanied her Romani upbringing — and how that shaped her character. “I always knew who she was. She’s very cold and calculating,” Rossellini says. “But Rita has bloomed much more this season.”
For the uninitiated, “Shut Eye” revolves around Charlie Haverford (Jeffrey Donovan) and his wife Linda (KaDee Strickland), Vegas-trained con artists who work for an insular Romani crime syndicate run by Rita and her volatile son, Fonso (Angus Sampson). They oversee an empire of shady fortune-teller franchises in LA with one goal in mind: swindling their wealthy clients. At the end of Season One, Charlie, plagued by psychic visions (turns out he really can see the future), stole nearly $2 million from his employers in a bid to start a new life, leading to a murder implicating Rita — and setting her on a path of revenge.
“In the series we’re Romani, or gypsies, but they don’t like to be called ‘gypsies,’” says Rossellini. “But it could be the story of any ethnicity. What amuses me the most about going back to the ‘old country’ [with Rita’s back story] is that women do have power, but it’s not overt or declared. In Italy, where I come from, it’s the land of machismo and men, but women run it — everyone is terrified of the grandmother, the mother, the wife. If they speak, they speak with a very soft voice.
“And that’s the part I love the most about Rita,” she says. “She’s the boss of an organized crime family but she’s not hot-headed. To me, she’s completely ruthless and immoral and a criminal … but she’s also a grandmother [to Fonso’s teenage daughter, Drina, played by Havana Guppy]. I think that makes her much more interesting. She really loves her family and protects them. She’s dedicated and attentive and tender and warm and that makes it more difficult because she’s a criminal.”
“Shut Eye” marks Rossellini’s first regular TV role after years of guest spots on shows including “30 Rock,” “Treme” and “The Blacklist.” (She snared a 1994 Emmy nomination for her guest-starring role on “Chicago Hope.”) She says she’s avoided being a series regular for several specific reasons. “It’s partially because it’s a very big commitment,” she says. “It’s five-to-six months a year and when my kids were small and I was offered a series it was not often that it was shot in New York City where we live. I didn’t accept [the roles] because I didn’t want to be separated from my family for six months at a time. “But now my kids are grown up — one is 24 (son Roberto) and one is 34 (daughter Elettra) — and they’re happy that I’m out of the house,” she says. “I’m kidding, but they don’t need me on a daily basis.”
Thanks to Michael Starr.
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