All the World’s Her Stage

Daryl Hannah’s Leading Role in Saving the Planet

Interview by Abigail Lewis

Daryl Hannah leans back into the branches of the ancient, majestic canyon oak and, like a shape-shifter, seems to merge with the tree. With one leggy limb dangling over the side, a languid, golden swirl of hair and porcelain skin translucent as English china, it’s no stretch to envision her as Queen of the Forest.

We’re 15 minutes down a wooded path, her location of choice for a photo shoot. A quick boost and she was ensconced in the branches, alert in leonine repose, comfortable and familiar with her surroundings.

In person, Daryl is much more Splash than Kill Bill. Not that she lacks strength, but she seems almost guileless. Were it not for her breathtaking beauty and considerable talent, one wonders how she would have survived the shark-infested waters of Hollywood. She’s more comfortable surfing in real shark territory off the So Cal coast, or rambling here amongst the trees.

Something about Daryl evokes a simpler time. She drives a matte black, lowrider, biodiesel-powered El Camino with a “Greed Kills” bumper plate. Her two surfboards jammed in the flatbed are in shades of pink, and her luxuriant locks are pulled off her face in a cowboy kerchief. Her almost awkward shyness and girlish giggle are reminiscent of a high schooler, as is her speech, peppered with phrases like “ya know” and “gnarly.” But to take Daryl at face value would be to seriously underestimate her energy and intention.

In addition to her substantial film career and embrace of environmental activism — most recently as an environmental correspondent for Good Morning America—Daryl produced, directed and shot (speedreading camera directions as she went) her documentary film Strip Notes, which delved into the lives of LA strippers. She has a new documentary about to begin production, and although details aren’t ready for primetime, its subject is both humanitarian and compelling.

Yet all is not tranquil in Daryl’s world. Her romantic struggles have been well-publicized and she suffers from an agoraphobic shyness. Her biological clock is ticking quite loudly and while she longs for children and a big family, her cryptic responses to inquiries about her lovelife don’t sound promising.

Perhaps she is creating another kind of family she hasn’t yet recognized. When asked what excites her most at this point in her life and career, she repeatedly speaks of “meeting lots of kids who are doing really interesting, creative things” that range from a new vegetarian restaurant offering imitation processed food (she laughs at the irony of vegan Cheez Whiz) to a native of Togo teaching his people how to sustain themselves using indigenous native materials, to”skateboarder kids” — Danny Way who jumped the Great Wall of China and last month won the big air contest in the X Games, and Bob Berquist who has skateboard ramps crisscrossing his organic farm. Both are “seriously committed to bringing the message and educating kids.” She also notes lines at the X Games for Sambazon organic juices and Guayaki mate (rather than commercial soft drinks), both owned by younger entrepreneurs.

Although Daryl is no longer an ingenue, it’s almost as if the one-time mermaid is still struggling to integrate her personal and planetary vision with the realities of life on terra firma.

You have become a very public spokesperson for the environment. How is it to speak as yourself, rather than through a character?
I’ve always had a hard time with it. Even as a kid in school I used to get so nervous I would practically faint. For most of my career I never did any television because I thought I would pass out and die. One of the main reasons I did a play (London, The Seven Year Itch, ’00) was to see if I could overcome that fear. Being an activist on behalf of the planet is easier because it’s not about me. I’m much better defending my friends and creatures than I am defending myself.

You grew up in a Chicago high-rise. How did you get so involved with the environment?
I went to camp from [ages] 7-17 for two months every summer, lived in covered wagons and horsebacked and backpacked. Before that I really felt like an alien in the worl; I was an outsider at school, I didn’t feel like I fit anywhere. And when I went to camp, things sort of fell into place and made sense. I had easy communication with the horses, I was able to light a one-match fire — you know how when you’re in the right place, the right path, suddenly everything comes into focus, you feel right, and that’s what happened to me there. I felt strong and good and clear. I enjoy cities, love cultural aspects and I’m as fascinated by human behavior as I am by animal behavior, but I like living in harmony with nature.

How does that manifest in your two homes?
In Colorado, [my house is] an old stagecoach stop. Our couch is a rock covered with moss — we put cushions on it and the moss stays alive — it can go dormant for months at a time. We take the cushions off every few days and water it and keep it thriving.
Summer is my favorite time up there. Summer and fall are when all the wildlife are having their babies.
My home in Malibu is small. I have a greywater system, it’s all on solar power, radiant floor heat. I think it was a hunting lodge in the ’20s. It was a big nursery, too, so there are lots of incredible fruit trees: plum, grapefruit, orange, lemon, lime, apple, fig, avocado, persimmon, apricot, pear — it’s crazy. Giant cactuses that grew out of their pots and into the ground. I have a one-room house but my living room is outside. There’s a moss deck — it’s like carpet.

You speak often against oil dependence. Do you consider yourself political?
Ultimately you can’t avoid it if you’re talking about those kinds of issues. Nobody wants to send their kids overseas to get killed for oil. Nobody wants to see their kids coming home in body bags, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, and no one wants to pay $3 or $4 at the pump. It’s too bad it has to get to that kind of drastic circumstance, but in the end you get people from all sides of the political spectrum in agreement. That’s a good entree into the larger discussion of all the issues that are related. People are being forced to realize that we’ve got to look at our alternatives for every form of energy consumption. And also that’s why there’s such huge interest in organic food, hybrid cars… people don’t want to see their [loved ones] getting cancer.

Do you think they’re making that connection?
I know they are. Every other grocery store in this country is failing and Whole Foods is booming. If you can clean your house with products that have no toxic chemicals, who’s not going to pick the stuff that has no toxic chemicals? If you’re given the choice between an apple with pesticides and fish genes, and a healthy apple the way nature intended… It’s all about education. If people have that information, they’ll make the right choice. We need to show them their choices and make it affordable.

Can you tell us about your approach to acting?
When I started acting I was working instinctually, doing what you do when you’re a kid pretending and believing it. Then people started asking me, “What’s your technique?” and I thought, Oh, no, I don’t have a technique, so I started taking every acting class I could find and I kept feeling more and more lost, trying to remember when I was first spanked and dredging up horrible emotions… it just didn’t work for me. I finally found this teacher, Harry Master George, who said acting is exercising your imagination. You just pretend until you believe the situation your character is in, until it’s part of your memory and your being. And then you are that character and don’t have to worry about it. It was just what I was doing in the first place.

Do you ever feel like you’re playing Daryl Hannah?
No, I really don’t know how to step outside of myself and look at what my persona is. I’m only able to be myself. I don’t spend time thinking about my image.

Has your work on the environment affected your film career?
I’ve been working as an actor since I was a kid so I’m not really worried about it. I’m totally ready for my life to evolve and I’m not super ambitious as an actor at this point ’cause I’ve done it for 20 years. I’m good (she laughs, flustered that she may have sounded egotistical). I don’t mean I’m a good actor, I mean I’m content. If I get a great role and it’s someone I want to work with, I would love that. If I find that I’m doing more environmental stuff, that’s fine too.