A BIGGER SPLASH
She was the winsome mermaid in a hit 80s romance, but Daryl Hannah finds her second career as an environmental activist more rewarding, writes Gaby Wood
SOME people think Daryl Hannah is a little nuts. In fact, she has been considered to be varying degrees of nuts since she was a child. I am not a doctor, but after spending an unintentionally crazy day with her, I have come to the conclusion that she is one of the most quick-witted and beguilingly eccentric people I have met.
We had arranged to meet for lunch in Malibu, then drive more than an hour north to a site where we would release a California condor into the wild. A production company had contacted Hannah to ask if she would participate in a documentary about endangered species for the cable television channel Showtime, and since she had seen the magnificent 2.7m wingspan of a condor only once, she jumped at the chance.
In the mid-1980s there were only 25 of them in existence; after years of breeding in captivity, there are 85 condors flying free in California. Two weeks earlier, Hannah had posted a notice on her website about two condors that had been shot in Big Sur and the $ US30,000 ($ 38,500) reward that was being offered if the shooter was found. It was just after this that the Showtime people got in touch.
Hannah, 48, looks remarkably as she did when the world first saw her in 80s films
and She’s still wispy haired and wafty voiced, very long and lean. ( She tells me she did so much ballet as a kid that she can wrap her legs around her neck without stretching.) Her eyes are pale blue with a fleck of yellow that looks as though it has been imported from another species. And although she still acts, her main occupation these days may best be described as being the good fairy of the biosphere. She divides her time between California and Colorado, and in both places lives ‘‘ off the grid’’, with her own sources of water and power. Her homes are powered by solar panels, her toilets are compost, her cars run on leftover grease from fast-food restaurants. She grows her own food and brings what she can’t eat to a farmers market; she keeps bees and makes honey, she knits, she sells teepees on her website.
She gets excited about battery storage and new designs for low-profile wind turbines. (‘‘ I’m a little bit of a nerd,’’ she admits.) She wears recycled necklaces made of boiled-down shotgun casings. She has more than 20 rescued animals: horses, alpacas, chickens, dogs and cows. Occasionally someone will abandon a horse at the local vet and he’ll ring her up and say: ‘‘ Got another one for you.’’ Recently she found a multicoloured frog several thousand kilometres from where it looked as if it ought to be. ( An unwritten rule of the wild: all lost tropical frogs must make their way to Hannah’s house.) She has just adopted two more dogs from a shelter, though for the most part she just picks up strays. ‘‘ I find stray dogs all the time,’’ she says. ‘‘ Don’t you?’’
The three best roles of Hannah’s career have been otherworldly creatures — an android, a mermaid and the psychopathic one-eyed killer in Quentin Tarantino’s — and you can see what may have led to such casting. But Hannah’s otherworldliness is actually over- worldliness: she just happens to love this planet in a way that exceeds most people’s commitment. ‘‘ When people talk about reincarnation,’’ Hannah tells me over an organic salad, ‘‘ I always feel that if there is such a thing, this is definitely my first time because I’m always amazed. I’m both amazed at how horrifically we can treat each other and all other living things, and also amazed at the wonder and the beauty.
‘‘ I’m like: ‘ Oh my God, look at that bird!’ or ‘ Look at that flower!’ literally every single day. I can’t get over how people are putting so much energy and so many resources into going to Mars when everything we could ever dream of is on this planet, if we just take care of it. What do they have on Mars? They don’t even have oxygen up there!’’
I ask her what she could save if she could only save a few things. ‘‘ Oh God! Sophie’s Choice!’’ she says. Well, I suggest, if you really want to help, don’t you have to focus? ‘‘ No, I don’t think so,’’ Hannah argues.
‘‘ You know, a lot of people say: ‘ What are you? An environmentalist? A humanitarian? We’re confused.’ They want to put you in a little box. They don’t understand unless you pick one thing and that’s your thing, unless you say: ‘ I’m fighting for all shoes to be vegan shoes.’ I just can’t work that way. It’s all interconnected to me and what I’d like to do is help people understand that interconnection: that if you buy a T-shirt from a chain store, it may have been made with sweatshop labour, it may have been made by little kids, it definitely took more than nine years of drinking water to make that T-shirt, and it probably was processed with a whole bunch of chemicals as well.
‘‘ That’s sort of what my challenge is, to help people understand that everything you do, or everything you don’t do, has an effect.’’
I remind her that the dystopian world view of was set in 2019, only 10 years from now. Are we there yet? Is the world going bad? ‘‘ Well,’’ she sighs in her best Dorothy-in-Oz voice, ‘‘ we’re certainly in a whole lot of trouble.’’
We’re heading to the condor site now: Hannah, a make-up artist, the driver of the biodiesel limo she has insisted on ( it runs on walnut-derived oil) and me.
Outside the restaurant, a paparazzo had been lying in wait in the back of his four-wheel-drive with tinted windows. Hannah took this in her stride. ( The height of the papfest was in the early 90s, when she lived with John F. Kennedy Jr, after which she became very private about her love life.)
It certainly seems a far cry from the dolphins, with which Hannah has, of course, swum in the wild: not in one of those groups where the boats chase the dolphins so people can swim with them ( she objects to this approach as it disturbs the dolphins’ sleep cycles), but on her own, with flippers and a snorkel. ‘‘ They love to play Keep Away,’’ she says. ‘‘ If you’re just swimming they don’t care, but if you’re goofing around, blowing bubbles and having fun, they totally want to come and check it out.’’
She grew up in Chicago, and when her father walked out and her mother married millionaire Jerrold Wexler, she eventually became one of seven sisters and a brother. Hannah has 33 nieces and nephews: ‘‘ They’ve done their part for the overpopulation crisis,’’ she says with a giggle. Wexler, who died 17 years ago, legally adopted her and she refers to him as her father.
When she was seven her parents sent her to a survival camp in Colorado, where you had to pitch tents in the wilderness and dig your own latrines and tie up your horses.
‘‘ And there I felt . . . comfortable,’’ she remembers. ‘‘ I felt confident and calm, and things made more sense.’’
Hannah went on to nurture this affinity with the natural world privately, but on September 11, 2001, that changed. ‘‘ Before then I figured that the most powerful thing I could do was just live by my beliefs. But after 9/ 11, I saw [ George W. Bush] trying to confuse everybody and pretend that 9/ 11 was something to do with Iraq,’’ she says with a laugh. ‘‘ I kind of recognised the fact