Daryl Hannah on the 'gift' of being an outsider

"I wouldn't say I was introverted, I was more 'out there', somewhere. I was off in a dream world all the time and was ...

"I wouldn't say I was introverted, I was more 'out there', somewhere. I was off in a dream world all the time and was not very communicative." Photo: Steven Chee

When women under the media spotlight break certain rules, they tend to be punished. If they question the status quo, they're labelled "crazy". If they tackle powerful interests, they're called "extremists". And if they try to keep their romantic lives private, the tabloids go feral.

Daryl Hannah - actor and activist - knows all of this to be true. But the most bizarre example is a personal confession she never actually made.

Two years ago, Hannah was stunned by a wave of headlines - sparked by a US People magazine feature - claiming she was finally revealing her "battle with autism". One network even reported it as breaking news.

Beyond the blonde: "I always felt I was a bit of an outsider. I think that helped me empathise with others who were ...

Beyond the blonde: "I always felt I was a bit of an outsider. I think that helped me empathise with others who were marginalised, or left outside." Photo: Steven Chee

"We're in a culture that likes to have these Oprah moments," she says, fresh from a four-hour cover shoot for Sunday Life. "It's not something that hasn't come up before. But suddenly, it's, 'She has finally revealed!' I'm like, 'What are you talking about?' "

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It's true. A dig through media archives unearths several old articles - some from 15 years ago - that mention her childhood diagnosis of a mild form of autism. At the time, doctors urged she be medicated and institutionalised. Her mother refused, instead taking her out of school for a year.

"Since I was a baby, I always rocked; I always ... would get hypnotised by fires," Hannah told CBS interviewer Dan Rather in 2013. "I wouldn't say I was introverted, I was more 'out there', somewhere. I was off in a dream world all the time and was not very communicative." She told Rather her mother made the "right choice" for her, letting her "sort of exist in my imaginary world for a good year or so, and sort of slowly reintegrated me back into the 'normal world', whatever that means".

At this point, readers may expect a tearful account of those early struggles, wrapped up in a neat little parable. Indeed, we've become so accustomed to this narrative template that many media outlets simply shoehorned Hannah's story into it.

"I don't believe in that stuff," says the star of Blade Runner, Splash, Roxanne, Wall Street, Steel Magnolias and Kill Bill. "Like, 'Let's all go sit on the couch with Oprah and cry.' I don't have anything to hide but I'm a private person." When reporters prod her to counsel parents of autistic children, she politely declines. How could she pretend to know their situation, let alone tell them what to do?

Yet she is happy to explain her likely feelings about the red-carpet party she'll attend that evening, to celebrate the Australian launch of Netflix. "I'm just going to lose my sense of self when there's so much attention in my direction. I almost don't know who I am and where my body is. It's a little too much input ... [though] I've been doing what I do for so long, I'm a little more used to [knowing] how to function."

We're nestled into a comfy couch in a Sydney photo studio, Hannah replenishing herself after the shoot with coffee and a hearty egg sandwich. During our long and intimate chat, I notice she is strikingly attuned to her surroundings. To me, the painting behind us is merely an abstract art blob; she correctly sees it as an oblique rendering of Jimi Hendrix. She alerts me to an ambulance siren several seconds before I hear it. Then she spies our photographer trying to sneak out and stops him to say thanks for guiding her through the shoot. "I'm so not a model," she says. "I like it when someone instructs me."

The 54-year-old star is in Australia to promote Sense8, a 12-part drama launching globally on June 5. Being an original Netflix series, all episodes will be released at once for binge-watching.

Hannah plays Angel, a mother figure to eight strangers living in different parts of the world - after experiencing a violent vision, each can see, hear, feel and talk to the others as though they're together. Filming took her all over the world, with the characters as diverse as a German gangster, an Indian scientist, a Mexican screen idol and a taxi driver in the slums of Nairobi.

Having acted since the late 1970s, Hannah knew instantly she was onto a winner. "You know when a cake comes out of the oven and you can tell that it's perfect?" she says. "It was like that."

It was Sense8's deeper theme of interconnectedness, however, that appealed most to Hannah. That theme is also evident when she gently corrects my mention of her "environmentalism".

"Pardon me," she says, touching my arm, "but my hackles go up. I don't see these as just environmental issues. They're humanitarian issues. We need the environment and it needs us. I don't like people fragmenting those concerns."

Before we meet, I watch dozens of clips of Hannah arguing against such issues as the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada into the US, mountaintop-removal mining and disposable fashion. She has even been led away in handcuffs during several protests.

"It's not something that anybody wants," she says, pointing out she has never been arrested for "anything horrible" like drink-driving; only for peaceful civil disobedience. "But at a certain point, you're forced to do it to stand against something that is wrong." Her opponents try to paint her as irrational and extreme - a tactic, she says, to stop people from listening to her.

When others learn Hannah's Malibu home runs "off the grid" with solar energy - and was restored with recycled and non-toxic material - many assume it's basic and rough. This drives her crazy. By all accounts, it's airy and luxurious. "People are like, 'What are we going to do without fossil fuels? We'll have to go back to gnawing on grass.' Are you kidding me? I don't use fossil fuel for my house and not only is it possible, it's so much nicer."

Conceiving of alternative realities is not a new skill. Since Hannah was little, she has enjoyed a rich interior life. She'd spend hours in the lake near her grandparents' house, pretending to be a mermaid (great practice for the movie Splash). After the rest of her family went to bed, she'd sneak out and watch old Hollywood movies until dawn. When she was 11, she looked up "A" for "agent" in the Yellow Pages, caught a bus into town and signed herself up. At 17, she moved from Chicago to LA, debuting the following year in Brian De Palma's The Fury. But not everyone shared her boundless imagination. "There's absolutely no reason for her to be here," a teacher told Hannah's mother when she was six. "Nothing's going in, nothing comes out. She's just gone."

In her mid-30s, Hannah began hearing she was "too old" to be a doctor or lawyer on screen. (Strangely, her male counterparts never heard this.)

Then there is that "blonde bombshell" tag: "I know, I know," she sighs, holding up a strand of fair hair by way of explanation. "The roles I've played; they're almost always character roles. It's not always 'the girlfriend' or 'the lead glamorous woman'. But occasionally, when I'm looking at parts, [directors are] like, 'Oh, she's too glamorous.' I'm not frickin' glamorous! "I'm not one of those actors who plays myself in every film. There are quite a few [who do] and they're charming and funny - Drew Barrymore, those kind of girls, they're lovely. But that's not what I do."

Some of the best advice she ever got, however, came from America's former first lady. In the early 1990s, Hannah dated John F. Kennedy jnr, sending the tabloids into a frenzy. "I remember Jackie Onassis telling me, 'Don't worry about it, it's all just birdcage-liner in the end,' " she says, throwing up her arms to show the relief she felt. In her 20s and early 30s, she had just one boyfriend, musician Jackson Browne, she told The Telegraph (UK). Yet ongoing scrutiny from the paparazzi means that personal relationships are off limits for this interview, including rumours she is dating musician Neil Young.

"All the reasons people said I broke up with people, or I didn't, or whatever - it's all wrong," Hannah says emphatically. "Total fallacy. People have no idea what transpires between two individuals, except for maybe your best friend and your family."

When we gossip about others, she notes, we're rarely generous in our assumptions. "All the speculation about my past loves - there is so much ugliness people put into those things. I don't know why we resort to trying to project the worst. When I love somebody, I love them.

"I think it's kind of gross to start going, 'We didn't do that! Here's the truth!' To take something that I consider to be sacred - my personal relationships - and have to explain them to everybody... it cheapens my life experience."

I note that Hannah is driven by a sense of empathy: it informs her activism, of course, and even her attraction to roles such as Sense8. "I was definitely an odd little kid, and I obviously have elements of that still in me," she laughs. In retrospect, this gave her an advantage. "I always felt I was a bit of an outsider. I think that helped me empathise with others who were marginalised, or left outside.

"If I have any gift, that's one I feel I've been given."

 

Three facts: Daryl Hannah

  • Hannah has invented two board games with her friend Hilary Shepard: Liebrary and Love It Or Hate It.
  • When she was a girl, she lost part of her finger in the pulley of a well at her grandmother's house. She sometimes wears a prosthetic tip in movies.
  • She starred opposite Robbie Williams in the clip for his 2002 hit song, Feel.