Daryl Hannah: "My battle with autism"

Eighties icon Daryl Hannah, made her splash in Hollywood decades ago but now she tells The Weekly about her lifelong struggle with autism, anxiety and fame.

By Michael Sheather

Daryl Hannah is whispering. Outside, as we sit in a living room over looking the ocean in Sydney’s Coogee, the wind is howling and rain is lashing the windows that look down on a pounding sea.

In a shy, barely audible little girl voice, one of Hollywood’s most famous women is recalling her experience growing up in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with Asperger’s Syndrome.

“I was a little odd and incredibly introverted and withdrawn when I was young,” says the actor who has worked alongside directors such as Ridley Scott, Ron Howard, Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone and co-starred with Hollywood heavyweights Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford and Michael Douglas.

“I was tall, stick-thin skinny and kind of goofy looking and not very communicative. Everybody at school picked on me because I was different – I had white hair and a boy’s name.

“My shyness was probably made worse because of my condition. I’d come home from school and cry myself to sleep. Right from an early age, I’d rock myself back and forth because it helped calm me down.

“Kids bullied me and that just drove me further into myself. Children can be very cruel when they see someone who doesn’t fit in – and unfortunately, that was me. I didn’t fit in anywhere.”

Daryl Hannah has learnt to deal with autism while pursuing her acting career.
Daryl Hannah has learnt to deal with autism while pursuing her acting career.

It is difficult to imagine some like Daryl Hannah, star of films such as Splash, Blade Runner and Kill Bill, not fitting in. At 54, the willowy 179-centimetre blonde, and past paramour of John F Kennedy Jnr and songwriter Jackson Browne, is a striking woman.

More than that, she is outwardly confident, self-assured and about as far from a Hollywood diva as you might hope to find.

However, Daryl reveals, her confidence and self-possession is mostly a defensive façade fashioned during more than 30 years in the spotlight, a mask to help her survive in an industry where image routinely outshines reality.

In a wide-ranging interview, Daryl talks openly about her life-long struggle with autism, about her environmental activism, and her in role in Sense8, the epic, made for TV Netflix Sci-Fi series from Hollywood producers Andy and Lana Wachowski, the makers of the Matrix film trilogy.

She also reveals that the bullying that ruined her childhood four decades ago continues to haunt her today on the internet where trolls target her looks and accuse her of having cosmetic surgery, accusations that she adamantly denies.

For a woman who suffers from debilitating shyness, becoming a target is nothing short of a nightmare. “Anything that involves meeting or talking to more than a couple of people scares the hell out of me,” explains Daryl.

“It’s confronting and always has been. But it’s the way I am; the way I have always been. I’m still not great in crowds. I’m fine one on one but in larger groups I lose my sense of self. Big events are always uncomfortable for me and I don’t know if I will ever grow out of it. I try to keep those feelings under control but it takes a lot of focus and concentration, and energy. It’s not always easy.”

Daryl says she is appalled by accusations she's had plastic surgery.
Daryl says she is appalled by accusations she's had plastic surgery.

Daryl was diagnosed with a “borderline” form of autism when she was growing up in Chicago. Her mother, Karen, was concerned with Daryl’s awkward social skills and shyness took her to doctors who diagnosed her condition.

Nevertheless, at a time when autism was only just beginning to be recognised, doctors recommended that Daryl be medicated and sent to an institution. But Daryl’s mother refused to be separated from her daughter.

“I am so thankful that she didn’t allow that,” Darryl told US interviewer Dan Rather last year. “I would probably still be there.”

Instead, her mother withdrew Darryl from school and kept her at home for a year, letting her exist in her imaginary world but slowly easing her back to reality.

Her saving grace, Darryl says, was the discovery that acting could provide a vehicle for her vivid imagination.

“I was about 11 when I understood that movies weren’t something that just happened in reality and someone caught it on camera,” says Daryl. “Once I realised that it was actually a job I could have, I actively pursued it. I would leave school at lunchtime and use a payphone to call up agents for a job.

“I wanted to go and live in the land of Oz and meet the tin woodsman and the cowardly lion and the scarecrow. I wanted to go to those places. Literally. It wasn’t that I wanted to be an actress as such. I wanted to be physically transported to other realities.

“I went to every acting school known to man but most of them were complete garbage. They made me more insecure rather than more confident. Because acting is the ability to use your imagination to make the circumstances and emotions of your character feel real. That’s what children do when they play, so it was very natural to me. People started to ask me, 'what’s your technique?' and I would say, ‘I don’t know, I’m just pretending’. And that made me feel inadequate.”

Then she found a teacher who only wanted her to “exercise her imagination muscle”. “It was like walking into heaven,” she says. “Nobody wanted me to analyse what I was doing, they just wanted me to feel it.”

Yet even with an artistic outlet for her feelings, Daryl still found the public side of acting daunting. When she first broke into films – 1984’s Splash was her first big hit, starring opposite Tom Hanks – appearing in the red carpet and publicity calls was terrifying.

“I would try to avoid those things at all costs,” she says. “I wasn’t trying to be difficult; it was just that those things really scared me. These days I have little tricks that I do to help me cope. As long as I remember to do them, then I am OK.

Daryl Hannah became famous for her blockbuster Hollywood roles, including playing a beautiful mermaid in Splash.
Daryl Hannah became famous for her blockbuster Hollywood roles, including playing a beautiful mermaid in Splash.

“I imagine that instead of me going to a party where I have to face a bunch of people and feel conspicuous and awkward, it's a bunch of people who are coming to my party. They are the ones who are nervous and uncomfortable and I have to make them welcome and feel at ease. I put the situation on its head. It takes the pressure off me and I can then extend myself to others, but it’s hard to do, especially at something like the Academy Awards where there are thousands of screaming people and bright lights that freak me out.”

Yet even these coping mechanisms don’t help when she is targeted on the internet where, she says, people feel free to comment on her looks. She is appalled that internet trolls insult her and accuse her of having had cosmetic surgery.

“Aging is a natural part of life,” she says. “People, especially women are vilified for aging naturally and that’s just wrong. People see photographs of me and say ‘Look at your horrible face. What have you done to yourself?’ I have never had a facelift in my life. I have wrinkles. I have jowls. But I don’t have any scars. I have always had extreme features.

“And luckily, I have great supportive friends and family, so it’s not something that I dwell on but I am not afraid of aging. It’s part of the process of life. I think the internet appeals to humanity’s baser instincts.”

Part of that management process includes leading a private life, she says. Asked about her relationships, she politely declines to answer. “Those relationships are very private and sacred to me,” she says. “I don’t like to discuss them, not even the historical ones.”

She was, of course, girlfriend to John F Kennedy Jnr for more than five years before he married Carolyn Bessette. She also had a long-term relationship with singer-songwriter Jackson Browne and was romantically linked to 69-year-old rocker Neil Young – former member of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young - last year after he split with his wife of 35 years.

Her persistent shyness also persuaded Daryl to step back from the Hollywood limelight a decade ago. She hit a professional lull in her career after the worldwide success of the Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill in which she played Elle Driver, a professional sword-wielding assassin.

Instead of fretting, Daryl retreated to her ranch and private compound outside Los Angeles and devoted herself to becoming an environmental activist, something she now regards as her primary job, ahead of acting.

“I have always been passionate about the environment and the way that governments and big business treat the world we live in,” says Daryl, who has been arrested five times since 2006 for protesting against environmentally damaging projects in the United States.

“I just wanted less stress and a quieter, simpler life. Life is too short to stress the small things. I just thought, well I shouldn’t worry about it but instead see it as an opportunity to find myself and discover what really matters to me.

“I have collected an amazing menagerie over the years. It’s a constantly rotating misfit circus of the most beautiful animals. I have horses, chickens, a cat, a one-eyed dog and a rescue pig named Molly, who is gorgeous. And at some point I would like to get a goat.”

In addition, everything on the ranch – currently on the market for around US$4 million - is environment friendly. Her home was made with timber reclaimed from a 1870s stagecoach way station. It has solar power, a grey water system and she grows her own vegetables, which she also sells at farmers markets.

And while she tries to live without petroleum products, she does drive a couple of cars – a classic 60s truck that runs on biodiesel (cooking oil) and the Trans Am muscle car she drove in the movie Kill Bill, which has been modified to run on 100 per cent alcohol distilled from starchy waste products.

“I have built my lifestyle choices around my environmental beliefs,” says Daryl. “I am off the electrical grid, supplying all my own power and have been for around 25 years. Even the handrails and balustrades in my house are fallen timbers from the scrub.”

Even though high profile roles have eluded her in recent years, Daryl is still in demand. This year alone she will appear in three feature films as well as the TV series Sense8 for Netflix, due to screen worldwide on June 5.

Written and produced by tinsel town wunderkind Andy Wachowski and his transgender sister Lana, former construction workers who became one of Hollywood’s most successful creative teams, Sense8 is a science fiction epic.

It tells the story of eight people from disparate cultures – a German criminal, a Nairobi taxi driver, a transgender woman from the US, among others - who find themselves linked by their feelings and senses.

Her role, says Daryl, came out of the blue. “I didn’t have an agent when I was offered the role, so it was kind of random,” she says. “But I had heard that the Wachowskis were working on a top secret project that was really wild.

“And when I met them, I just fell madly in love with them. They are like exposed live wires and they are so sensitive and so intensely creative. They have come up with ideas that nobody has ever even thought to put on the screen.”

Daryl plays Angel, a mysterious character whose death sparks the link between the eight people. “I can’t say too much because it is crucial to the plot,” says Daryl. “She is a sensate, someone who lives by all their senses, and through her sacrifice she creates the bond between the main characters.

“But the really amazing thing is that this production pushes the boundaries of what is possible in all sorts of ways. There is no CGI or green screen. If we are supposed to be in the slums of Nairobi, then we are in the slums of Nairobi. It is on such a scale that it is hard to put it into words. It is not a thriller, not a comedy, and not a drama. It’s a mixture of all three genres. What they have created is a new paradigm.”

Yet even new paradigms can’t disguise the paradox of being an actor who suffers congenital shyness. “Some people are extroverts, some people are introverts. I am one of the latter,” says Darryl.

“But as I grow older I am absolutely dealing with it better. I wish I knew when I started out what I know now. I wouldn’t have wasted all that time and energy being so timid. Being an activist has shown me that I divert my energy out into the world rather than narrowly focussing on my own fears.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.

Photography: Alana Landsberry Styling: Rebecca Rac.

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