Daryl Hannah dives into ‘Sense8’, her Chicago childhood and her courageous activism.
Daryl Hannah has mastered the art of disappearing. As an actress, she vanishes into her characters; as an activist, she’s committed herself to the Earth’s well-being by living off the grid; as a celebrity — despite a decades-spanning career full of high-profile roles in films like “Splash,” “Blade Runner” and “Kill Bill” — she eschews the limelight, rarely allowing the public a glimpse of her.
That ability to evaporate into thin air comes from a deep well of self-awareness — and from a desire to find real connections with the world around her. “I read a quote somewhere that art, for many, is a result of the tension between the deep desire to communicate and the urge to hide,” says Hannah, 54. “I think that’s true of me. I’m interested in the work — less so in the circus around it.”
Her latest project is just as enigmatic as she is. For the past several months, Hannah has been traveling around the world (including her hometown of Chicago) to shoot the much-anticipated “Sense8,” a Netflix series created by the Wachowski siblings (“The Matrix” trilogy, “Cloud Atlas”) and set to premiere in 2015. Little information is available about the show; according to Deadline, the sci-fi drama — co-starring Naveen Andrews (“Lost”), Aml Ameen (“The Maze Runner”) and Tuppence Middleton (“Jupiter Ascending”), among others — “follows eight characters around the world who, in the aftermath of a tragic death, find themselves linked to each other mentally and emotionally.”
Hannah won’t offer much more by way of plot details and provides only an opaque description of her character, Angel. “She has to [make] sacrifices for what she wants to protect,” Hannah says. “That is something I believe in deeply, so it was natural to connect with that aspect of her character.”
The series allows the actress to plunge deep into an elaborate fantasyland, a skill the Chicago-raised Hannah picked up as a young girl attending Francis W. Parker and Latin School of Chicago. Hannah describes her younger self as “shy and out of it,” a quiet and awkward adolescent. But inside her head, thanks to an active imagination, she was free.
“I learned to scuba dive when I was really young — we used to grab little pony tanks near my grandparent’s house in Lake Geneva, checking out the mud puppies, perch and rainbow trout,” she recalls. “I’d practically spend entire days swimming, pretending to be a mermaid.” (It was an apropos daydream for Hannah, who’d later rise to fame playing a mermaid opposite Tom Hanks in 1984’s “Splash.” “I’d pretty much done all my homework for the part because I’d already spent years imagining myself in the role,” she says.)
Hannah found similar refuge in acting. “I fell in love with movies,” she says. “When I found out how they were made and how you could participate in that process, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” In an uncharacteristically bold move, 11-year-old Hannah looked in the yellow pages under “A” for agent, hopped on a bus after school and “signed myself up,” she says. “I wanted to go to the Land of Oz and meet the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow.”
By 13, she was taking night classes at Goodman Theatre, reading scenes from plays like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and, as she puts it, “not having a clue what they were about.” But her “obsessive passion” propelled her, and at age 18, she’d moved to Los Angeles and landed a tiny role in Brian De Palma’s “The Fury.” The next decade solidified Hannah’s stardom: From ’82-’89, she starred in hits such as “Blade Runner,” “Splash,” “Roxanne” and “Steel Magnolias.” “It was my dream come true,” she recalls of that particular period. “I really felt transported to another reality.”
Off screen, thanks to her cascading blonde hair and long legs, she was a bona fide Hollywood bombshell, dating everyone from Jackson Browne to John F. Kennedy, Jr. and smoldering out of posters on teenage boys’ bedroom walls. But it was a part of the job she detested; she’s spoken openly about how she once fainted from fear on the set of “Letterman” and was continually wracked with anxiety on red carpets. “The ‘spotlight’ has nothing to do with real life — it’s just a slightly uncomfortable byproduct of being an actor,” she says. “I’ve learned over the years that the media can be pretty invasive when it comes to your private life, and they make loads of assumptions that can be cruel or hurtful.” (Recently, she’s been photographed with Neil Young, but hasn’t commented on the relationship).
Seeking a break from the tabloid covers, Hannah purposefully slowed things down in the 1990s and early aughts; while she accepted parts in films like “Dancing at the Blue Iguana” and “Grumpy Old Men,” she managed to fly largely under the public’s radar.
That ended in 2003, with her turn as one-eyed assassin Elle Driver in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.” The role reminded the world of Hannah’s star power, but she’d merely been drawn to the idea of playing someone vastly different than herself. “I’ve really always been a character actress,” she says. “Sometimes I’m thought of in other ways because I’ve played a lot of leading roles, but if you think of the roles I’ve chosen — from the innocent mermaid to the awkward Annelle [in ‘Steel Magnolias’] to the wicked Elle — you see that, if given the chance, I always try to do something unusual, something I’ve not done before.”
“Sense8” more than fit these criteria. In particular, Hannah was intrigued by the “fantastic, free-flowing creativity coming through on Netflix,” the Wachowskis’ “complex, layered, profound material” and the fact that the script focused on something she’d been preoccupied with her whole life: the concept of connecting.
Filming the production locally took her everywhere from Chicago hospitals to Cinespace Studios to a burned-out church in Gary, Indiana; she ventured even deeper into the city when she wasn’t filming, riding her bike past her old schools, dining at Gene & Georgetti with her mom, Susan Wexler, and friends Dominic DiFrisco, Arthur Nasser and Ray Smith, and attending Lollapalooza — which affected her in a way she didn’t expect. “I saw all these kids looking at the stage at a DJ playing prerecorded music on his computer, and they were sort of dancing by themselves, not with each other — just each alone smashed together looking forward. It made me sad,” she says. “I worry this generation is going to be fragmented and disconnected unless some kind of tech pushback happens.”
It’s why she’s decided to live the way she does — on a solar-powered farm built from reclaimed materials in the mountains, surrounded by a “mangy pirate pack” of animals and a car that runs on vegetable oil. When she’s not filming, she works on, as she puts it, “solutions to the crisis we’re in the midst of. … In these extreme times, we’re facing crises on every level: an extinction crisis, overpopulation crisis, water crisis, climate crisis, ocean acidification, wars, et cetera.”
That conviction fuels Hannah’s endless activism — over the past decade, she’s been arrested for protesting the bulldozing of a forest in LA, a mountaintop removal in West Virginia and the Keystone XL oil pipeline. “I believe in bearing witness, standing in solidarity and using my voice and platform to amplify the unheard voices of those who are suffering,” she says. “It’s critical we share information and work against the polarization that we are increasingly pushed toward. Our primal nature is to be collaborative, not competitive.”
It’s a statement that could define Hannah’s career, which she’s spent forcing herself outside of her comfort zone — on screen and off — so that she might find and facilitate human connections. “The most important contribution I could make in this life is to be of service — to in some way help shed light on life’s interconnectedness,” she says. “I believe if we embraced that profound truth, we’d make much wiser decisions.”
Photos by Cassidy Turner