By Sharon Liveten
Photography By Jeff Lipsky
Daryl Hannah just wants a little tea for lunch.
The actress-turned-activist sits in a corner window booth of The Paradise Cove Café, a quintessential Malibu beach restaurant, part of a compound that includes a million-dollar mobile home park and a beach with prime surfing. First she’s presented with a gigantic wooden box, presumably holding a life- time supply of exotic teas from which to choose. But she giggles when she opens it, discovering only a couple of packets of traditional choices. “Oh, well,” she shrugs. When she tries to pour herself a cup, the pot overflows, spilling hot water everywhere: on the table, on the booth, on herself. That doesn’t bother her either. What really annoys her, what pushes Daryl Hannah’s buttons, is that she has to use paper napkins to wipe up the mess.
She takes a deep breath and looks out the window at the beach. “Why do we make paper from our precious trees, which are the lungs of our planet, our whole ecosystem, and then flush it down the toilet?” she asks no one in particular. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Wait. Daryl Hannah is visiting paper mills? Elle Driver from Kill Bill, Darien Taylor from Wall Street and Madison from Splash is chatting up executives at a paper mill? Well, yes. Hannah is an advocate for green living and has been for the last decade, long before it became trendy. It keeps her very busy. Recently she managed to spend a few days in Los Angeles for this interview between trips to Singapore, where she spoke at the U.N. Global Business Summit for the Environment, sponsored by Dow and Hew- lett-Packard, among others and Canada, where she spoke at the Green Living Show in Toronto. She’s also founder and co-chair (with Annie Nelson, wife of singer Willie Nelson) of the Sustainable Bio- fuels Alliance, an industry organization that supports community-based biofuel companies and pushes for government standards. Hannah is dedicated to spreading the environmental gospel. “We have a short period of time,” she says, “so we have to motivate people fast.”
But she’s not just talking. Hannah lives the life. And what she doesn’t know about sustainability in business she makes up for with her passion and willingness to listen. During her recent trip to the Global Business Summit in Singapore, where Hannah visited that paper mill, she represented Al Gore, picking up his 2007 Champions of the Earth Award for North America. In addition, she also delivered her own keynote address encouraging investment in environmentally friendly businesses.
“I partake in it more as a consumer than an investor,” she explains. “I’m not a [traditional] businessperson, and I’m not a scientist. I’m just a person who cares. So I’ve been learning a lot about this. I didn’t have to go see that paper mill, but I wanted to see how these things work.”
That authentic interest – that passion for change – made a positive impression on the businesspeople in attendance, says Rita Sully, Hewlett-Packard’s corporate social responsibility manager for Asia-Pacific and Japan. “Daryl spoke on the importance of environmental sustainability and then opened the floor for a lengthy Q&A session,” Sully wrote in an HP blog during the event. “She was very knowledge- able about many of the issues and candid about areas where she needed better understanding. I found this refreshing.”
As Hannah – still blonde, lithe and stunning at 46 – strides to the outdoor patio, people look. They know they know her, but they’re not sure from where. And since this is Malibu, she could be just about anyone. Or just a beautiful nobody. But no one bothers her; they just glance in her direction regularly.
They should know her. Hannah has a career that any actress would envy, with iconic turns as Annelle in Steel Magnolias, Roxanne in Roxanne and the aforementioned Madison in Splash. During the ’80s and early ’90s she was the woman on-screen, in huge films with gigantic budgets. Heck, even her boyfriend at the time, the late J.F.K. Jr., was considered American royalty. She couldn’t move without the tabloids taking notice. She hated it. So she made a conscious business decision to take a different, more independent path. Now she tends to make smaller films with less hoopla and tighter budgets. Upcoming releases include the thriller Dark Honeymoon, with Roy Scheider, and Love and Virtue, by director Raoul Ruiz. It’s not a typical movie star’s career path, but her current freedom from mobs of autograph-seek- ing fans delights her. This is the way she planned it to be. “I don’t want to live behind gates, and I don’t,” she says firmly. Having worked steadily for 20 years, she says she’s satisfied with her career, which has let her follow her interests and direct her energy to where her passion lies. “If things come up that I find really satisfying, or there’s someone I really want to work with, or –” she flashes a quick smile “– if I need to work for some reason, that’s when I work. But at the same time, I am really focusing my energy on a new phase of where I’m going.”
That “phase” has meant becoming an outspoken advocate for what she’s been doing quietly for decades: living green. For her, that means more than recycling, avoiding Styrofoam and feeling guilty about driving an SUV.
“I’ve been off the grid – the power grid – for 15 years,” she says proudly. “I have active and solar power in my house and a biodiesel generator for backup.” Hannah’s also been a vegan since age 11 and grows her own vegetables. She drives an ’83 El Camino that she bought off the Internet for a few thou- sand dollars. “I haven’t done anything to it, but I use biodiesel fuel. You just put it in the tank and use it. It’s easy. If people would just realize how easy it is, they’d do it too.”
That, simply stated, is what Hannah sees as her new second job: spreading the word. On her website (dhlovelife.com) she publishes ideas, videos, a blog about social and environmental issues, and green product reviews.
Even though she’s clearly having fun in her videos – driving a sporty electric car or walking the aisles at a natural products trade show – she believes the stakes are quite high – much higher than whether a movie hits or misses.
“I’ve never just been an environmentalist,” she continues. “People are starting to be open to environmental concerns, but they don’t understand that human rights concerns, community concerns and animal welfare concerns are all interconnected. You have to care about them all.” That’s the main reason she refuses to be a spokesperson for a single group. “They’re all equally important,” she says.
But does the public or the media really want to hear from an actress about science? Particularly a beautiful blonde actress? Last year, when a large community garden in Los Angeles was sold and scheduled for demolition, Hannah, along with many lesser-known activists, camped out in the garden for 23 days to attempt, without success, to block the bulldozers. On news reports (including Larry King Live), Hannah was portrayed as a kook who had moved into a tree. (For the record, she didn’t live in the tree; she and the other activists used it as a watchtower to keep an eye on the developers.)
But her zeal for environmental causes – no matter how far out it might seem to some – doesn’t seem to have damaged her business credibility. In fact, it may have helped. She has become one of the most reliable go-to spokespeople in Hollywood for green living, reportedly earning $35,000 to $45,000 per engagement, depending on the time of year. Ironically, although she makes her comfortable living by being in the public eye as an actress and an activist, and despite her firm handshake and quick laugh, Hannah is almost painfully shy. Eye contact is far from her favorite thing, and she doesn’t tell her stories to strangers easily. Until she starts discussing her mission. Then she lights up and chats away, which is one of the reasons why she is such a draw at environmental conferences.
“Daryl uses her celebrity to increase awareness on the issue most important to her – sustainability,” says Laurie Simmonds, president and CEO of Green Living Enterprises, the Toronto-based company that administers the Green Living Show and invited Hannah to speak. “She is a committed activist and is a great communicator of how to live green.”
It also helps that, when she wants to, Hannah can still use her celebrity status to attract the media. That’s good for both the conferences and the environmental movement. Adds Kristine Bellino, founder of the Saratoga Environmental Expo in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where Hannah spoke in April: “Of course, her appearance made front-page news.”
Because she is so protective of her privacy, Hannah has mixed feelings about using her celebrity as a tool to educate the public. “I’m as sick to death as anybody about hearing what the celebrity has to say about anything,” she says almost apologetically. “But people do seem to pay more attention. I’m not trying to tell anyone what to do. I’m just sharing information.”
And so Hannah keeps talking. It’s her job, her mission, to help businesses run green. The numerous conferences are part of that. So is her next appointment, an on-camera interview for a documentary about biofuels. She also recently signed on to work as a consultant to the promoters of an upcoming global mega-concert, advising them about how to keep the event eco-friendly. “The average person would do more if they knew what to do,” she says. And businesses? “[Their] challenge is to surpass all of the certifications that now exist,” she says.
Against the odds, considering her knowledge of the worst practices, she remains very optimistic about the future. “I definitely think this is a good time,” she says. “We are in a crisis period, for sure, with the air – with everything. But every day more and more people are starting to wake up to it. And as they find the information, everyone will make the right decision.”