Who Is This Daryl Hannah, Anyway? - Rolling Stone
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Who Is This Daryl Hannah, Anyway?

The star of ‘Splash’ makes waves as Hollywood’s newest “it girl”

Daryl Hannah, Academy AwardsDaryl Hannah, Academy Awards

Daryl Hannah at the 56th Annual Academy Awards on April 9th, 1984.

Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty

Who is this blond, lissome 23-year-old whose witty portrayal of Madison the mermaid in Splash has abruptly placed her atop the more-than-a-pretty-face category of film actresses? Is she just a poor little rich girl from a cushy Chicago suburb who was showered with dance lessons and foreign trips, and glided through a world of ceaseless privilege; who dreamed of Hollywood glamour while surrounded with more riches than most film actors could ever put their hands on; who today asks that you not reveal the Colorado town where her family owns a huge estate, for fear the hoi polloi might move in; who disdains to admit what everyone already knows, that she’s the girlfriend of Jackson Browne?

Or is she someone else entirely — a painfully shy, towheaded child, left traumatized by her parents’ divorce; a young girl mistrustful, even suspicious, of the world of wealth that came with her mother’s second marriage; a skinny teenager, shunned by her schoolmates but equally awkward with the much older people in her acting and dance classes; and, finally, a would-be actress in the world’s most hedonistic city, with only some Midwestern values guiding the way — in short, a fish out of water?

The paradoxes start at the Plaza in New York, where Daryl and I are having lunch. Or trying to, anyway, Daryl Hannah may be the world’s only vegetarian who hates vegetables.

“This isn’t bad, this salad,” she says, digging in. “I mean, considering I don’t usually like green things. I still have that vegetable fear of childhood.” Hannah’s offbeat beauty is shining today, despite an amiably disheveled outfit that she’s afraid to unpeel. (“Do you think I’d be too casual if I took off my coat? I mean, this is like Annie Oakley goes to New York.”) Her reading glasses hang on a beaded string, like a librarian’s would. At last: an actress who doesn’t have a favorite designer. Thank God.

Hannah has called Madison the easiest role of her career “because she is close to the childlike side of me.” She recalls with relish her earliest attempts at mermaiddom: “My family went away a lot for Christmas vacations, and we used to go to this hotel in the Bahamas. And my friend and I used to play mermaid. Swear to God, we would tie our legs together and pretend we were mermaids in this beautiful pool. It had stairways that just drop off into the deep end, and you can pretend there are ships, you know? ‘Here’s the museum, here’s the ship, here’s the ocean. …'”

Hannah seems wholly at ease in the realm of fantasy and readily acknowledges that fairy tales rank high among her greatest inspirations. It’s the juxtaposition of the timelessness of legend and the yowsah-yowsah-yowsah hurly-burly of popular culture that produces Splash‘s funniest moments: Hannah, out of the ocean, walking wide-eyed through Bloomingdale’s, learning to speak English by watching television. How long, asks Madison’s understandably baffled boyfriend Allen (Tom Hanks), will she be able to stay with him? “Six fun-filled days,” she replies.

Hannah’s love of fantasy dates back to her days as a child in Chicago. Her parents divorced when Hannah was around seven, and she has little or no recollection of the next four or so years of her life. “I have a whole blank,” she says. (Her withdrawal was severe enough, she says, to warrant a diagnosis of “semi-autism.”) “I only remember when I was a kid in a house on a street with other houses; the next thing I knew we were living in a hotel and my mom was getting married.”

You could well argue that the most significant moment in Daryl Hannah’s life came in 1973, when Jupiter Industries chairman Jerry Wexler (brother of cinematographer Haskell Wexler) married Sue Hannah, and Daryl, together with sister Page and brother Don, left behind the middle-class life that she still cannot remember.

“Suddenly, I had my own huge room and my own bathroom, rather than all three of us sharing my brother’s bathroom,” she recalls. “I felt like someone had mistaken me for someone else — that they were going to give me back any day now.” Hannah laughs, but not blithely; the transition was not easy.

“It took me a long time to adjust — to realize that it was the way my life was going to be. For a long time, I had what you might call a paranoid or vivid imagination that it wasn’t real. I think that’s part of the reason I had such a desire to work: to make sure that, in case we were ever taken back, I would at least be able to support myself and my brother and sister.”

Adjust she did, though: There were trips to Europe, where she met ballerina Margot Fonteyn, to the Caribbean islands in the spring, to the family’s lavish estate (the kids’ house is apparently known as the “Rocket Ranch”) in the unsullied ski country of Colorado. Her life was as fantastic as any she might have imagined as a young child, yet she still clung to a fantasy life of her own.

From the beginning, her release came through performing, Hannah had first cast a girish eye on the field of ballet. “I started dancing when I was four because of some flexibility problems I had,” she says. “They told my mother that I should have leg braces, so she just thought that maybe if she put me into dance classes, it would help.”

The young Daryl wound up studying with former New York City Ballet star Maria Tallchief, an American Indian and a former wife of George Balanchine’s. “Daryl could have been what they call a Balanchine ballerina,” says Tallchief today. “She has the figure, you see: long legs, small head, and she’s beautiful. She was very talented. I really was sorry that she didn’t pursue that.”

“I got real serious about it for a while, like, ‘Hey, me big prima ballerina,'” says Daryl with a laugh. “But I always found it really strict and rigid. I would space out all the time, because I could escape in my mind from all that strictness. Then, one day, the first fortuneteller I went to told me I was going to be a prima ballerina — probably because my mother was saying, ‘She’s a ballerina!’ — and I just said, ‘I’m never taking another class in my life. I hate it.’ I was 11, and I was tired of being, like, whipped.”

So she moved into less disciplined areas: jazz tap, modern dance. She was enrolled at Francis Parker, a small, exclusive school in Chicago that, Tallchief notes, “is very oriented toward the theater. Daryl and my daughter were constantly in a play or musical, it seemed.”

Socially, though, Daryl had problems — among them, her nicknames. “I was definitely picked on — Beanpole, Toothpicks, everything. I wasn’t popular. It’s like a family, you know? You can’t exactly come back the next year and be a totally different person. They’re just going to see you the same.” Hannah struck back in a peculiar way. “I used to use morning assembly as my forum. One time, I put on green high tops and a green bathing cap, and I played Kermit the Frog singing ‘It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green.'”

“There she was,” recalls Tallchief, “a beautiful girl up there portraying a frog! She had a wonderful sense of humor.”

Hannah was still in high school when she got bit by the acting bug. “I saw Singin’ in the Rain and thought, ‘This is it.’ I decided I better get on the move, because when Shirley Temple was four, she was already a success.”

Again, only the best would do: Daryl says she became the only juvenile taking classes at the prestigious Goodman Theater. “They were night classes,” she remembers, “so a lot of people weren’t actors or actresses — they’d be, like, secretaries in the morning. It was sort of weird, because I’d have to go to people’s houses and rehearse. And to be 12 or 13 and going to someone’s apartment. …” The clash of worlds heightened her feelings of disconnection, the sense of being the oddball in the group.

By graduation time. Daryl knew where she had to go. “As soon as I decided that movies were what I wanted to do, Hollywood was the place I wanted to be. I did want to go to school, but more than that, I wanted to work.” So Daryl and her teddy bears set out for the West Coast, using college as a ploy — she was ostensibly enrolled at USC — to win her mom and stepdad’s approval.

They bought it, kind of. “They weren’t really thrilled about the idea of my acting, and especially about my going to Hollywood. They thought I was real impressionable.”

As it turns out, they did have something to worry about. “I was very naive, you know,” Hannah admits. “Things used to shock me all the time.” Like the time she was almost inducted into a quasi slavery ring?

Seems that in her first week in Los Angeles, Daryl happened upon “these girls who seemed very nice at this party. I didn’t know anyone in the real world, and they told me about this thing down in Las Vegas where you could make $500. They’ll fly you down there round-trip, give you a hotel to stay in, if you model for the cover of an album or something. Seemed fine to me: a little modeling job for the weekend. So I went down to Vegas with these girls that I had just met. I even paid for my own way, expecting to be refunded.

“Turned out that these guys had no intention of putting any of us on an album cover or even paying us, unless we were willing to stay there with them. This one guy — we called him Starchface — called for me because I was a nubile 17, fresh out of the Midwest, blond, blue-eyed; the other girls were at least a decade older than me.

“I suddenly realized what was going on and locked myself in the bathroom until the next plane. I had no money, so the guy who drove us there gave 40 bucks to me. It was kind of scary.”

Other, weirder things happened to Hannah in the wilds of West Hollywood: “Oh, boy, they’re endless,” she moans. “One of my neighbors used to beat up his wife all the time, and the other one was a drug dealer. I got robbed, and they stole my teddy bear. Not my TV, not the stereo — my teddy bear, one of my favorite teddy bears. That was enough for me. I freaked out.”

Her Tinseltown dreams dashed, Hannah hied it back to Chicago to collect her thoughts. Once again, her family proved helpful, hooking her up in L.A. with Susan Saint James, who gave Hannah not just professional advice, but personal encouragement as well. “I still had a problem that I only get every once in a while now, these pangs of incredible shyness, where I can hardly talk. She helped me out and gave me confidence in myself.”

Awhile later, Hannah and another struggling young actress, Rachel Ward, rented a house together. “Both of us were from families that were well-off, and we had these guilt complexes that we should suffer, that we should stand on our own two feet and make our own money. So we lived in this house that was right on top of the freeway. This is when we were both working on movies. It was ridiculous, you know?”

Meanwhile, Hannah’s good looks and athletic abilities were getting her noticed in all sorts of places. “Twice in 1979, I took her to lunch at Warner Bros. in Burbank,” says Daryl’s friend Jonathan Kaufer, a director and screenwriter, “and both times she was hit on by directors.”

One of them was Randal Kleiser, who gave Hannah the lead in Summer Lovers, a sun ‘n’ skin flick set in the Greek isles. To Daryl, it seemed like a good idea — she was just coming off a lauded spot in Blade Runner — but it wasn’t. “It was difficult,” she recalls, and costar Peter Gallagher concurs:

“We were all pretty serious about our work, and all of sudden, we realized that we were making this story where the greatest crisis was someone leaving a wet bathing suit in the sink. I think she’s terribly bright. But she’s also very young in some kind of interplanetary way.

“One time we were shooting this scene, and there was a fly in the room. I was sort of peripherally aware of it, and it landed on my nose. I was going to whisk it away, but then I saw this look come over Daryl’s eyes — like the only thing in the world she saw at that moment was the fly. So I just saw her wind up and BAMMO!

“Anybody else would be going for the schtick, but she didn’t even know where that fly was. Either that or she just wanted to slug me. I wasn’t sure with her. It could have been this marvelously complex naiveté, or it could have been that she just couldn’t stand me.”

From Summer Lovers, it was on to Reckless, which at least had the distinction of being an entertainingly trashy B movie. Hannah is refreshingly sanguine about her film history, though; tell her you’ve seen most of her movies, and her reponse is, “Oh, God, I’m sorry. Embarrassing.” She seems ingenuous — but should she have known better? How naive is Daryl Hannah?

Not at all, says Splash director Ron Howard: “I don’t think she’s very naive. I think that she’s incredibly sensitive and hasn’t been toughened by the business yet. She’s still at a point where she can be discouraged and really hurt by people.”

Says Kaufer: “I think Daryl could use some toughening.”

Hypersensitive as she is, Daryl Hannah doesn’t like to talk about her love life. So I will. She is in love with Jackson Browne, whom she will not discuss. She even instructed her friends not to acknowledge the existence of their relationship, which is usually reported to have begun about a year ago, after Browne separated from his second wife, Lynne Sweeney.

But Hannah has been enamored of Browne for at least five years, even before his second marriage. “She’s been around forever,” says one of Browne’s musician pals. The infatuation started when she was a Chicago teenager. It seems that Browne spotted her in the audience one night and dedicated some songs to her. She met him afterward and was driven home in his limousine. Last year, Hannah spent a good deal of time with Browne on his last tour and played his girlfriend in his video for “Tender Is the Night.”

Okay, so she won’t talk about Jackson. But ask her what she’s learned from her relationships with men, and she responds, “I haven’t had any.” Run some rumors past her — a fling here, a brief relationship there, nothing the average person would be ashamed of — and you’ll get some remarkably emphatic denials (“Who tells you this stuff?”) and an impassioned defense of those Midwestern values.

“You wouldn’t believe who people have told me I’ve gone out with.” She laughs, a bit nervously. “When I first came to Hollywood, people had such a hard time understanding me because I didn’t go out with anybody, and I wouldn’t go out with anybody, that they made up horrendous stories about the things that I did — that I was like a drug fiend or something. You know, just really weird things — that I was perverted in some other way.”

Her voice grows more intense. “Maybe not everyone wants to experiment or try out everything. Maybe there are people in this would who concentrate on something else, and if they fall in love, well, that’s something special. The fact that I didn’t go out with anybody, even in high school, and especially when I moved out here … people refuse to believe you. It just so happens that I really didn’t go out with anybody. I mean, really, seriously, I did not go out with a soul.”

To which one can only ask: Why? “Well aside from the fact that I was really focused on work and stuff, because that’s basically where all my interest was, I’m very … um … unself-confident. You know … shy, and also, I have a real strong feeling about true love and stuff like that. I have a standard that holds me really strongly to my feelings, my value system, whatever. It can be very lonely at times, you know? And in a way, it can be dangerous because you could be in for a big heartbreak. But so far, it’s worked out fine for me.”

True enough. All of Daryl Hannah’s childhood dreams — professional and personal — seem fulfilled. Those who’ve seen her next film, The Pope of Greenwich Village, say she emerges as much more than a pretty face. Scripts are piling up at her door. And Jackson Browne has built a recording studio in his home and is planning a two-album set about — what else? — true love.

“Sometimes I wish I had experience … in the same way, I wish I had more college experience,” Hannah muses. “You know what you’re doing more. But I think that’s the way my life goes.” She laughs easily. “I have to take it for what it is.”

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