Daryl Hannah's London helper

Traipsing after the actor and environmentalist

Originally published in The Sunday Times

To some people, the prospect of meeting Daryl Hannah, the tall and beautiful actress with bee-stung lips, flaxen hair and faraway look, might seem a treat.

To me, it’s all hard work and high-seriousness – a chance to talk about climate change with one of the world’s foremost environmental activists.

It’s strictly for this reason that I allow myself, after a decorous conversation over tea at her London hotel, to be dragged around the city behind her, carrying a camera and a nine-foot flagpole (of which more later) as she films a story for her weekly video blog, and frantically lining up on her behalf last-minute meetings with representatives of the UK’s green grassroots.

Hannah, who rarely gives interviews, was in London last week to address the Fortune Forum Summit, on Friday – alongside this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Al Gore, Sir Bob Geldof, and (on video link) Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – with an audience of powerful and influential figures whose combined wealth is estimated at something like £100bn.

The event, Hannah says, was a great opportunity to get the word out about organisations that get valuable work done and without spending money on marketing – “printing calendars and that kind of thing”.

Through the newly formed International Clean Energy Circle, the Forum brings together funders and inventors whose ideas might help to tackle climate change.

All too often, inventions are bought up by companies and shelved to maintain profits from established technologies, but the Forum, broadcast to a potential audience of 500m people in 30 countries, provided a safe platform for inventors to reveal their ideas.

And that’s just what we need, says Hannah.

“We are in crisis. Species are dying by the bucket load and people are suffering in vast numbers. And of course we have the planet itself choking. It’s coming down fast and we have to act fast. It’s urgent!

“But there is good news. I tend to be overwhelmed by the negative and I don’t know what to do. So I focus on solutions – the things that people are doing now, that are available to us.

I’ve learned about so many really exciting and positive things happening to turn the tide.”

Hannah was an early adopter of biofuels. Her home in Colorado has passive and active solar systems, and grey water recycling. She is a keen knitter, keeps bees, and in her organic garden she grows enough to supply her own needs and to sell at a farmers’ market.

On her web TV channel, Daryl Hannah Love Life, to which you can subscribe through iTunes, she uploads weekly, five-minute films showcasing these and other climate solutions. Unlike many environmental campaigns, it’s almost unrelentingly cheerful.

“I take my camera everywhere, and shoot the films myself. They’re not super slick. It’s so guerrilla, it’s not true.”

I see for myself how this works as we travel around central London. In front of Big Ben, on the river and at Trafalgar Square she unfurls a vast white flag made of knotted carrier bags, and skips about for the camera – very possibly in breach of anti-terror laws which have seen people arrested for holding tea parties this close to parliament.

Wherever we go, we take public transport – at great hazard to other passengers from the nine-foot flagpole – because Hannah is careful about how she travels. “People really have to consider lifestyle change. I have not been to a gas station since the turn of the century. And that is liberating. It feels fantastic not to drive my car on petroleum.”

At home she drives a farm tractor, a GMC truck and a Chevrolet El Camino, running them all on biodiesel. One film on her website shows her licking the cap on her fuel tank, as a demonstration that the reused chip fat she burns is no more toxic than salt or maple syrup.

Naturally, she doesn’t favour biofuels produced at the expense of rainforest or valuable crop land, and recently took delivery of two thousand gallons of rancid oil from a beauty supplier. “So I have two years of fuel. It’s hemp oil.”

She spoke about hemp at the forum. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew the wonder-crop, and that the American constitution was written on paper made of hemp. “It used to be a big crop during the war, it was used for all kinds of things.” Indeed, an expert told her that, “Everything that isn’t made of glass or metal can be made out of hemp… everything.” But growing it, in the UK and America, is illegal.

“We need to create the demand and the awareness. Hemp is a weed, it grows like a weed. It can be made as soft as cotton and it doesn’t need all that water, or pesticides.” Every cotton T-shirt, she says, uses nine years of one person’s drinking water – one year to grow the cotton and the rest in processing. “We have to be conscious about what we buy. We have to move toward things that will work just as well, but will be better for you and your loved ones and everybody else.”

When I meet people like this, I always wonder what motivates them. Religion? Chicago-born Hannah was raised a Catholic, but “flunked the catechism” and is not allowed to take communion. “I took the tenets to heart. I asked why we couldn’t take the gold from the ceiling and give it to the poor. If you ask questions that means you don’t have faith. And they didn’t like me colouring in the pictures in my Bible.”

She saw her parents divorce when she was seven, but developed a close relationship with her late step-father, a property tycoon.

At school, her striking appearance won her few friends. She often came home crying. Another problem was a tendency to daydream. “I maybe had Asperger’s. it wasn’t widely understood at the time.”

Her shyness is legendary. She hid that for years by taking refuge in the parts she played, but off camera she hates publicity. This is a woman who once required tranquillizing to appear at the Oscars. She has acted in over forty films since the age of 11, most recently making a big impression as the eyepatch-wearing assassin in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films.

Not long ago, she researched a film role by working under cover in a strip club for five months. “It was mortifying,” she says, “but better than having to sit on a talk show in front of an audience and have idle cocktail chat with the presenter.”

She’s particularly uncomfortable talking about her private life. She had a ten-year relationship with the singer Jackson Browne, and subsequently lived with the late John F Kennedy Jnr for three years. She’s currently single, and has said that she would like to be a mother but thinks children benefit from having two parents. She says she may one day adopt the kind of child who is usually overlooked, from a difficult background, or older than most would-be parents desire.

Like other celebrities who espouse causes – and adopt children – Hannah is bound to attract flak. It happened to the many celebrities who supported Live Earth. Even Gore has been criticised for, among other things, wasteful use of energy at home.

She says she’s not worried. “People can and will say whatever they want. I think it’s a good idea to practice what you preach. But I also try not to preach. I’m not actually trying to convince anybody about anything. I’m just saying these are things that I found interesting and I think other people might be interested too. For years I just did this stuff and didn’t talk about it. I only started to speak out after 9/11 when I saw that my country was going to war over oil. There are other ways to get around, to move your body from one place to another!”

Did she really have to fly to London to address the Fortune Forum? Couldn’t she, like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have submitted a video?

“Travel is one of the most harmful things, in terms of greenhouse gases. But there is something invaluable about meeting people face to face. People might ask, why should they go to a dinner to watch somebody on tape?” With guests paying many thousands to attend Friday’s event, that’s a reasonable question.

“For me, one thing that needs to happen is self-reliance and local economies. Always support the local community if you can. If you can’t grow your own food, support your local farmers market. And if somebody is making clothes in your community, that is better than somebody using slave labour in china.

“Corporate marketing tells us that we have to buy what we’re sold and the rest is not available. But that’s not true. We’re told that we have to wash our clothes with this or it won’t get the dirt out. And we’re told to clean our floors or dishes with something that is actually toxic to their children. It’s not true! People buy what they’re sold. They don’t realise that they have the power to make another choice.”

Won’t those choices always be expensive? “No, because if you buy stuff locally, especially at farmers markets, you are saving money because you are cutting out the middle man.”

The most important thing, says Hannah, is to reform the way we measure success. “We have to remodel our goals. I’m constantly taking stock of my daily activities and trying to figure out what I can do better and different. It’s fun.

I’m doing the opposite of what most people do. I’m not moving to bigger houses and cars. I’m thinking of moving to a smaller place. And I like the idea of a less permanent structure. With the fires in California recently, I started to think that maybe a permanent structure is not necessarily the ideal.

“I have done it before. I lived in a tepee for two years while I was rebuilding my house. It was great. I highly recommend it. I had a desk with all my books, a queen-sized bed, a kitchen area. And I had a lockbox because you can’t lock a tepee, so I could put away valuables and my guitar. (Similar tepees are available for sale on her website.)

“I have always been sort of conscious about this. I have always been fascinated by more indigenous cultures who live harmoniously on the land.

Speaking of which, we arrive at the tenth-floor, tower-block HQ of London’s chief guerrilla gardener, Richard Reynolds. After a quick chat, he takes Hannah to see a field of lavender he planted with friends on a traffic island, presents her with a home-made cushion filled with lavender and tells her he already rather cheekily signed her up as an unofficial member of his online posse after she was arrested in Los Angeles, in the summer, for her part in a campaign to save a community farm in South Central LA.

She’d been hanging in a tree for three weeks and was one of the last people removed from the site, converted to an allotment after the riots of the early 90s. Her film about the farm ends with unsettling footage of bulldozers wrecking food plants and the spaces in between, where children played, while urban farmers and their families watch in tears. The expression on the children’s faces shows an unmistakeable feeling of powerlessness and sorrow, and helps to explain why Hannah bothers to be a campaigner.

“I’m still very upset that we could not save the farm,” she says, taking her Guerrilla Gardeners membership card. “It’s exactly the kind of thing we need right now. People say adopting a low-carbon lifestyle is expensive, but here were people who did not have a lot of money, growing medicinal and organic food for local consumption in one of the most polluted and dangerous parts of the city. It’s exactly what we need to replicate, and it was destroyed.”