Interview-Amy Fleming – The Guardian
One of the biggest film stars of the 70s and 80s, Hawn left acting and producing behind for 15 years. She talks about Hollywood, patriarchy, dancing – and how meditation changed her life
Goldie Hawn: ‘My nature is to always seek the sun.’ Photograph: Pamela Hanson
Goldie Hawn is Hollywood royalty, but that’s not how she sees it. Sure, she won an Oscar at 24, for her role starring opposite Ingrid Bergman and Walter Matthau in 1969’s screwball comedy Cactus Flower, and was a box-office favourite for much of the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The ultimate tongue-in-cheek ditzy blonde expanded successfully into producing, too, with movies such as Private Benjamin and Overboard. Kurt Russell, her co-star in the latter, has been her partner for 37 years. And yet, she says: “I consider myself more a dancer than anything else.”
Her mother was a dance teacher and, pre-fame, Hawn performed as a ballerina and go-go dancer before being spotted on a can-can line in Los Angeles and drafted into TV comedy. She go-go danced on TV, too, barefoot in a bikini, with graffiti all over her body. Even now, at 74, she posts compelling videos of herself dancing around her home with an almost childlike lack of self-consciousness.
While she natters to me on the phone (like a “motor machine”, in her own words) for more than an hour about fame, meditation, navigating the patriarchy and knowing when to call it a day, I picture her in the gorgeous Brentwood home you glimpse on Instagram, a bone broth bubbling away in the kitchen.
Hawn sees dancing as a metaphor. “When I talk about dancing through life,” she says, “it really is how we move. It’s how we face today, how we walk into a room, how we pull ourselves up and feel that what we have inside of us is valuable and important.” In those videos, she says, she is experiencing “abandonment, and also fearlessness. If you can express yourself without being afraid of looking silly – dance like nobody’s watching, right? – I think that is a beautiful thing.”
Given Hawn’s passion for wellbeing, you might have expected her to have a Goop-like lifestyle brand. Instead, in 2003 she teamed up with academics working in psychology, neuroscience and education and launched Mind Up – a simple and fun curriculum for mindful learning, now used around the world and in 250 schools in the UK and Ireland alone.
Hawn’s big idea was that pupils would learn about their brains and emotions, and how to calm and regulate them, with thrice-daily “brain breaks” – five-minute mindfulness meditations – and other proven positive psychological tactics such as keeping gratitude journals. To help children get through the Covid-19 pandemic, Hawn has recorded a guided brain break, and made it available for free on the Moshi: Sleep and Mindfulness app and via the Mind Up website. I’ve tried it with my kids and can confirm that it’s equally relaxing for adults.
By the early 70s, Hawn was a household name, thanks to that Oscar and her regular appearances on the sketch show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. “It was a very strange ride, a quick rise to stardom. I was unsettled. I didn’t know where I was going. I went to the psychologist when I was 21 and I continued for about eight years to try to understand more about my mind, my psyche, how I could return back to my sense of joy.”
When she was 26, in 1972, she recalls, “meditation was really happening. You know, the Beatles were meditating.” She was initiated at a Transcendental Meditation centre and given a mantra, as is the custom, to be repeated silently and never shared. “The more important thing is not what the title is on it, because meditation is just the way you train your brain to quiet down and so forth,” says Hawn. “There’s all kinds of names for it now. But my experience was visceral, it was amazing. I rediscovered something in that one sitting. I can’t explain the joy that was brought back to me. It was a transformational ‘Aha!’ moment for me. It stabilised my mind and gave me a piece of my interior that was all mine. No one could touch it. It was my internal universe and it’s something I’ve been doing ever since.”
She had a head start, in a way. “Starting out as a dancer gave me an aspect of mindfulness that I didn’t even realise that I was getting,” she says, “because to dance is to be aware of every piece of your body while you’re moving. It’s like a meditation unto itself.”
The 70s were hectic, with more films including Shampoo, with Warren Beatty, Julie Christie and Carrie Fisher, and There’s a Girl in My Soup with Peter Sellers. After divorcing her first husband, the dancer and director Gus Trikonis, in 1976, she married the musician Bill Hudson, with whom she had a son, Oliver, and a daughter, Kate. Hawn and Hudson divorced in 1982, the year before she and Russell became an item. Russell also had a son, and they went on to have another together, Wyatt, in 1986.
For Hawn, the 80s were “a great period of abandonment, great music, great fun. A lot of the movies that we made then were feelgood movies. They don’t make them much any more.” This makes her sad because they were not only “very, very, very funny, but they were also really about something. I produced a lot of movies, and I was always interested in the situations that women had to deal with.”
Playing a woman as a fish out of water in a macho role, and ultimately doing it better than the men, excited her, whether it was a soldier in Private Benjamin (for which she was nominated for another Oscar) or an American football coach in Wildcats (1986), in which Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson made their screen debuts.
“Women were my obvious focus,” she says, “because it is not always easy having power and being female,” That was true off screen as well as on. “That’s the way it was. It wasn’t that all men were terrible or that the situation was unbearable. It was a cultural problem.”
She believes the #MeToo movement is making headway, “but back then we had to make our way around the patriarchal society, how men, the culture and the world, looked at women. A lot of it could be sleazy. I went through that. A lot of it could be: ‘You’re powerful now; who do you think you are?’ Some of it is stopping women from doing the things they want to do, and in relationships, making women feel bad about themselves.”
The 90s were kind to Hawn, with the First Wives Club in 1996, also starring Bette Midler and Diane Keaton, a highlight. “Our job is a brilliant one, and continues to be,” she says. She has just played Mrs Claus opposite Russell’s Santa for a Netflix special for next Christmas. But after she hit her 50s, she didn’t make a film for 15 years. “I wasn’t going to wait for a phone to ring. And I certainly wasn’t going to continue to produce, because I produced for like 25 years and I didn’t want to do that any more. I’d done it, I did it, it was done. Great, but now it’s time to move on.”
“My interests are vast,” she says, “and I’m fascinated with the human condition, spirituality and religiosity.” She started research for a TV documentary on happiness, with a focus on the brain, and was staggered by the high suicide rates among young people. “Children were taking more pills and psychotropics. Oh my God, what happened to childhood?” She wistfully recalls her own youth of unlocked doors, lying about with friends searching for pictures in clouds or cracking rocks open. “We cleaned them, put them in the sun and looked at how beautiful they were. But our children are now online, looking at things that their brains are not developed enough to understand.”
In 2001, 9/11 ushered in a period of fear and sadness. Hawn promptly ditched the documentary idea and “turned vigilante”, she says, redirecting all that she had learned about the brain into the idea for Mind Up.
It took 18 months to create the programme, “with scientists, positive psychiatrists, trainers, teachers – it was absolutely thrilling”. Hawn and Russell had relocated to Vancouver, so that Wyatt could pursue his hockey-playing dream, and she started working with academics at the University of British Columbia, to research and demonstrate the positive effects of the curriculum, which is aimed at children from preschool to about 13 years old.
The results, she says, were stellar. “These children had changed in a matter of four months, and had a whole new way of being. They understood their emotional systems in the brain, that the hippocampus is where they remember, the amygdala, which is fight-or-flight.” They learned how strong emotions can overtake the prefrontal cortex and cloud rational thinking. “We have to know that we have to calm down so we can make great decisions,” says Hawn. The Mind Up children “have control over their own minds, their fear. They know what to do, to breathe and focus and do a brain break.”
Other than taking regular brain breaks, Hawn’s tips for staying positive in lockdown include carrying out acts of kindness, and “before you go to bed, think of three things that went well today. I don’t care if it’s a little crazy thing – it doesn’t matter.” And of course there’s dancing. “Take some music you love and if you can’t dance, go do 10 minutes of jumping jacks. Get yourself all cheered up.”
She says that after she gets off the phone with me, “I’m not going to look at my phone and I’m going to go directly for a hike in my neighborhood. I do about three or four miles.” Then she will come home and pump some iron.
Reese Witherspoon has described Hawn as one of her all-time heroes, because she has always been known for being a funny and smart woman in Hollywood. Having made her name in Legally Blonde, Witherspoon should have a good eye for genius women hidden behind girly facades. Does Hawn enjoy being a role model?
“I know Reese and she’s just adorable,” Hawn says. “She’s just a darling and she’s so smart and I’m so proud of her. But it’s very dangerous to view yourself by how other people see you.”
Her image “doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments of sadness and uncertainty and fear. I was afraid of the atom bomb when I was little. But I think that I was born with a high set point for happiness. My nature is to always seek the sun. And I think that that’s probably the better part of my nature.”