Exclusive Interview: Hayden Panettiere talks ‘Heroes,’ paparazzi, and what matters most

hayden_panettiere_spl136789_019haydenpanettierejimmychoo I had the opportunity to interview Hayden Panettiere a couple of years ago, when “Heroes” was in its infancy and everyone was buzzing about “the cheerleader.”

She was really lovely to talk with – down to earth, open, and friendly. Best of all, she was happy to say hi to my then 10-year-old daughter!

Here’s the interview, which was published in the Nov/Dec issue of Latitudes, the inflight magazine of American Eagle.


She’s known as “the cheerleader on Heroes,” but Hayden Panettiere could be your next- door neighbor. Oh, it’s not that she isn’t beautiful. She’s all that. But with her wholesome good looks and down-to-earth attitude, you’d never guess this rising star recently graced the cover of Entertainment Weekly.

“When I go to work and see our little sound stage and sets where we goof around, it’s hard to think that 15 million people are watching what we’re doing,” says the fresh-faced blonde, who recently turned 18.

Panettiere became a household name with her role as Claire Bennet on the hit NBC show, “Heroes.” A sassy cheerleader from Odessa, Texas, Claire discovers that she’s indestructible and can regenerate any part of her body. Jumping off a bridge? No problem. Waking up on an autopsy table with her insides, well, on the outside? No sweat.

More after the jump…

hayden_panettiere_heroes The hit sci-fi fantasy series, created by Tim Kring, premiered in the fall of 2006. It’s currently drawing raves in its second season, and has already produced a spin-off, “Heroes: Origins,” scheduled to air in 2008.

The first season of “Heroes” introduced us to the characters, all of whom learned they had extraordinary powers after a mysterious solar eclipse. A stripper discovers that her mirror image is alive. A fugitive baffles authorities with his escape-artist abilities. An artist learns he can paint the future, A Japanese guy travels through time. And then there’s that indestructible cheerleader.

Season Two picked up four months after Season One’s finale, and our heroes are still on the run. “The theme of the first season is what happens when ordinary people discover extraordinary abilities,” explains Panettiere. “Season Two is about what happens when extraordinary people have to be ordinary again.”

For Claire, that means rediscovering her inner teen self and coming to grips with the teen angst of having a love interest, played by Nick D’Agosto.

“Heroes” has redefined what it means to be an ensemble show. Virtually all of the characters play a key role, and Panettiere is quick to note that the writers, producers, and directors have created an amazing atmosphere – both on-screen and off.

“With ensemble casts, sometimes it’s easy to get pushed aside and overlooked, especially when you’re one of the youngest,” she says. “But this has been such an incredible experience. It’s remained an ensemble storyline, as opposed to anyone standing out by themselves.”

So why are viewers around the globe loving “Heroes” so much? Panettiere feels it’s a combination of things—great writing, skillful directors and producers, and character-driven storylines we can all relate to. Really.

“These characters have pretty rugged lives,” she says thoughtfully. “You’ve got a mom trying to support her son by stripping, a male nurse who dreams of being something more, a drug addict who’s a struggling artist… All these stories are very human stories, and their powers are metaphors for life. You watch it and say, ok, I totally get the feeling of wanting to be normal and wanting to fit in, but having something that holds me back, something I have to keep secret.”

It’s no secret that Panettiere has been doing this a long time. In fact, she’s been on-screen one way or another for most of her 18 years. Starting at just 11 months old, she’s filmed more than 50 commercials, everything from Jergens to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

By age four, she was playing Sarah Victoria Roberts on “One Life to Live,” and later landed the role of Lizzie Spaulding on “Guiding Light.” Her TV work includes “Ally McBeal,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

hayden_panettiere_heroes_2 In theaters, Panettiere has acted in “Remember the Titans,” “Raising Helen,” “Racing Stripes,” and “Ice Princess.” Next up: “Fireflies in the Garden,” an independent film in which she plays Julia Roberts’ little sister.

And if all that isn’t enough, Panettiere also has a thriving singing career. She’s recorded tracks for “Bridge to Terabithia” and “Cinderella III: A Twist in Time,” and has a CD coming out this year.

Whew! So how does this young star keep her head straight, especially now that she has ten cameras in her face every time she steps outside? For one thing, she doesn’t go outside. “I’m relatively difficult to get a shot of because I pull out of my garage in my car, then I go into another garage and go straight into the building. I never step foot outside!”

She adds that all the hard-partying, DUI-ing starlets in the tabloids are making it that much harder for everyone else. “Because of their wrongdoings, we’re all kind of slotted like that and watched like hawks to see if we’re gonna screw up,” she says. “People try to push us to fall into traps, so you have to stick to your guns and play it safe, and not do anything that could be misinterpreted.”

Like switching from non-alcoholic Sprite & lime juice to bottled water at a recent fundraiser. And yet, she says the paparazzi still question what’s in the water bottle. “Some of the things that other people have done are extreme, and I would never go anywhere near any of that. But all the young people in this business have been really affected by what other young people have done. And it’s just not fair.”

It’s one reason Panettiere loves spending time on meaningful charities, like 2 SMRT 4U, which encourages teens to make safe choices when posting information about themselves on social networking web sites and blogs; Invisible Children, which creates economic opportunities for people in Northern Uganda and raises money to support children affected by the war there; and Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan, nationwide campaign to empower 18-year-olds in America to register and vote in the 2008 election.

Panettiere hopes that young girls will see her charity work and want to emulate that and help make a difference in the world. Hearing this sweet philosophy, I asked if she’d mind saying hello to my 10-year-old daughter, who grew up watching her movies. Not surprisingly, Panettiere obliged and was absolutely charming with my daughter, who’s still beaming over the experience.

Now that’s the sort of hero we can all cheer about.

Image: splashnewsonline.com; NBC Universal

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