The once prolific actress took a five year hiatus while her personal life became tabloid fodder. But now that she’s survived her demons, returning to her most empowering role provided the best comeback.
Scream 4, released in 2011, introduced us to Hayden Panetierre’s Kirby—the cool-girl film nerd, always armed with a barbed quip and film trivia to make sure you know she knows more than you. It was left ambiguous at the end of the film whether Kirby made it or not, but her survival was made explicit in the fifth film, when Kirby’s number appears on Deputy Dewey’s phone and a blink-and you’ll-miss-it thumbnail of Panettiere shows up in a YouTube interview with Woodsboro survivor Kirby Reed.
In Scream VI, adult Kirby retains much the same qualities in spades, only now she’s an FBI special agent focusing on the Ghostface killings in particular. Playing an adult version of Kirby was exciting, Panettiere says, because she always felt like Kirby would never be a victim. “I was so excited to find out where they were taking Kirby because trauma can do different things to different people. Trauma can cause certain people to be terrified, afraid of their own shadows, put 10 locks on their doors, have their own house turned into Fort Knox. Or people can come out fighting,” she continues, “That’s really one of the things that I loved about Kirby, that she’d go straight into ‘I don’t want to be afraid anymore. I want the bad guys to be afraid of me.’”
After some slight misdirection, and a ten-minute period in which Kirby seems like she might be the new Ghostface, that’s exactly what we get from the character in Scream VI. For this to be Panettiere’s first role post surviving her own demons feels poetic—a place for her to explore what she was in the first half of her career and what she worked through during her self-imposed hiatus. While it’s something she initially considered in relation to Kirby, it’s something she also thinks comes with age. “As we get older, we have more experience in our lives. There’s not a whole lot that we end up not being able to relate to at one point or another. It doesn’t have to be the exact same thing, but you become familiar with the feeling of it. That makes it a heck of a lot easier and more therapeutic,” she says.
For much of the past two decades, Hayden Panettiere hasn’t been far from the pop culture zeitgeist. Aughts comedy-drama enthusiasts remember her work as a child star in Raising Helen, with Kate Hudson, or Remember the Titans. To comic book nerds of a certain age, she was the centerpiece of NBC’s superhero series Heroes. She’d later extend her network TV reign as the troubled but loving country crooner on ABC’s Nashville. And then there’s Kirby, her most fondly remembered, star-making turn in 2011. But much of what people know about Panettiere was what appeared in the tabloid headlines, about a fraught relationship, addiction, and abuse since that turn. Her much-hyped returning as Kirby to the horror franchise she first joined 12 years ago marks the end of a five year-acting hiatus.
For Panettiere, now 33, picking the perfect role to reintroduce herself to an industry she’s been a part of since she was five years-old was crucial. She muses about this as we talk over Zoom, dressed in a plain black t-shirt, fussing with her bangs every once in a while. “I felt like I had this great blank canvas to work with, where I had my name and my history as an actress. As an actor, that doesn’t go away, but I had taken enough time off that I felt like I could go in whatever direction I wanted to with my career,” she says.
Learning that her character Kirby survived the events of Scream 4 in Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s 2022’s reboot Scream 5 presented the perfect opportunity for her to open up the next chapter. “Every project that came in, I was like, ‘This is not the one. It’s not the one.’ Then when Scream came along it calmed my nerves because I had played Kirby before. There was a familiarity there that just made me feel at home and at ease. I’m so glad that I waited.”
Scream VI was released to critical acclaim, particularly for the return of Kirby in all her spunky, sarcastic glory. Even on a computer screen, Panettiere is glowing and radiant, with a smokier voice than fans of her mid-aughts work might expect, gesturing often with perfectly done nails. She describes her return to the franchise as “new but old” which also feels like a potential mantra for the resurgence of her career. Returning to Scream brought back a flood of memories, like celebrating her 21st birthday with a huge party with her cast mates in Ann Arbor, and working with franchise creator Wes Craven before his death. “He was a genius at teaching you how to make a horror film– how important the timing of the scare was,” Panettiere recalls. “That scene in Scream 4 where I’m walking towards the closet, he was like, ‘It might feel very slow to you, like you’re walking too slow, but trust me, it has to be that perfect scary moment.’”
Panettiere has been through her fair share of very public life trials and tribulations. She’s had two very public relationships—one that ended in her giving up custody of her daughter to her ex-heavyweight boxing champion ex-partner, Wladimir Klitschko, after a tumultuous relationship with Brian Hickerson that led the actress to speak openly about the domestic violence she experienced with him, alongside her drug and alcohol addiction. In recent interviews, she’s talked about how much of this was the impetus for her to seek treatment and take her acting break.
Much like other highly-paparazzied celebrities, Panettiere could choose the silent route, standing her ground and making her private life private. Instead she’s chosen to speak openly about her struggles with drugs and alcohol, abusive relationships, and postpartum depression. Part of that openness, she says, comes from a desire to reclaim her own narrative. “I do find that if I don’t talk about it, if we don’t say anything about it, they’re going to say something anyway. They’re going to fill in the blanks for you. They’re going to take a wild guess as to what’s really going on and it’s not going to be the truth.”
The thinking makes sense for someone who has been a public figure for nearly her whole life, but in many ways it’s more complicated than that. Aside from wanting to tell her own truth, Panettiere gravitates towards wanting to help people, clearly reflected in her activist work with animal rights, domestic violence, and most recently her work with Hoplon International in raising funds for Ukraine. She sees that drive as something that comes directly from her father, Skip. “It’s an amazing feeling to not be doing something as an actor, but being there, helping just as a human being. My dad was a cop in Harlem and then retired as a lieutenant in the fire department in New York City. Maybe I get that from him. He was my hero growing up,” she says.
Being honest about what’s going on in her own life is a precedent she’s been setting since Nashville, when the writers wrote Panettiere’s real-life pregnancy into the storyline during season 3. Reality began to blur as Panettiere’s own life reflected Juliette’s. “The first time that it came out of my mouth, I didn’t even plan on talking about it. It was when I said on a talk show, I said, ‘I went through postpartum too.’ We were talking about Juliette Barnes on the show, and nobody knew that I was going to say it. I believe honesty is the best policy, and I’m proud of where I’ve been, I’m proud of how far I’ve come. On my journey, I realized how many people have struggled the way that I have. People need to know that and hear that from the people they look up to.”
With Scream VI’s success, Panettiere is solidly in her next era, but what does that look like for her? She wants to do more comedy. She’s always done her own stunts so why not an action movie? One thing she rules out is an album, or the upcoming Nashville U.K. reunion tour in Fall 2023 – due to her fear of “standing on stage and singing live.” But she concedes that she would be into a project that allows her to sing again. Above all else, she’s excited to finally be able to take control over her career. “I can’t even express how good it feels, how empowering it feels. I spent a lot of my career and my life listening to other people tell me what to do, what to wear, what to say, how to say it –everything but be yourself.”
“I still am learning how to do that and how to feel comfortable doing that,” Panettiere says. “It wasn’t something that came naturally to me. I’ve had to remind myself that it’s okay, nobody’s going to be mad at me.”