Should her day job fall through, Hayden Panettiere has a bright future in patio design. She can weatherproof furniture; she knows her way around a Party City. And she’s already learned the most important lesson of landscaping: “The hardest part of this entire thing was repotting the cactuses. It’s a bad idea. Do not repot them. They will destroy you.” We’re sitting, surrounded by repotted cactuses, in the 23-year-old Nashville star’s private backyard tiki lounge, which a parka-clad Panettiere, on break from filming the show’s finale, has graciously opened despite the cold weather. It’s an impressive setup: There’s a bamboo beverage hut (empty except for a bottle of elderflower liqueur), a large seating area, and plenty of torches. A sign on the bar’s thatched roof reads I LOVE THE NIGHTS I CAN’T REMEMBER WITH THE FRIENDS I CAN’T FORGET. The handiwork is all hers—Panettiere built the patio after her puppy tore up the previous one—but the space technically belongs to friends, the owners of the modest South Nashville home where Panettiere is currently living. She sleeps on a futon in the attic.
Panettiere moved here last month, reluctant to commit to more permanent lodging until she knew whether her critically beloved but underwatched ABC drama would be renewed for a second season. She’s remarkably calm about the situation, possibly because she’s small and can fit comfortably on a sofa bed, or possibly because she’s been through this before. Panettiere wasn’t the first choice for Juliette Barnes, Nashville’s villainous young country star with a trailer-trash past; producers worried she might not be vulnerable enough (even though, as Panettiere points out, she cried her way through the first season of Heroes, the 2006 NBC show that made her the most famous cheerleader in America). After her audition, Panettiere waited, a little disappointed, and finally got the good news at midnight, just as her option ran out. Then she kept worrying. “They obviously had these doubts about me, and you feel kind of like, ‘Are they gonna be happy that they chose me?’ ”
If Panettiere’s Golden Globe nomination didn’t alleviate her anxiety, then Nashville’s writers did. “The way the show was written originally, I was not as big of a character as it became,” Panettiere says. Nashville’s pilot centered on Rayna James, a fading, Faith Hill–esque country star fighting off a new generation of radio-friendly singers (led by Panettiere’s Juliette), and the show’s creator, Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise), refused to consider anyone but Friday Night Lights’ Connie Britton for the role. Panettiere, meanwhile, had to hustle for the potentially hazardous job of saying rude things to Tami Taylor on national television.
The sass worked for her, as did Juliette’s ripped-from-a-country-song escapades. Panettiere credits her expanded role to the show’s audience—“They’re the ones who decide what story lines they like”—which is a diplomatic way of saying that Juliette gets all the fun scenes. This is hard to dispute: In the time it’s taken for Rayna to sleep with one man, or for Scarlett (Nashville’s other blonde ingenue) to break up with one boyfriend and land another, Juliette has seduced Rayna’s songwriting partner, shoplifted, stormed out of an interview with Good Morning America, married and divorced an NFL quarterback, and had a business-plus-pleasure relationship with her addict mother’s sober companion. Panettiere doesn’t blink an eye at that list, or at the prospect of more misbehavior. “Oh, I’m game for anything,” she says.
There is also Juliette’s undeniable—though Panettiere denies it anyway—resemblance to Taylor Swift. The comparison has been made so frequently that Panettiere refuses to even speak the singer’s name. A friend who didn’t get this memo joins us in the tiki lounge; when she starts to tell me about the pair’s recent karaoke duet to Swift’s “Fifteen,” Panettiere shuts her down mid-sentence. With prompting, Panettiere will say that she texted her former neighbor (before she lived in an attic, Panettiere had an apartment a few floors below Swift’s in a ritzy Nashville condo building) to clear the air. “It kept coming out, and I didn’t want her to feel like it was per me, or that I was thinking that I was playing her.” But even unintentionally, Juliette’s sparkly dresses and crimped blonde hair are pure Swift, as are her infernally catchy pop songs and the condescension they inspire among country purists on the show.
As if to distance herself from Swift, Panettiere has embraced Nashville’s skepticism about her character’s music: “You don’t listen to Juliette’s early songs and go, ‘She’s singing about something that really happened to her.’ ” But you do hear her confidence. What gets lost in the show’s never-ending talk about pop versus country, or in the overly slick production of songs like “Telescope,” a real-life Top 40 country hit, is that Panettiere can actually sing. She’s had some practice: In her teens, when she was something of a starlet, Panettiere attempted a musical career. The tracks she released were mostly Disney fare, inspirational ballads for movies like Ice Princess and Cinderella III: A Twist in Time. (Sample lyrics from Bridge to Terabithia’s “Try”: “Watcha wanna do? / Gotta have some faith in you / Don’t you know that you can have it all if you try.”) She had plans for a full album and even co-wrote a few songs, but like many aspiring pop stars (including the one she plays on Nashville), Panettiere had creative differences with her record label. At the mention of her one legitimate single, 2008’s reggae-lite “Wake Up Call,” she covers her eyes in shame. “When I realized that it sounded like Paris’s song”—Hilton’s 2006 novelty hit, “Stars Are Blind”—“I was like, Ohhhh my God.” The experience made her hate recording. “But at that point I was a puppet, basically. It wasn’t me. Which is why, when I read this script and it became that for Juliette, I was like, I understand. I know what that is.”
Panettiere is reluctant to even consider making another album, in part because she’s older now and knows how these transitions go. (“I would need to separate myself from Juliette Barnes and be seen as Hayden. And that’s a very difficult thing to do sometimes.”) And though she’s kept cool about Nashville’s renewal prospects, she’s not without her doubts. “Performing live has always terrified me. Stages have always terrified me. They never used to when I was little. But when you grow up in the spotlight, and you’re constantly reading things that are awful about you”—she rattles off a list of offending articles from memory—“it sticks with you.”
Which is why she’s happy to be living in Nashville, away from TMZ’s obsession with her disproportionately tall boyfriend (Ukrainian boxer Wladimir Klitschko) and among friends who will let her turn their backyard into the set of Gilligan’s Island. “Even if the show didn’t go on, I would always want to have some sort of a base here,” she says. And in the meantime, being a major network star—even one who sleeps on a futon—still has its perks. A package is waiting for Panettiere, and she beelines for the FedEx box on the kitchen counter. I ask her what’s inside, thinking it must be something new for the tiki lounge. “No,” she says, cradling the box. “It’s diamonds.”