What became of Hayden Panettiere, the diminutive teen star who found fame in Heroes and a whole succession of good-girl roles? She grew up and got nasty (on screen at least). She talks to Jane Mulkerrins.
Hayden Panettiere bounds across the lobby of a deeply fashionable New York hotel. She waves and grins broadly before settling into an armchair and seizing the cocktail menu. ‘You’re British, you’ll drink with me,’ she declares. At just 23 years old, the actress could justifiably be claiming her carriage clock by now. Panettiere was a millionaire before she was out of her teens, thanks in part to her award-winning role as Claire Bennet, a cheerleader with healing powers in the sci-fi series Heroes.
She spent most of her formative years on sets instead of at school, appeared in adverts by the time she could walk and talk, and landed her first full-time role in a television soap opera aged four. Since the winter sun is just about over the yard-arm, I join Panettiere in accepting the waiter’s recommendation of a couple of potent-sounding creations.
Just 5ft 1in, and sporting skinny jeans, an orange sweater and brown fur-lined boots, she is so fresh-faced she looks barely old enough to be quaffing cocktails.
But Panettiere appears to have pulled off the notoriously tricky transition from child and teenage stardom to serious adult acting with aplomb. Earlier this year she earned a Golden Globe nomination for her role as the catty, conniving country-music singer Juliette Barnes in the new More4 drama Nashville. It’s a gratifyingly grown-up part for Panettiere. With her bad-girl persona, sequinned dresses and eye-wateringly tight denim hotpants, Barnes is a delicious departure from the good girls the actress is used to playing.
‘After Heroes I knew it was going to be an uphill battle for me to be seen as anything other than the all-American cheerleader,’ she says. It’s certainly true that with her perky blonde prettiness she perfectly resembles that icon of American high-school culture, straight out of central casting. Perhaps it was an ill-advised effort to shed her wholesome image that made Panettiere take on the contentious role of Amanda Knox in the television film Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy (2011). At the time, Knox was serving a 26-year sentence for the murder of Meredith Kercher, though she has since been acquitted. Panettiere found herself fending off intense criticism after calling Knox ‘brave’ and ‘spirited’ and talking of her joy and excitement at winning the role.
Kercher’s father, John, called the film ‘extremely distressing’. He said, ‘To actually see [Meredith’s murder] like this is very distressing. The scenes are absolutely horrific. It’s awful what these film people have done.’
With hindsight, would she take the role again? ‘Yes, I would,’ she replies, after a pause. ‘But I can completely understand the feelings of the Kercher family… I apologise deeply for any pain that was inflicted. But I didn’t do anything out of disrespect.’ Fortunately for Panettiere, her flinty performance on Nashville is earning nothing but praise. The show pitches the ruthlessly ambitious Juliette against a fortysomething country music superstar whose success is on the wane. The series is filmed on location in the Tennessee city, where Panettiere has very willingly relocated from Los Angeles. ‘There’s a real feeling of community and Southern hospitality,’ she says. ‘It feels much more genuine than LA and I have never had an easier time making friends.’
The city and the show have reinvigorated her passion for music. Panettiere sings regularly on screen and several tracks have been digitally released. She actually recorded a pop album as a teenager, but abandoned the project before release. ‘I wasn’t happy with it. It wasn’t me. I was young and constantly trying to emulate someone else,’ she says. ‘But I would love to make a country album of my own now.’
The 16-hour days that filming of Nashville demands are taking a heavy toll, however, as Panettiere laments.
‘Every time I used to read that so-and-so was in hospital from exhaustion, I would be like, “Yeah: drugs, rehab,”’ she scoffs, pulling a face of contemptuous disbelief. ‘I now understand that you really could end up in hospital from exhaustion.’ Panettiere grew up in Palisades in the Hudson Valley, 25 miles north of New York. Her father, Alan (known as Skip), was a policeman, then a firefighter, before he retired to set up a wooden-flooring business. Her mother, Lesley Vogel, is a retired soap actress, who spotted her daughter’s potential early.
When Panettiere whips out her phone to show me a snap of herself as an infant pouting prettily in a navy-blue velvet playsuit, her hair a halo of blonde curls, it’s not difficult to see why she was so precociously successful.
She acted throughout her childhood, with guest spots in Ally McBeal and Malcolm in the Middle and films such as Remember the Titans, but her career went stratospheric when she landed the lead role in Heroes aged 16.
She became the face of Neutrogena, spokeswoman for the animal-rights charity Peta, designer of her own line of handbags, multiple award-winner and Grammy nominee (for the voice of Dot, an ant princess in A Bug’s Life).
When Heroes began, she bought an apartment in Los Angeles and the whole family relocated to the West Coast. She had nights when she ran a little wild, she admits. But she was acutely aware of how easily her golden-girl reputation could be tarnished. ‘When the image out there of you is so squeaky-clean, the only place you have to go is down,’ she notes. In spite of staying out of trouble, she could not avoid the cruelty of certain segments of the media. ‘I remember being 16 years old, bending over in a shop, and having somebody snap a photo of me from behind and publish it in a magazine, saying that I had cellulite. It upset me so much I didn’t wear shorts again for five years,’ she says.
‘I even developed insecurities about areas of my body that I never even thought to be self-conscious about.’ A shot of a 16-year-old Panettiere in a bathing-suit was published with a vicious and crude commentary. ‘I was so traumatised, I developed an immediate insecurity about it. I don’t want to call myself a victim, but I stopped reading anything about myself ever again after that,’ she says. Then, just as she turned 18, Panettiere’s parents split up. ‘It was a big adjustment,’ she says. ‘And I didn’t want to hurt either of them, so for a long time I just avoided it all.’ Her mother still lives in Los Angeles, as does her brother, but her father has moved back to the Hudson Valley. As a child star, she’d often be at home learning lines while her peers were playing on their bikes. Making friends wasn’t always easy.
‘I would go back to school [after filming] and have such a hard time fitting in with the kids my own age,’ she says. ‘For several years school was absolute torture,’ she continues, shaking her head in horror at the memory.
She thinks it forced her to grow up fast. How old does she feel, I ask? ‘In my mid-thirties, probably,’ she muses. Little wonder, then, that her relationship history features some significantly older beaus. She dated her Heroes co-star Milo Ventimiglia (who is 12 years her senior) for two years, and the Ukrainian heavyweight boxer Wladimir Klitschko (13 years her senior) for two years after that. ‘It was never a case of me making a decision, saying, “I want to date older men,” she says. ‘But I am drawn to people who make me up my game, who bring me up to their level. I want to be with somebody who is more worldly than me, somebody who can give me guidance and is completely secure and comfortable with who they are.’
After breaking up with the American football player Scotty McKnight late last year (at 25, a mere two years older than her), she is back together with Klitschko, she confirms. He is not only older, but a foot and a half taller than she is, too. ‘People think it seems very strange from the outside, then they see the inner workings of it, and they understand it,’ she says. ‘But I didn’t become an actor to put it out there for the world to judge. The fact is, I’m happy, and that’s all that matters.’
Since she already feels like a thirtysomething, does she harbour desires to settle down? ‘Oh yes, absolutely. I was born to be a mum.’ She beams, contentedly. ‘I have never rushed anything, but I have always known that that was my end goal in life – that’s what I was built for.’ I can almost see the ambitious, hard-bitten Juliette Barnes rolling her eyes in contempt.
March 18th 2013