If you’ve watched any popular television over the past five years or so, chances are you probably caught an episode or two of the sci-fi/fantasy series Heroes, and if you’ve seen Heroes, chances are you’re already quite familiar with Hayden Panettiere, who played nigh indestructible cheerleader Claire Bennet. The truth is, Panettiere began her career as an infant, when her mother auditioned little Hayden for a number of television commercials. After a couple of stints on daytime soaps like One Life to Live and Guiding Light, Panettiere lent her voice to the role of young Dot in Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, thereby beginning her feature film career, and two years later, she impressed as Coach Yoast’s precocious, football-loving daughter in Remember the Titans.
Since earning widespread exposure on Heroes, Panettiere has focused more on film roles, expanding her resume with teen comedies (I Love You Beth Cooper), animated films (Alpha and Omega), and even a horror flick (Scream 4). This week, she makes a return to ensemble drama with Fireflies in the Garden, starring alongside the likes of Willem Dafoe, Julia Roberts, Emily Watson, and Ryan Reynolds . RT chatted with Hayden about her new movie, as well as what it was like working with such a distinguished cast, and how thankful she is for her career. But before we get to all that, here are Hayden Panettiere’s Five Favorite Films!
Life Is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1997; 80% Tomatometer)
I always grew up loving Life Is Beautiful. It was one of my dad’s favorite movies, and the story is just so moving. You know, the ultimate sacrifice that a parent makes for their kid is just… I mean, the fear that must have gone along with it, but that will to overcome it for the sake of your child is just gut-wrenching.
And Roberto Benigni does it with so much humor.
Oh, so much, and you feel for him. I love that combination, that tone of being in the most horrific position you could be in and ever go through, but not done in a constantly depressing way, but sort of taking life in stride and doing what needs to be done one step at a time. You know, as I said, the ultimate sacrifice for your child.
Another film I love is The Power of One, and that became one of my favorite films because I actually got the chance to work with Armin Mueller-Stahl, who is amazing, and I was also doing a film in South Africa at the time. I turned 14 in South Africa and had learned all about Apartheid and the country and the history of it, so watching that film in South Africa was wild, and I felt a definite connection to it. And it’s one of those films that not everyone knows about; you say The Power of One and a lot of people go, “What? I’ve never seen that.”
I’m a big fan of animation. I was just talking to my manager about how amazing How to Train Your Dragon is. The animation is out of this world, and the story… And I love that animated films now have evolved so much that they’re real heart-wrenching stories. It’s not just for kids, but adults enjoy them now as well. It’s just such a beautifully done film.
Legends of the Fall I’ve watched a million times. That’s such a beautiful story, and such a real one and a sad one, about the unexpected things life brings, like certain relationships. And sometimes, a lot of the time, life doesn’t end in happy endings. The first time I saw it, I was so young that it was just a beautiful film to me. Obviously, the role of Tristan, the role he plays, is so appealing, and that want and need to tame the wild beast, if you will.
Next, Panettiere talks about working with screen legends in Fireflies in the Garden, as well as a surprisingly camera-shy co-star in Remember the Titans.
RT: On to Fireflies in the Garden. This is a pretty spectacular cast you have in the film, even though you don’t necessarily get to share screen time with all of them. You’re far from a newcomer in the business, but what was it like working with people like Julia Roberts and Willem Dafoe, for example?
Hayden Panettiere: It’s such a privilege. This life is definitely one where I found myself in such interesting places with such interesting people that I just sit there in awe and think, “How did I… What road led me here?” Just being around that cache of actors and actresses that you always looked up to, and there are so many amazing ones. Of course you want to work with all of them, but you never know which of them are going to end up all in the same place; you can never imagine. So it was amazing. And it was great to be on set with them on a film like this that was so character-driven and wasn’t that huge production. And when you’re dealing with that, you have much more of an opportunity to get to know each other and a need to develop those relationships.
In the film, Willem Dafoe is pretty terrifying, as he sometimes can be. And he’s really good at it, too.
Mm-hmm, and I always find the nicest guys are always the ones that play bad guys. Like, one of my favorite people ever to work with was Will Patton in Remember the Titans, and he’s constantly playing the bad guy, and he’s just the nicest, sweetest, very shy guy. Very camera shy; not a fan of cameras. But still, he’s one of my favorites.
Was there ever a point with Willem Dafoe when you stopped and thought, “Wait a minute. He seems genuinely pissed off! Maybe we should take five.”
You know, he’s such a nice guy! I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to defy authority, to a certain degree [laughs], so to be able to come in and see someone doing wrong and treating people the way that his character does, it was very fulfilling to be that character that speaks her mind and doesn’t have that fear, and gets to take this kid under her wing and protect him. And, you know, there’s definitely something to be said about the role my character plays in the family, because she’s this young girl who’s got this adult title. And what an odd dynamic it is between her and her sister who… you can tell because of the age difference, they don’t have that bond that you would expect siblings to have, and she’s the aunt of this kid who you would expect to be her cousin or her friend.
Being that you and Emily Watson play the same character at different ages, did you sit down with her beforehand to discuss how Jane would behave or how her character would have evolved over the years?
No, we didn’t, but I think that was okay, because her character was so different, and evolved to be so different. You know, from a reckless kid who goes fishing with firecrackers to a concerned mother who has to be responsible. It’s always interesting to see that, especially as a child looking at your own mother and wondering what she was like when she was young and all the things that she did, and that she wasn’t always a parent.
You’ve actually done this sort of high drama before, particularly on television, but you also seem to enjoy lighter fare like Heroes and, earlier this year, Scream 4. Do you have a preference?
I like to do both, and that’s what’s great about this industry. You don’t have to choose. I say it’s the exhilarating part of this business, and it’s the terrifying part of this business, not knowing where you’re going to end up next, or what character you’re going to play, or with whom you’re going to be acting, or where it’s going o take you. But I love having that combination of both, or else I get bored. [laughs] I did this film in between… it was the first film I’d done since Heroes, in between the first season and the second season, and to go from such a big production and such a very specific character to a really independent, character-based drama… I got to change physically and emotionally, and got to feel like I was playing a completely different character.
I’m trying not to rush. You know, I’m always anxious to see what’s next and see what comes, but lately I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to sit back and not rush things, and just appreciate life in general in every aspect.
Fireflies in the Garden is in select theaters this week.