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Hayden Panettiere first came to the attention of prime time audiences as Heroes’ invincible cheerleader, Claire, and for many fans quickly became that show’s main draw. (Remember “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World”?) 

But actually, by the time Claire videotaped her attempted “suicide” in Heroes’ 2006 pilot, Hayden’s acting career had been soaring for over a decade. As a baby, the New York-born actress had already been appearing in commercials; then, at 4 ½, she landed a role on the soap One Life to Live. Her four seasons on Heroes came after a long resume of TV and movie roles, and since that NBC hit, she has appeared in the films I Love You, Beth Cooper and Scream 4, and memorably as the star of the Lifetime telefilm Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy.

Now, at 23, Hayden is stepping into some country boots, playing a young singer full of blonde ambition, Juliette Barnes, on ABC’s hotly anticipated new fall show Nashville. As Hayden explains, Nashville’s writer/creator Callie Khouri — already an icon for her depiction of two other famous females, Thelma & Louise — has given Juliette a rich backstory. And that gives her tense interactions with Connie Britton’s character Rayna James — an older, more established singer — even more of a dangerous spark. Wetpaint Entertainment caught up with Hayden at ABC’s bash for its new fall shows at the TCA convention in Beverly Hills to find out what kind of harmony — or lack thereof — we can expect coming out of Nashville.

Wetpaint Entertainment: Why Nashville? Were you ready to come back to TV right now?
Hayden Panettiere: Yes. Very. But it took me a second. On Heroes, my time was just so monopolized, and it was so a part of my everyday life for four years. I didn’t have time to go off and do anything else. So [now] I was really nervous. I was shy to go and do another TV show. It’s something where you are basing the next potentially seven years of your life off of one script. One script! One episode, that you don’t even know is going to get picked up. You don’t know how it’s going to be edited together, or how it’s going to be directed. You can only go there and do your part, and then at the end of the day, you leave it in the hands of other people. And you have no idea how it’s going to come out. You have no idea how people are going to respond. There is a very specific concoction that creates a great show. And I really feel like we got it on this one.

How does a girl from New York get her country music street cred?
Family. I’ve got a grandma from Corpus Christi and a mom from Louisville, Kentucky. So I don’t know — it must be genetic.

Did you grow up around country music? Which artists did you love?
I did grow up around it. The thing is that I realize, especially going down to Nashville, is that the term “country music” is very broad. There are so many different kinds of music that you go, “I don’t categorize that as country music.” But they are. You might say Tom Petty falls under a certain category of country music. I grew up listening to Willie Nelson, and Faith Hill. I’ve been a huge fan of Miranda Lambert for years. And I love Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, and Jason Aldean and all those now. I’ll put on Pandora, and I’ll put a certain country artist in, and all of a sudden a song will come up where I’ll go, “I would never have thought this artist was country.” But it’s such a broad term. And so when people go, “Oh, I don’t like country music” — you might not like a certain type of country music, but I bet you a lot of people will be surprised when they watch this show.

Are we going to see some nicer or more vulnerable sides to Juliette? Because in a lot of the pilot, she’s a great b***h.
Absolutely. That’s the thing that’s intriguing to me about her character, and what draws me to her — the complexity to her. The hurt in her, and the dark past that she’s running from. It all builds on top of itself. People all have light and dark sides, and that’s what’s so attractive about her.

There’s some very specific fashion for these characters on Nashville. Do you like what Juliette wears?
I do like what she wears. It’s like, it’s me, with a country edge. I can really go for it with her. She’s sexy and fun, but at the same time, on certain occasions, she’s at home and you see her more casual. It’s very fun. It makes you feel like you’re playing a character when you get to dress up like that.

What happened to Juliette that made her so damaged?
She’s from an Alabama trailer park. As a young girl, she didn’t have a father. She didn’t know if she was going to eat at night. She didn’t know if her mother was going to come home. Her mother is very heavily into drugs. You see it in the pilot. Physically deteriorated from drugs, begging for $15. You see Juliette break down, and you see the hole in her. You see what she’s running from, and you see what she is so afraid of going back to. If she doesn’t succeed in this venture, and keep at this status, that is something that she might have to be subjected to again. And that is terrifying.

You’ve had a lot of success at a relatively young age, but you haven’t fallen into a lot of the traps other Hollywood starlets have. What do you attribute that to?
I had a lot of good people around me. Honestly, and I was really lucky, but it wasn’t that those doors weren’t open to me, because they were. They were wide open. There weren’t things that I wasn’t lured by. I’m a normal girl, just like everyone else. Just like you, you probably tested your boundaries, and went out. Come on — you didn’t drink juice boxes in high school or college. It’s not just people in Hollywood. We’re just the ones under lock and key, and under the spotlight. And constantly under criticism. But I definitely tried to, at certain times — and just had really good people there to stop me.

Have you spent considerable time in Nashville?  What do you most look forward to doing while you’re there filming the show?
I have spent time in Nashville. I love Nashville. I’m looking forward to learning more about music, to maybe learning to play guitar. And to making it my home. That’s going to be my goal for the next however long it takes. 

Any restaurants you like going to, or activities you already like doing there?
I have gone to the zoo several times. I love the zoo!

How is it working with Emmy-nominated actress Connie Britton?
Unbelievable. She was one of the main reasons why I was drawn to this show. Aside from the incredible actors, an incredible writer, and the storyline. I have so much respect for Connie and I have been such a huge fan. She’s the kind of actor that I want to surround myself with. The kind that makes you rise to the occasion and makes you want to be better.

Did you watch American Horror Story?
Every episode! 

Do you ever run into anyone from your days on One Life to Live or Guiding Light?
Not as often as I’d like. I have so many unbelievable relationships from those shows.

What did you think when Amanda Knox was released, after playing her in the film?
I was very happy for her. It was great to see a young girl get a second chance at life. 

What did you think of Callie Khouri’s film, Thelma & Louise?
Thelma & Louise! Are there words to describe Thelma & Louise?! 

Yes. “Brad Pitt is hot.”
Well, Brad Pitt is brilliant as an actor in that one. But it’s so much a part of us, growing up with the film. A movie that meant so much. You think of movies, and people think Thelma & Louise. You think of those brilliant movies, you think of Thelma & LouiseCasablanca, of those staple movies.

Speaking of Callie Khouri and her writing… do you know what the big story arc for Juliette for the season will be?
I have full faith in [Khouri]. She is an unbelievably soulful woman, who is brilliant and intricate, and has lived through all of this. There will be nothing that is shy, unreal or shallow about the show.

Do they meet with you and let you know where your character will be going? Do you have story meetings with the writers?
You can, but there are things that are bound to change. And frankly, I have too much faith in her to do that. I’m excited to see what’s coming. I’m excited to be surprised.

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