Panettiere battles stage fright to embrace sudsy, music-laden 'Nashville'
TORONTO -- Hayden Panettiere says she battled severe stage fright to take on one of the most challenging roles of her career: as a cut-throat country singer in the sudsy serial "Nashville."
Not that crooning is completely foreign to the former "Heroes" beauty. Panettiere recorded an album when she was 15 years old and says she spent years determined to be a rock or pop star before her acting career took off.
The 23-year-old recalls having to sing one of her songs on the lawn of the Capitol building one July 4th holiday and having a panic attack before facing the audience.
"I was like a robot walking (onto the stage) and I grabbed onto the microphone and didn't let go," Panettiere recalled in a recent visit to Toronto to promote her return to series television.
"And then I tried at one point in the song to let go and my knees started shaking so violently I had to grab back on to the mike. It was pretty traumatizing."
Flashforward to today and Panettiere says she's forcing herself to get comfortable for the music-heavy "Nashville," where her spotlight-loving character Juliette Barnes craves as much attention as she can get.
"I'm sure that she's going to be constantly on the stage," she says of her character.
"And that's something that I have to get over."
Juliette is a 180-degree turn from Panettiere's clean-cut role of Claire Bennet, the "Heroes" cheerleader who had incredible healing powers and battled supernatural evil.
"I was very much categorized after 'Heroes,"' she says.
"I loved the character and I loved playing her but sometimes it's difficult after playing a character that's so specific for so long. People have a hard time seeing you as anything else.... I feel like this is kind of breaking the mould."
Created by "Thelma & Louise" scribe Callie Khouri, "Nashville" stars Connie Britton ("American Horror Story," "Friday Night Lights") as reigning country queen Rayna Jaymes. Insecurity sets in when Rayna's record label of 21 years suggests she boost sagging album sales by sharing her tour with the hot young Juliette.
Meanwhile, political drama comes by way of Lamar Wyatt, a manipulative power broker portrayed by Powers Boothe ("24," "Deadwood"), who also happens to be Rayna's father.
"There's a lot of room for drama, but it's all very real," says Panettiere, who says she has "the country gene" because her dad's mother is from Corpus Christi, Tex., and her mom is from Louisville, Ky.
"I'm so glad we're doing it in Nashville because you can't fake Nashville. There are other places you can fake but Nashville is just too much of an icon to fake."
As the series unfolds, audiences will learn much about Juliette, says Panettiere, who describes the ambitious singer as "a broken little girl" who uses men and fame to fill the void in her life.
"Even though (Juliette) comes off so rude and disrespectful in the beginning you realize why she behaves that way. You realize that she's from Alabama trailer park and she's got a mom who is a major drug addict."
Panettiere says she didn't model her character on anyone specifically but admits she was able to gain some insight from her own observations of Hollywood.
"I've known this business for my entire life and I've known what its light sides are and what its dark sides are," she says, noting that fame can attract demanding hangers-on with no qualms about taking advantage of a celebrity.
"I've always understood why people, in this industry, are the way they are. Not everyone of course, but ... you can understand why they are sometimes vicious and impatient and not nice to people."
The show's premise is tailored made for great A-list cameos and Panettiere says she wouldn't be surprised if some heavyweights appeared on the show.
Khouri's husband is singer-songwriter and producer T-Bone Burnett, who has his share of influence in the music industry, Panettiere notes.
"I wouldn't be surprised if by the end of the show -- God-willing it goes six years, seven years -- that everyone in country music will have been a part of it."
"Nashville" premieres on CTV two, Wed., Oct. 10 at 10 p.m. ET.