Emmy Contender: Hayden Panettiere

'Heroes'

As a girl who booked her first modeling gig when she was 8 months old and hasn’t stopped working since, Hayden Panettiere understands how it feels to be different.

And though the upbeat, cherubic actress has a life nothing like the girl-in-peril part she plays on NBC’s “Heroes” — one-of-a-kind regenerative cheerleader Claire Bennet — Panettiere also can relate to her character’s vulnerability.

“Just because (Claire) is physically indestructible doesn’t mean she’s emotionally indestructible,” Panettiere says. “I grew up quickly. I saw a lot of things, experienced a lot of things. (But) I also know the feeling of being a normal teenager and wanting to only care about what normal teenagers care about.”

It’s true that “normal” is a label that might not stick on a teenager who’s toplining movies (“Shanghai Kiss”), acting opposite Julia Roberts (“Fireflies in the Garden”) and releasing her own album this fall. In that vein, Panettiere speaks with a rare self-awareness for young Hollywood.

“You learn a lot when you get older,” she says. “You learn (about) people’s intentions and that you can’t trust easily. At the end of the day, the only person looking out for you is you.”

For both Panettiere and her superpowered alter ego, the last eight months have been utterly transformative. Just as Claire blossomed from innocent Texas schoolgirl to maturing superhero, Panettiere has gone from unknown day player to international superstar.

Perhaps it’s this very connection that allows Panettiere to inhabit Claire’s character so completely.

“As I grew, (Claire) grew,” she says. “She’s turned from a naive girl to a young woman standing on her own.”

Panettiere seems to have both the spunk and the sweetness to survive the darker corners of Hollywood.

“I’m a spitfire,” she says. “There are definitely scenes (in the show) where I go, ‘I wouldn’t take that! They would’ve gotten a boot in the tush!’ ”

Favorite scene: “There’s a scene we did where I was hit by a football player. I’m on the football field and he hits me and breaks my neck. That scene was so fun to do. (The show) has these moments of being able to be funny in a black comedy kind of way, and (that scene) showed a little of the side of being comedic.”

Where you’d like to see your character go next season: “Claire has developed wonderfully into the I’d like to see her develop further, but at the same time maintain that lovable, all-American-sweetheart-cherry-pie disposition. I’d also like to beat someone up.”

TV guilty pleasure: “I love ‘Entourage.’ It’s so funny. It kills me.”

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