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Nashville star Hayden Panettiere on Taylor Swift, her failed singing career and her own sexual awakening

Photo credit : THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Nashville star Hayden Panettiere on Taylor Swift, her failed singing career and her own sexual awakening

She can’t quite nail all the details, but when it comes to her youth, Hayden Panettiere remembers the important stuff.

“I understand now that what your parents listen to makes a huge impact on you and what you remember of what your childhood,” she says, considering her words carefully. “My dad always listened to Pavarotti and Ponchielli, he was very proud to be Italian, but he would listen to country music all the time too. My mom loved Faith Hill…we listened to a lot of country when we were younger. I can’t think off the top of my head exactly who, but I remember growing up constantly with country music.”

Now 23, the actress who began her career in a Playskool commercial at the tender age of 11 months is finally channeling those memories – along with several other life-changing moments — into her role as country music’s hottest ingénue Juliette Barnes on the new show Nashville.

Sitting in the bowels of CTV headquarters dressed in a tight-fitting white cocktail frock, Panettiere recalls the time in her life when, like Barnes, she was being groomed to be the next big thing in the music scene.

Having just completed a series of feel-good films (Ice Princess, Tiger Cruise) in which the fresh-faced actress got to showcase her singing as well as acting talents, she suddenly had a choice to make. As she was about to cross over as the immortal cheerleader Claire Bennet on NBC’s cult series Heroes, the spritely blonde says she was given an opportunity to become a crossover singer-actress — in the vein of Hilary Duff or, more recently, Selena Gomez and iCarly’s Miranda Cosgrove.

“I started an album for about five years when I was younger and it just didn’t end up being the kind of music I wanted to be involved with,” she says, blaming her failure to produce on both outside pressure as well as her own youthful vacillations. “I was 15-years-old, and especially as a girl you’re going back and forth and back and forth, you’re going, ‘I want to be a rock star, I want to be a pop star, I want to be a princess, I want to be a ballerina, I want to be this, I want to be that.’

“That’s in that development period where you’re not supposed to know, you’re just supposed to grow and learn and then get to an age where you finally figure it out, hopefully. And for me that was right in that sweet spot so I didn’t really know what I wanted to be but I knew that that’s not…it wasn’t that.”

“I had this horrible image of myself going up on stage and being forced to do some sort of in line dance,” she concludes, laughing.  “I was like, ‘No, I can’t do this. Please don’t make me do it.’ But I said if I ever was going to do music again I would sing country music.”

Six years later, she will finally get her chance when Nashville premieres this Wednesday on CTV Two in Canada and ABC in the U.S. (a soundtrack album produced by the show’s musical supervisor T-Bone Burnett is set to follow). In the series, Panettiere plays opposite Connie Britton’s Rayna James, an aging star whose fame is fading with every passing day while Panettiere’s blonde, sexy Barnes burns up the charts.

If the concept sounds familiar to the real life relationship between new country superstars like Taylor Swift and the genre’s former giants like Reba Mcentire, that’s not a coincidence. However, Panettiere warns, while the show goes to painstaking lengths to be authentic, she thinks the comparisons between the ambitious, yet emotionally damaged Barnes and the perpetually surprised Swift end at the superficial.

“I don’t think Taylor acts like this off camera,” she says, referring to her character’s damaged family past and use of sex as a means for controlling the men in her life. “I don’t think she has these family issues off camera.  I don’t think she’s that malicious off camera. This is a very individual girl. I think besides her age and the fact that she has blonde hair and is the new face of country – just because they’re similar like that doesn’t make them they’re similar people. I don’t think they’re similar people.”

As for her own experiences growing up in the business, Panettiere says that despite being a late bloomer, she has come to understand that sexuality is just part of the business.

“My mom used giving me S-H-I-T all the time because I was such a tomboy. She was like, ‘Oh my god, you need to find your femininity Hayden, please.’”

Which is to say, “Sexuality wasn’t something that immediately came naturally to me when I was younger so it was something that I had to become familiar with.”

“I am comfortable doing sexually suggestive things ,” she says of the revealing and reviling scenes her character rakes part in. “It was something I knew I’d have to become comfortable with and it’s not foreign to this business.

“There’s a lot of the backstage, off camera ‘schmoozing.’ And I’m not saying you use your sexuality in a bad way but it becomes part of your social psyche; it just becomes sometimes part of that aspect of getting to know people and the confidence and I think confidence and sexuality are a very fine line. They border on a very fine line. Sometimes they can be mistaken but I knew in this business that this was something that I would have to become comfortable with.”

Just like her character.

Nashville debuts Wednesday, Oct. 10 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CTV Two.