Hayden Panettiere may be best known for her acting, but the Rockland County native isn't afraid to sing a few bars -- even when she's not playing a country music star on ABC's "Nashville," premiering tonight.
Want proof? When Newsday asked her about attending school in the Hudson Valley, she gleefully sang the Tappan Zee Elementary School alma mater, unsolicited.
She punctuated her performance with a laugh and a promise that, if there's ever a "Nashville" album, "that won't be an added track."
On "Nashville," Panettiere plays Juliette Barnes, a country singer whose public success is belied by behind-the-scenes drama. Her rise coincides with the struggles of her label mate, fading star Rayna James, played by three-time Emmy nominee Connie Britton of "Friday Night Lights." When Rayna's concert ticket sales slow, a label executive asks her to co-headline a tour with Juliette, setting off a power struggle while both stars struggle to cope with complicated personal lives.
"A great thing about the show is that it's real and it's honest, and that's why people are drawn to it," Panettiere said. "They really feel like it's a genuine depiction of Nashville, behind the scenes."
Although the former "Heroes" star can carry a tune -- as evidenced by her previous contributions to soundtracks -- on "Nashville," her character's voice is secretly reviled by many in the music industry, including Rayna -- who, behind Juliette's back, compares the vocals to "feral cats."
But after the pilot episode, viewers might not be so quick to dismiss Juliette's talent or ambivalence toward public perception.
"I don't think [my] character works unless she has something to back it up," Panettiere said. "I think, as the show goes on, with the second episode and third episode, people are going to realize that she hates that image that people have of her -- as a teeny-bopper who's untalented, a 'don't-take-her-seriously' kind of girl -- and she really tries to break out of there. So, you will actually see that she is quite a talented little thing."
As someone who's endured tabloid scrutiny of her relationships and family life, Panettiere also knows a little something about drama behind the scenes. Asked if she draws from real-life experiences to define her character, she replied, "I still was a young girl who grew up seeking that spotlight around a very similar world, so I pull a lot from my own experiences."
Panettiere also said balancing life as a child actor and as a student at South Orangetown Middle School was anything but easy. "I was absolutely tortured in middle school," said the actress, who was home-schooled during her high school years. "The girls were just conniving, just cutthroat. It did damage to me for a long time."
And while she'd find more stable relationships with hometown friends in her late teens, she notes that they weren't as into country music as she was.
"I was raised on country music, and always loved it, but I didn't grow up around a lot of people who did," she said, citing Alison Krauss, Willie Nelson, Faith Hill and the Zac Brown Band as favorites. "It's very seldom that you find country music blaring all over [Rockland]. We were riding down the street singing [50 Cent's] 'Get in My Car.'"
Panettiere said she tried to record her own album years ago, but couldn't decide which music genre appealed to her most. "I always said that if I could do it again, I would do country music, but I was worried about what people would think of such a dramatic segue -- from being from New York to singing country music," she said. "I was afraid that people would think it was odd. And then ['Nashville'] came along, and it fits so perfectly, so I'm ecstatic."
Music super-producer T Bone Burnett supervises the music on "Nashville," which is helmed by his wife, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri ("Thelma & Louise"). Panettiere raves about the show's "unbelievable" music, but emphasizes that viewers need not know the difference between Tammy Wynette and Carrie Underwood to enjoy it.
"Even if you don't love country music, the story lines are very interesting," she said. "It'll be something for everybody."
"Nashville" premieres at 10 p.m. Wednesday on ABC.