Beautiful young actress Danielle Panabaker got her initial break in the Fred Schepisi-directed Empire Falls, as daughter of Ed Harris and granddaughter of Paul Newman. She further cemented her career in the two-season “Shark”, as James Woods’ independent daughter.
Now, the 21-year old is part of the new reworking of Friday the 13th, which is already garnering positive word-of-mouth. Here she stars as Jenna whose idyllic trip to a holiday house near the infamous Crystal Lake has some chilling consequences. Panabaker chatted exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Question: What do you do when you go for auditions for something like this? What are producers looking for, and how do you convince them that you’re right for a part like this?
Panabaker: Well, I had actually met Brad and Andrew prior to Friday the 13th, on a movie of theirs called The Unborn. I think it’s the same as any other process. Just showing to them my skills – I sound arrogant, but to show your skills as an actor, because I think that’s what’s actually ultimately most important in a movie like this. Is that, you have to believe the characters. If you don’t believe that the characters are scared, then the audience is never going to be scared. So, you know, I approached this movie just like I would any other. Just trying to demonstrate my talent to them.
Question: Are you a fan of the genre? Is this a genre that you would normally be drawn to, as an audience member?
Panabaker: It’s funny, I’m a big sissy. Bambi gave me nightmares as a child, so I was never huge into horror movie, but after being a part of this, and working with Brad and Andrew and Marcus, I’ve really come to appreciate the art and skill of it. And I now am. You know, I went back and watched all the original Friday the 13ths. I’m really excited for them to do Nightmare on Elm Street. I know it’s going to be terrifying. But I think they’re so good at what they do.
Question: Where there’s so much technical stuff involved in filmmaking, what are the challenges for you as an actress to elicit fear, when there’s nothing to be genuinely afraid of? I mean, what do you draw on?
Panabaker: For me – I mean, that’s part of my process as an actor, is really creating a world for myself, in which the fear is genuine. Because, you know, as people, our bodies change. Our pupils dilate. Our heart races. And so for me, it’s about getting in my head and creating a situation that is that terrifying, and applying it to the circumstances that I’m in. And the other great thing about this movie – I mean, we say ” great” now, but it’s tough then – is that we were shooting in the woods, in the middle of nowhere Texas. Like, if you screamed – you know, you’d hope someone heard you. The house – I mean, that’s a house we were at, and there’s no one around, and it’s gorgeous. But it’s also scary. So, you know, we did a lot of night shoots on the movie. And, you know, you don’t necessarily know what you’re stepping on, or where you’re headed. But we always had someone around us with flashlights and stuff, just to make sure nothing ever happened, because it is a legitimately scary experience to shoot in the woods, in the middle of the night. So part of it is creating it for myself. But also, part of it is going with what the atmosphere provides you.
Question: This is not a movie that is a character study, but you do need to create a character in order for the audience to empathize. How tricky is that?
Panabaker: I mean, it’s my job as an actor, Despite the fact that it would be easy for someone just to brush off the character as just another hot actress – just another hot body in this movie, I think it was really important for Brad and Andrew to find characters that the audience could empathize with, and find actors who could do that. So I think it was important – for me, it’s part of my process as an actor.
Question: Was it important to go back and watch the original series of films?
Panabaker: I don’t think it was important to tell the story, but it was important to me, to understand the legacy, and to understand sort of the history that I’m a part of. I wanted to know.
Question: Did you and Derek Mears intentionally sort of not try to socialize too much, because of the difficulty, because of the role he was playing? Or was there a lot of socializing on this set?
Panabaker: When we got to Austin, I feel like the whole cast really bonded and got together. And the funny thing is, Derek looks like such an intimidating and scary guy. But he’s actually one of the nicest men I’ve ever met. He’s a sweet and kind and really funny – he actually comes from a comedy background. So, you know, we’re going out to dinner, and I wanted to sit next to Derek, because I just adored him so much, and wanted to hang out with him. So on that note, I don’t think we made a conscious effort to, because I really love him. But when we were shooting, and when he’s in the full garb, and – you know, all the prosthetics and everything, he is quite scary. His mobility is limited as it is, so I think that takes him to another place. And so when he puts the mask on, he’s scary. Like, he’s a big, scary guy.
Question: Who’s scarier, Derek Mears or Jimmy Woods?
Panabaker: [LAUGHTER] Jason Voorhees, absolutely. If you were in conversation, though, definitely Jimmy Woods. He’s tough to keep up with.
Question: Were you guys very upset that you didn’t get a chance to do a proper finale for Shark?
Panabaker: I was really surprised. It was funny, because as we were shooting the show, I kind of got an inkling that something might be up, because the studio really wanted to tie the story line and end up in a nice bow. Tie the story line up with a nice, pretty bow, which was that serial killer. You know, I thought there was definitely more of an opportunity to play with that. But I guess we were all surprised that the show didn’t go any further. But I had a great time. And Jimmy and I are still friends. He’s a great guy.
Question: Now, you’re a busy young lady. You’ve got a few things in the woods, so to speak, in the fire. What are you working on that you’re the most excited about?
Panabaker: Well, I’ve got this really cool independent coming up in a couple months. Chris Messina is the other actor, and it’s a really cool theater director out of New York. It’s this tiny little independent about a high school teacher whose wife leaves him, so he has an affair with his former student. And I’m really excited to do some.///
Question: What’s the title of that one?
Panabaker: It’s called Weakness. It’s going to be great. I’m really excited to work with Chris and Michael, so really passionate about that. And then a cool action movie coming up this summer called Prodigy.
Question: Do you do much action in the movie?
Panabaker: In Prodigy? Oh, yeah. There’s probably going to be four to six weeks of fight training before we get started.
Question: Who do you play in that?
Panabaker: The story takes place about 40 years in the future, at a really elite high school. And I am the Senator’s daughter.
Question: And who else is in it with you, do you know yet?
Panabaker: Max Thieriot is cast right now. He’s a really talented young actor who’s in Wes Craven’s next movie. But, just the two of us as far as I know right now.
Question: And what about Renaissance Girl?
Panabaker: Oh, that’s a really lovely, fun script. I’m not sure what’s going on with that. I think they’re still looking for financing.
Question: How tough is it, being a young actress in Hollywood, and all the competition that is involved in that? And how competitive are you?
Panabaker: Oh, it’s – it is difficult, because I have a lot of friends who are actresses. We’ve all picked a tough industry and it’s really hard to know that if you don’t get something – it’s hard when you don’t get a movie. But I actually love it when my friends get work, because I’m really excited for them. And that’s what makes us such good friends. Is we can be genuinely happy for one another. But, you know, we picked a tough, tough business, so if you let the work stuff get in the way – you can’t let the work get in the way of your friendship, I feel like.
Question: Why did you want to be an actress? What was the attraction, for you?
Panabaker: I loved doing theater when I was younger. And then when I got the opportunity to work on Empire Falls, it absolutely changed my life. To work with such artists was the experience of a lifetime. And I owe so much to Fred Schepisi and Ed Harris and Paul Newman for showing me. I could not say enough wonderful things about Fred and how good he was to me, and how much he taught me on that movie. And it changed my life. I loved that movie, and – I feel like I’m constantly chasing another opportunity like that.
Question: What are your other future aspirations? Do you want to do anything else besides acting?
Panabaker: You know what? I’m 21 right now. And I love what I do. I want to be on movie sets. I love making films and someday maybe producing. But right now, it’s really important for me to focus on my acting, and be the best that I can be, and really bring that to the table.