On Wednesday, NBC hosted a press conference call with two cast members from their hit drama “Heroes,” Hayden Panettiere (aka Claire Bennet, the nigh indestructible cheerleader), and Eric Roberts (the mysterious Mr. Thompson, former colleague of Claire’s adoptive father at Primatech Paper), and CBR News was on the scene.
Roberts, a relative newcomer to the powerhouse that is “Heroes,” said he couldn’t have been made more welcome. “Hayden’s one of the most welcoming cast members in the trailer of everybody,” Roberts said. “When I got there, she and Greg Grunberg were like, ‘Hi! Do you know how long you’re gonna live yet?’ And we hang out and we talk trash and we have a great time.
“It’s like starting school every day,” Roberts continued. “You know half the people, half of them are new and then so and so gets killed, and you go, ‘Oh, no, he’s dead, oh, I loved him!’ And everybody’s so happy to be there, because everybody loves this show, and it’s one of the funniest casts you’ve ever worked with on a drama.
“We never talk about work at work,” Roberts said. “Me, Jack [Coleman] and Greg Grunberg do nothing except tell jokes all day. Do knock-knock jokes. We act like adolescents all day long and I’m not just making this up. Greg kind of leads the way, but Jack and I follow and we’re just kind of like the Three Stooges all day at work. And it relieves all the tension of having to be so dead serious on camera.”
Roberts, for his part, says that while driving around Los Angeles, he can’t stop at a stoplight without being accosted by “Heroes” fans asking, “Are you a bad guy, dude? We can’t tell yet!” To Roberts’ mind, his character’s affiliation isn’t that cut and dried. “It’s ambiguous, and like, playing a bad guy, I have to say, bad guys never think they’re bad guys,” Roberts said. “So from my point of view it’s a no, but I think from everybody’s point of view it’s still pretty ambiguous.”
Though the goals of Thompson’s organization are dubious at best, Roberts’ own aims are decidedly more philanthropic. “I hope that I recruit heroes to restore world peace,” he said. “The girl who can change her look and stuff can become like Donald Rumsfeld under the Bush administration.”
Roberts is also slated to play the nemesis of comedian Larry the Cable Guy in the upcoming film “Witless Protection,” and has landed a role in another comics project, the sequel to “Batman Begins.” Roberts couldn’t reveal much about the highly anticipated “Dark Knight,” but he did go so far as to say that he’s portraying a Mafioso who has dealings with both Bale’s Batman and Ledger’s Clown Prince of Crime. Roberts also said it was because of projects like “Heroes” and “Dark Knight” that he’s developed a newfound appreciation for comics.
Roberts has had a long and distinguished career, but it wasn’t until recently that he found the coveted teenybopper audience. “It’s a combination I think of ‘Heroes’ and a couple of big hit music videos,” Roberts said. “The Mariah Carey video and the Killers video. They’ve given me a whole new audience under 15 that I didn’t have before. I thought I was really famous up till I got ‘Heroes,’ and I had no idea how much more famous I could get overnight.”
As with most of the “Heroes” cast, Roberts is as in the dark as the fans about the motivations of Thompson and the company he works for. “They told me nothing,” Roberts admitted. “What I developed for the auditions that I had to do to get the part is what they let me act with, they said, ‘Okay, go with that.’ And they’re really nice about everything, they allow the actor to have fun.” Roberts also said it was a nice change of pace to join the cast of a show that was already a hit, so the weight of the show doesn’t rest on his shoulders. “I just walked on this, it was already a hit, it’s already in the top ten, and it’s so much fun to do nothing except show up, you know?”
Roberts wasn’t able to reveal much about the remaining episodes of the first season, but he did let a few tidbits slip. “Wait until you see what Adrian Pasdar does to get re-elected,” Roberts teased. He also hinted at a confrontation between Thompson and Greg Grunberg’s Matt Parkman.
Roberts, who was overseas making a film when “Heroes” began, was unaware of the series when he was first approached to audition. Fresh off a grueling shoot, Roberts’ first inclination was to turn the offer down. “And then I had a bunch of phone calls from my lawyer, my daughter, my step daughter, all saying, ‘You idiot, this is a great show, you gotta go audition for this show,'” Roberts said. “Then I auditioned and I was lucky enough to get it.”
Panettiere, too, has been thrust into the spotlight by the success of “Heroes,” and the young actress told reporters about the pros and cons of her newfound fame. “It’s always great to be a role model, and have people look up to you,” Panettiere said. “And I’m big into charities and foundations, I have a handful that I’ve been working with, and as an icon to certain people, whether it be the cheerleader, or just me as a person, I hope that I can get them to maybe back up a little bit and see what I’m doing with charities and maybe partake and participate and things like that. And just to use my quote-unquote ‘celebrity’ for good. To be in the spotlight for a good reason.”
But the flipside of that much exposure is that the young actress is constantly under a microscope. “You’re constantly being watched, you’re constantly being looked at to fall off your horse, and people are constantly trying to knock you off and see if you screw up,” Panettiere said. “And at the end of the day, I’m still a normal teenage girl who’s making mistakes still in her life, and trying to find who I am as a person, and growing into an adult, and you know, it’s hard when you get that pressure of, ‘You’re a role model, don’t screw up.’ But it’s been pretty good so far.”
Panettiere has more or less adjusted to her newfound fame, but some things you never get used to. “I’ve almost got into a couple car accidents because I’ll be driving, and people scream at me from their passing cars, it’ll make me jump,” Panettiere said. “I’m not quite used to it yet.” In fact, Panettiere was behind the wheel of her car during most of the conference call, a revelation which would no doubt make NBC execs cringe. Panettiere does have a stunt double on “Heroes,” but if it were up to her, she wouldn’t need one. “Hayden does everything they will let her do,” Roberts told reporters.
The fact that Claire Bennet has returned from the dead several times over the course of the first season begs the question, is the cheerleader, in fact, indestructible? Panettiere doesn’t know the answer, but she has a theory. “I think that she is indestructible, she can jump off the highest building, she can go through a wood-chopper and she’d be fine,” Panettiere said. “But I do think there was a reason why she was so scared when Sylar comes along, and there’s a reason why Peter Petrelli has to save her.” The actress reasons that since the heroes had to save the cheerleader to save the world, Claire’s life must truly have been in jeopardy.
“I feel like I’ve really grown up with [Claire] in a way,” said Panettiere, of her onscreen counterpart. “It’s not like a movie where you have to do this huge character arc within two hours. It’s a show we’ve been working on for the past year and this past year’s held a lot of growth for me as a person, so I think I kind of brought that into her.” Panettiere has watched the character evolve from a naive young girl into a strong young woman who’s “not scared to stand up for herself. I think in that way, she’s definitely like me, yeah, I’m a Leo, I’m probably as feisty as they come.”
“I can vouch for that,” Roberts confirmed.
For most of the first season, the “Heroes” ensemble have had their own storylines that periodically overlap. “There’s a lot of us who are on set at the same time, but you know, they’re off doing different scenes,” Panettiere said. But as the first season draws to a close, the cast of characters finally find themselves in the same place at the same time. And Panettiere has enjoyed the opportunity to transfer some of that off-screen camaraderie onto the small screen.
Panettiere admitted that the revelation that Nathan Petrelli was Claire’s birth father was as much a surprise to her as it was to the fans. “We all kind of stopped guessing,” Panettiere said. “The show is completely unpredictable, the writers are completely unpredictable, and they like to leave us in the dark a lot of the time.”
One reporter asked Panettiere to elaborate on Claire’s relationship with her two on-screen dads. “HRG (short for Horn Rimmed Glasses, the acronym that Jack Coleman’s character Mr. Bennet was identified by in the pilot script), he’s the dad that raised her, she loves him more than anything,” Panettiere said. “I think at this point, it’s just, she’s learning that she can’t be so naïve. Imagine if you grow up with someone you’re raised with, and then you find out this whole dark stuff that you didn’t know. You’d still love them, but you’d question them I think more. I think it’s a relationship that kind of needs to just be built back and be more understood because everyone thought HRG in the beginning was kind of a bad guy, and it’s turning out that he’s chosen his daughter over his work.” Though Panettiere isn’t ruling it out, she doesn’t see a reconciliation between Claire and her adoptive father happening anytime soon.
“And I think she’s got kind of mixed feelings about Nathan,” Panettiere continued. “She wants to love him because he is her dad.” But it’s hard for Claire to come to terms with the fact that earlier in the season the congressional hopeful tried to abdicate his responsibility for his bastard child with a suitcase full of money. “She’s a pretty savvy girl, she knows that the election is worth more to him than his own daughter.”
Panettiere also took a moment to talk about her character’s relationship with Peter Petrelli. “Well, he’s my uncle,” the actress said. “Uncle Peter. When they met, it was kind of a weird sixth sense that they just knew each other, and they knew that they felt safe around each other, like they belonged, in a way.”
Hayden told reporters that she wouldn’t mind seeing her character using her power more actively to save lives. “You know, it keeps me entertained," Panettiere said. “It’s fun, I love doing that stuff.” The actress admitted to being a bit jealous of co-star Milo Ventimiglia stealing her death-defying thunder. “I’m kind of getting jealous of Milo, because he’s starting to shed more blood than me. I think I need to break something really soon.”
That said, Panettiere thinks a little bit of superpowers goes a long way. “I think we have to keep in mind though that the series is about ordinary people who have extraordinary abilities who are still trying to keep in touch with her lives,” Panettiere said. “You don’t want her to be like Kenny on ‘South Park’ who dies every episode, you gotta keep it fresh.
I think at the moment we’re really concentrating on the human stories that are going on with the show. And the fact that there are bigger, more heartfelt thing to concentrate and to deal with than our powers, because it’s not just about our powers, it’s about mankind, it’s about the world.”
As a case in point, the most recent episode, “Five Years Gone,” jumped five years into the future and gave viewers a glimpse of what would happen if the heroes fail in their mission to save New York. “If we don’t do this, the world will be completely changed,” Panettiere said. “Everyone’s lives will be shifted and pointed in a different direction, and for the most part, as you saw, it’s not for the good. So at the moment I think it’s about more than just our abilities, I think it’s about doing what’s right, and what we’re kind of meant to do.”
“Heroes” isn’t the only thing keeping Panettiere busy: the young actress just graduated high school, shot the Dennis Lee film “Fireflies in the Garden,” and is pursuing a singing career. “How do I balance it? You just kind of do,” Panettiere said. “It’s not a question of can you do this, can you do that? You can do it, you have to do it, and you just do it. But it’s difficult trying to be a normal human being and balancing work and personal life. It’s time management.”
Even though Panettiere is famous for being “the cheerleader who never cheers” on “Heroes,” she developed a newfound respect for cheering after starring in “Bring it On: All or Nothing.” “It’s a really tough sport,” the actress admitted. “It could be fun for them to incorporate at some point. But it’s awesome, I think the reason why they made Claire the cheerleader is because you needed her to be a normal teenage girl. You needed her to be down to earth in a way, because our powers are so far fetched, that we needed to ground it and by making her the cheerleader, it made her very relatable to teenage girls and to teenagers. And I think she’s become a really amazing role model, and I think our show has become a really great metaphor for people, so I’m proud of it, and I’m privileged.”
Another thing typical teenage girls do is date teenage boys, and Panettiere confirmed there is a possibility of a love interest for Claire in the second season. “They won’t promise me anything, and I haven’t heard or seen anything from this upcoming season, so I can’t tell you what exactly is gonna happen, but yes, there’s potential,” Panettiere said.
In real life, Panettiere is dating actor Stephen Coletti (MTV’s “Laguna Beach”), and she admitted that it is taxing to be involved in such a high profile relationship. “It’s difficult, but at the same time, it’s sort of like having any other relationship,” she said. “You know, we try not to take pictures, we try not to talk about it much, because I feel like when you put something like that out there, then you give people the right to formulate their own opinions about it. You give people the right to judge. So if you don’t put it out there, if you keep it to yourself, then they have nothing to judge.”
Roberts chimed in, “Can I say something about how Hayden handles fame? She’s the most charming, welcoming, normal person on that set and that’s really a fact. And it’s just so much fun to meet somebody’s who’s so young, who’s a grownup with a sense of humor, and she is all that.”
“He makes me blush every time,” Panettiere said. “He just gushes and it makes me blush.”
The conversation shifted to the volatility of the network TV landscape, and how NBC’s low ratings at the time “Heroes” came along gave “Heroes” a chance to find its legs and find its audience. “When we come into a show, it’s difficult because, especially with a show like this, there’s so much information to grasp, that it’s so difficult to make a really good pilot, combining everything that you really need the audience to know, there are just certain things you have to put in it, whether they’re boring or not,” Panettiere said. “So the fact that they made it entertaining was a good thing. But when we got past that, the writing got better, the actors became more comfortable, they found so much more chemistry with each other, and confidence in the characters that they’d developed. So I think everyone just really bumped it up a notch.”
Panettiere and Roberts both anticipate that “Heroes” will be around for the long haul. Panettiere said, “When I started the show, I asked the question, ‘How are they gonna continue this. This is an awesome pilot, but how are they gonna continue this for potentially six seasons?’ And they have, they’ve done it incredibly. And I have all the faith in the world in our writers and Tim Kring our creator, who kind of has big pictures for all the potential upcoming seasons.”
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