For those of us who grew up watching Disney movies, the name Danielle Panabaker brings to mind the made-for-TV movie Stuck in the Suburbs and the studio flick Sky High—you know, the one in which she basically played the superhero version of Mother Nature. However, Panabaker isn't 16 years old anymore. And she's moved out of the House of Mouse.
At 25, Panabaker is proving herself as an actress with a slew of more mature roles. Last year, Complex featured her in a stunning Hot Complex spread for her then-new movie, Piranha 3DD. This time, we caught up with one of our favorite up-and-coming actresses to talk about her latest film, the Austin Chick-directed independent thriller, in theaters today, Girls Against Boys. The film follows college student Shae (Panabaker) as she teams up with her ruthless coworker Lu (Nicole LaLiberte) to exact bloody revenge on the men who sexually abused her. Not everything is at seems, however, as Lu's interest in Shae takes a darker, obsessive turn.
Penciling us into her busy press day, the actress discussed with us how she got into the mindset of her twisted character, her desire to sink her teeth into darker roles, and just how much she's changed since her Disney days.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
Is racing between press junkets and auditions and film sets a normal routine for you?
Yeah, absolutely. I feel like I’m always on the go, I’m always on the run. It's been busy today, but luckily I've been doing interviews from the comfort of my own home. I made myself a bowl of chili that I’ve been munching on between calls. Very glamorous. [Laughs.]
Do you feel like you've just gotten busier throughout the years of your career?
Yes and no. I feel like it does get busier professionally, but personally I think I choose how I spend my time more carefully, so it balances it out in that sense.
So what initially drew you to Girls Against Boys?
When I first read the script, it was really nice to see something written for women. Oftentimes, women are simply the girlfriend or the wife or the daughter or the sister, so it was nice to find such a powerful role. It was a coming-of-age story focused on this woman. She was forced to grow up.
She is forced to grow up in a pretty radical way. What kind of mindset did you have to place yourself in to film the more explicit scenes?
It was definitely a challenge. I spent some time reading books and surfing the Internet to research what certain people’s responses are when they go through a traumatic event like [sexual abuse and murder]. There’s less authenticity to it, but I feel like women like the anonymity it provides and I think that might be a little safer. To my understanding, women who go through something like this oftentimes feel very ashamed. It was great to get the material I could.
The audience doesn't get to know much about her character, save for her traumatic history with relationships. Did you personally create a backstory for her?
Oftentimes, women are simply the girlfriend or the wife or the daughter or the sister, so it was nice to find such a powerful role.
Absolutely. I worked a little bit with Austin on the parameters of the character just so I was on the same page as he was, but I wanted to give her a whole life—what she did the morning after the assault, who she called. And clearly, Shae is seen as supported by her parents a little because she's not working enough to live alone in New York. I started to fill in all those holes before we started shooting.
Shae is immediately drawn to Lu. What do you think it was about Lu that intrigued Shae?
I sort of took a page from my own life. I think people come into our lives for a reason and we can learn from them and they have lessons to teach us. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to stay around forever, and that’s how I saw Lu. She happened to come into Shae’s life during a scary, traumatic time and helped her immediately. Lu was a protector exactly when Shae needed that, so I think it’s the timing that was really needed there for their initial connection.
Given this was a small film and you had limited time to shoot, was it difficult to pull yourself in and out of emotional scenes?
It was difficult. I saw myself looking back at the end of shooting and thinking “No, I wasn’t quite my cheerful self.” But that’s OK, you know? I wanted to do whatever I needed to portray this character. Let's just say there were less pranks on this set then other experiences I had. [Laughs.] I was often listening to music and sort of off on my own.
You've done some big studio-driven films and TV shows. What did you notice was the biggest difference between that kind of set and the set for an indie movie?
There’s just a lot less creature comforts when you are doing something like this. You are constantly on the go. To do a television show, one can be sort of spoiled. You get to have your own trailer, your own space—that sort of thing.
With indies, there’s no hair and makeup trailer. Generally, there’s no light. There’s people around all the time. When you are home, that's when you get to eat. You go to the grocery store and you take care of yourself. When you are on set, you have to eat the Cheez-Its on the craft services table. [Laughs.] But the good thing is everyone works well together, and everyone is always trying to do whatever they can to help each other out. And we were very lucky to have some NYU students as production assistants to really help us make this film happen.
Do you find yourself being drawn to darker roles?
I feel very comfortable sort of in a dramatic genre role, and I love good material. That was what initially attracted me to this movie. I wanted a chance to sink my teeth into a character who had a very difficult experience, and to define that for myself and for her. I would love to do something like that again. It is just that those movies are less often made than others.
A lot of people have seen you grow up on Disney. Are you consciously making an effort to break out of that Disney image?
[Laughs.] No, not specifically. I was fortunate enough to work Disney, but I never became branded a Disney kid the way someone like Miley Cyrus was. So it hasn’t been a conscious effort on my part. I was 16 when I worked on Disney, and I am 25 now. I’m just a different person than I was. Growing up redefined the depth that I have, what I can bring to a character as well, and the things that I’m attracted to.
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