Best known as the indestructible cheerleader Claire Bennet in NBC’s popular series Heroes, Hayden Penettiere now takes on the role of her young career – that of Amanda Knox, the infamous American exchange student accused by Italian authorities, along with her boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito (Paolo Romio), of brutally killing her British roommate, Meredith Kercher (Amanda Fernando Stevens).
The Knox family attempted to stop this Lifetime movie from airing, as Amanda will be going back to court next month to appeal her 26-year sentence. But the show will go on.
Hayden came to the TV Critics Association tour to talk about the movie, and her thoughts about the young woman she’s portraying.
Were you aware of the trial as it was going on? And how important was it for you to capture who you thought she was by looking at the video of her on trial speaking for herself?
I was aware that it was going on, but not to an extreme extent, because I was on Heroes at the time. We were working some pretty insane hours. But I do remember the story, and I think it was incredibly important to capture who this girl was.
I really, truly believe in what she says, which was that her lawyers told her to be herself. They told her to go out there and not pretend to be anything that she wasn’t, but be her vivacious, smiley and happy self.
They turned that a lot against her in the story. They said that she was always bubbly and happy, which was weird and creepy. But I genuinely think that’s just who she was. She was just trying to look at it in the best way she possibly could that helped her get through it.
She went through so much and the fact that she could even sit there and try to keep herself as sane as possible, you can’t point a finger at [her] for doing that.
I watched hours of footage of her and of the trial and her composure and the way she held herself and the way she spoke, her tone of voice. Before I went on the set, I would have headphones, and I just listened to her voice on an iPod, just to get her intonations and the way she spoke and the shakiness in her voice.
She really tried to be as stoic and as brave as she could against all odds, and I do commend her for it. I tried my very best with the materials that I had handy to do that myself.
After playing an ‘unkillable’ person for four years, did you feel like a proper career was to play somebody who was verifiably real?
There are many things that go through your head while choosing a film. That was definitely an upside for me. I loved being on Heroes; I grew up on Heroes and I had the wonderful experience on it. But it was very exciting to be able to spread my wings and to play a very different character as well.
You don’t get many opportunities like this in a career. The fact that this girl was just such an interesting character and the story kept you constantly at the edge of your seat. How do you turn that down? And not to mention the amazing cast that was put together. I couldn’t be in better company.
This is such a vulnerable story, and specifically, Amanda was so needy. I was so vulnerable as an actress, that Marcia [Gay Harden, who plays Amanda’s mother Edda] came in and completely embodied that sense of comfort and safety, we’re going to work it out, it’s going to be okay. I just looked at her, and I was immediately sobbing. She was my mother.
You are the only person who couldn’t be completely unbiased in this because you had to play Amanda one way or the other. Do you think that she did it?
You know, it’s one of those really riveting stories where you just don’t know. We spent five weeks every day talking about it, reading about it and looking at new evidence, trying to form some sort of opinion about it. And it’s like she’s innocent; she’s guilty; she’s innocent. I can’t say that I have an opinion, and that’s why the story is so interesting.
It really all comes together to form this incredible story and I think people are really genuinely interested and curious in it. I don’t know that we’ll ever really know.
That must make it very hard to act, because you had to decide yourself who you were playing.
It’s true. I spoke a lot to Robert [Dornhelm, the movie’s director] about what approach to take in this case. And I think one of the greatest things about this film, and the way it’s written and the way it’s done, is that everyone has their role to play within it.
My job was to play a girl who, regardless of what happened, was innocent in who she was. She’s not a malicious girl. She didn’t have any intention to do this. This wasn’t an angry or dark girl.
Whatever it was that happened that night, four people’s lives were ruined. But it was my job to stay pretty true to form in who she seemed to be as a person in court and otherwise.
The way you describe Amanda, it’s sounds as though you can’t possibly believe that she is guilty. Is that true?
No, it just means that I believe in the person that she deep down was. And I think that regardless of innocent or guilty, she has a spirit. She’s a real person. She was a young girl who had dreams and aspirations and was going to Italy to go to school and to broaden her horizons and have experiences and meet new people.
I don’t think that guilty or innocent takes away from that.