Danielle Panabaker Interview: Piranhas, Screaming and Why She Hasn’t Gone Nude
Danielle Panabaker is no stranger to horror. The actress has become something of a modern-day scream queen with roles in ‘The Crazies,’ ‘Mr. Brooks,’ and the remake of ‘Friday the 13th.’ This weekend Panabaker will continue this tradition in the bombastic, fish-balls-to-the-wall comedy horror ‘Piranha 3DD’.
The actress plays Maddy, a marine biology student who is racing against time to stop her stepfather Chet (David Koechner) from opening their water park before she can ensure that it is not infested with prehistoric water beasts. Oh yeah, and there’s also a female extras with extra perky cleavage, hence the title.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Panabaker recently to talk about the many flavors of screams, the baby piranha (puppet) that she calls pet, and what she hopes to achieve in this next stage of her career.
So let’s talk about horror, why not?
Between ‘Friday the 13th,’ ‘The Crazies’ and now ‘Piranha 3DD,’ you’ve worked quite a bit in the genre. Are you a fan? Did you like it as a kid?
You know, it’s really funny. I am actually a big sissy, and growing up I never used to watch horror movies. ‘Bambi’ gave me nightmares.
‘Bambi’ is scary. We’ve all cried ‘Bambi’ tears.
Yes. Very sad. So I’ve been kind of a sissy about horror movies and it’s been ironic, because I’ve made a living in them for the past couple of years.
Do you watch your own movies, or do they scare you?
I pretty much just see them once. I don’t need to see them again. And it’s odd, having read the script, but being caught up in the moment and the suspense and the music and everything that comes together, I still jump.
Which one scared you the most?
I thought ‘Friday the 13th’ was really scary, especially Derek [Mears] as Jason. He was just putting on a whole other persona and it was so physically big and intimidating, and shot so well. That one was pretty scary.
You know it’s funny, because I’ve met Derek on several occasions and he’s such a sweetheart.
Yeah, he’s like the nicest person on the planet.
I always say, “You’re like a teddy bear. Also an actual bear.”
Yes, he’s the greatest.
So even knowing that, knowing that underneath the mask is actually Derek, it’s still scary?
Yes. I mean it’s such a difficult costume to wear that you don’t interact with him. I didn’t interact with him on set the same way that I did off set. So you know, the idea of Jason is still this very scary, creepy man to me.
Oh yeah. He’s terrifying. Is this one ['Piranha 3DD'] a bit easier to watch because it’s so lighthearted?
It is. This one is less scary. I think it’s just about the blood and the gore and the fun.
And the silliness of it. Do you think they’ll ever circle back to a sequel to ‘Friday the 13th’?
I know they did talk about a sequel, initially, right after it came out. But I don’t know that Platinum Dunes is going to pursue that anymore.
In terms of shooting ‘Piranha,’ you had to confront an actual fear of water.
So how did you confront that, how did you psych yourself up to do those underwater scenes?
You know, somehow it didn’t dawn on me until I was standing on set, in my underwear, in this very vulnerable moment, at the edge of a dark, dark, gross, creepy lake, that I realized there is no part of me that wants to do this. And I just kept telling myself, I was just like, “Buck up, Panabaker. You’re going to have to do it, there’s no sense putting it off, just bite the bullet and go.” So, that was a challenge. It was a real challenge.
And then obviously all the underwater stuff, at the finale of the movie, where I had to stay underwater for an extended period of time. They taught us how to breathe off scuba gear for it… It’s so much to learn, with the goggles and clearing and… it was a lot. It’ a new skill, though.
I can only imagine. I love water and I’ve gone scuba diving in a dark murky lake and I found it to be an intense experience.
It’s scary. It’s really hard. And the idea of being strapped down underwater, strapped to this grate. Because the idea was that it would be more efficient to keep us underwater rather than bringing us up and [letting] us catch our breath. They would just keep us underwater as long as possible.
How long were you under there?
Probably a matter of minutes more than anything, but you know, being underwater for 10 minutes is scary for me.
It’s scary for anyone. Did you ever have any panic moments where you said, “That’s it, I’ve got to come out?”
For sure. Absolutely. I mean, fortunately, more so when rehearsing for it than when we were actually shooting. But there was a moment initially when I dive into the lake and I’m searching around to check the grates. There was a moment in there where I just flipped and I don’t know what they got on camera, and I just needed to get up. I needed to get up and I needed to breathe real air.
You know I’m just fascinated by these animatronic piranhas, because I think they’re hilarious.
They’re great. They’re so funny.
Did anything ever go wrong with them, or were there any especially hilarious moments with the fish?
The piranha are very reliable little creatures. They were great, in every experience I had. They did a great job with the puppeteering. I don’t have a complaint about the piranha. I have a baby piranha at home on my bookshelf.
What’s your baby piranha named?
It doesn’t have a name. I’m now embarrassed that my baby piranha doesn’t have a name.
Name it now.
Oh, the pressure. I don’t know. Maybe I’d go with alliteration. Peter, the Piranha?
I like Peter, the Piranha.
Do you? But Peter sounds too innocent for these little buggers.
All right. Well we’ll come back to it. I kind of like Peter. I named (director) John Gulager’s piranha Herbert today. Herbert, the piranha.
Oh, I like that. And was he a bigger, heartier one?
He was a big one. You know I remember hearing Wes Craven talk about horror movies and saying that there are different kinds of screams depending on the intention of the scene.
Have you discovered this or is there basically just abject terror scream?
I think it depends on the moment. There’s surprise, there’s terror, there’s sort of like the battle cry, a very primitive wail. I think there’s a lot of different ones for sure.
Do you have a favorite one that feels good to do?
I think I have a good, high-pitched horror scream. I think I’m a good screamer.
It’s a good skill. Can you talk a little bit about working with Christopher Lloyd?
Sure. I mean, I don’t know what I can’t say. It was so exciting. He’s, I think, the only person I’ve ever asked for a photo with [from] all the people I’ve worked with over the years. Like, I went up to the sales photographer and went, “Can you help me get a photo with him?” Because he was someone who we only worked together for two days. Obviously I embarrassed myself in front of Kevin Costner and Ed Harris and asked for photos of them, but it’s probably been five years since I asked for a photo with anyone like Christopher Lloyd. It was so cool. I just adore him.
These films, they’re a lot of fun, but there’s definitely a lot of cleavage involved.
Is there any part of you that wonders if maybe it’s objectifying women? Or do you think it’s meant to be taken lightly?
You know there’s a reason I haven’t been nude in a film yet. I just haven’t felt the need to go there. I respect the women who have done that and made that choice. I think it’s a very personal decision whether or not you want to participate in that. And if you do, then go for it. Embrace it and own it.
Is there a genre of horror that you haven’t done that you’d like to?
I maybe need a break, because I feel like I’ve done every iteration of it, and that’s what’s been great, you know ‘Mr. Brooks’ is so different from ‘Friday the 13th,’ which is so different from ‘The Crazies,’ which is different from ‘Piranha.’ So, I feel like I’ve kind of covered it across the board.
What would you like to move into?
I did a little independent in New York last summer that, you know, in some ways really changed my life. It was such an incredible experience for me. And was just so rewarding creatively that I’d love to do more stuff like that. It’s called ‘Girls Against Boys,’ Austin Chick wrote and directed it.
Would you want to move more toward drama?
You know, the hope with ‘Piranha’ was that it would open some comedic doors for me.
Do you want to focus on television or film? Or both?
Both. I think television is a big commitment, so it has to be something that you’re really excited about and something that you want to potentially commit a lot of time to.
In terms of moving towards comedy, did you find that you learned things working with David Koechner on this film, improvisationally or otherwise?
It’s really fun to see them work. I really respect the art and the craft of it, and the talent to be that quick. I learn through observing, absolutely, just in terms of the importance of keeping the pace up and keeping alternates and that sort of thing. I mean someone today mentioned a scene where David’s making fun of my character for believing in these piranha, and his whole spiel is improvised. Where he said, “Go off and read your romance novels,” and that sort of thing. He did it constantly. And I think sort of the repertoire between all the other young adults working at the water park, there was a lot of improv happening there, too, just to keep it fresh.
Being involved in this genre is kind of its own universe with signings and things of that sort.
It definitely is.
Have you had any weird or interesting fan experiences? I’m always so fascinated by that.
You know what? I’ve been very lucky. You’re right, there’s a very specific fan base of fan boys, not to be sexist about that, but it’s a specific base and I’ve been very lucky. They’ve been very friendly and warm and welcoming to me, and that’s all I can ask for.
‘Piranha 3DD’ opens in theaters on Friday, June 1st.