LOS ANGELES — Hayden Panettiere has always been a survivor.
She survived being a child actor in the early 2000s when the media obsessively treated the lives of young women as entertainment fodder; she survived early adulthood in the 2010s when she starred in the popular soap opera “Nashville,” a role that mirrored her own issues with postpartum depression and substance abuse; and she survived the aggressive tabloid coverage of her daughter’s move to Ukraine after her father was granted custody of her.
Recently Ms. Panettiere, 33, found herself in survival mode once again, because of grief. About three weeks before the release of “Scream VI,” in which she reprises her character Kirby Reed, her brother, Jansen Rane Panettiere, died at 28. He was an actor and budding artist, and he died from heart complications, her family said in February.
Ms. Panettiere tried to push through the press tour for the film in New York, but on March 6, two days before her brother’s funeral, she could sit through only one interview. She canceled the rest of her appearances, aside from the premiere.
On an overcast morning in late March in her Los Angeles condominium, Ms. Panettiere reflected on the past month of her life. Her brother’s ashes were atop a mantel, across from which she posed for a portrait in a Christian Siriano dress. She stood in front of a canvas teeming with hidden words, which her brother had created for her.
“I always see a few secret messages that maybe he meant to put there, maybe he didn’t,” she said. Mr. Panettiere was working on it when he died. “His art, that was the thing that made him happiest,” she said, her voice cracking.
After the photo shoot, Ms. Panettiere climbed the spiral staircase in her living room and curled up under a blanket on her velvet sofa in the lofted part of her condo. Her home is “the last place my whole family ever lived together” before her parents separated, she said.
Ms. Panettiere, who was born and raised in New York, has lived most of her life in the public eye. She landed her first gig in a commercial at 11 months old and was a child actor in films like “Remember the Titans” and “Bring It On: All or Nothing” and TV shows like “Guiding Light” and “Ally McBeal.”
She said her parents gave her a great childhood where she was able to attend prom and play sports, though she was always working. “I don’t think I really had a lot of time to be a kid,” she said. “I would miss these pockets of time, and because of that, it wasn’t easy for me as a young girl to slide back into a friend group and to belong.”
She solidified her place in Hollywood through roles like Claire Bennet in “Heroes,” the high school cheerleader with special powers; Kirby, a quirky horror aficionado, in “Scream IV”; and Juliette Barnes, a troubled country diva, in “Nashville.”
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But in her private life, she struggled. When she was 18, her parents separated, and she ended up in the midst of an eight-year divorce battle. There were times, she said, when she felt like she had to choose one parent over the other and would end up staying by herself or with Wladimir Klitschko, an ex-boxer whom she dated on and off between 2009 and 2018.
“Of course, kids are always caught in the middle,” Ms. Panettiere said. “But my relationship with my parents now is good and even more special to me, because we lost my brother.”
In 2014, while she was working on “Nashville,” she gave birth to a daughter, Kaya (Mr. Klitschko is the father) and began suffering from postpartum depression. Ms. Panettiere said she turned to alcohol and opioids to self-medicate.
She ended up leaving “Nashville” during the fourth season in 2015 to go to a treatment facility for her depression. In 2018, when the show ended, her daughter went to live with her father, Mr. Klitschko, in Ukraine. Ms. Panettiere said she sees Kaya as much as she can (Kaya and Mr. Klitschko live in an undisclosed location since the war broke out last year).
Ms. Panettiere said that many of her real-life experiences were reflected in the show’s script while she was going through them, which was traumatizing. But there wasn’t much she could do about its story lines, and she had spent most of her life doing what she was told by those who had power over her. “Even if something was too much for me, I would never admit to it,” she said. “It was always about making them happy.”
The demand of her career took its toll. “When I went home after acting out what I was really going through, the last thing I wanted to do was properly manage or talk about what I was feeling in a healthy way,” she said. “So I turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms.”
That meant cocktails with friends and hiding under the covers and pouring herself a drink almost every day. Her life, she said, could be summed up by the adage “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”
In some ways, Ms. Panettiere said, her tumultuous behavior stemmed from the time she lost in growing up as a child actor. “I wanted that control back,” she said. “I wanted to do things I wasn’t supposed to do, and I wanted to just let go and act like a kid.”
Ms. Panettiere said that at some point she couldn’t recognize herself in the mirror anymore. “My eyes were yellow,” she said, adding that doctors told her that her liver was failing and she was septic. She was 27 at the time and would wake up shaking, needing an entire bottle of alcohol to get through the day. She would often swap in opioids to stave off drinking alcohol, she said.
In 2021, Ms. Panettiere re-entered a treatment center for eight months. She has been sober for almost two years, now swapping substances for Peloton rides and organic meals, and has deleted most of the photos from her time deep in addiction, except for one.
Why? “To remind myself what I looked like,” she said. “The fact that I thought I looked OK at that time is the scariest part to me.”
At the height of her addiction, she dated Brian Hickerson on and off for about four years. In 2021, he pleaded no contest to two felony counts of injuring the actress and served time in jail. Mr. Hickerson was in the condo during our interview, walking around, vacuuming and shooting a basketball through the hoop in her living area.
Both Ms. Panettiere and Mr. Hickerson became sober and later reconnected as friends. During the photo shoot, Ms. Panettiere called him “babe” a handful of times. When asked if they were dating again, she was hesitant to define their relationship, but said, “There are feelings there, yes.”
She added that she doesn’t condone what he did. “He knows he deserved what happened to him,” Ms. Panettiere said, referring to his arrest and jail time. She noted that their relationship was “contingent on him continuing on this road of recovery,” and she is self-conscious about how people may perceive her letting him back into her life. “I did not do any of this lightly,” she said.
When Ms. Panettiere heard “Scream V” was in the works, her team reached out to see if she could be involved in the film. It was too late, but Ms. Panettiere ended up connecting with one of the sixth film’s executive producers, Kevin Williamson, with whom she had done “Scream IV.” Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, the directors of “Scream V,” wanted to bring Ms. Panettiere back for that movie but “felt like we’d be forcing her character in as a cameo,” they wrote in an email. Instead they had her return for a more fully fledged part in the next film.
Ms. Panettiere had some anxiety about returning to set as she struggled to remember her lines. “I used to memorize things like that, within two seconds,” she said, snapping. “Suddenly it was taking me hours to memorize something. It was like that muscle atrophied, so I was terrified.”
Fans of Ms. Panettiere’s singing on “Nashville” will be happy to know that the thought of making an album has crossed her mind. “I would love to do that one day and really do it right,” she said. Ms. Panettiere also said she’d love to take on more comedy or action roles.
Perhaps Ms. Panettiere might even make an appearance in another future “Scream” movie. When she initially took on the role of Kirby, she did it with the contingency that her character’s fate was left open-ended. “I was stabbed, but you never saw me die,” she said, laughing.