Interview: Hayden Panettiere Discusses "Racing Stripes"

Doing Her Own Stunts and Learning to Work with Zebras

Hayden Panettiere Racing Stripes
Hayden Panettiere stars in "Racing Stripes". © Warner Bros. Pictures

Hayden Panettiere worked with some big name stars in her 2005 film Racing Stripes, though not many of them ever made it to the set in South Africa. Dustin Hoffman, Jeff Foxworthy, Whoopi Goldberg, and Snoop Dogg lent their voices to an eclectic group of farm animals in the feel-good family comedy while Panettiere, Bruce Greenwood, and M. Emmett Walsh actually appear in the film and worked with the real live menagerie.

In Racing Stripes, Panettiere plays Channing, a teenager who loves animals, in particular horses. When her father (Greenwood) brings home an orphaned zebra, Channing immediately falls in love. The feeling's mutual as the adorable little zebra, nicknamed Stripes (voiced by Frankie Muniz), teams up with Channing to take on the world of thoroughbred horseracing.

We spoke Panettiere when the film was released about doing her own stunts, learning to work with zebras, and her then-upcoming film Ice Princess.

How hard was it to ride the zebra?
It was great. It was so fun because, you know, zebras are very different than horses. They each have their own personalities and it’s very interesting to see. But they’re a little more temperamental. You’ve got your nice ones and you’ve got your horrible ones, and you’ve got your totally crazy ones. But it’s very different than riding a horse.

They’re very slow animals actually. Very slow. Unless you stick a lion behind them and even then they won’t even run in a straight line. They’ve got really tough mouths, so it was me sitting there and you would have to tug. Whereas with a horse, you can just sort of glide them along. They walk in zigzag lines and you would have to tug to get them to stop. Some of the ones that we had were so sweet and so well trained it was amazing. [It was] amazing what we did with these zebras. Nobody ever expected it.

We heard from one of your co-stars that zebras are vicious.
From who?

Frankie Muniz.
Frankie! Frankie wasn’t even in South Africa. Frankie was in a booth with a microphone. I was riding the buggers. I raced four baby zebras and eight adults, okay? Some of them do bite, mind you. When we had babies they did bite, but they were just babies. That’s what they do. They kick and they bite, you know? But they’re very sweet.

In the beginning we had four baby zebras, two of them that were first there: Zoe and Columbia. And Zoe and Columbia were very, you know they’re pack animals so they bond with specific [things], usually with zebras, but in this case it was [Andrew, a trainer]. So the three of them were like a pack and they would follow him everywhere. It wound up being that when I was there, I was supposed to spend every day with them because they were supposed to bond with me. I tell you that was the…it was like a nightmare. It was bad. We had a girl and a guy - Zoe was the girl, obviously, and Columbia was the boy. If I would go stand next to Andrew, Zoe would run in between us and turn around and kick me. And she would keep me as far away from Andrew as possible. She would literally put her head in and go [hit me]. She’d kick me and I’d be running, screaming in the opposite direction. She learned to love me. She learned to love me.

And you really did all the stunt riding?
Yeah. It was the biggest high ever. Riding as fast as you can…

How much patience did you have to have working with all of these animals?
I’m not sure what’s worse, working with very young children or working with animals. You have to have a lot of patience, but the animals were so amazingly trained. It was mostly the baby zebras that didn’t want to do something. It was kind of hard to get them to do it.

Did you interact with the other animals besides the zebras?
It was mostly the baby zebras, the zebra, and the horses. I did work with them and always saw them because I was always around them. But the zebra was the main one I was always with.

Do you have pets at home?
Yes. It’s kind of hard to have them when you’re traveling so much. But I have three cats, which I’m deathly allergic to. But, I still love them. I had guinea pigs and I had a bird and hamsters and fish.

Do you want a horse?
Oh, I need to get back into riding seriously.

You obviously love animals and now you are an Ambassador for a wildlife foundation?
Yes. I was on set and I was invited to be an Ambassador for the ICUN Red List Collection with Nelson Mandela and Queen Noor. And it’s amazing. I got this big red book of all the gorgeous pictures of these animals that were in danger, and it was so sad seeing them. They’re just such gorgeous animals that you would never know about and the sad part is, you go to South Africa and you really see things first hand and you realize, “Wow, people in the states have no idea. They have no idea what is going on in that country.” Because it’s only been 11 years since apartheid, and they’ve cleaned up, even since I’ve been there, even since apartheid ended 10 years ago they’ve cleaned it up incredibly well. Just going there and seeing it even in the condition that it’s in, even better than it was, it’s just like, it’s a shocker. I really wanted to be a part of something and be a part of South Africa forever because it was my home and I adored it.

South Africa just really grows on you. Of course, I was 14 getting there, I had to drive through the boondocks, like nowhere. If your car broke down, that’s it. God knows what would happen to you. It was amazing. Of course, I was almost in tears the first night I got there. Almost in tears because I’m sitting there, we filmed in Nottingham Road [and] Nottingham Road was like deep country, [and I’m] like, “Oh my God, there’s nothing to do.” It’s like our high was going to Porky’s Bar and Grill.

It’s not really called that, is it?
It’s called Porky’s Bar and Grill. We were there every night. That was what I loved to do. “Oh daddy, please can we go to Porky’s? Oh mommy, I need to go to Porky’s tonight.”

I was sitting in the house – a beautiful house – it was at night and so you couldn’t even see what was there. I’m sitting there and almost in tears sitting at the table going, “Five months? Five months? I have to be here five months?” But it wound up growing on me and I never wanted to leave.

I went into Cape Town and Johannesburg and I went on safari. I was crying looking out the window when I was taking off in the plane because I didn’t [want to] leave. I didn’t go home for five months. My parents switched back and forth because my brother was in the states and I was looking out the window with this forlorn face. I couldn’t believe that I was leaving, because, you know, you leave there thinking, “This is South Africa. This is a once in a lifetime thing. It’s not like I’m going to be here tomorrow.” It’s not like leaving LA or leaving New York where you’re going, “I can be here next week if I want to.” It was so sad and I wanted to go back, and I miss it so much because I had all my friends and stuff.

Is it just a coincidence that you were on Frankie’s show Malcolm in the Middle?
Yeah, a total coincidence. It was the funniest thing when I first saw him after I came back from South Africa. I was like, “I rode you! For five months!” The director is going (looks a bit disapproving). (Laughing) I’m like, “No, no, really I did.” My mom [who is sitting in the corner during this interview] is going, “That doesn’t sound right.” But, no, no, no, he’s a zebra though.

Is your role on Malcolm going to be recurring now?
Yeah. It’s a fun show to do. It’s relatively quick in and out. It’s a very different character because usually when you’re blonde and that sort of thing, they tend to categorize you. It’s a great role to get out of that categorizing; frizzy hair and glasses. My friends all see me and go, “You’re ugly! You’re hideous, ewww!”

Have you noticed that the roles for the cute little kids have stopped coming and there are more beautiful young girl roles now?
You know, it was funny, I was complaining a few years back. I’d say “Mom, I always play guys. These guy characters.” Like in Remember the Titans, I loved the movie, don’t get me wrong, but I always played these tomboys. I’m like, “I’m sick of being dressed as a boy. I want to be a girl.” Now I’m a girl so it’s fun.

And you recently did a movie about an ice skater, Ice Princess, didn’t you?
Yeah. It’s coming out in March.

Did you already ice skate or did you have to learn that from scratch?
No. Learned it from scratch. It was fun. It was like, “Okay, I just got off of horse riding. Now I’m gonna fall again on the ice.” It was exciting.

Did you do any of your own skating in the film?
Oh no. I could make my way slowly across the ice. I hated ice skating. I couldn’t stand it. You couldn’t get me on the ice. My brother loves hockey and so he would sit there and say, “Hay, come on out,” and I’d go, “No. It’s cold. I don’t want go there. Are you crazy?”

Is he older or younger?
He’s 10.

Does he have acting ambitions?
Yeah. He plays the voice of young Stripes in this movie. He does a lot of voice work. I did Tiger Cruise with him, which was a Disney channel film that came out in August. He definitely does. He doesn’t look like me. He got sort of the same face but he’s dark. He’s got dark hair and dark, dark brown eyes and dark skin. He didn’t play my brother and nobody batted an eye because he didn’t look like me.

Who do you play in Ice Princess?
I play this girl, Jen, and I’m a figure skater. It’s funny because there’s another girl in it and we play sort of opposites. She is a brain who is very good at school who has dreams of becoming a figure skater, and I am a figure skater who has dreams of staying in school long enough to pass Math so I can actually have a future. My mother, who is played by Kim Cattrall, who is a sweetheart, sort of was living her dreams through me because she was supposed to go to Calgary for the Olympics and something happened. Can’t say what. She’s been living through me and I overcome my fears of her and finally tell her, and [then] fulfill all my dreams.

She’s a very cool character because, in the beginning, she gets to play sort of the nasty girl, the bitch; cheerleader-esque. Then she evolves and you see all these layers that she has and her needs because she goes from that to sort of befriending this girl and taking her under her wing and guiding her a little bit and overcoming her fears at the same time. The audience gets to see that she’s not just a stuck-up snob. She’s actually a real girl who has real dreams.