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Bit of a wolf in sheep's clothing

'Opposites attract and sometimes you can't help who you fall in love with," Hayden Panettiere states and then gives a kind of cheeky look out of the corner of her eye to see if she's gotten away with it.

She may have been talking about the two lead wolf characters in her new animated film Alpha and Omega but her look says that she knows her statement alludes to her own life and her relationship with Ukrainian boxer Wladimir Klitschko, the current IBF, IBO and WBO heavyweight champion of the world.

To put it in context, 21-year-old Panettiere is tiny -- just over five-foot tall, she sits with her legs curled up on a giant couch which will engulf her if she pulls her sequinned blackleggings-clad legs in any tighter to her body. A beautiful, petite blonde who made her name playing sexy cheerleader Claire Bennet in the TV series Heroes, Panettiere is very much the angelic girl next door with the mischievous side. She may have been born in New York but she looks every bit the California beach babe.

In contrast, the stony-faced Klitschko, 13 years her senior, stands at six-foot-five-inches tall, has an arm reach of 81 inches and weighs just shy of 18 stones. You couldn't find two people at more opposite ends of the physical and cultural spectrum. The all-American girl and the Eastern European fighting machine. It's as if Adrian Balboa was dating Ivan Drago.

"I think it's not just opposites attract but they definitely can," she states. "You know what, even though we're so physically different we actually have quite a lot in common, otherwise..." and she trails off leaving the rest to the imagination.

These days in Panettiere's life there is little left to the imagination. Though she's been working since she was born (almost literally -- her first commercial was when she was four months old), Heroes, the series where a group of ordinary people discover they possess superhuman powers, propelled the then 16-year-old and her co-stars to massive levels of fame almost overnight.

"It's a shock to your system, especially at 16. But I got really lucky because I didn't go there by myself, I didn't feel like I was alone. It's not like I did a movie and all of a sudden was by myself. I was with a great group of people and we were all experiencing it together and I think that group support really made a huge difference in my life. I was really lucky. Things like that, especially at such a young age, can turn really bad."

Then there were her relationships, first with Stephen Colletti, star of Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, and then, more intriguingly with her Heroes co-star Milo Ventimiglia. She was also briefly seeing T4 presenter Steve Jones. These romances made her the ideal fodder for the US tabloid magazines searching for a post-Britney, post-Lindsay figure whose every movement they could document. For a teenager unaccustomed to the media's methods it was quite the eye-opener.

The snide criticism, she says, is what she found hardest to deal with. "The more you put yourself out there the more you open yourself up for criticism. When I was 16, I remember the first time I had a paparazzi follow me and I went to this camera store and I was wearing these jean-shorts. I bent over and somebody took a picture of my rear end and said that I had cellulite. It was so damaging to me.

"I didn't have that insecurity. I was cool with it. I was fine with it. It's not something that was constantly in my head. But when that happened I was devastated. I was 16.

"And it's something that is now always a conscious thing. I have things that I'm insecure about that I have never even thought to be insecure about until someone thought to point it out. In this culture it seems like they just always want to rip you down. It's the tearing apart of someone which sells, not the building up of somebody, not the idolising somebody ... it's making people feel that celebrities aren't perfect."

I suggest to her that these days things may be a little easier with a giant boxer in tow. She does admit that the paparazzi tend to resort to long-lens photography when her heavyweight champion is around.

She now finds herself ringside when he fights -- an unusual experience -- but she has so far managed to keep her cool while watching her man. "I didn't watch boxing at all before but I'm now such a fan. I really enjoy it. He's incredible to watch -- the technique and the skill and the smarts behind it. Everything is calculated and everything is studied. It's a hell of an experience to watch him fight. It's one of the best atmospheres of any sporting event anywhere in the world.

"I've never seen him take a punch, knock on wood, but it's going to happen one way or another so instead I put my energy into cheering and being feisty as opposed to worrying ... I don't worry about him. I know that he's tough, and I'm not being insensitive either. I'm not saying that I don't care but I don't have the same kind of concern."

Panettiere's main concern now is for her career. She admits a sense of relief at the end of Heroes, which ran for four years.

The next decisions, she feels, will be vital in setting the tone for how she is perceived by the industry. Alpha and Omega, however, is purely for enjoyment.

A 3D animated tale in which Panettiere provides the voice of Kate, an alpha wolf who is the daughter of the pack leader but finds herself on an unlikely adventure with Humphrey (Justin Long), a wolf from the other end of the social spectrum. It's the cinematic equivalent of a newborn kitten, or indeed a wolf cub like the ones which, on the day we meet, Panettiere is splashed all over the papers playing with at the previous evening's premiere.

She has always liked the idea of working on animated films, and what was special about this one, she says of her decision to provide the voice of Kate, was that this film "also has a lot of good morals and also it ties in with the environment which is incredible and I think is a great thing."

Panettiere admits that post-Heroes the decisions she makes are vital for setting up the rest of her career. She's witnessed the kind of stereotyping that follows a role as iconic as the one she played in the show. "Playing a cheerleader for four years you're thought of as a very golden girl, goody-two-shoes-esque. You can only get seen in one light. It's definitely a challenge to juggle and never get slotted like that."

Her next projects should banish the notion that she is merely a prom-queen type once and for all. First up is the fourth instalment of the Scream franchise, due for release early next year. But it's the role that she's about to embark on that has Panettiere most excited. "I'm going to do this Amanda Knox story in Italy," she says. "It's a little bit nerve-wracking."

Directed by Michael Winterbottom, the story of Foxy Knoxy, the American student who was convicted of murdering her British housemate Meredith Kercher, is already causing controversy with both the Knox and the Kercher families questioning why the film needs to be made.

Controversy is not something which has been a part of Panettiere's wholesome image so far.

"I'm really looking forward to playing this role. It's obviously a very controversial topic, but the way the story is written is really great and I don't think it will piss anyone off. I've never played a living person like that before so it's going to be a challenge but I'm looking forward to it."

Panettiere has been studying videos of Knox during the lengthy trial and footage from before the murder in order to get her mannerisms just right. "She's female and she's feminine but she's got a deeper voice like I do and she's got a definite spunk and tomboy nature to her as well," she says, which may be the most understated description ever of someone who has been found guilty of slitting another person's throat. "But I don't think there's any way to prepare for what a young girl would feel when she's put in jail for 26 years."

It's a role which, for good or for bad, will put Panettiere firmly into the spotlight. "I like living on the edge," she says as I get up to leave. As I make my way out she leaves me with just one more flash of that cheeky grin.

Alpha and Omega is now showing

Sunday Independent