NEW YORK -- Hayden Panettiere is getting her sushi fix.
On a recent whirlwind visit to Manhattan, she takes full advantage of the city's Japanese cuisine, which, she reports, isn't quite so available in Nashville, where she's spending a lot of her time these days.
But that's her only complaint, if that's what it is, about life in Music City and her starring role in ABC's tuneful melodrama "Nashville" (now in its second season, airing at 9 p.m. Wednesdays), all of which she loves.
She plays scheming breakout country sensation Juliette Barnes, who's locked in a love-hate rivalry with country music queen Rayna Jaymes (co-star Connie Britton), whose long reign is threatened by Juliette's rise.
Panettiere nails her role, displaying a deft blend of rapaciousness and vulnerability, not to mention impressive pipes.
In the process, she has pulled off two overarching victories. She's left behind her past signature role, the indestructible Cheerleader in the sci-fi drama "Heroes" -- a character that could have tied her down forever. Even more remarkably: At 24, she's crossed that treacherous Rubicon that few young actors navigate, from adolescence to the far shore of adulthood.
"'Nashville' was perfect timing with the perfect character," she says after ordering this and that raw fish. "Juliette is so not the good girl that I played on 'Heroes,' but she has to put on the facade as a good girl to get what she wants. Juliette is tough, but when she cries, she means it: She's a very damaged young woman running from a dark past. How much more perfect could I ask for?"
Sharing lunch with a reporter at a tony Manhattan restaurant, the petite Panettiere is squeezed into jeans and a sweater of proper weight for the ensuing fall weather. Her chopsticks are soon busy while, spared Juliette's Southern twang (Panettiere hails from Englewood, N.J.), she delves deeper into Juliette's psyche, and her own.
Sure, Juliette is the show's resident villain, "but you get to see her inner workings, what she goes through," Panettiere notes. "It's great to show the audience Juliette's terrible behavior, and then show where that behavior came from: not from a place of malice, but of pain.
"A lot of what I've drawn from is my own personal experience," she says. "I grew up in the entertainment industry, in the spotlight, and have had to deal with some of the same struggles. In this business, there are so many doors wide open to walk through and it looks like the normal thing to do. The difference is, I've always had people around me to yank me back before I went too far."
Panettiere's mother was an actress, her father a New York City firefighter, and she made her screen debut as an infant in a Playskool toys commercial.
Since then she's never stopped acting, nor did she imagine doing anything else. But after "Heroes" ended in 2010, she faced a dry spell before "Nashville" came along.
"It hit me," she recalls, "like a ton of bricks: There is a genuine possibility that no one will ever take another chance on me. That was an important gap between 'Heroes' and this show, a huge transition to make gracefully. I don't know how gracefully I did it, but somehow I did."
Callie Khouri, "Nashville" creator and executive producer, said she was unconcerned while casting her new series that Panettiere might still be the Cheerleader in viewers' minds.
"When she stood in front of the camera as Juliette, I saw the character that I needed, not the one she'd already done," said Khouri by phone from Nashville, marveling at her range: "She can go from being the worst little brat in the world to absolutely breaking your heart.
"We asked her why she thought she was right for this character, what she thought they had in common," Khouri added, "and she said: 'Juliette wants to be the best. And that's what I want.' I felt like I was hearing the character talk to me."
Of course, an actress seeming to merge with her character comes with special pitfalls when the character's a bad girl, confirming viewer suspicions that fiction is mirroring real life.
Panettiere acknowledges that Juliette Barnes is exactly the sort of tabloid target she herself has always tried not to become -- and not always successfully.
Recently she made public her engagement to professional boxer Wladimir Klitschko, her longtime boyfriend, even as reports of Juliette-like misbehavior raged in tabloid media, alleging "that I've broken up with him, that I've cheated on him, that I'm a home-wrecker, that I've become a mess in Nashville," says Panettiere. "I've been portrayed as a person that I'm so far from being, that I have spent years of my life making sure that I never become!
"We're actors!" she erupts with a dismissive laugh. "That's what we DO: play characters that we're not!"