Hayden Panettiere Defends Her Nashville 'Witch,' Plus Scoop on That Sexy, Showstopping Duet

With its series premiere, ABC’s Nashville (airing Wednesdays at 10/9c) introduced you not only to country music superstar Rayna James (played by Connie Britton), but you also met other singers at different points on the spectrum.

For one, there’s Juliette Barnes, the nubile crossover sensation whose popularity is threatening to dim Rayna’s spotlight. And while Juliette has a lot to learn about acting “nice,” and even as she sets her professional and prurient sights on Rayna’s bandleader Deacon, Hayden Panettiere is quick to sing her alter ego’s praises.

“I don’t find a draw in playing someone who’s just pure evil,” she tells TVLine. “Juliette is a survivor, and that’s interesting to me. And the more I talk about it with [exec producer] RJ [Cutler], the more I realize how much Juliette and Rayna have in common. They’re both strong women, they’re both kind of rebels, she’s running away from her family and I’ve run away from mine…. If they didn’t happen to be in each other’s way at the moment, they would probably be good friends.”

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As revealed in the premiere, Juliette has a drug addict mom whom she labors to keep from setting foot in her glamorous world. (“It’s very, very dark,” the actress says of that dynamic.) And the men she’s knocking cowboy boots with aren’t so much epic romances about which songs are written, but “anything to fill the void,” Panettiere posits. “She’s very damaged, and that’s something I’m sure a lot of people can relate to, when they’ve been through a lot in life.”

As for the intimation that Juliette isn’t a gifted crooner but a product of Auto-Tune, Panettiere is “afraid people are going to take that line too literally and think, ‘OK, she’s not talented, she’s a witch to everyone, she has this rough-around-the-edges quality… What’s there to respect?'” So in her character’s defense, she likens Rayna’s rival to… Hugh Laurie’s TV doc? “I know this is the most out-there comparison, but I want her to be like House, because he’s such an ass but you respect him because he’s so good at what he does. Even though Juliette is conniving and twisted in a way, she’s still pretty wise for a young girl who got herself out of a bad situation and made a life for herself.”

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Further down the Nashville ladder, there’s Scarlett O’Connor, the Bluebird waitress who’s about to cease being an undiscovered songwriter, and fellow up-and-comer Gunnar Scott. To say that the pair’s smoldering cover of The Civil Wars’ “If I Didn’t Know Better” brought the premiere to a satisfying close (and in doing so shot up the iTunes charts) is putting it lightly.

“We’re the underdogs, the characters the audience can relate to a little more since they’re removed from the superstardom,” says Sam Palladio, the British actor who plays Gunnar. “That makes our story a bit more real, a bit more tangible.” What their story winds up being, however, remains to be seen. After all, Scarlett – a poet by nature – sort of stumbled into that show-stopping, scene-stealing musical moment.

“Scarlett is very shy and modest, an incredibly humble person,” says Aussie beauty Clare Bowen. “Her drive has been focused on her boyfriend Avery (played by Jonathan Jackson), so she didn’t know that she has this talent that she does.” Adds Palladio: “Scarlett is apprehensive about taking the mantel of songwriter away from her boyfriend, so for her, [success] doesn’t sit as high on the scale as it does for Gunnar.”

Regardless, as producer-DJ Watty White (J.D. Souther) scouts Scarlett and Gunnar on Rayna’s behalf, could the duo’s collaboration turn into something more…? “Probably! We’ll see what happens,” Bowen teases. Palladio in turn says with a wink, “I think you’re going to find them creating some interesting music together.”