The ''Heroes'' star tells us about being called ''cheerleader'' on the streets, her new film with Julia Roberts, and riding a zebra

By Adam Markovitz
Updated June 22, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

You’d think the breakout star of TV’s hottest new drama would have a sense of entitlement, but Heroes‘ Hayden Panettiere takes nothing for granted — including her continued employment. ”No one is safe, no matter what power you have,” says the 17-year-old actress. She’s become accustomed to the many twists, turns, and backflips the sci-fi series has delivered as its ostensibly ordinary superhumans have grown into their skill sets and converged to save the world. ”Honestly, the only thing on the show that has job security is my dog, Mr. Muggles.” Panettiere plays Claire, an unbreakable high school girl who became synonymous with the show when the catchphrase ”Save the cheerleader, save the world!” entered the pop culture lexicon. ”I think it was very clever,” says the New York-born actress, although she admits that calls of ”Hey, cheerleader!” now follow her around Los Angeles. ”But it’s fun. It’s not an obnoxious thing.” Technically speaking, Claire doesn’t actually spend much time shaking pom-poms. ”I told [Heroes creator] Tim Kring I need to cheer at some point,” the actress says with a laugh. ”She wears the outfit all the time!”

We asked Panettiere to be the EW 100 cover girl because we’re Heroes junkies and have always been struck by the mix of innocence and resilience she brings to the show — and, yes, because this issue is our chance to do a little cheerleading. The actress herself has plenty of plans that don’t involve those pom-poms. Like many of her showbiz peers, Panettiere is looking to join the multihyphenate club by launching a music career. Her album, due in 2008, reflects her diverse musical tastes. ”I wanted to make every song sound as different as possible,” she says. ”I hate sitting down and listening to an album where every song sounds the same.” Panettiere, who trained to be a singer for a while and even sang jingles, co-wrote most of the album’s tracks, including ”Saved,” about the death of a friend. ”You come in with an idea of what you want to write about,” she says of the collaborative process. ”It’s fun when you have a lot of different people that you get to bounce ideas off of.”

Panettiere’s day job should keep her busy for years — we’re convinced of her job security on Heroes, even if she isn’t — but she’ll start working movies into her schedule before long. First up is the indie drama Fireflies in the Garden, with Julia Roberts. It’s a dream job, obviously — and definitely worth sacrificing a vacation for. ”I really wanted to set the tone for the kind of things that I want to do,” she says. In the film, Panettiere will portray a young woman who leaves home to get an abortion. It’s a far cry from her all-American image on Heroes, of course, but the actress says she’s ready to defy expectations. ”I’m probably as edgy as they come,” she says. ”If it’s a challenge to me, I’m all for it.”

So Panettiere can play a superhero, sing, and share a screen with Julia. Anything else we should know? Panettiere ‘s too young to think about retirement, but a question about secret talents brings out the teenager in her. ”Oh, I know!” she says. ”I can ride a zebra! I had to ride one in Racing Stripes, and I’m, like, one of the only people who’s ever ridden one. The trick is to hang on tight. They’re bouncy little things. And never, ever go by the rear of it. It’s not fun. They’ll kick the bejesus out of you.”