She reflects neither of the titular attractions of the campy “Piranha 3DD,” the follow-up to 2010’s surprise, $80-million-grossing “Piranha 3D,” but Danielle Panabaker anchors the movie nonetheless, starring as level-headed graduate student Maddy, whose visions of a happy summer working at her stepfather’s water park get dashed, in bloody fashion. It almost certainly helped that Panabaker had hearty, previous genre experience, in the form of “Friday the 13th” and “The Crazies.” For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance to speak to Panabaker one-on-one recently, about the movie and its production, her admirable dedication to education, and a T-shirt she might have liberated from the wardrobe department. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: The Internet is sometimes true, and it said, amazingly, that you graduated high school as valedictorian at only 14 years old.
Danielle Panabaker: [laughs] Yeah, I went to an independent study high school and graduated young.
ShockYa: You were working even then, doing theater, commercials and TV. How was it that you were so driven, academically?
DP: I give a lot of credit to my parents. Education was very important to them and they were insistent that it was a big part of (life for) my sister and I. From the time we were young we moved every two years, basically, and my parents always chose the suburb in which we lived based around the school district, basically. So I was very fortunate, had a great education, and when we came out to California just got to stay on the same track and keep moving right along. My parents’ rule was as long as you live in our house you’ll be in school, so kudos to them for helping us stick to it.
ShockYa: You also went to UCLA to purse a degree, where you graduated and were on the Dean’s List.
DP: It was a challenge (to juggle) school and work, for sure. While I was at UCLA, I think I missed a quarter. The most frustrating thing is when you get halfway through a quarter and you’ve done all the work and written all the papers and you’re committed to it, and then you have to go away for six weeks or a couple months, and you can’t finish. That was the most frustrating part for me. But I made it work. I was very lucky that [CBS’] “Shark” came along and they were so amenable to working around my school schedule that I was able to attend 80 or 85 percent of my classes. It’s funny because those contracts are always pages and pages long, but there was always a little paragraph about, “Danielle will be able to attend her finals, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on December 14,” or whatever. It was a priority and I did it, and I’m still shocked a little bit. It’s a feat, for sure.
ShockYa: You’ve done a number of horror films. Did that experience help in finding and keeping the right pitch in something as over-the-top as this movie?
DP: I think it’s just about being committed to the moment and being enthusiastic. If you think a piranha is about to eat you, you have to be scared and every other (appropriate) emotion. So you just commit to it, you can’t really wink at the camera or anything. Otherwise, the audience won’t be invested either. So for me at least, it’s just about committing and being present.
ShockYa: Had you seen “Piranha 3D” before shooting?
DP: I had not seen it before getting to North Carolina (where the movie shot). I did watch it with Matt (Bush) and Chris (Zylka) one night.
ShockYa: And what was your impression?
DP: I thought it was really funny. It had a good time making fun of itself. And that was the good thing about our movie — just from the title, you know what you’re making. It’s going to be about piranhas, and there are some scantily clothed women running around.
ShockYa: How was Wilmington, where you shot?
DP: I had a lot of fun. Being on the beach was great, and I made some great friends there. It was a good, positive experience.
ShockYa: And what were your impressions of (director) John Gulager, who’s kind of a shy and sensitive guy for the types of movies he often makes?
DP: I came aboard the film very quickly. They called me on a Friday, and Monday was the first day of shooting, so it was a quick process. I didn’t even get a chance to speak with John before I was on set. He’s very gentle on set, he really asks for a lot of feedback from actors in terms of whether it’s something that we think is a good idea, or is funny. So it’s a really interesting dynamic.
ShockYa: The movie unfolds at a water park, where everyone gets to have pretty much the worst experience of their lives. Since you moved around so much, did you have any water theme park experiences, horrible or otherwise?
DP: I lived in Texas when I was young, and there was a big water park was there. But I’m actually afraid of water, so I don’t know if I have any particular stories for you.
ShockYa: But you’re filming underwater in this!
DP: I know, there’s so much water filming in this. I will never forget the moment standing at the edge of this lake, it’s easy 2 o’clock in the morning and I’m in my underwear being asked to dive into this dark, scary, creepy, cold thing. I did not want to do it, I wanted to run and hide in my trailer. But that’s my job, and I had to do it. It was a challenge for sure. And then shooting at the water park — they had an unseasonably cool May last year, and unfortunately the water park was not equipped to heat the water, so there was a day where we were definitely teetering on the edge of hypothermia. There were definitely some traumatic experiences for me.
ShockYa: Did you all get nice cast and crew T-shirts with “Getting You Wet Since 1981” (the slogan for the water park in the movie)?
DP: (whispering, lowering her eyes) I stole one, actually. [laughs] They didn’t give them away! I feel like it’s maybe safe to say that now. Sorry, Mr. Weinstein.
ShockYa: For this sort of movie you don’t necessarily need research, and you mentioned that you came on so late, but was there any exploration [of either piranhas or] the idea that prehistoric creatures can still exist in the deepest oceans?
DP: I did a little bit of research about piranhas. This is sort of an alternate reality, obviously — the ones we’re dealing with are not exactly authentic, but I did at least want to be aware of what they actually were. And they’ll eat whatever you put in front of them, basically.
ShockYa: What do you enjoy in your free time, other than avoiding water?
DP: I enjoy music, but I don’t know that I’m necessarily knowledgeable about it. I’m a big foodie, and it’s so funny, somebody just brought me a cookie recipe book today, which I’m so excited about. I just bought my first home and I’m in the process of renovating that, so I’m a little domestic right now.
ShockYa: You mentioned you’ve been in LA. about 10 years, but having moved around so much (when you were younger) do you feel like it’s home for sure?
DP: Yes, it’s definitely home for me. I feel like I’m surrounded by people that I love and people who love me. My support group is here, and that’s really important.
NOTE: In addition to its theatrical engagements, “Piranha 3DD” is also available on demand.
Written by: Brent Simon