Hayden Panattiere stars in the Lifetime movie "Amanda Knox: Murder… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
When promoting a new film, most actresses sit prettily at media junkets and field a slew of inconsequential questions about how they got in shape for a role or how uncomfortable it was to be intimate with a costar.
Hayden Panettiere hasn't had it that easy. For the last month, the 21-year-old has been at the center of a firestorm of controversy over her decision to portray a convicted killer in the television movie "Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy," which airs Monday on Lifetime.
Knox is the 23-year-old Seattle-bred college student who was charged in December 2009 with the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, while studying abroad in 2007. The case became the subject of immense media attention due not only to Knox's seemingly all-American upbringing but also because of the lack of substantial evidence in the conviction of Knox and her former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito.
Knox is serving a 26-year sentence in an Italian prison but is appealing her conviction. A jury is slated to reconvene March 12 and will be tasked with reexamining some newly introduced forensic evidence.
But Knox's family and friends say the Lifetime film could prejudice the jury and they have "started legal proceedings in order to block the airing of the movie," according to one of Knox's Italian lawyers, Maria del Grosso. (As of press time, Lifetime said it still intended to air the film Monday evening.) "The damages to the image, reputation and privacy of Amanda Knox are incalculable," Del Grosso wrote in an e-mail. The "movie interferes with the proper course of the justice because it claims to be based on a true story, while there is not a 'truth' [that has been] procedurally established."
The role has put Panetierre under intense media scrutiny. "Hayden Panettiere surfaces for shopping trip oblivious to fury over Meredith Kercher murder movie," screamed the headline of an article in a British tabloid this month, which featured photographs of the actress smiling while walking out of a Burberry store.
Sitting in a Beverly Hills restaurant three days before the movie's debut, Panettiere certainly wasn't ignorant of the debate. But she wasn't shaken by it either.
"I've definitely gotten harsh questions, but then I talk about the fact that the movie is very fact-driven and classy," said Panettiere, who even with her short blond hair bore an eerie resemblance to Knox. "It's nothing that would incriminate her or sway a judge's opinion of her in a court of law. That's the main concern here."
Lifetime often features stories ripped from the headlines. Last year, a made-for-TV movie called "The Pregnancy Pact" about a group of teenagers in Gloucester, Mass., who supposedly plotted to have babies simultaneously became basic cable's most-watched film among women 18 to 34 since 1998.
In Panettiere's film, Knox is presented as innocent until numerous court scenes depict prosecutor Giuliano Mignini conjuring up his theories about Kercher's murder. Through Mignini's imagining of the events, the movie features flashbacks in which Knox is shown killing her roommate, engaging in promiscuous sexual behavior and smoking marijuana.
While many young actresses might avoid such a project, Panettiere said she literally screamed with joy when she was offered the part. Up to now, the former child actress has been best known for her role as a wide-eyed cheerleader on the late NBC drama "Heroes," and she said was eager to play a less clean-cut character.
Before heading to shoot the movie in Rome last fall, Panettiere watched hours of footage of Knox during court appearances and on YouTube.
"Lifetime was like, 'Don't say whether you think she is guilty or innocent.' But I couldn't even tell you, because I haven't decided. The approach I had to take was that even if she was guilty, she had convinced herself she was innocent," she said. "I had her voice recordings on my iPod and I'd listen to her intonations as close as I could. I wasn't sleeping during production because I was nervous."
Initially, Panettiere says she wanted to meet with Knox but was rebuffed. During the middle of production, she was told Knox had changed her mind about a sit-down, but due to timing, the actress says she was unable to make the meeting happen.
"We felt it wouldn't be fair to meet with her and not her parents, or Meredith's parents," she said.
But Tom Wright, who heads a campaign of Knox supporters called "Friends of Amanda" (www.friendsofamanda.org) and is close to her family, says, "From Amanda's point of view, it was, 'If you're gonna play me, talk to me,'" said Wright, whose children went to Seattle Preparatory School with Knox.
Knox's stepfather, Chris Mellas, has reportedly said that Amanda was so distressed when she saw the trailer for the Lifetime film on an Italian news program that she began hyperventilating and felt physically ill. (Calls to both Knox's mother, Edda, and Chris Mellas were not immediately returned.)