It’s hard to imagine actors being ‘real’ people. We know they’re real, but still have a hard time separating them from the characters they play. After chatting on the phone with Fame’s Kay Panabaker, the 19-year-old actress seemed as real as any friend I’ve had for years. Right off the bat I could tell I was talking to someone who’s goal oriented but completely down to earth.
Kay is best known for starring in the Disney Channel movies Life is Ruff with Kyle Massey and Read It and Weep with her sister, Friday the 13th’s Danielle Panabaker, but it’s time for her to grow up and break into Hollywood as a young actress. She may look much younger than she actually is, but has the aptitude and maturity of someone far beyond her years.
How’d you get your part in Fame?
My story’s actually one of the quicker ones from everybody else. I went in early June, had a meeting with Kevin [Tancharoen] the director and one of the producers and I almost didn’t go in on it simply because my character has to sing, they age from 14 to 18 and I look like I’m about 12. But I went and I was like, you know what, it’ll be a good meeting, maybe they’ll cast me for something later on down the road. About a month later I got the call and they’re like ‘Hey! They want to offer you the role and they want to make you the first person to cast and they’ll cast everyone else around you since you look so young, they’ll cast other people that look young’ and I was like ‘Oh, you guys are crazy. You’ve clearly called the wrong person.’ But apparently they liked me, so I jumped into my A-game and started studying the script and studying the original film just to get an idea of what I wanted to do and really make it the best job I could.
Your character is a singer?
No, no, no, she’s an actress but she does a little bit of singing just to gain confidence.
It seems like it was probably a real fun set to work on with such a big young ensemble cast. Did you have a good time?
Yeah, it was so much fun. Given that it was such a big film both in the 80s and now, we really wanted to work really hard to make it such a good film but since we worked so hard I think we also kind of let ourselves play hard. Like, on the weekends we would hang out, we’d go bowling, we’d go out to dinner, just get to know each other because the strong point of this film is these characters have created such great friendships and relationships that we needed to build them offset as well as onset so that it would just be more believable.
What was it like working the veterans like Kelsey Grammer, Bebe Neuwirth and Charles S. Dutton?
They were all really great. They were very open about history - they were very open about their history. It was just nice that we could ask them questions and they were nice about it and would give us their ideas and, you know, their life story I guess.
Did Debbie Allen have a lot of advice to give being a cast member of the original film?
Yeah, she was barely on set just cause she didn’t have very many scenes but she was very nice and very truthful and honest. It was great to work with her.
How does this version compare to the original film?
It still has the same heart and the same message that everybody loves from the original but I think that this film, it’s a little bit different because the idea of Fame has changed. You now have, you know, American Idol, YouTube, So You Think You Can Dance and all these other ways where you can gain instant fame and instant success but you may not necessarily work hard for it and our film is all about being the opposite of that and working hard and getting to do what you love simply because you love doing it, not because of any end result that you’re expecting.
You’re one of many actresses making the transition from Disney Channel fame to a more mature acting career. Is there a lot of pressure to make that jump?
Always. I mean, it’s one of the hardest transitions and not a lot of people can do it successfully and still have a long-term career. My whole thing is that often times when teenagers about 18, 19, 20, 21, they get this mentality that they have to be old, they have to appear older, they can no longer be seen as a high schooler, they need to be seen as mid-20s all of a sudden even though they’re only like 20. I’m the opposite of that. I look younger, I feel younger, I’m in no rush to grow up or seem older to people. So, for me I think it might be a little easier. I could be playing high school until I’m like 30 or something, at the rate I’m growing.
You’re talking to a 22-year-old who still gets mistaken for a 16-year-old so I know how you feel.
It’s true! I got carded. I went to go see Final Destination which you have to be 17 and over to see and there like ‘Uh, we need to see your I.D.’ Here’s the really funny thing is that I actually had done my hair and makeup that day. If I don’t do my hair and makeup I can understand it but I had actually made an effort to look older.
Your sister [Danille Panabaker] was just in a horror movie [Friday the 13th]. Did you see that?
I did. I almost didn’t. I have a really hard time watching my sister act in anything but especially anything where it’s a strong emotion. Whether she’s crying or she’s angry or she’s – whatever emotion she’s feeling I actually think that she’s feeling it and I want to hug her and make it all better. So I almost didn’t go see it but, you know, I went in support of my sister and I thought that she did a really nice job and I liked the movie too.
Do you two have any plans to work together?
We do have plans to work together at some point. Not official plans. Working on Disney Channel was a lot of fun but I think we’ll want to do something a little bit more dramatic whenever the opportunity presents itself.
You both graduated college at very young ages. Are you just naturals when it comes to academics?
I think we’re equipped with brains that can think for ourselves but I think that we’re just both so ambitious and wanted to get it over with so that we had it in our back pockets and then could focus on acting and everything with a clear conscience.
If you weren’t an actress would you be using that B.A. in history?
Yeah! My whole thing is I want to have a backup plan because maybe I won’t get another acting job after Fame, maybe I’ll want to give up on acting in five years or whatever and I want to have something else that I enjoy just as much as I enjoy acting. So I’d either use the history degree to become a teacher, like an elementary school teacher, or I’d go back to school and get a psychology or animal training degree because I’d love to work with animals.
Do you have any pets?
I had some fish. I moved out of the house and I’m not allowed to have mammals. I had some fish but with all the travel they are no longer with us.
What about a Chinatown turtle? You know, those mini ones they sell on the street in New York City?
I thought about that! Turtles are like – I want a little hamster, a little bunny rabbit or something.
So, you’re 19; what do you do for fun?
I do lots and lots of arts and crafts. I’m not a very creative person. Like I can’t paint, I can’t draw. I do paint-by-number. You know, you go to Michael’s the arts and crafts store and you buy a paint-by-number for like three dollars and then you create this masterpiece and it’s like ‘Ooh, look what Kay did!’ And it’s like, yeah, I kind of cheated. I make jewelry, like rings, earrings, necklaces, bracelets. I go to the movies, I hang out with friends and my sister and my boyfriend and all that other fun stuff.