Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
May 17, 2012

A follow-up to the 2010 reboot Piranha 3D, Piranha 3DD embraces all of the outrageous carnage and lascivious mayhem that its suggestive title would imply. In the wake of the events established by its predecessor that decimated scores of spring breakers to scraps of chum in the lake, the latest chapter of the franchise finds its aquatic antagonists--prehistoric, carnivorous piranha that have evolved into the perfect killing machines--making their way to an adult-themed water park co-owned by sleazy businessman Chet (David Koechner) and his stepdaughter Maddy (Danielle Panabaker), an upstanding citizen and biologist-in-training who takes exception to his under-the-table practices. The horror comedy also features Matt Bush, Chris Zylka, Katrina Bowden, and Meagan Tandy; returning veterans Christopher Lloyd, Ving Rhames, and Paul Scheer; and David Hasselhoff and Gary Busey in cameo appearances.

In this exclusive interview, Danielle Panabaker talks about working on Piranha 3DD, conjures up her own fantasy amusement park, offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of her guest appearances on TV's Grimm and Bones, and previews her role in the indie drama Girls Against Boys. While tentative film projects Deconstruction Red and Renaissance Girl unfortunately remain in pre-production limbo (Danielle describes the latter as a "delightful little comedy that I've been attached to for...oh, five years?"), she is hopeful that writer/director Austin Chick's Girls Against Boys will find an audience after its debut on the festival circuit. So what was your initial reaction when you first heard the title "Piranha 3DD"?

DANIELLE: I just wanted to read the script--you know, wanted to see what it was about. And my favorite part in the script, like 30 pages in, was when they start laughing at themselves. Like, "Yes, Ving Rhames and Paul Scheer are back. You thought they were dead, but no, we didn't see them die, so they're back." So the movie knew what it was, and I thought that was fun. And they already had great, really funny people attached. David was already attached, Gary Busey, I think, was already shooting. I was familiar with Matt Bush's work from Glory Daze. So it sounded like a lot of fun, and getting to play with some really talented, funny people.

I enjoyed the fact that your character Maddy is co-owner of the water park, rather than just "the girlfriend"...

Yeah, it's so nice not to be a girlfriend or a daughter or something like that...

Did you see her as a business-minded person, or someone who is just thrown into this situation?

She's studying to be a marine biologist, so she's smart. And this water park means a lot to her, so she's invested in it. And she wants to see the best for it, maybe less from a business perspective and more from a nostalgic perspective. So she really wants the best for the water park, and is in school and studying to better herself. So I sort of took it from that point of view.

If you had the opportunity to run your own amusement park, what theme would you go with? What sort of world would you create for the masses?

You know, I would go back to something like a Disneyland or a Disney World--something fun, family oriented, with a little bit for everyone. I'm reading a book called DisneyWar about the idea that Disneyland is a perfect environment where everything is clean and everyone is happy. I know it's a completely false world, but as an escape, which I think amusement parks tend to be, I think I would do something like that.

What are some of your favorite rides or attractions?

The Haunted Mansion, for sure! If I were creating this hypothetical amusement park, I'd have to put a Tower of Terror for my sister, or something like that. Captain Eo, of course...Oh my gosh, and the Muppets in 3D? That would be the fun part for me.

I assume that with a movie like this, it's made pretty clear that you're going to be spending a lot of time dealing with water...


No? [laughs]

I am afraid of water--since childhood, have been afraid of water. And it literally was my first day on set, and I'm standing there in my underwear at the edge of this giant, dark, dirty lake having a panic attack, because I can't believe I have agreed to do six weeks of a movie that is based around water, and that I am going to be spending a lot of time in water in the near future. [laughs] So no, no one mentioned that to me prior to getting on a plane. [laughs]

So in what ways does the water aspect add to the challenge of doing your job? Because it seems hard enough to be prepared, know your lines, and hit your marks, but then on top of that, you have the added element of being thrown into a lake...

It is much more physically exhausting--you know, thrown into a lake where it's cold and your body is trying to adjust to the temperature, and where you're kicking to support yourself. And swimming is a very aerobic activity. And then throw in the fact that it's 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. and your body thinks it should be asleep anyway. It can be a very difficult experience, for sure. [jokes] And the mental terror going on in my own head didn't help.

Given all the horror films you've become accustomed to doing, is it harder to keep a straight face or be serious in moments of terror?

I think it's about being true to the story and being committed to telling the story, and being present in that moment. And if piranha are jumping out of the water at me, I'm going to smash the sh*t out of them with a rock--whatever I can get my hands on. So I think that's my job, to take it seriously.

Did you get to train or learn any new skill for this movie?

I learned how to breathe off a respirator. They gave Matt and I SCUBA lessons. For the finale of the film, we needed to be able to stay underwater for longer than we could hold our breath. So [we] learned all the signals and how to breathe off of it and to clear it, which was great. I should have gotten certified! I should've just bitten the bullet and did it.

Have you gotten to learn something new for any other roles recently?

I think every film asks you to learn something new. Have you seen Girls Against Boys?...It just premiered at South by Southwest. I got to learn how to be a bartender for that, which I loved! I told my friends that if this whole acting thing doesn't work out, I'm going to be a bartender because I loved it--I loved every minute of it. And if I actually had to be a bartender and deal with drunk people, I think I'd do all right. I'm intrigued by this profession, immensely.

What would be the most apt thing for a restaurant to name after you: a sandwich, a drink, or a dessert?

[without missing a beat] Dessert.

So if I order the Danielle Panabaker, what would they bring me?

It would probably be like a brownie with peanut butter, ice cream on the side, maybe a cherry on top.

Nice! [laughs] Can you fill us in on what Girls Against Boys is about, and how your character fits in?

Sure! It's a coming-of-age story about a young woman who is a student in New York, and she has a bad thing happen to her...She's raped. And the story is sort of her coming to terms with it and coping with it, and how she gets on with her life after that. It's really cool, it's a little indie. Austin Chick wrote and directed it, and I have the utmost respect for him, and I am so proud of that film. I'm really excited.

I just caught your appearance on Grimm recently...

Thank you! That was a different character...!

A fire-breathing creature that morphs into a seductive fire dancer? Yes, it was.

It was really cool...I got to learn how to fire dance for that a little bit. And [filming the movements for] the morphing was an insane challenge because that's not something that they teach in acting class. Like one head movement is too big, one head movement is too small...That was a real challenge. But I did get to learn to fire dance, which was cool. I had some nasty bruises on my legs from [the equipment I was spinning], they're called poi, and I just was practicing with little sandbags. And I definitely [would] whack myself in the leg, or the head.

How long did it take for you to learn that?

Oh my gosh, I did not have enough time with it at all. I flew in on Monday, I worked with her for a couple hours that afternoon, we worked almost all day Tuesday. I was in and out of fittings, but we probably spent six hours. And then I think we shot it on Wednesday. It was crazy fast.

That's cool that you were able to pick it up that quickly. It looked good.

Oh, thank you!

A lot of your fans take issue with the fact that you die in so many of your movies...


Do you have a favorite movie death so far?

I've had some cool deaths. The Crazies is a pretty cool death--like it's so sudden, and no one wants to see her go, and it's terribly sad when she's left there hanging. That one's a great death. I actually think The Ward is a great death. It was a bit of a challenge to shoot, but it's a classic horror, bloody, dramatic death.

And you see it coming slowly as it builds up...

Oh, it's the worst! Like that's the worst kind of suspense for me.

I felt bad for your Friday the 13th character Jenna, because she was one of only two characters in the entire movie not totally asking for it. And on top of that, she gets it because she's too nice and selfless.

[sighs] I know. But that's kind of great! I love that people are talking...That's what people always say to me, is that they were so sad when Jason got Jenna. And that's great, because it means people were invested and really wanted to see her make it through.

What else should we be looking for you to be in after Piranha 3DD?

Girls Against Boys, for sure. I'm really excited about that. And then on top of that, hopefully Grimm comes back around and I get to terrorize Nick a little bit more. [laughs] And then I've got an episode of Bones that'll be coming up in the near future, next season. And I'm really excited about that.

More skills acquired for that one?

They taught me how to properly look like I'm shooting a gun. [coyly] How about that?

That's badass.

Yeah, she's a badass character. She's a great character. She just gives Sweets sh*t the whole time. It was really fun.

Awesome. Well, thanks for your time this afternoon, I appreciate it!

My pleasure!

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