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Hayden Panettiere: Real Life ‘Hero’

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Hayden Panettiere talks to omg! - Alli Harvey/Getty Images North America

It's been over a year and a half since actress Hayden Panettiere was last on our TV screens as a cheerleader with superpowers Claire on the weekly series "Heroes," but she's still been busy trying to save the world. Hayden, 22, continues to crusade on behalf of dolphins and whales, Washington, D.C. statehood, and -- oh yes -- acting! She's headed back to the silver screen on October 14 with a limited release of her emotional new film, "Fireflies in the Garden," with Julia Roberts and Ryan Reynolds. It shows a family struggling through grief after an accident, with plenty of flashbacks featuring Hayden.

The "Scream 4" star chatted with omg! about her new film, her motivation for activism, and her feelings about the Amanda Knox verdict after playing the controversial young American in a made-for-TV movie earlier this year.

What made you want to do the film "Fireflies in the Garden"?

It obviously has an amazing cast, and the privilege to work with actors like that is just something that I couldn't pass up. It was also the first film that I had done since I'd been on "Heroes." It was in between the first season and the second season. And I really loved coupling a big show like "Heroes" with ... a very character-driven film.

You mentioned the stellar cast, which also includes Willem Dafoe, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Ioan Gruffudd. Did you get any advice from anybody on the set?

Advice between actors doesn't happen quite as often as you would think. Generally, the best advice and the biggest lessons you take away are silent ones, of just observing and having to rise to the level of these actors around you, and just surrounding yourself with people who make you want to be better.

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The star in action in

You've been very vocal about fighting for the protection of whales and dolphins. How did you get interested in the cause?

Well, I was on a film when I was 15. It was an independent film called "Shanghai Kiss," and the founder of the Whaleman Foundation, Jeff Pantukhoff, pulled me aside on the last day and said, "I know you're a fan of animals. Can I show you what I do?" He showed me footage of the dolphins and whales, and what was going on, and I said, "Absolutely, let me know what I can do."

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Hayden with her co-star Julia Roberts - Steve Granitz/WireImage.com

Just last month, you were honored for your activism on behalf of Washington, D.C., statehood when the mayor declared it Hayden Panettiere Day. How did you get involved with that issue?

When I turned 18, [it] was the first time that I really started concentrating on politics. And I started doing so because I realized that in order to really create and generate change, it has to come from changing laws ... so I started campaigning for Norman Lear's foundation, which was Declare Yourself.

I happened to be at American University in Washington, D.C., while President Obama was campaigning there. While I was there, I met Senator [Paul] Strauss, who's the shadow senator of D.C. ... and he kind of tried to push me aside, and [said] "I don't have a vote anyway." I inquired about that, and I was confused and curious.

What motivates you to be an activist?

I had great examples ... I think it's important, you know? A seed was planted in my head [when I was] very young. I started this when I was 15, and it was just because I was such a lover of animals, and I saw an animal in need. And then over time, and [through] spending time with these animals, and realizing how important our oceans are to us as humans, to our Earth.

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Hayden protests the treatment of whales - Brandon Todd/Splash News

You played Amanda Knox in a TV movie this year. What do you think about her murder conviction being overturned?

It's hard not to be happy to see a young girl have a second chance at life. And I'm not in any position to say whether she's guilty or innocent. It's a very complicated case. There were a lot of things that were done improperly. It's kind of mind-blowing. But I can say that she's been given a second chance at life, and I hope she makes the best out of it.

You've grown up in the public spotlight. Does that make it difficult to date now?

Of course, of course. In my case, you know, every time you're standing next to someone, you're automatically dating them. And the [tabloids] seem to think that they know exactly when a relationship started and ended, and exactly how it happened. Then you get criticized for it.

I used to deny a lot of it ... and be very protective of the relationship. And then I went through one that was very public, and I was very open about. You kind of learn what to do and what not to do, that it's only a stress on you if you really try to go out of your way to hide it. But it is your right to have certain things be private and personal.

(For the record, Hayden confirms she's currently dating New York Jets wide receiver Scotty McKnight, 23.)

What are you working on next?

I was supposed to go do a film recently, but that's been pushed to next year. It's called "Over the Wall" ... with Melissa Leo and Freddie Rodriguez. It's a pretty dark indie film, so hopefully we'll get that done next year. There are certain things that I'm also working on producing, one of them having to do with the whales and dolphins, and trying to figure out, as I say, how to get people to swallow the pill wrapped in bacon. The pill being the information, and the bacon making that information taste good.

Check out the trailer for Hayden's new film, which opens in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Austin, Texas, on October 14, before a planned nationwide roll out:

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