You might recognize Kay Panabaker, or you might have her mixed up with her sister Danielle. I think they look alike but they don’t like it when I say that. Kay costars with Juno Temple in the drama Little Birds, a Sundance pick now getting released. She plays Alison, the best friend of Lily (Temple), who run away from their trailer park together and fall in with some hoodlums in L.A. We got to speak with Kay Panabaker about writer/director Elgin James’ debut feature.
CraveOnline: How did you as an actor and in the character deal with the frustration of you can’t convince these boys to do the right thing, because they have no alternative to crime?
Kay Panabaker: Well, I come across this all the time where I don’t agree with people’s life choices and I try to explain my point of view, and there’s just some people that are set in their ways. I mean, there are some things that people try to convince me to do that I simply won’t, and so I could see it either way. But I know that Alison’s main goal in this entire movie and most of their relationship is be as supportive of Lily as you can. So even if she can’t talk sense to the boys and she can’t talk sense to Lily, she’ll at least be there in case anything happens.
Even if it’s criminal, it’s not like they have the option to go do good.
They could change. Our director is a tried and true testament of you can do bad for many, many years and then one day wake up and make a change and make it all better.
Were you always up for Alison or could it ever have been the Lily role?
No, no, no. First of all, Juno and Elgin had been working on this project for two years and Juno was always going to be Lily. Second of all, even when I read the script, everybody told me everybody wanted Lily and Juno’s so lucky. I was like I love Alison. I love the calm quiet [one]. I liked her because she knew who she was already, because I’ve always felt like I know who I am so I’m better able to portray that than the crazy not knowing. I don't think I could’ve ever pulled that off.
Wouldn’t that be acting?
It would be but I also think that you’re better off, at least for me, I’m better playing characters closer to who I am. It’s more truthful I think. Yeah, I guess I’ve never thought about it that way. I guess I could use it as more of a stress, but also I see it as there are so many young Hollywood in general who are people that are trying to portray themselves as more mature and trying to stretch themselves as actors and sometimes I think it can be pretentious. I’d rather do the roles that not everybody wants to do, that are not as dark and twisted and whatever.
That’s a good attitude, and you can do them better than the people who wouldn’t really care about those roles.
Exactly. I feel like a lot of people when given Alison would just play her dumb or I can’t say how other people would play it, but I loved her so I think it was easier to play her.
Did you have time in the development stage to develop a friendship with Juno?
It was while we were shooting. The way the shooting schedule had been set up, which had been set up for months, was that the first week of shooting was at the Salton Sea and it was just me and Juno shooting all day and then at night, we’d spend nights at each other’s hotel rooms and we’d stay up late watching bad movies and talking. So we built that friendship and we really felt it and then when we got back to LA, we were sleeping at our own places, the boys were thrown into the mix and so I think because we weren’t spending as much time together, you could see the friendship show on screen.
What were some of the bad movies you bonded over?
I don’t remember. They were like ‘80s or ‘90s action movies. I mean, we were in The Salton Sea. There weren’t that many channels to choose from.
Does a story like this make you grateful to live in LA and work in entertainment and have the opportunities for education that you had?
I think this one made me appreciate where I came from. I came from the suburbs of Chicago and Georgia and Texas. I’ve always loved the smaller towns, but I think that I’m very fortunate to be able to act and it’s what I love right now and it’s what I’m doing at the moment. It’s interesting to see it through their eyes though because they’re not as knowledgeable about the world.
Do your agents want you to do more studio backed projects, or are they happy to see you take a great acting opportunity in an indie?
They’re happy to see me doing things that I want to do, which I have to commend them for. There aren’t that many roles for my age for what I play in big studio movies. But they are supportive of anything that I am drawn to and there are lots of auditions that I’ll go in on. They’ll be like, “I’m going in on it but we all know either I’m not going to get it or we’re not thrilled about it” but it’s the nature of the business. You do movies that you’re not as passionate about or you don’t like as much and you just see what hits.
Did you get a chance to meet any of the real people living in the trailer locations?
We met a few of the locals. You see us when we’re driving down the street but you don’t really pan to any of the houses, but the houses were like shacks almost in some of the neighborhoods. They look almost put up with staples or something. Some of the families would come out and they’d talk to us and they were lovely people but it’s such a sad, desolate area but really beautiful in a twisted devastated way.
How was your Sundance experience?
Grueling. I was filming “No Ordinary Family” and they let me go. I think I was there for two days, three days or something. You wake up early, you talk to people all day, you do screenings at night. We had one party, the after party after our screening that I went to that was fun, but it’s long hours, it’s cold and you’re getting shuttled around. What bothered me is that there were people there who weren’t tied to any films and weren’t going to see movies. They just wanted the party atmosphere and they wanted to mingle and schmooze. I was like this isn’t the time of the place for that, but I guess it is for some people.
I’m with you. I don’t think I even go to parties at Sundance because there are so many films I want to see.
Exactly. We didn’t even get the chance to see any other movies because we had to do interviews all day.
And some people send you an invite, “Our after party starts at 2AM” after their midnight screening.
I’m like, “Nooo, I’m not going to that.”
A couple of our costars the next day were looking a little bit worse for wear and I can’t. I left our after party early and I left at 3AM and I had to get up at 7. If you stayed out later than that, God bless you for that.
Who was still staying?
If they’re uncomfortable about it, I don’t want to [bust them.]
I noticed your first listed credit is a voice in Monsters, Inc.?
Yes, I was just talking about this.
Is that true? What was it?
It was lots of screams and laughters but one of the things I remember is you know how Mike and Sully are walking to work at the beginning of the film? They walk past a group of kid monsters jumping rope with one of the monster’s tongue. They’ve got this little ditty, nursery rhyme, something to do with monsters and I had to sing that.
What would be your dream role?
I want to do a period piece. I don’t care what period. Don’t care. Could be this century, 20 centuries, I just want to do something.
Why is that?
Because I was a history major at UCLA. I love history. It’s fascinating to me and I just love it.
Any type of costume?
Yep, doesn’t matter.
British Jane Austen corset drama, the American west or Revolutionary period?
Nope, doesn’t matter to me because we were talking about production value and whenever you’re put into the costume with the set dressing and everything, it transports you automatically. So it doesn’t matter which time period.
How was your “No Ordinary Family” experience?
I enjoyed it although I will say that it was one of those projects that it seemed like a lot of people were there for the paycheck, so there wasn’t a lot of camaraderie on set like I thought we were going to have. It was definitely interesting. I wish I could have done more stunts.
Was there a point during the season that you knew that was it?
I got a feeling after we got back from Christmas break because we got two of our episodes cut. There were a lot of signs on that show. We never became an oiled machine. The first, and I think the only other series I ever really worked on was “Summerland” and that one from day one, well oiled machine, everybody got along, it was great. So I was expecting my next show will be just like that and then it wasn’t so much. It was kind of sad.
Was it even the leads?
We always had new crew. Our crews never stuck around. We went through six DPs. It just never functioned well. It was kind of sad.