Former Disney teenage mainstay and resident genius on CW’s “The Flash,” Danielle Panabaker talks superheroes, fashion, and living by the golden rule.
Sitting in a spacious studio loft overlooking the Los Angeles skyline, it is easy to forget that the stunning young woman in front of us got her start as a teenager on the Disney channel. Now 28, Danielle Panabaker has established herself as a talented and multifaceted star in her own right, working on films such as “Friday the 13th,” “Yours, Mine & Ours,” and “Read It and Weep,” and landing series regular roles on hit television shows like “Shark” and the CW’s mega hit “The Flash.”
Fresh off the plane from Vancouver, where she moonlights as Dr. Caitlin Snow, S.T.A.R. Labs bioengineer and overall genius powerhouse on “The Flash,” Panabaker is happy to be back on her adopted home turf. “It is so nice to be in sunny L.A.!” she exclaims, having come directly from the airport to our shoot. As she walks in, she warmly greets her team with familiar hugs and questions about friends, family members, and other aspects of everyday life they miss during the months she spends on set in Canada. Panabaker clearly surrounds herself with people she would call friends before team members, something that surely eases the craziness of her busy schedule. Panabaker started her acting career at the age of 15, and her ease and professional composure certainly reflects that of someone who has spent nearly half her life in front of a camera. Based on the photo shoot for this story, we can only imagine her to be any director’s dream, effortlessly and flawlessly responding to creative direction.
Looking over her shoulder at the various looks she wore only moments ago, she muses, “I loved all the soft sweaters, but I think my favorite was the shorts and tuxedo-inspired top. I gravitate toward anything that is short,” she explains. “My style tends to be pretty classic, but I’m a fan of wearing whatever makes you feel good.”
Witnessing her ease in front of a camera, one would never guess that under the surface lies a more reserved young woman. Laughing at herself, she says, “I love photo shoots, but I hate being in front of the camera as myself! I’m actually quite shy.” Other actors and actresses often share this sentiment, so when asked how she is able to differentiate the two, she explains, “When I’m working, I always try to approach scenes and storylines from the perspective of my character. I try to take into account her personal history and how she would feel about different circumstances. I think being on set really helps get into character — the wardrobe, hair and make up, sets and other actors all contribute.” Considering her current status as a member of the DC Comics universe, one can readily appreciate how red spandex superhero suits and the George Jetson-style science gadgets could make getting into crime-fighting superhero mode an easier task.
Almost everyone loves a hero, but arguably the most striking aspect of our cultural gravitation towards superhero tales of bravery and sacrifice is the accessible humanity they all seem to possess. Our fascination is not with advanced CGI technology or cool costumes, but rather in the hope they give us that indeed heroes among us do exist. For a moment, in the midst of the chaos of an unpredictable and often incomprehensibly cruel world, superheroes give us the glimmer of possibility that humanity is not a lost cause. They show us an alternative to fear, give us something to believe in, and give us hope in people fighting against evil, the idea that people like us actually can make a difference. The true magic in most superhero tales lies in their choice not to wait for a hero, but rather to become one. Therefore, it’s no big surprise that when “The Flash” premiered on The CW last fall, it was the network’s highest-rated premiere since it debuted “The Vampire Diaries” in 2009.
Panabaker was not familiar with comic book culture prior to signing on to “The Flash,” so her full immersion in a world of meta-humans with superhuman powers has been the best education. What has her takeaway been? “I think most people can relate to the fantasy of having superpowers and how that would change their life. I love seeing a character like the Flash on TV as he tries to change the world and make it a better place each week.” This relatability has drawn fans to the show since day one, and Panabaker is overwhelmed by their passion and love for the series. “I have a sweet tooth, so I’ve received lots of sweets [like Tim Tams],” she shares, recalling some of her favorite fan encounters. “When I was visiting Paris, I received a very sweet book of letters from fans that meant a lot to me.”
Last year saw much discussion about roles for women in the entertainment industry, and there has never been a better time to champion feminine power on screen. “The Flash” has embraced this from the beginning, as its hero owes much of his crime-fighting success to his leading lady. “I’m so proud to play such an intelligent woman on television,” Panabaker gushes about her character’s credentials as an accomplished bioengineer. As fans of the show, we love seeing roles written for smart women, but we also love how Caitlin is perfectly balanced by her loyalty, grace, and care for those around her. It is easy to write one-dimensional characters filling certain mainstay stereotypes, but Panabaker’s character lies outside the confines of any one box. And ultimately, this better reflects humanity because we are rarely as uncomplicated as many characters are made out to be. As we continue discussing “The Flash,” the conversation turns toward her relationship with Caitlin, and after thinking a moment about their similarities, she replies, “I like to think we are both smart, driven women. I think we are both caretakers and worry about the people around us.” Given these similarities, it is easy to see why showrunners saw her as a good fit for the role. And in case you needed another reason to be a fan, we discovered that Panabaker graduated high school at 14 and graduated from UCLA with her bachelor of arts (and on the Dean’s List) at the age of 19. Pretty impressive at baseline, but then add in her full-time job as an actress at the time, and it’s hard to imagine how she does it.
Despite some obvious similarities, Panabaker does not shy away from admitting the challenges that inevitably accompany her character. She admits to “occasionally struggling with the scientific dialogue,” something she also describes as a fun challenge. With the advanced scientific elements of the show also comes some pretty amazing technology, and Panabaker is quick to recognize this as one of her favorite aspects of the series. “I feel grateful that I’ve been able to learn so much about special effects on our show. I’m fascinated by how technology is evolving to help us make a better program each week.”
Having done both television and film, Panabaker appreciates the difference between the two mediums. “I was fortunate enough to be on a TV show called ‘Shark’ before, which prepared me a little bit for the grueling schedule of shooting 23 episodes a year,” she explains. And yet her favorite part of working on “The Flash” is the people she gets to work with every day and the benefits of growing with a character over time. “I’m so grateful for all the different emotional places the writers have allowed me to explore. Some of the excitement in being part of a TV show is that there’s a constant evolution to your character — there’s no set beginning, middle, or end. I love being able to grow with Caitlin.” She adds how the fantastical elements of the show also allow her to explore her creativity and “push the envelope with [her] imagination” in a way she has not been able to before.
Staying power in any professional field relies on continuing to pursue growth and improvement; the moment we become static is the moment we become irrelevant, and Hollywood is no different. Panabaker’s career is a testament to this as she has transitioned through different roles and opportunities over time, but her sights are still set on more. As we begin to wrap up our discussion, the conversation turns toward her hopes and dreams for the future. Looking ahead to the rest of this year, she says, “Hopefully during my hiatus I can work on some different projects and continue to work with new and different people.” She also discusses her dream of eventually going behind the camera, adding producing to her list of hopes for the next five to ten years. But as far as the immediate future is concerned? “We have a two week break over the holidays, so I’d like to take advantage of that time.” She’ll be making headway on her 2016 new year’s resolutions, which include more travel and eating less dessert (“because I’m probably addicted to sugar” — something we have in common).
She ends with words that perfectly conclude our discussion on what it means to be an everyday hero: “A new year is a fresh start and a great reminder to always be your best self. I just try to take everything day by day and remember to treat others as I would want to be treated.”
Fans of the comics will know that Caitlin Snow has always been fated to become Killer Frost, her Earth 2 villainous alter ego. The first photos of Panabaker’s portrayal of Killer Frost were released earlier last fall, followed by the announcement of her villain debut upon the 2016 return of “The Flash.” Watch “The Flash” on the CW, Tuesdays at 8/7c.
Photography by Josefhaley and John Hong
Creative Direction by Jane Hong
Styling by Jessy Cain, The Wall Group
Make Up by Nicole Walmsley, The Wall Group using Giorgio Armani Beauty
Hair by Creighton Bowman, Tracey Mattingley
Written by Kathleen Rodgers