Vanessa Hudgens leaves behind her High School Musical image and turns in a stunning and transformative performance in writer/director Ronald Krauss’ drama, Gimme Shelter, based on the courageous, true-life story of Agnes “Apple” Bailey (Hudgens). A pregnant, homeless teenager forced to flee her abusive mother (Rosario Dawson) and estranged from her Wall Street father (Brendan Fraser), Apple finds herself on a desperate and isolated journey of survival until she finds a true family at a homeless shelter. Opening January 24th, the inspiring film also stars James Earl Jones, Stephanie Szostak, Emily Meade and Ann Dowd.
At the film’s recent press day, Hudgens spoke about going outside of her comfort zone and tackling more diverse dramatic roles in Spring Breakers, Frozen Ground and now Gimme Shelter, why playing a strong female character appealed to her, how Charlize Theron’s performance in Monster inspired her, her preparation for the role, the emotional depths she explored to play Apple, how it contributed to her personal growth, why she believes the story is so relevant today, why she’s drawn to movies based on real life stories, and her role in the upcoming horror-comedy monster mash-up, The Kitchen Sink. Hit the jump to read the interview.
QUESTION: You were so phenomenal in Frozen Ground. Then I saw Spring Breakers, which went in a totally different direction, and now this. You have proven yourself beyond a doubt as a strong dramatic actress.
VANESSA HUDGENS: Thank you so much.
You went in, you cut off your hair, you messed yourself up, you gained weight, you transformed, you lived with these girls. What is it about this role that compelled you to do that?
HUDGENS: I think above all, first and foremost, was that this character was the strongest person I have ever read about and there’s nothing more attractive on a female than being a strong woman. That really pulled me in. I knew that it would take a transformation, and I’ve always been so fascinated with that ever since I saw Charlize Theron in Monster. It’s just kind of the dream. I think that you dream of having that opportunity but it rarely ever comes around. Ron (director Ronald Krauss) took a chance on me. He took a leap of faith and trusted me with this character, and I think he really felt that together we could accomplish anything. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him by my side.
How much trepidation did you have in terms of the emotional depths that you had to achieve as Apple?
HUDGENS: It was a lot, obviously, but it was something that I was willing to just dive into because I was so passionate about the character and the project. I mean, this was my one shot and you’ve got to give it your all even if it’s painful. But that’s what actors do. They run into pain when others run away from it. I really just allowed myself to feel. At the same time, Apple is so good at running away and staying on the move, or running in towards something. She’s just constantly moving and I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t realize they’re good at. It’s hard to actually sit and to feel emotions. It’s easy to be distracted. I welcomed the pain that I had to put myself through.
What made Gimme Shelter the story that you really wanted to tell? Why did you want to share this with audiences?
HUDGENS: Because it’s very relevant to what’s going on around us. I think that it’s easy to block it out because it’s uncomfortable and it’s something that we don’t want to discuss. But the fact is it is happening all around us. Young people are becoming homeless and they don’t have anywhere to go — young mothers who have no support and no love and no place to call their own and just so much abuse and homelessness. It’s all so relevant and it’s all happening around us way more than we’d like to allow ourselves to see and this just opens you up to that. It really allows you to see that world and build compassion. Honestly, the movie makes you grow as a person because it brings all that up, and it allows you to really feel, and by doing so, it brings healing. It also shows that sometimes our darkest, deepest moments that we feel we can never get out of are sometimes the moments that we’re meant to have. And then, once you get past that, you find hope. That’s really important to remind people, so that sometimes when they’re going through those things they know that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.
Can you talk about how James Earl Jones’ character contributed to the storytelling process?
HUDGENS: I’m lying in a hospital bed, and I have this man who has such an authority in his voice and in his presence, and that’s something that my character didn’t want to hear. She wanted to sit inside of her pain and just revel in it, but with his strength and through the power of the word of God, he got her out of that.
What are you looking for at this stage of your career?
HUDGENS: Variety. That’s what it’s always been though. I love mixing it up and pushing myself outside of my comfort zone because that’s how you grow. And then your comfort zone is that much bigger, and then you keep pushing yourself more and more from there.
So where do you go from this comfort zone?
HUDGENS: Well, I mean genres and situations. I’ve said before that I haven’t really been able to do fantasy, but I did Sucker Punch which is kind of a fantasy. There are so many different things to play, and I live a life where I love seeing all the different aspects of life and storytelling and fantasies and thrills. There’s so much. The possibilities are limitless. Until the day I die, I know that I won’t be able to do enough.
Your character in Frozen Ground was based on a real person and a true story, and Apple is a compilation of several real girls and her story is based on true circumstances. Do you find these roles that are rooted in reality more appealing to you?
HUDGENS: For sure. I think that it’s more appealing to humanity in general, because if you’re going to go into a movie and spend $12, you either want to get away and have it be so far from reality like Twilight or something like that, or you want to find healing. You want to have compassion and you want to be able to grow. These true stories allow you to connect with other people. Even though it is still on the screen, it allows you to feel certain things that maybe you’ve never felt before. And the fact that it’s based in reality, you know that these emotions are very real and they’re relevant. I think it’s really healing to see movies that are based on true stories. It builds so much more compassion and empathy.
It’s admirable that you’re taking on all these roles. How have each of them in their ways changed you or showed you something new?
HUDGENS: Recently, all the roles that I’ve done have just showed me that I’m willing to go the extra mile and actually put the work in. It showed me that I’m very dedicated to what I do, which is nice to remind myself of. It made me grow so much in that I’ve been able to look firsthand at what’s going on in the world around me. I feel like I’ve lived a pretty sheltered life growing up and then was in the industry when I was very young. So, certain aspects of these girls’ lives that I’ve been playing I’ve never really witnessed. The more I know, the more I’m a fuller person. It just made me grow for sure.
HUDGENS: It was amazing. I’m so grateful I had the time to go and stay there because it really allowed their stories to become reality rather than just a story. They really opened up to me and they shared their story with me. I just got to witness firsthand how strong these young women are. It’s crazy though. In the beginning, it was a complete shock. I had never been around girls that young who are pregnant, but it was interesting because I really got to look into their lives and see that they are still just girls, and they have the same needs that any other 16-year-old would have. But due to their situation, it’s easy for people to judge and I hate that. It was nice to be able to see the humanity and the love that these girls have and just the struggle that they’ve gone through.
Kathy DiFiore, who founded Several Sources Shelters, a network of resources devoted to helping women in need, has very strict rules in her shelters. Did you have a cell phone or any outside contact while you were there?
HUDGENS: I definitely broke the “no cell phone” rule and on my first day, too. (Laughs)
HUDGENS: Not a lot. Just in the beginning. Being in this environment was such a shock to begin with and just knowing that I was going to completely disassociate myself from the life that I’m used to was terrifying. It was really scary for me to be out there on my own. I didn’t have any family with me. It really made me get into that mindset and be able to just become one of the girls and in their same circumstance. But yeah, I called my mom and I asked, “Why am I doing this?” And then, after I got over the initial shock and got out of the way of myself, I just dived in and it was amazing. I would work on my script at the shelter, and if I had any questions, I would go to the girls and ask them what they thought. But for the most part, I just tried to be one of them. I tried to like the same things that they liked and just become a little 16-year-old girl who stayed at a shelter with a baby.
How long were you in the shelter?
HUDGENS: I was there for about two weeks before we started filming, maybe a little longer.
What’s next that you’re excited for audiences to see?
HUDGENS: I did a movie called The Kitchen Sink that will be out in October. It’s the first comedy I’ve done, which was a lot of fun because I got to prove to myself that I was kind of funny. That’s a movie that’s set in a time where vampires, zombies and humans live together as harmoniously as they can and an odd group band together to survive their situation. And so, it’s a fun one. It’s completely different. She’s definitely way prettier than Apple.
Are you human, vampire or alien?
HUDGENS: (Laughs) You’ll see.