Heading to an early morning interview with GIMME SHELTER star Vanessa Hudgens on the coldest day in Chicago's recorded history might not have been the smartest thing I've ever done, in retrospect. But somewhere in the back of my head, I kept thinking about an interview I was supposed to do with her about a year ago at SXSW for SPRING BREAKERS (she ended up getting sick and not making it to Austin at all last year), and how desperately I wanted to grill her about working on that film. So before even seeing GIMME SHELTER, I knew I'd want to do the interview, if only to unload a few of my unused SPRING BREAKERS queries.
In the year between the two films being released, I also caught Hudgens do a fun cameo as a Mexican gangster's daugher in MACHETE KILLS and play a cracked-out stripper in THE FROZEN GROUND, co-starring Nicolas Cage and John Cusack. So clearly her Disney HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL days are behind her. But as she was quick to remind me, her first appearance in a feature film was the controversial Catherine Harwicke film THIRTEEN, and she played an inmate in an insane asylum in SUCKER PUNCH for writer-director Zack Snyder.
In fact, it was the films that seemed aimed at her younger fans that did her the least justice as an actor, works such as BEASTLY and JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. But the good news is, she's gotten to the point where taken chances seems to have paid off for her, at least in terms of the chance to expand what casting directors might consider her for, such as the upcoming horror-comedy KITCHEN SINK from director Rob (NATURAL SELECTION) Pickering and starring a cast of comic actors that is slightly too good to be true (check out the cast list if you don't believe me).
Still, as excited as I was to talk a bit about SPRING BREAKERS with Hudgens, GIMME SHLETER offers a great deal of food for thought and conversation. In it, an almost unrecognizable Hudgens plays a homeless, pregnant teen named Apple, who escapes her nasty mother (an equally unrecognizable Rosario Dawson) to try and find refuge with a stock broker father she's never known (Brendan Fraser), who doesn't exactly make her feel welcome. As a result, she ends up at a shelter for pregnant teens run by Kathy DiFiore (Ann Dowd), a real-life angel of mercy for New Jersey girls in need. With that stability, Apple and her baby have a fighting chance. It's by far the greatest acting challenge in Hudgens' career, and she pulls it off quite beautifully. Yeah, there was a great deal to talk about and not a lot of time to do so. So please enjoy my chat with Vanessa Hudgens…
Capone: Hello. How are you?
Vanessa Hudgens: Good. Nice to meet you.
Capone: I know the movies you've made lately have been coming out a bit out of order [GIMME SHELTER was shot long before SPRING BREAKERS], but gave you been making a conscious effort to, not distance yourself, but do something completely different than maybe what you're best known for and separating yourself from the Disney background?
VH: It’s funny, because people think I started with Disney, but the first movie I did was called THIRTEEN by Catherine Hardwicke.
Capone: Oh, I remember that, sure.
VH: So if anything, this is the closest thing I’ve done to it since then.
Capone: So you're returning to your roots?
VH: [laughs] Yes and no. I’ve always done what I’ve been attracted to. I’ve listened to my gut. If something seems like I can tackle it and it would be a new adventure for me, then I go for it no matter what it may be.
Capone: What was it about this role in particular that you read in the script and said, “Oh yeah, I can latch on to this part of Apple.”
VH: There were several things. I loved the fact that it was based on a true story. I always find that when it has truth behind it, it just really hits home with anything because your sympathy goes out to that person, and you know those things have actually happened before. So it brings a whole new level of connectedness to the material, I think. Also, the transformation aspect of it I loved. I’ve always considered myself a chameleon, and when I really get to push the boundaries of myself, that’s when I feel the real fun comes out.
Capone: If by chameleon you mean completely unrecognizable, in this film in particular. I remember some pictures of you in character came out early on with the short hair and the baggy clothes. Is fear something that drives you to take on certain roles?
VH: Totally, I think fear is an amazing compass to have. It’s an amazing driving force, and you dive into things when you feel safe, and I think that Ron, my director, made me feel so safe in this project. We really had a deep connection and understanding for the character and together we built Apple. So I didn’t do it on my own. I was just kinda this vessel that was telling the story.
Capone: When you talk about fear guiding you sometimes, do you find yourself saying, “I’m not sure I can do this, therefore I should try to do it.”
VH: Exactly. Yeah, that’s totally what it is. Just pushing your limits and taking yourself to the ends of your boundaries and breaking down walls.
Capone: The character of Kathy is a real person, but Apple is a composite. Tell me about that process of building her personality and her look and just everything that went into making her.
VH: Ron originally came to me with an image that he had himself created of me with a neck tattoo and piercings all over the place and cornrows, and then we later decided that that was too manicured and we wanted it to be even grimier, and he asked me to put on some weight, which I didn’t mind because it’s a fun process [laughs]. And I feel like once we locked in the physical look of the character things fell into place. And I spent a couple of weeks at the shelter before I started filming, and the girl who a lot of the events in Apple's life are based off of, those things really happened to her--things with her mother. So I got to sit down with her and talk to her about her past and how the events made her feel and really just get into her mind, and that really just set the pace. I’d be there talking to her, reading my script constantly, and be in this environment, and it just became very rea. It wasn’t play time anymore. It was just life.
Capone: What’s great about the structure of film is that it’s really about Kathy but you come in through the side door to get to that point. There is a moment of realization where you’re like, “Oh wait a minute, this is about what this woman does for all these girls, but we come at it from the story of this one girl.”
VH: It's a great perspective.
Capone: Tell me about meeting Kathy that first time, and what do you remember about living with her for those weeks?
VH: She’s a woman of commitment and hospitality, that’s for sure. She’s very welcoming right off the bat. She gave me my own room in the attic, which was actually a really great room, so I was grateful for that. But I wasn't used to the environment and I think that’s the thing that shocked me the most. The kids running around and these young, young moms, and because of her faith, she had religious pictures all over the place, which in the beginning was a little unsettling to me. It was an odd environment, so I feel like when you don't feel fully comfortable, you’re not going to be looking outwards and experiencing what others have to give to you. You’re more focused on yourself. So my first impressions of her feel tinted because I was so freaked out myself. But then once I started to settle into my environment, she would take me aside and talk to me and want me to have faith and to know that God had a strong hold on this project. It’s been a journey, to say the least.
Capone: Tat is another strange thing that happens once that character comes in. There’s this priest in the film, but you don’t really get an overwhelming sense of religion from his presence. You don’t get that until you move into the shelter, and then it’s Jesus pictures and crosses everywhere. Still, there’s no religious agenda here.
VH: Yeah, exactly. It’s not meant to be forceful or anything like that. It’s simply her stating her faith, and it’s unapologetic and it’s beautiful.
Capone: I’ve got to admit that seeing Rosario Dawson in this movie is going to give me nightmares for the rest of my life. Tell me about working with her, because there is some really nasty stuff going on between you two in this movie, and she scared me quite a bit.
VH: All I can say about her is she is one of the most strong, smart, beautiful women I have ever met. She just constantly surprises me, honestly, with her work, with her passions, with her commitment to everything that she touches. We have the same manager, and so he came to set one day and was asking himself, “What did I do to my girls?”
Capone: I'll admit, I didn’t recognize her in the beginning.
VH: Yeah, you don’t. But she was such a trooper. She was eating up this stuff, this gunk, that she had on her teeth everyday [making Dawson's teeth appear yellow and rotting]. So at lunch she opted to not eat over eating the stuff that’s on her teeth because with every bite it would go down the hatch. She just constantly surprises me.
Capone: Apple i a character that has such a low self esteem and no sense of her own value in the world. How do you put yourself in that head space, and still go home at the end of the day not just feeling like you want to run your car off a cliff?
VH: [laughs] Circumstances are everything. As an actor, I feel that you’ve got to be good at imagining things. So you just imagine it, and you’re there and you look at why we are the way that we are, and it’s always our past, it’s always our childhood. So I found myself imagining what it would be like without a dad or having a mom who’s abusive. Just being in the shelter and trying to wrap my head around that and trying to put myself physically in that place and wouldn’t give myself a voice and wouldn’t give myself the space to take up. Just changing my circumstances completely, which is why being in the shelter helped so much. But, because it was for a project that I was extremely passionate about, it was thrilling to me. It was fun. Even though it was dark and even though it was heavy, I knew that we were creating something, and creating something is the most thrilling thing to be able to do.
Capone: Did it help that knowing at the end of the film there was a hopeful message, if not a flat-out happy ending? Did that help you get through the darker scenes?
VH: Yeah, I’ve personally always known in my consciousness that through the dark there is a light at the end of it, and it’s always helped me out, and I’ve always had that there so I’ve been very blessed for that. But even when we finished, and I knew that there was a light, the darkness still hung onto me, and it took me a while to find myself again. But after a month of really working hard on Vanessa time [laughs], I reappeared and now I have this brilliant piece of art and human nature and connection to share with the world. So, it’s all worth it.
Capone: I’ve got to ask you about KITCHEN SINK because I was a huge fan of NATURAL SELECTION, and what Rachel Harris did in that movie just floored me. But this is very different than that; there’s an incredible cast, mostly comic actors.
VH: Yeah, it’s a comedy.
Capone: What can you tell me about that?
VH: Man, it’s amazing. It was the first comedy I'd ever done, and I had the most amazing time.
Capone: Some people might disagree with you about it being your first comedy. SPRING BREAKERS is one of the funniest things I saw last year, despite all of the really intense stuff.
VH: SPRING BREAKERS was written to be whatever Harmony had planned. But I feel a lot of the comedy came from the actors, from the improvisation, from being in the moment. It wasn’t necessarily written that way, whereas KITCHEN SINK is written that way. It’s set in high school in a time when zombies, vampires, and humans all live together as harmoniously as they can, and I play another completely different character. She is the token hot girl, but also the village stoner. She goes through a little bit of a transformation herself, but I love it. I had the most amazing time on set. Everyday we would all say to each other, “I can’t wait till this is done so we can actually watch it and enjoy it.” Because in it, we were cracking up.
Capone: Is there any sense of when it’s coming out?
Vanessa Hudgens: I would assume October.
Capone: For Halloween, sure. Well thank you so much. It was great to meet you.
VH: Thank you, it was so nice to meet you too.
Capone: [As I shake her hand, I notice she has the most elaborate decorative nails I've ever seen in person.] Your nails look awesome, by the way.
VH: Oh, thank you.
Capone: I’m almost afraid to shake your hand, because I’m afraid I’ll either damage myself or damage them.