Nearly 10 years after Vanessa Hudgens became an overnight sensation with Disney’s “High School Musical” movies, she’s attempting to graduate to heavy-duty dramatic roles.
She got off to a good start with 2013’s “Spring Breakers,” Harmony Korine’s controversial look a quartet of party girls who decide to finance their spring break by turning into armed robbers.
“Gimme Shelter,” which opened Jan. 24 in area theaters, required Hudgens to dig even deeper.
In the movie, she plays a pregnant teenager named Agnes “Apple” Bailey who runs away from her abusive mom (Rosario Dawson) in hopes of tracking down her Wall Street broker father (Brendan Fraser). She finds him, but he kicks her out after he discovers she’s pregnant and wants to keep the baby. With nowhere to go, she winds up in a homeless shelter for teens.
The drama, which is inspired by a true story, allowed Hudgens to fully inhabit a character in a way she’s never done before.
“I knew this role would take a lot of hard work, but it was hard work that I was willing to put in,” says the actress, who gained 20 pounds and chopped off her hair prior to filming.
“It’s really an actor’s dream to be able to spend all day, every day really developing a character and understanding someone.”
Ever since the “High School Musical” movies wound down, Hudgens has done her best to, as the L.A. Times put it, “get out of the shadow of the Mouse House.” She’s mostly steered clear of lightweight romantic comedies and stereotypical teen flicks in favor of grittier, offbeat fare such as “Sucker Punch,” “The Frozen Ground,” “Bandslam,” and “Machete Kills.”
During the heyday of “HSM,” she briefly pursued a music career. She released a debut album “V” in 2006, which was certified gold. After releasing a follow-up in 2008 called “Identified,” Hudgens opted to, more or less, retire from music and concentrate on movies.
“For me, it’s always been about the work,” she says. “Acting has always been a passion of mine. … I love really diving into something. That’s what it’s all about for me and really what I live for.
“I put up with the attention because I get to do exactly that. It’s what makes it count, what makes it worth it for me.”
“Gimme Shelter” didn’t disappoint Hudgens in the intensity department. In fact, the actress admits she took the movie to heart to such a degree that she lost herself in the role.
“You don’t shut [the emotions] off; you honestly don’t,” she says. “I thought that I did, and then I went home and realized that I had never stepped out of the character because I had no idea who Vanessa was anymore. I only knew Apple.
“I really sank into it deep. I thought that I was bouncing back and forth, but I obviously wasn’t due to how hard it was for me to find myself again.”
As soon as Hudgens read the screenplay penned by director Ronald Krauss, she believed the film would be a perfect vehicle to address the issue of poverty in America.
“You walk down the street and there’s a homeless person,” says the actress, 24. “[Poverty] is everywhere around us. It’s just something that’s easy to turn a blind eye to, and that’s why this story is so important because it opens our eyes up to the world around us.”
Hudgens has wanted to be an actress since she was 8 years old. After landing roles in amateur productions of “Carousel,” “The King and I,” “Cinderella” and “The Music Man,” she longed to turn professional.
She didn’t have to wait long. Hudgens and her folks eventually moved from San Diego to Los Angeles, where she began booking jobs on television shows “Still Standing” and “Robbery Homicide Division” and in the films “Thirteen” and “Thunderbirds.”
In 2005, at age 16, she landed the role of Gabrielle Montez in the Disney Channel movie “High School Musical.” She played the new girl who winds up falling in love with the captain of the basketball team (Zac Efron). Hudgens and Efron began dating in real life before splitting up a few years ago. She now dates “Carrie Diaries” actor Austin Butler.
There were two more entries in the “High School Musical” franchise. The second one in 2007 netted 17 million viewers and became the Disney Channel’s highest-rated movie. “High School Musical 3: Senior Year,” which was released in theaters in 2008, earned more than $250 million at the box office.
While Hudgens says she’s been in her share of “dodgy” situations growing up, the world of homeless teens was far removed from her own.
“I feel like I grew up in a pretty sheltered life, for the most part,” says the actress. “[This movie] was definitely an eye opener for me.”
In “Gimme Shelter,” Apple finds a savior in a hospital chaplain (James Earl Jones) who offers to let Apple live at a shelter run by a spiritual guide (Ann Dowd). During the time Apple spends in the shelter, she befriends the other girls and, eventually, considers them members of an alternative family.
While she was preparing for the movie, Hudgens hung out with Apple and a young woman named Talisha, who was one of Apple’s inspirations during her time on the streets.
“I became really close with [them],” says Hudgens. “Talisha really opened my eyes up to how much it takes [to survive]. “And [Apple] just inspires me so much because she seriously is one of the strongest young women I know.
“It makes me sad because I don’t even think she knows how strong she is, and I want her to know that. For me, something that I’m trying to do is show her how amazing and incredible she is and how she’s going to inspire so many people with her story. I adore her. Her story speaks for itself.”
For Hudgens, the highlight of the project was portraying the joy Apple experiences after giving birth to her baby.
“Apple’s story… does jolt you [because] there is nowhere where she finds true shelter, and she’s never really comfortable with the situation that she’s in. But that’s why it is [so] powerful when she does have her child because she finally finds comfort in something that she can control.”
Making the movie deepened Hudgens’ own desire to become a mom.
“Being a mother is something that us women have been born into existence to do,” she muses. “I’ve always felt I’ve had maternal instincts, as all females do. It’s something that’s ingrained inside of you ever since you’re young and playing with Barbies. [Motherhood] is such a miracle and so beautiful. I’ve always thought that.”
While Hudgens admits she never changed a single diaper on set, she did enjoy the time she spent with the youngster playing her offspring.
“The scenes with my baby were the best times ever,” she says. “That precious little face! There’s nothing more magical in the world than seeing a human being in the tiniest package possible.”