By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—One-time Disney Channel icon Vanessa Hudgens (of “High School Musical” fame) is discarding her goody-two shoes image once and for all and exploring some darker characters now that she’s an adult.
Earlier this year, Hudgens co-starred with James Franco as hard-partying college girl in “Spring Breakers.” In the thriller “The Frozen Ground,” she plays a crack-smoking prostitute/pole dancer who narrowly manages to escape a serial killer. Next up, she plays a pregnant runaway in “Gimme Shelter” and she has a sexy cameo in Robert Rodriguez’s grindhouse sequel “Machete Kills.”
The 24-year old, who is dating actor Austin Butler (“The Carrie Diaries”) explains during an interview promoting “The Frozen Ground,” she wants to grow and challenge herself as an actress. She co-stars in the psychological thriller as Cindy, a teenage prostitute who manages to escape the clutches of a serial killer but has a tough time convincing authorities she was bound, raped and nearly whisked away to the Alaskan wilderness to be killed. That is, until a thoughtful and tenacious state trooper (Nicolas Cage) takes it upon himself to trap the killer (John Cusack). The film is based on the real life case involving Cindy Paulson, a teenage prostitute who escaped serial killer Robert C. Hansen in the early 1980s, and helped officers track him down and arrest him. “The Frozen Ground” is available on demand and in theaters Friday, August 23.
Q: This movie was very dark and creepy and your character is in such distress for most of the film. Why did you want to do this? Was it a challenge?
Hudgens: Yeah. I had always wanted to do a part that I could really sink my teeth into of this sort like either a prostitute or a drug addict—someone that was very far from who I am, and completely transform and embody that person and bring it to the big screen. It’s always been a dream of mine so it’s really exciting.
Q: Did this role live up to your expectations?
Hudgens: Completely. Above and beyond too. Being able to work with the cast that I worked with and an amazing director (Scott Walker, who also wrote the script) who guided us along. He put together a movie that moves at an incredible pace and you’re invested in the characters. I couldn’t be more thrilled.
Q: This movie’s timely given the abduction case in Ohio, where Ariel Castro had those three girls locked up in his house for over a decade.
Hudgens: It just goes to show you, you’ve got to watch your back.
Q: You’ve got another film coming up called “Gimme Shelter” where you play a pregnant runaway. Are your choices to play these downtrodden characters deliberate?
Hudgens: When the stars align, you’re allowed to show the world what you’ve got. It’s funny because a lot of people think of me from (“High School Musical”) but the first movie I ever did was called “Thirteen,” which was a dark independent film as well. That’s what I started out in. It’s all about growth. I did that when I was 16. I’m 24 now, and what I like is evolving. I want to grow as an actress, you know? I want to really push things for myself and do things that I’m afraid of. That’s when you get to surprise yourself. That’s what I wanted to do—see how far I can take it and see what comes out of this dark, vulnerable place.
Q; Which of these recent roles has been the most challenging, emotional or scary?
Hudgens: It would be between “The Frozen Ground” and “Gimme Shelter.” “The Frozen Ground” because I got to play a real person and spend time with the woman who went through this atrocious event. So I held it very close to my heart. It became very personal and I wanted to make her look as good as possible. And being in Alaska was a trip. Filming there—it felt like you were in a different world. It’s just so far removed from everything, which is nice. It’s nice to get away from everything now and then. It made for a very intense journey. “Gimme Shelter” was also quite the experience because I spent about two weeks in a pregnant teen shelter where the girl my character is based on was staying. I lived with them for two weeks and ate with them and did their chores with them and just tried to live the kind of life that they lived. That really put me in a different headspace. My values were different and my perspective of the world had changed. It was a really good perspective change that I got to have that has stuck with me for sure.
Q: Did they know who you were?
Hudgens: Yeah, but it means nothing to them. When you’re trying to survive or trying to take care your child, or unborn child, your priorities are different than a normal teenage girl who lives at home with her parents and goes to school.
Q: Your character in “The Frozen Ground” resembled Joan Jett with the black liner and straight black hair. Was how the real Cindy looked at the time?
Hudgens: It was all very intentional. We had a couple pictures of Cindy but nothing too significant that we could really create a look for. I had an amazing costume designer who put it all together. We really collaborated together on what felt right. I tried to grunge myself up as much as possible. The more dirt, the better. (She laughs.)
Q: Did you get into that headspace of that era by listening to ‘80s music?
Hudgens: Honestly, I’m not the biggest fan of the ‘80s. I dig the ‘60s and the ‘70s—that’s more my vibe. So there was no ‘80s music in my room.
Q: You filmed this on location in Alaska. How cold was it there?
Hudgens: It was like minus-10 degrees. It was just so extreme but it worked. We put it all on that extra edge that we could actually use in the scenes so it worked out. I remember one time we were filming outside, my scene with the moose, and I only had these leather bound soles and it was just horrible because after the end of the take I would be genuinely concerned that I was getting frostbite because I couldn’t feel my toes. I gave myself a good foot rub after that. It was intense.
Q: Has Austin seen the movie yet?
Hudgens: No. Not yet. I’m so excited for him to see it. My closest friends haven’t seen it yet so I’m excited to share this with the people I love.
Q: Is it weird knowing this serial killer is alive?
Hudgens: Yeah, I know. But he’s serving 461 years in prison.
Q: Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson plays your pimp. Did you know him before this and did you talk with him about possibly collaborating musically?
Hudgens: No, I didn’t know him before this but after working with him, I absolutely adore him. He’s such a hard worker and very kind and super funny. He was just cracking jokes right and left on set. His involvement was amazing because he’s a producer (on the movie) as well. He went for it. He completely changed the way that he looked. He’s great. I adore him. But no future collaborations planned.
Q: Where are you now with your music career? Are you coming out with some new music soon?
Hudgens: Not quite yet. Music has taken a back seat for a bit. I feel that’s where it’s going to stay for a little bit longer. Maybe somewhere down the line I’ll revisit it but for now film is my main priority and it always has been. Acting always has come first and singing has come second.
Q: You’ve been acting since you were 8. Is there a significant challenge to acting in your twenties and finding meaty roles?
Hudgens: There are always challenges you face in any profession. There are different hurdles to get over. This is just one of them. No matter what, it’s about evolution and growth. As long as you’re growing, you’re overcoming your own hurdles and doing new things, and I think that’s what it’s about.
Q: You have a role in “Machete Kills.”
Hudgens: It’s more of a cameo. (She smiles coyly.)
Q: Can you say anything about it?
Hudgens: I don’t want to give it away! But Sofia Vergara plays my mom and I play Cereza, which means “cherry.” So you can make your own interpretation. (She laughs.) Yeah, it’s a quick cameo. If you go to the bathroom while I’m on the screen, you’ll miss it. It was a lot of fun. I just love Robert Rodriguez. I think he is an incredible visionary and his work ethic is unlike anyone’s I’ve ever met before. So I jumped at the opportunity to work with him.
Q: Do you have any plans for the rest of the summer? Going on vacation with your boyfriend maybe?
Hudgens: I don’t know, honestly. Things are once again in a transitional phase back to work. I’ve taken time off and have been relaxing and enjoying my hobbies. Some contracts are not signed yet so I can’t talk about other projects. It’s another exciting time.