Vanessa Hudgens was only 18-years-old when she found herself in the glare of the media spotlight thanks to the High School Musical phenomenon and her off-screen relationship with co-star Zac Efron. “I was young,” she says, though she’s still only 24. But she maintains a balanced view on the many sensational stories – and photos – that were published early on in her career.
“I didn’t pay attention to what people were saying, nor did I care, honestly. I was just enjoying life and I got to do what I loved and people loved what we did, so I was just very grateful and just kind of rolling with the punches.”
More than rolling with them, Hudgens is a strikingly confident young woman who insists she’s “at the steering wheel, driving the bus” when it comes to her film choices.
She was last seen in the grimy satirical thriller Spring Breakers and her latest is The Frozen Ground, a true crime story in which she co-stars as prostitute Cindy Paulson. Nicolas Cage is Jack Halcombe, the cop pursuing notorious Alaskan serial killer Robert Hansen (John Cusack) who allows Cindy to slip his grasp.
It’s a world far away from the shiny, happy showbiz parade that was High School Musical, but she knocks RT off balance when asked about her reasons for taking this on.
“Ever since I was really young I wanted to play a prostitute. It’s just, like, thrilling as an actor to put yourself in a situation you, personally, would never be in. At the end of the day you’re just a kid playing pretend, so if you’re going to do it, might as well go crazy with it.”
If that sounds a bit frivolous, Hudgens certainly got a reality check after spending a weekend with the real Cindy Paulson prior to shooting. “I had a happy childhood, so it’s hard, but it’s interesting, when you don’t grow up with a solid foundation, how much that really affects the rest of your life.
“What she went through…it’s eye-opening, for sure. In the past I’ve possibly been too trusting with people I don’t know and it’s opened my eyes to the fact you can’t do that, you know? You’ve always got to keep an eye over your shoulder, especially as a woman because there’s real danger out there.”
Given the trauma Paulson endured, the prospect of doing the role justice might have daunted many an actress, but Hudgens isn’t one of them.
“I actually found it empowering because she didn’t have a voice, you know? She was just a girl trying to survive and she found hope when she was least expecting it – in Sergeant Halcombe – and that’s when she felt a little bit of love. She is just a sweet, kind, young female and I wanted to show that, and give her a voice.”
The entire film rests on the bond that builds between Paulson and Halcome, who takes her under his wing (and even into his home), but it’s not a dynamic that was translated behind the scenes.
“I mean, he’s very professional, quite reserved. With me, he was reserved. We didn’t spend any time together off-screen and the time we spent together on set was just the time we spent together on screen. But he was amazing, very professional and he brought so much to the table every day.”
Maybe Cage felt that Hudgens was handling herself well enough without his help. He even tested her acting mettle, “trying different things” with the scenes as written.
“He kept me on my toes. Yeah, a little bit. But it’s all about playing when it comes to acting and seeing how far you can take certain things, how to push each other’s buttons, where it really hits home.”
Having to portray such a troubled soul and to do it alongside veteran actors who expected her to rise to their level each day, did she ever feel out of her comfort zone?
“Yeah, for sure, but I think I felt safe because I knew that I was doing it with people who I could trust, who would give me their honest opinion. If something wasn’t working, I knew that they would tell me, so I felt very, very safe in the environment. I think that’s key when you do something that’s really outside of the box.”
RT suggests that Hudgens may also get a kick out of being plunged in at the deep end.
“One-hundred-and-fifty per cent. Absolutely! That’s what I’m about. I mean, I don’t like being stagnant. I want to continue to grow and just be better at what I do, and the only way to do that is to keep stepping outside of your comfort zone.”
When asked who her role models are, it’s clear to see where Hudgens wants to place herself. “I love and really respect strong women. I’m obsessed with Scarlett Johansson, and Drew Barrymore and Penelope Cruz. They are just really incredibly strong-willed, intelligent females in the industry.”
Hudgens appears to be pushing the boundaries again with her next role in Robert Rodriguez’s grindhouse sequel Machete Kills, a style of film-making that depends on shock value.
“Nah, that one, for me, was tame,” she insists. “I play Cereza who’s the virgin bride and things don’t end up very well for her. But I’ve always been drawn to the dark side – I guess you could call it that – to things that people turn a blind eye to.”
So, can we expect to see Hudgens digging even dirtier depths in future?
“I’d enjoy a comedy. I haven’t done that much of it, so… I feel like when I wanted to do darker things, I was only getting offered lighter things and when I want to do lighter things, I’m only getting darker things.”
Clearly, this is a girl who knows what she wants and that is, “Everything. I want to do everything.” But more importantly, she is not afraid to venture out and make things happen. We agree that this is a valuable trait for a young woman looking to make a lasting career in Hollywood.
“You always, constantly have to fight for what you want,” she says, “and I think that it’s always going to be a struggle, and you always have to just put your best foot forward. That’s all you can do. You’ve just got to fight for what you want.”
See the trailer:
The Frozen Ground is in cinemas from July 19