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Vanessa Hudgens makes a radical change as a troubled teen in 'Gimme Shelter'

Vanessa Hudgens
Vanessa Hudgens
Roadside Attractions

In the feature-film drama “Gimme Shelter” (based on a true story), a teenager named Agnes “Apple” Bailey (played by Vanessa Hudgens) runs away from her drug-addicted and abusive mother June Bailey (played by Rosario Dawson) in search of the father she never met: a successful business executive named Tom Kirkpatrick (played by Brendan Fraser). It’s around this time that Apple finds out that she is pregnant. Forced into the streets in a desperate journey of survival, Apple discovers a new meaning of family and life at a local teen shelter where she bonds with a group of girls just like herself.

Vanessa Hudgens at the New York City press junket for "Gimme Shelter"
Carla Hay

Gimme Shelter” was written, produced and directed by Ronald Knauss, who actually lived at a New Jersey shelter (founded by Kathy DiFiore) for teenage girls, and the shelter serves as the inspiration for the movie’s story. Ann Dowd plays DiFiore in “Gimme Shelter.” The Apple Bailey character is based on two girls who lived at the shelter. Hudgens and Dawson both went through dramatic physical transformations to play their respective characters in the movie, but “Gimme Shelter” also changed them emotionally. Here is what Hudgens said when I caught up with her during a roundtable interview that she did with me and other journalists at the New York City press junket for “Gimme Shelter.”

Can you talk about how you really committed to your role as Apple in “Gimme Shelter”?

Where do I start? I feel like it’s so rare to read a script with subject matter like this one, where right off the bat, it was such a fearless project, and that’s so enticing. And it’s rare to read a character like this, one that is fully transformational and really called for a lot of work and a lot of diving into pain. But because it was something that I hadn’t done, I totally welcomed it. I was very excited to put that work into it — very willing. Ron [Krauss] was my fearless leader who guided me very step of the way.

What can you say about the girls from the shelter whom you lived with and who are also in “Gimme Shelter”?

They’re amazing. These are some of the strongest women I know. I’ve never met anyone like these girls before. They were natural actresses. And I was so proud. I got to feel like I was proud of their growth. I was just so proud of them.

What was it like to live at the shelter for a few weeks?

It was interesting for me, especially in the beginning. I had never been around young teens who are pregnant or just had their babies. I mean, I’d always heard about it, but I’d never gotten to experience it firsthand. In the shelter, Kathy is very religious, so she ha pictures of Jesus and prayers up all over the place. It was just a completely different environment.

And they said, “No cell phones.” So the first thing I did was run up to my room and call my mom and say, “Why on earth am I doing this project again?” And of course, once I get over that initial shock and got out of the way of myself and realized that it’s not about me, it’s about the work and diving in, it was one of the most amazing experiences.

I would work on the script, and I knew that if I had any questions about anything, I could go to the girls and ask them what their real opinion is. None of it was ever forced. It was always the truth, because I had them to bounce things off of.

Was it hard to go out of character when you weren’t filming?

At the time, I didn’t think so. At the time, I was so thrilled and excited and liberated every day by doing the work that we were doing that I was on such a high all the time. But when I got home from filming, I realized that I didn’t know how to be Vanessa anymore. I looked in the mirror, and all I saw was my character. Apple was my security clutch. It took me a while to find myself again. I didn’t know how deep I was into it until it was over.

Did it affect your dreams? Did you dream that you were Apple?

No, I didn’t. If I did, it doesn’t pop out to me, but I would wake up feeling like her. It was more of a reality than just a dream.

How did “Gimme Shelter” change you in any way?

It’s really helped me grow. I’ve never had the opportunity to work this hard at something. It’s really tested my focus in a way that I’ve never had to use before. It made me grow as a person and seeing how much we have to help out, seeing how important it is to connect with people, to not be quick to judge people. It’s helped me grow spiritually.

I think it’s so important to look at the big picture. Time is so precious and it’s so short, and we’re all put on this earth for a very specific reason. And what that is, maybe we won’t know until we’re on our deathbed. But I do think it’s important to search and be the best person you can be, because it’s so sad when people fall from a place where they have a great opportunity. I just think it’s really important to take care of yourself.

You’re doing very different roles from what you initially made you famous, so has broadening your acting range changed what kinds of scripts you’ve been getting?

So far, I haven’t seen any scripts that I love. It hasn’t done much yet. I’m so picky though. I’ve always been extremely picky. I’m very luckily in a place where I can be.

It’s an exciting time, for sure. I’m just proud of myself that I could prove it to my own craft that I could do something like that. But it’s always a time of growth, and I feel like it’s always going to be challenging for me to push myself. That’s why I love doing what I do.

Where there any particular stories or people that helped you transform into the character of Apple Bailey? Did any of those stories didn’t end up in the movie, but you internalized them and it helped you portray this character?

One of the girls in the shelter that Apple is based off of and her events with her mother, a lot worse happened with her mom, but they’re too graphic to even put them up to the screen. Just ask Ron. Her stories and her strength and her openness and just the radiance that she had really stuck with me. She became really close to me, and we’re still friends. Her son is one of my favorites as well, but she was definitely a driving force in my heart when it came to Apple.

In “Gimme Shelter,” James Earl Jones plays a clergyman named Frank McCarthy, who has a big impact on Apple’s life. What was it like working with him?

So cool! I would just be so excited when he showed up to set, because you know he’s there by that voice. You don’t even need to see him come in; you just hear him. There’s no one else on the planet who sounds like that man. He’s just incredible. He’s such a brilliant actor. His work speaks for itself.

You gained weight and you cut your hair very short for your role in “Gimme Shelter.” Can you talk about those choices?

I personally wanted to make her as gritty as possible, especially in the beginning, because I feel it has more of a powerful effect when you start to see her grow and turn into a young woman and have her baby. It’s way more drastic that way.

A lot of things I pulled out of my pockets and put on the table, and Ron enjoyed it, for the most, but it was just about making it as raw and gritty as I could think it to be — my own interpretation, I guess.

What was it like to cut your hair so short and to gain weight?

So liberating. So much fun. I love food! I was in Cannes before I filmed this movie. And I was there for a decent amount of time. In France, it’s very easy to put on a couple of pounds. And I could live off of wine and cheese. It’s not the healthiest combination.

What’s your relationship like with the real Kathy DiFiore?

Great. I would go to her whenever I needed a little bit of strength, and I’d know that she was secretly praying for me when I didn’t know. She’s the most selfless person I ever met in my entire life and just such an inspiration. She would definitely take me off a couple of times, just the two of us, and throw me some inspirational words.

And what was it like to work with Ann Dowd, who portrays Kathy DiFiore?

She’s great. She’s one of those actors you see in different films, and she’s consistently good. She’s amazing. I love her career. I love that you can watch her in so many different films, and she’s just a standout actor, but not all the people in the street go running and scream her name out. That’s the ideal career, I think.

She’s incredible. She came in and did her thing. We didn’t have much time to spend together. I feel like for the most part of the movie, I was just really focused on the work and the character. I wasn’t necessarily thinking about connecting with people.

Speaking of connecting, how was it to live without your cell phone while you were at the shelter?

I definitely used my phone. I’m in my early 20s. I can’t get away from that thing, especially in this day and age. I weaned myself off of it, for sure, as much as I can.

And when I’m working, I’m not on it for every much as well, because I’m not really checking in with anyone. I’m just kind of there for the work itself. So I was definitely cut off from the world I was used to. But in the beginning, I was definitely trying to go on a bit of a bender.

What do you hope people will take away from seeing “Gimme Shelter”?

There are so many things. I think it provokes a lot of feelings that maybe people have gone through, maybe people have suppressed. I mean, we all have pain. It’s just that our situations are different. So hopefully, it will help you bring those emotions back up and allow you to sit with it, and by doing so, bring some healing.

I think it shows that sometimes we’re exactly where we’re meant to be, even when we’re in a lot of pain and a lot of suffering. Those moments are the moments that really push us to our real destiny and help us find love for ourselves. And that you’re not the only one going through these things. I hope that teenagers see this and hopefully be inspired, that it will give them hope and faith. There are so many things.

What are your upcoming projects?

I have a movie in October [2014] called “Kitchen Sink,” which I’m really excited about. After doing [“Gimme Shelter”] and “The Frozen Ground” and “Spring Breakers,” I was like, “I need to do a comedy.” So I did my first comedy. It’s really funny. I’m really excited about it. I was just such a giddy little girl coming home from work every day going, “I’m funny!”

What’s “Kitchen Sink” about?

It’s set in high school. It follows a couple of high school students at a time when zombies, vampires and humans live together as harmoniously as they can. An interesting group gets stuck together to survive their situation. It’s kind of a cross between “Shaun of the Dead” and “The Breakfast Club.” It’s fun. It’s really cool. I’m really excited about it. And I get to be way more glamorous in that one, which was fun as well, because I am a girly girl at the end of the day.

One of the messages in “Gimme Shelter” is that money can’t buy happiness. Many famous entertainers and artists say that they aren’t fulfilled by money, but by the work that they do. What makes you fulfilled as an actress, in terms of what kind of work you like to do?

Stories that I’m passionate about and characters that I can really explore and have fun playing. And also, the people who you’re working with. The work environment is only as good as the people you surround yourself with — just the people and fun characters and variety.

I’m not that picky, but I am. I feel like, at the end of the day, I listen to my gut. And if my gut, my heart is telling me the green light, I go for it. But that’s what I listen to first and foremost.

Did you watch parts of “Gimme Shelter” before it was finished or did you wait until the movie was finished before you say any of it?

I didn’t think about it, to be honest with you. I don’t even think we had monitors. We were doing this so low-budget that it was like, “Go as you can. Get as much done as you can, and hope for the best.”

But yeah, I didn’t see anything [before the movie was finished]. It’s taken me a while to watch myself it playback. Just recently, I started to do that.

Why did it take you a while to watch yourself in playback?

It’s easy to be self-conscious and get in your own head, rather than be present in the moment about the acting.

For more info: "Gimme Shelter" website

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