Story by Jaime Lin Weinstein
“I think it’s every actor’s dream to be able to really change themselves, whether it’s physically or emotionally; just break down who you are and then play someone completely different,” Vanessa Hudgens says during a recent interview at the Four Seasons Atlanta. Donning leather pants and a beaded top with long, flowing brunette locks, she looks to be the epitome of a Hollywood starlet — a far cry from the appearance audiences will see on-screen in her new movie, Gimme Shelter, in which she got to fulfill that dream. After gaining 15 pounds and chopping off her hair for the film, Hudgens does indeed look like a different person, but her transformation is more than merely physical. Inspired by a true story and the work of Kathy DiFiore (played by Ann Dowd), the founder of New Jersey-based Several Sources Shelters that provide refuge for teenage mothers, Gimme Shelter stars Hudgens as Agnes “Apple” Bailey, a pregnant teen who flees her abusive mother (Rosario Dawson) and her absent Wall Street father (Brendan Fraser), then meets a kindhearted stranger (James Earl Jones) who ultimately leads her to the shelter, and her salvation. Hudgens spent over two weeks in one of the Several Sources shelters to prepare for the film, and lived side by side with some of the girls on whom her character was based. “It just completely had me submerged into this world,” Hudgens explains. “Of course I put on weight before I went to the shelter which really set the tone I think, because I felt different in my own body … But I think it was honestly just their energy that I really valued. Just having them around. Seeing what they were into. Seeing what got them excited. Their values … And once I could wrap my head around that and make them my own it really allowed me to be in the same headspace as them.”
Hudgens is perhaps most well known as Gabriella Montez in Disney’s High School Musical franchise. Granted it’s been nearly 10 years since she first walked the halls of East High as the shy, pretty transfer student who captured the basketball team captain’s heart, and her current film choices, she says, are not made to merely distance herself from that persona (though this film certainly gave her the opportunity to do so). It was Gimme Shelter’s writer, director and producer Ron Krauss who was able to see past the potential pigeonhole into which so many young Disney actresses fall: “I thought well perhaps someone who was so uninhibited, like this girl can sing and dance … and she’s not afraid to get up and go and perform. She’s a performer … There was something inside of her that she knew she could play this role. She just knew it. And she just needed the chance.” (The girls from the shelter had a hand in Hudgens getting cast as Apple, too. Krauss not only gave the residents copies of the script to gain their feedback, but also showed them screen tests of a handful of possible Apples and they all agreed that Hudgens should play the part.)
Hudgens’ performance proves not only her commitment to the role, but to sharing the story of the young women from DiFiore’s shelters and the overarching message of the film. “It’s sad how life can be so tough on people sometimes. And how alone we can be at times,” she says. “But I think it also shows that we’re not. As long as we have a conscience choice to make a change in our lives we can get there … And when you have faith and when you have trust in yourself you can change your future. And it’s really beautiful.”
Gimme Shelter is out in theatres tomorrow, Friday, January 24.