Sporting a skimpy neon swimsuit and a bubblegum-pink ski mask and toting heavy artillery: Yeah, welcome to the 2013 version of former tween queen Vanessa Hudgens.
The 24-year-old actress who rose to pop culture prominence on the Disney Channel’s "High School Musical" phenomenon is the latest mouse-eared ingénue to ditch her squeaky clean bona fides in an attempt to gain more mature-minded cinematic street cred.
In "Spring Breakers," she’s one of four string-bikinied beauties (alongside Ashley Benson, Selena Gomez and Rachel Korine) escaping their drab day-to-day reality by any means necessary to hit the annual beachside bacchanalia. They fall under the spell of a hypnotic rapper/drug kingpin called Alien (James Franco) in the latest purposely-button-pushing, boundary-busting effort from writer-director Harmony Korine.
As she makes the jump into not-for-kids fare, Hudgens reveals her lack of fear facing down the edgy material (except, kinda-sorta, the sex scene), spending the majority of the film in nothing but a two-piece, and the surprising selection of movies that rocked her own world.
This film can be polarizing with people either loving or hating it. When it came your way, when the opportunity to play this girl came up, what was your gut on it?
It was good – It was both thumbs up! It was such an easy decision, to be honest. It’s rare that a script like this comes along, where it’s for young women carrying such a bad-ass film that are gun-toting and in bathing suits and ski masks. It’s like such a shocking image, even on paper. And then James [Franco] is such an amazing actor – I’ve been such a big fan of his that I really wanted to work with him for a while now, so I jumped at that. And then Harmony [Korine], of course, he’s a special kind of filmmaker. He’s so brutally raw and honest and doesn’t sugarcoat anything, and I love that. So I just jumped at the opportunity.
Was there any fear?
Did you anticipate the conversation that’s going on in the media? “The Disney girls are growing up – what does it all mean?”
Yeah, of course. I think that that’s something that people love trying to syndicate, but that’s not the case at all. We’re grown up, and we want our body of work to grow with us. And this was just an opportunity to grow as an actor, to push ourselves. I mean, people are going to say what they want to say. You can’t please everybody, but I think just as long as you’re doing what you’re passionate about which I am with this, it’s all that matters.
Was there any scene that gave you any pause?
The sex scene was terrifying because I’ve never done a sex scene before. But I was just so thankful that I had Ashley there, because if it was one-on-one, it would be way too intimate. So I had her to protect me, but it was like super-sweet – and Harmony's amazing. He never made us do anything we were uncomfortable with. He always wanted us to feel safe.
Did you get used to a bikini being, essentially, your wardrobe for 90 percent of the film? Did you just adapt to always walking around in a bikini?
I mean, the first day was a little bit unnerving, but you get used to it. It's like your costume. It’s part of your transformation into this character, and we loved our character, so it became secondhand.
If you're playing a Jedi in a “Star Wars” movie, you get to choose your lightsaber, so in “Spring Breakers” did you get to have any input into your particular bikini?
Yeah, totally! I mean, every day was so much fun because we kind of got to create our looks. Our wardrobe stylist was so amazing. She brought in so many options. I've never seen so many bathing suits before in my life. So it was fun. We really got to create our characters.
Have you ever gotten into that mindset where you’ve just felt the need to escape and be in an entirely different world that you're usually in?
I think that once you accept the fact that you can create your own reality, then you've been set free of your mind and the ego. But, of course, everybody has their off days where they just want to be in a bikini on a beach laying under the sun, but that's part of why I live in LA. I love what I do, and I love my life. So, yeah, everyone has their off days.
When you went and saw real spring break partying, what appealed to you about it, and what freaked you out about it?
I honestly am not a fan of it. I'm way more tame and reserved than my character is, and the people on spring break…big crowds are kind of my nightmare. They kind of terrify me. So I wasn't really down with any of it, but my character's infatuated with it. So it was fun to be able to play that kind of a person.
This is a really special kind of movie. I think it's going to have an audience that holds it really close after they see it. What do you hope they get out of it?
Just to have an experience. It's rare that a movie is so submersive like this, and it really shakes you up. It's not a movie that you can just watch and then just brush off. It's going to do something to you internally, and I think as a performer, like that's the coolest thing to be able to shake up inside of people.
What movies have shaken you up inside?
Man, a few. They're definitely not as edgy as this movie, but ‘Moulin Rouge,’ I remember, changed my life significantly. It's molded me into this hopeless romantic, and ‘The Notebook’ as well. ‘Edward Scissorhands,’ as well – finding the fascination with the fantasy. So many films, but that's what good movies do: they change you, and they create you to be the person who you are.
So what do you want to do next?
Everything that I haven't done! I want to do a sci-fi thriller. I want to do a comedy. I want to do a romantic comedy. I want to do literally everything. I want to play a fairy. I want to play all the different characters that I can possibly think of and change myself and be morphed into these characters and be a chameleon of an actor. I think that's the coolest thing, when you can watch a film and are genuinely surprised to see the person look the way that they are so you can forget who they are and they can take you onto that ride – and I think that's just what I aim for.
Where does music fit into your career plans right now?
Kind of far in the distance. I think I'm going to record a song with a friend who is under Skrillex’s line. So I'm going to do that, but I don't know. It's hard for me because I'm so infatuated with music, and I love so many different kinds of music and artists that I can't decide what kind of music I would want to make. So until then, I don't want to do anything that's not personal.
Was there a creative thing that you're still to try?
Yeah, I mean, there's a lot. I think art is art in general, whether it's photography or painting or music. It all goes hand in hand. So I love just any form of self expression. I love painting. I love doing photography. I love styling my friends. I love doing their hair and makeup. I love anything that's in the form of self-expression. So I kind of do it all, to be honest.
Do you think you have a sense of how the public is going to respond to “Spring Breakers?”
I think that everyone's going to react differently. I know that they're definitely going to have a reaction though. My mom came with me to the premiere and at all the really intense parts where I was robbing people, she was actually sitting there, clapping and giggling. So my mom loves it. I know she's so, so proud of me for taking this leap and really transforming and being fearless. And I think that's what people hopefully will take from it is they'll see four fearless young women, and hopefully, it will inspire them to do the same.