You might think the credits for this movie “Gimme Shelter” are a mistake.
It's supposed to star Vanessa Hudgens, the cute and perky star of Disney Channel's insanely popular “High School Musical” movies and, more recently, renowned for gun-toting bikini antics in “Spring Breakers.”
No one in “Gimme Shelter” looks like the Vanessa we know, though. That is her, however, starring as the troubled, pregnant daughter of a drug-addicted mom, sans makeup, her hair chopped into a bird's nest crop and 15 pounds heavier than we're used to seeing her.
“The director told me at the beginning that he wanted me to put on some weight, which I did not mind, just because I do love the idea of transformation and I love food,” said Hudgens, now 25 and sporting a tight, lacy black dress, much mascara and dark curls cascading well below her shoulders. “The cutting of the hair was such a liberating thing, too. It kind of gave me a clean slate, and rid me of anything that I had known of myself in the past.”
The film grew out of what writer-director Ronald Krauss observed during a year of living at a home for pregnant teenagers, one of Kathy DiFiore's Several Sources Shelters on the East Coast. Hudgens' character, Apple, was primarily based on one of the girls, Darlisha Dozier, whom Krauss brought into the shelter after seeing her standing outside, coatless, in below-freezing weather, thinking she was a resident.
She wasn't, but DiFiore took her in. Dozier has a small role in the film (as do some of the other young women who were there), and Hudgens, who spent two weeks at the shelter before filming commenced, got to know her well.
“Her story is Apple's story,” Hudgens said. “She stayed in the shelter and helps out there now, still. She's studying to be a nurse and she has an adorable son. We keep in contact, and it was really nice to have someone that I could go to and ask questions about the person.”
In fact, the shelter residents were the key factor in Hudgens landing her part.
“I never thought a Hollywood actress could play a role like this after I'd lived there for a year,” Krauss admitted. “There were a lot of famous actors that wanted to do it and had auditioned. Then someone mentioned Vanessa Hudgens, and I really didn't know who she was.
“I met with her and she was passionate to play this role. She believed that she could really do it, she turned in a great audition and she was really persistent. The turning point was that I sent seven or eight of the auditions that I liked to the shelter. When they saw the (video) link, the girls unanimously picked Vanessa. That was the confirmation.”
Some may find Apple's personality more off-putting than her appearance. A streetwise survivor who's been bullied all her life by her reprehensible mom (Rosario Dawson), Apple has a short temper and an abrasive, defensive way of presenting herself that certainly doesn't endear her to the well-to-do family of her Wall Street father (Brendan Fraser), whom she's never met but reaches out to in desperation.
Hudgens plays that side of Apple quite effectively, and doesn't believe that the character deserves any criticism.
“It's very easy for people to judge others due to their circumstances,” the usually bubbly actress said after some quiet moments of consideration. “It's about what they see, and they don't necessarily look past that. Once you look past my character's appearance or the way that she acts, you realize it's not because of her. She's a victim of her parents, and to the abuse that she's had to deal with her whole life.
“At the end of the day, she is a normal 16-year-old just trying to survive. She has the same needs that any other 16-year-old has. We all need support and we all need to feel loved. When you don't feel that, life can seem very empty, and it angers me that people do make these snap judgments about others. It takes you away from connecting as human beings.”
Hudgens acknowledged that she's led a pretty sheltered life, first by parents who supported her showbiz ambitions and then in the Disney teen princess bubble.
In recent years, it's looked like she's been actively trying to break out of her singing-and-dancing TV nice girl image. She put her recording career on hold to concentrate on her first love, acting. And although she had a hit with the family adventure movie “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” her preference in films has veered toward dark, adult projects such as “Breakers,” “Sucker Punch,” “The Frozen Ground,” “Machete Kills” and “Gimme Shelter.” An Internet leak of nude selfies a few years back reinforced the impression that this was a girl in a hurry to grow up.
But Hudgens, who'll next star in the high school horror comedy “Kitchen Sink,” insisted that there's no image-changing strategy at work. She just wants to do, well, everything.
“It's just the way the roles have come up,” she explained. “I've always looked for variety in my career, and to push myself outside of my comfort zone because that's how you grow.
“I don't know; there are so many different things to play. I love seeing all the different aspects of storytelling and fantasies and thrills ... there's just so much, the possibilities are limitless.
“Till the day I die, I know that I won't be able to do enough.”
Follow Bob Strauss on Twitter: @bscritic