More than five years removed from the final installment in the mega-popular High School Musical franchise, Vanessa Hudgens is still trying to break free from her wholesome image. She participated in the drunken debauchery of Spring Breakers last year, and now the 25-year-old actress has a starring role in Gimme Shelter, a gritty pro-life drama about teenage pregnancy in which she goes the less-than-glamorous route.
But Hudgens wanted her portrayal of a girl on the streets to be about more than just unkempt hair, dirty fingernails, facial scars, and fake piercings. Prior to filming in 2012, she spent a few weeks living alongside girls facing real-life abandonment issues at one of four Several Sources shelters in New Jersey, which inspired the film. While she admits the experience was a bit of culture shock, eventually she found herself performing chores and holding crying babies in her arms. She said the resulting level of trust helped to define her character.
“At the beginning, it was a bit of a shock,” Hudgens said during a recent stop in Dallas. “I grew up in a pretty sheltered household and started out in this business at such an early age, that my eyes hadn’t been opened to that world. It was mind-blowing. I just tried to dive into the process. Slowly but surely, they opened up to me and told me their stories.”
In the film, Hudgens plays Apple, a streetwise but socially withdrawn 16-year-old who leaves her abusive, drug-addicted mother (Rosario Dawson) and tracks down her father (Brendan Fraser), an affluent Wall Street broker with a new family that wants nothing to do with her or her unborn child. After deciding she will keep the baby, Apple hits the streets again for a probable life of crime and prostitution until she’s rescued by a hospital chaplain (James Earl Jones). He refers her to a Christian shelter for girls with similar issues, both physically and emotionally.
The character of Apple in the script by director Ron Krauss is a loose composite of two girls at the shelter — one who had a Wall Street father, and the other who went through various difficulties on the street. Although they came from vastly different backgrounds, Hudgens said she formed a bond with the pregnant teens that still resonates.
“Sisterhood is a very powerful thing,” Hudgens said. “I didn’t realize how tough it would be on me emotionally until I finished the project. I never gave myself time to stop and think about what I was doing. I kept driving forward. The aftermath of the project was the toughest for me.”
Krauss said he heard about the nonprofit shelters and their founder, Kathy DiFiore, several years ago but didn’t give them much thought. Yet in 2009, he was in the neighborhood and decided to stop by. The filmmaker was both heartbroken and inspired by what he found inside.
“She’s very giving,” Krauss said of DiFiore. “It was the furthest thing from what I had seen in the past about shelters. How come nobody was recording this and sharing these acts of kindness and selflessness?”
So Krauss started rolling his camera, on DiFiore and some of the mothers in her care. Before long, he had accumulated almost 200 hours of footage that formed the basis for his screenplay. The film takes an overtly pro-life stance with plentiful religious overtones, but Hudgens said it also deals with female empowerment, redemption, and other secular social issues that changed her perspective.
“It pushed me out of my comfort zone. I pray that I continue to get to do things that genuinely challenge me and connect with people,” Hudgens said. “It made me want to give back and help out.”
Gimme Shelter is currently playing at area theaters.