'Spring Breakers' Vanessa Hudgens Talks Gritty Transformation in 'Gimme Shelter'

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Vanessa Hudgens, the 25-year-old actress who rose to fame alongside Zac Efron in the High School Musical franchise, has always been inspired by Charlize Theron's performance in Monster. Ever since she saw the blonde beauty transpose into someone who was as hideous outside as she was on the inside, the young performer was inspired to make a similar on-screen transformation. And in the brutally honest Gimme Shelter, Hudgens found her chance.

Gimme Shelter, written and directed by Ron Krauss and based on a true story, that is, the many true stories of pregnant homeless teens, hits theaters Friday, Jan. 24. Bustle sat down with the the film's director, Kathy DiFiore (founder of Several Sources Shelters which became the inspiration of the film), and the movie's stars Rosario Dawson and Vanessa Hudgens.

The film centers around Apple, a 16-year-old pregnant teen who flees the home of her mother, a drug-addict and prostitute, in search of her wealthy, Wall Street father (played by Brendan Fraiser). But she is eventually forced to leave his home (because of her choice to give birth to the baby), and winds up at a shelter for women in similar predicaments.

But to become 16-year-old Apple, Hudgens had to undergo a transformation of her own. She cut off all her hair into a boyish, messy bob. She gained 15 pounds, and the only makeup she wore was to make her appear less attractive — just like Theron in Monster. "I knew that it would take a transformation," said Hudgens. "But that's what actors do, they run into pain when other run away from it. I welcomed the pain I had to put myself through. And I think there's nothing more attractive on a female than being a strong woman."

Director Ron Krauss stumbled upon this story by accident. One Christmas, he was visiting his brother and one of Kathy DiFiore's shelters was a mile away and he was looking to help out around the holidays. "I didn't have any agenda when I met Kathy, I wasn't setting out to make a film," Krauss said. But soon, he found himself volunteering more time and getting to know the young women who lived in the shelter. "I started interviewing one girl after a next, and these tapes started piling up. Before I know it there is a whole stack of tapes of girls and their stories. And they were all very similar. They were all stories of abuse and neglect and abandonment. It was always bad mother, a bad father — nobody cared."

Speaking to these girls is what gave him the idea for the film. Yet he still had to convince shelter founder Kathy DiFiore to allow him to share her story with a Hollywood audience. At first, she was skeptical, but as she put it: "I'm a very prayerful woman, and I was asking God for guidance and I heard, 'trust him.' After that, Krauss spent the next year living at the shelter, writing his screenplay.

"I never thought a hollywood actress could play this role," said Krauss of casting Hudgens in his lead. "There were a lot of famous actors who wanted to do it. Someone suggested Vanessa Hudgens, but I didn't really realize who she was. I met with her, she was very passionate to play this role." Yet Krauss still wasn't convinced, so he sent his favorite auditions, including Hudgens', to the girls at the shelter to review. According to Krauss, they "unanimously picked Vanessa, and that was the confirmation."

Rosario Dawson came in to play Apple's mother June. And for Rosario, this role hit exceptionally close to home. "My mom was a teenage mom, she got pregnant with me when she was 16. I don't know my biological father. I have family members who have crack addiction. I grew up in the 80s and 90s in New York and saw the epidemic..." she explained. "My mom worked in a shelter, and it was poor people helping poor people. And I knew that my mom was not that much better off than the people she was helping. So much about this [film] caught my attention."

She described the similarities between this character and another role she is most famous for playing, that of Mimi, the sick prostitute in Rent. "This is Mimi, but instead of contracting HIV/AIDS, she gets pregnant and ends up in the street," she said. "There's going to be a lot of Junes that you're going to walk by to go into the theatre to see this movie, but hopefully when you walk out, as much as you might of ignored her and and stepped over her, hopefully you'll see Apple on the way out," she said, referring to Apple, who is seemingly a carbon copy of her mother, attempting to secure a hope that her mother was never able to find.

Yet Dawson and Hudgens, who are both very similar in nature, are so unlike their onscreen characters. "We both did Mimi," Dawson said of herself and Hudgens. "We both started really early. And we're both really close with our families."

Hudgens has had quite a year attempting (successfully so) to break out of her squeaky clean Disney image. She had Frozen Ground, a real life murder mystery, and of course there was raunchy Spring Breakers, which she filmed alongside fellow Disney alum Selena Gomez.

"I love pushing myself outside of your comfort zone. The possibilities are limitless, 'til the day I die I know I won't be able to do enough," she said, noting that "variety" is what she looks for in pursuing roles, and she found such diversity in Gimme Shelter.

"It's very relevant to what's going on around us. I think it's easy to block it out because it's uncomfortable and it's something we don't want to discuss. Young people are becoming homeless, young mothers who have no support and no love and no place to call their own, just so much abuse. It's all so relevant," she said. "This [film] allows you to see that world, it opens you up to compassion and it makes you grow as a person. It also shows that sometimes are darkest, deepest moments, moments that we feel we can never get out of are sometimes the moments we're meant to have. And once you get past that, you find hope. And i think it's important to remind people that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel."

Images: Day Twenty-Eight Day Films