Vanessa Hudgens Is “Leaving It To The Wind”

The 35-year-old’s appearance in Lily Rabe’s movie Downtown Owl feels like a departure for the actor. Maybe it’s not.

Vanessa Hudgens and Lily Rabe in 'Downtown Owl'

When Lily Rabe asked Vanessa Hudgens to appear in her movie, Downtown Owl, there was one scene she had to check with the High School Musical star about. “Lily was like, ‘Are you down for this dance number?’” recalls Hudgens over Zoom. The movie, which Rabe stars in and co-directs with her partner, Hamish Linklater, didn’t have a choreographer. “I was like, ‘OK, well, my best friend is a dancer,’” says Hudgens. “‘I could talk with her about it, and we could brainstorm something.’” Rabe quickly agreed. “I went over to my girlfriend’s house, and we put on ’80s music and did a little research and put together a whole routine. We knew it was going to be a montage, so it didn’t have to be the cleanest, most precise thing ever, but it was really fun.”

The scene is a jolt of brightness in an otherwise melancholy affair. An adaptation of Chuck Klosterman’s 2008 novel by the same name, Downtown Owl is set in a small town in North Dakota in the run-up to a deadly blizzard. The movie, now available to rent and buy on Digital, is led by Rabe, who is amusingly destructive as a small-town teacher going through marriage issues, with Henry Golding, Ed Harris, and Finn Wittrock rounding out the cast alongside Hudgens.

It’s an indie turn for Hudgens, who is more frequently seen in splashy Netflix movies and as a host of A-list red carpets, but it is less of a departure than one might think. Hudgens, who is currently expecting her first child with husband Cole Tucker, may have risen to fame in a Disney production, but her own taste doesn’t always lean particularly mainstream. “I’m not a good pop music girl,” she says when I ask if she’s listened to Taylor Swift’s new album, The Tortured Poets Department. “I love my Radiohead; I love my Björk. I love alternative rock and electronic music and Rüfüs Du Sol. Just moody vibes.”

What drew you to the project of Downtown Owl?

It was a script that was floating around at my agency, and I was told that Lily and Hamish were going to be directing it. I’ve been a fan of Lily’s for quite a while, being the American Horror Story fan that I am. I’m obsessed with her — she’s always done such amazing work. And I was just really compelled by the story. It just has this tone about it that I think is really unique, and I loved the character. She just kind of jumped right off the page.

How was it being directed by a couple? I imagine that could be a bit unusual.

It was great, honestly. Not only were they just a couple — they were also a couple with a newborn! They really are the epitome of where there’s a will, there’s a way. They’re such a great team, and they’re both such special actors. It’s just really nice working with directors who are actors because they just get it in a different way. They understand the process and know how to communicate in a way that helps tell the story from an actor’s point of view.

Would you ever direct something yourself?

Maybe somewhere down the line. I feel like my taste is just so bizarre and not what people expect, and I feel like that’s what makes interesting directors — when they’ve got a specific and different point of view.

Do you see yourself working quite soon after having a baby like Lily? Or do you have any specific goals for when you return to work after maternity leave?

Who knows — no crystal ball here. I am leaving it to the wind. There’s a lot that I want to do regardless of the timing. There’s a lot I feel like I still haven’t done, so I’m just continuing to work towards those things in whatever way.

Tell me more about the experience on set. You were filming in a pretty remote location. Were you all staying there?

Honestly, I was in and out so quickly, I barely saw anyone. I did my job and I left.

Is that a dream for you or do you prefer it to be more embedded?

It depends on the part. For this, it was such a splashy quick part that I could shoot it fairly quickly, and that’s wonderful because I get to come in and play and have fun and then get back to life. But sometimes with a bigger part, you obviously want to be more immersed in the world and a part of the process.

The bar where your scenes take place is the kind of place that I would dream of arriving at on an American road trip. Have you ever done any big cross-country journeys?

Quite a few, yeah. I’m a big adventure girl, so I’ve found myself in a few interesting places. I once shot a movie in Guthrie, Oklahoma, and we were there for a good minute. We ended up making friends with the locals and doing karaoke at the local bar.

That’s fun. So what’s your go-to karaoke song?

“You Gotta Be” by Des’ree.

I know you’re usually a regular at Coachella, but you decided to skip it this year. How come?

The walking sounded aggressive. It’s a lot of walking.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Downtown Owl is available to Buy or Rent now on Digital