In the new Roadside Attractions film “Gimme Shelter“, Vanessa Hudgens stars as Apple Bailey, a young woman who has a hard life living in foster homes when her-drug-addicted prostitute mother (Rosario Dawson) is in jail. Fed up and not wanting to follow in her mother’s footsteps, she decides to try and find her father (Brendan Fraser), a man she has never met.
I had the privilege to sit down to a round-table interview with the star of the film, Vanessa Hudgens and the writer / director of the film, Ronald Krauss.
Welcome to Atlanta. Is it your first time here?
Ronald: Thanks. No it’s not. At one point I was thinking about shooting the movie here. But, we ended up shooting the movie in New Jersey in the real shelters. We were thinking about recreating them here but in the end we decided to shoot the film up there. When you see the movie, it’s all exactly like it is in the shelters. Some of the girls in the film are really from the shelters and even the babies in the film are from the shelters.
So that home that you see in the film is actually one of the shelters?
Ronald: Yeah, it’s one of the five shelters that Cathy runs. The one that we shot the film in was the one that I lived in. I lived and worked in two of the shelters for a year to research the script.
I read that you were really hands on as a director. You help with makeup and wardrobe. Are you always that hands-on while directing or was it specific to this film?
Ronald: It was pretty specific to this film. Unlike other films I have worked on, I was the only one that really understood the girls and their lives. So, when the makeup people would come on the set and start to do Vanessa’s makeup like she usually does. And then I would come in behind them and kind of tear it down. I had to make them understand that these girls don’t usually wear makeup. They have no reason to wear makeup. So it became a real challenge to keep it looking authentic. You really don’t recognize Vanessa, especially at the beginning, because she doesn’t look like she normally does. Even near the end of the film where she looks a little like Vanessa, she still looks completely different. Vanessa gained 15 pounds for the role and cut her hair off. Vanessa also lived in one of the shelters for a couple of weeks to get ready for the role. One of the girls in the film, Darlisha, I actually brought into the shelter. When I first met her, she had walked 35 miles in freezing weather with very little clothing. She was pregnant when I first met her and has had her son, who actually appears in the film. He is the one crawling across the bed at the hospital near the end of the film.
What made you pick Vanessa for the lead?
Ronald: After I wrote the script, which took me forever to write, mostly because I wrote it getting feedback from the girls in the shelter. I would write some and then we would all sit around the table at dinnertime and go over different parts of the script. The girls would get very animated about it, saying things like “I would never talk like that!”. When I finished the script and went back to Hollywood, I started passing the script around. It was a different type of script than what is usually passed around because it’s about a shelter. So I started getting calls from agents and actors that wanted to do the part. All were contemporaries of Vanessa. I met a bunch of actresses that really wanted the part, but I just didn’t think your normal Hollywood actress could play the role. After living with the girls of the shelter, I wanted someone who was real, not the Hollywood shallow type. I even auditioned some actresses in the high school of New Jersey because I wanted someone who had lived that life.
Then I got a call about Vanessa. She had read the script and wanted to do the film. Of all the women that were interested in the part, I knew the least about her. I had never seen “High School Musical”. So I started looking at her films such as “Bandslam” and “Beastly”. And I saw a real dichotomy between the “High School Musical” girl and the girl that did “Suckerpunch”. And I thought, someone that is so uninhibited, being able to sing and dance really well, is not afraid to get up and perform. So, I took a meeting with her and she came in and said “I really want to do this role”. It was a nice meeting but I wasn’t convinced. But then she kept sending me emails saying “I want this role! I’m your Apple!”. So I asked her to audition. She came in and she definitely looked different than the Disney girl. She looked sort of multi-ethnic. Her audition was really interesting and surprising. I sent a link of all the auditions to the girls in the shelter and they picked Vanessa for the role. There was something inside of Vanessa that she just knew she could play this role. She was so determined. She just needed a chance and she does a great job. She is so good in this film and it’s going to change how people perceive her.
How often were the girls from the shelter on the set?
Ronald: Everyday. They were in the movie.
Did they ever talk to her about the role?
Ronald: Oh, I think she relied on them. She really needed their support. She became one of them, so she needed the guidance to keep in line, to keep the reality aspect of the film.
We read that you really became immersed in the character and that when the filming stopped it was hard to let the character go. Talk about that experience.
Vanessa: Yeah, I had been so used to playing this character that I became completely disengaged from who I was. When you are in a state of mind for long a duration, you start to become that person. After finishing the film, my self-confidence was at an all time low. I felt very down, I just didn’t love myself at all after playing this role. I had to take some time to get back in touch with myself. I went on a Yoga retreat in Hawaii which really put my mind at ease.
You had some real intense scenes in the film. What did you enjoy about this part?
Vanessa: I really enjoyed blowing up. Being really ferocious. Because it’s not something that I have gotten to do. I done parts were I played sad, but never one like this one where I could just explode. There’s a scene where I just get really mad at my dad and step-mom that was so much fun to do. But there was so much that I liked about the role. I just watched the whole movie and I just love it.
Why did you want the part so badly?
Vanessa: It’s so rare that a role like this comes around. It’s rare that you get to transform yourself. It’s every actors’ dream to really change themselves, physically or emotionally. To breakdown who you are and play someone so completely different. Something inside of me just knew that I had to do this role. I really connected to my character, it was somewhere inside of me and was just waiting to be channeled out.
It struck me how hungry Apple was. She was very hungry for love and hungry for emotion. Talk about that.
Vanessa: Just the fact that she is a survivor. You have to be hungry for that. It’s not an easy life and definitely a conscious choice. Just taking her life into her own hands by leaving her mom was a very strong thing to do.
Can you talk a little about how you prepared for the role?
Vanessa: Yeah, I went out to one of the shelters a couple of weeks before we started filming. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to prepare for a role because it completely submersed me into the role. My main focus was just to be one of the girls. I got to build some amazing relationships. I also put on some weight before I went to the shelter which really set the tone. I felt really different in my own body. And then, of course, the cutting of the hair which was part of the whole aesthetic of it all. I just wanted to change everything about myself. Try to make her completely different from myself.
Ronald: I want to ask a question. Where did you get the voice that you used and how did you figure out stuff like her walk? Because they were both very different from the way you normally act.
Vanessa: I think the walk started from my own life, where at times I have tried to get around without being recognized. When you take up space, you take up more energy and people notice that. But when you slump your shoulders down, its like you are able to kind of slip around without getting noticed. And it was my own take on being tough. I didn’t get it from the other girls in the shelter. It was just my own interpretation of toughness and being on the street.
Ronald: Was Apple’s walk and how she carried herself because she felt invisible to the world?
Vanessa: That is a good point. I felt that so many things happened subconsciously while I was playing Apple.
What kind of direction did you take from the girls in the shelter?
Vanessa: I think it was just their energy that I really valued. Just being around them, seeing what they were into and got them excited. Their values were very important and once I wrapped my head around that idea, it really allowed me to be their space.
Are you sick of people asking you if you are trying to “De-Disney” yourself?
Vanessa: Yeah, a little bit because it’s so not true. I mean I am ten years older now.
What did you take away from the role?
Vanessa: I think how hard it would be to be a sixteen year old girl and go through the things that Apple went through. It must be so hard. Its heart wrenching and it’s happening to a lot of girls right now. The only way that it’s going to change is if we make an effort to change it. You know, volunteer your time to shelters and try to help these young women. These women don’t usually have a place to go and so often they are just thrown out. It’s really sad how life can be so tough on people some times. And how alone we can be at times. But the film also shows that as long as we make a conscious choice to make a change in our life, we can get there. When you have faith and trust in yourself, you can change your future.
Will this role always be with you?
Vanessa: It’s so weird because when I watch the movie I become so disconnected from it. I really don’t know who that person is up on the screen. Its kind of bizarre. It was an amazing time in my life. I was proud that I was able transform into her. I am proud I was able to go there. And she will always be inside of me but I’ve grown. I not that person on the screen anymore.
“Gimme Shelter” releases nationwide on Friday, January 24th. “Gimme Shelter” Website