Vanessa Hudgens turns in a surprisingly raw and emotionally powerful performance in Scott Walker’s suspenseful thriller, The Frozen Ground, as 17-year-old street hooker Cindy Paulson, one of the few victims that managed to escape Alaska’s most notorious serial killer, Robert Hansen (John Cusack). In the film inspired by true events, Hudgens’ character forms an unlikely partnership with Alaska State Trooper, Sgt. Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), who convinces her to help him bring Hansen to justice. Opening August 23rd, the film also features Dean Norris, Radha Mitchell and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.
We recently landed an exclusive interview with Hudgens who talked about her reaction when she first read the script, how meeting the real Cindy Paulson helped inform her portrayal of the character, why it was important to her that audiences see Paulson as a real human being and not a stereotype, what she learned from working with experienced actors like Cage and Cusack who inspired her performance, how Walker’s enthusiasm and energy kept the atmosphere on set upbeat despite the dark subject matter, and what she discovered about herself in the process of making the film. She also discussed her fun cameo in Machete Kills and her upcoming films, Gimme Shelter and The Kitchen Sink.
Vanessa Hudgens: I was a little bit shaken up that this guy who was well respected in the neighborhood and everyone knew as the family man could have done such atrocious and heinous crimes. It was just shocking and disturbing. But then, after that, I could not get over the fact of how amazing this character was and how I had to be a part of it.
How did you approach your portrayal of Cindy?
Hudgens: I wanted her to be a normal teenage girl. Her circumstances were different and not ideal for most, but that was just her current state. I wanted her to be like a real human being because it’s easy to label someone who’s stuck in that circumstance. I wanted everyone to see that we’re all the same. We all have the same needs.
How did talking to the real Cindy Paulson inform that process?
Hudgens: It was so helpful. It is so nice when you don’t have to build a character from the ground up by yourself. She gave me an extremely solid foundation and told me her earliest memories that she had until where she is to this day. Being able to take those and meditate on them myself and make her memories my own memories put me in the right head space. It became very accessible to me. But then also, it was not personal enough that it would come home with me and affect my sleeping. So, that was nice.
What was it like working with Nicolas Cage and John Cusack? Was it fun watching them go toe to toe? What did you learn from them?
Hudgens: Oh my gosh, Nic is the most professional actor I’ve ever worked with and that I probably will ever work with. He is just so punctual, and he always knows his lines, and he’s there to get the job done. He doesn’t mess around. I really respect that. And he was very kind and giving as an actor, as well as John. They pushed me every day to get reactions out of me on the camera that I wouldn’t have done if it wasn’t for them taking me to those places. And so, I was guided along very beautifully by them.
How was the directing process with Scott Walker? Did he give you a sense of what he wanted and then get out of the way and let you follow your instincts as an actor? Did he only do a few takes or did he do as many as he felt he needed?
Hudgens: It depended on the scene. If it was something technical, of course, it would take a couple more takes, but for the most part, he’s the kind of director that filled me in, let me know the mood that he wanted to convey and where he wanted it to land. But aside from that, he just let me play and take it wherever I wanted. He’s amazing. I absolutely adore him. Even though we were filming something that was so heavy and tough to come to work for every day, he had this enthusiasm and energy about him that was just so upbeat and lighthearted, so that even though it was serious, you felt excited and safe.
This is a very intense film. What was the most difficult scene for you to shoot and why?
Hudgens: It was definitely the rape scene because we recreated that room to a T. I mean, everything that I was seeing, the emotions that I was feeling, were the exact same things that these young victims had gone through as well, and it was crazy living that, even though it’s make believe. I was going through those emotions and seeing the same things. It was very, very eerie and really tough, but John (Cusack) was great. He invited me afterwards to go to dinner with him and a couple of his friends because he felt so bad about putting me through that. He was really sweet.
How do you feel about the final film now that you’ve seen it? How does it compare to what you envisioned when you first read the script?
Hudgens: Honestly, it’s even better than I thought it was going to be. Scott did an amazing job at keeping a very steady uproar and pace. It turned into a cat and mouse chase. When I read it, I saw it as a character development project, but seeing it overall pulled it all in together. It left me wanting to watch it over and over again even though I’m in it. It’s nice because I can watch it from an outsider’s perspective and be sucked into it, which is cool.
Was it important for you to give the victims a voice in this film?
Hudgens: It’s important for me because it’s easy for people to make snap judgments about young women in her position. They look at them in a very specific way. And the reality of it is we’re all human. We are all the same. We’re all connected. We all have the same needs. So it’s immoral to make snap judgments about people. I just wanted to make her as full-hearted as I possibly could. It’s important, too, for people to see that it only takes one person to have faith in you, to care about you, to make you feel changed. We should all help each other out and give love to everyone as much as possible.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of making this film?
Hudgens: It’s interesting that actors put themselves in a place where they can feel so hurt and feel so much pain. Normally, people try avoiding that. So, just the fact that I put myself in this situation, in this character, to go through these emotions and make myself feel all that I felt is an interesting thing psychology-wise. I was surprised that I could do it and then go home and be able to feel removed from it. I feel like women have an easier time separating from their characters than men do, honestly. So it was nice to kind of test my own mental and physical strength.
You’ve taken on some very interesting, challenging roles lately in different genres like this film and also Gimme Shelter. Is this part of a deliberate strategy to develop further as an actress and put the High School 3 image behind?
Hudgens: That’s always been the goal. I always wanted to do dramas. Ever since I was young, I wanted to be in a role where I could play a prostitute or a drug addict, because it’s nice to be able to portray someone who is so far from you, which I love. I just want to do everything. As broad as that seems, it’s kind of the plan. There are so many different genres out there to do, so many different characters to play, so many different amazing actors and directors to work with. I’m just following my gut, and if it’s speaking to me, then I’m doing it.
What are your thoughts on the reception to Spring Breakers?
Hudgens: I thought it was pretty spot on. People either loved it or they hated it. It’s very specific and unique, and it’s that type of film. I personally loved it. I thought it was an amazing take on pop culture and where we are today and how the generation is so media-driven and ‘see and be seen.’ It was just a really interesting take on college students.
I understand you’re in early talks for The Kitchen Sink which has been described as a monster genre mash-up. Can you tell me a little about your character and the status of that project?
Hudgens: I don’t like talking about anything until I sign my contract, which I haven’t done yet, but it will happen most likely pretty soon. It’s another fun, more light-hearted character that the audiences have never seen me do before. I think it will be a fun change of pace for me.
What about Gimme Shelter which is completed? When will it be released?
Hudgens: We’re shooting for either late December or the beginning of next year. I actually shot that before I filmed this (The Frozen Ground) interestingly enough. That’s another character that I dove very deeply into. It’s by far the craziest transformation I’ve had yet. (laughs) It’s my monster of sorts.
Can you talk about your fun cameo in Machete Kills and what that experience was like?
Hudgens: That was great. It was super fun and really quick. I play Cereza which means Cherry in Spanish which says a lot about the character. (laughs) It’s a quick little cameo. I just wanted a chance to work with Robert Rodriguez. I think he’s such an incredible filmmaker. Just his whole work ethic I found fascinating, so I jumped at the opportunity to be able to do something with him.
Have you heard anything about a sequel to Journey 2 – The Mysterious Island?
Hudgens: I think that they’re doing one. I’m not involved though.
Is there anything else that you have coming up?
Hudgens: Nothing that I want to talk about quite yet. I guess I’m superstitious, so I don’t like talking about things until they happen, but there are a few things in the works.