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Vanessa Hudgens talks 'Gimme Shelter' in frigid Chicago

Vanessa Hudgens tries not to freeze while touting dramatic turn

Mark Caro

9:44 AM CST, January 23, 2014

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From the chirpy "High School Musical" movies to the seedy "Spring Breakers" to the gritty new pregnant-teen drama "Gimme Shelter," Vanessa Hudgens was never prompted to utter such a line as Chicago inspired on its coldest day in decades:

"My nose hairs are frozen!"

The 25-year-old actress, accompanied by a cluster of publicists and handlers, had arrived all bundled up at the designated coffeehouse that January Monday morning, when the temperature hit a record minus 16 degrees, and once inside she could still see her breath; the tall-windowed shop's heating system was no match for the elements. It was 10 a.m., and she ordered tea and soup — to go.

Wrapping her black shawl over the French braid atop her head, she joined her entourage in the SUV outside and headed toward a warmer place, admiring Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion before the vehicle pulled up to a downtown tea shop. Once seated and de-layered, the petite, impeccably made-up actress discussed a career that, in a way, has come full circle.

Hudgens' debut film was Catherine Hardwicke's 2003 troubled-teen indie drama "Thirteen," in which she plays a friend of Evan Rachel Wood's lead character. After rocketing to fame in the three "High School Musical" movies opposite Zac Efron (the first two debuting on the Disney Channel, the third released theatrically), she's back in troubled-teen indieland with Ron Krauss' "Gimme Shelter," which opens Friday and bears no relation to the Maysles brothers' 1970 Rolling Stones documentary of the same name.

The actress, barely recognizable on-screen with roughly shorn hair, no makeup and general dishevelment, plays Apple, a pregnant teen who flees her abusive drug addict mother (the beautiful Rosario Dawson made hideous) to seek her birth father and shelter. The performance marks an emotionally raw shift for Hudgens and, coming after her turn as a hard-partying, gun-toting girl gone wild in Harmony Korine's lurid "Spring Breakers," might be seen as part of a deliberate strategy to wipe the Disney sugar from her image.

She says any such attempt to alter perceptions may be unconscious. "The way that it's worked out has been quite brilliant," she says, "and it wasn't necessarily planned in any way, shape or form. In the fall I have another movie coming out ('Kitchen Sink') where I am the token hot girl, and it's so polar opposite, it's funny. I feel like it's just part of the master plan that's out of my hands; that I'm just trying to achieve by listening to my gut, listening to the higher power."

Here's more of what she had to say in an edited interview:

On being a California native in frigid Chicago: "It's just intense. It's just too much. (Laughs) Whatever. We have a planet. I'm grateful."

On whether she feels more in her element acting in a scrappy indie or polished studio movie: "I feel like I'm in my element whenever I'm doing anything I'm passionate about, whatever that may be. And it always changes."

On whether she's been passionate about everything she's done: "Yeah. Of course. I'm very picky about my projects. That's why I haven't done that many things."

On whether she was familiar with people like the characters in "Gimme Shelter": "I lived a pretty sheltered life growing up, so this is kind of something that I didn't really even know much about: shelters for pregnant teens, just the idea of being homeless at such an early age."

On whether she cut off her own hair on camera: "No, that was a wig. I cut my hair beforehand just to start the whole process of the transformation. Yeah, it was fun. I loved it. Afterward I got into hair and makeup and wardrobe and walked around the shelter, which was where production had taken over. It took people multiple takes to realize that I was myself. And that right there was instant gratification."

On living in a shelter to prepare for "Gimme Shelter": 'My character was kind of loosely based on this one girl. She stayed in the shelter, and I went and stayed for about two weeks before we started filming and just got to know her and her whole life story and become best friends with her son. … I feel like once I got into her mind and got to see her dreams and what she actually cared about, it just really set the tone for the whole project."

On which is hardest — doing a big emotional scene, a funny scene or a singing scene: "It's all different. I mean, everything takes so much work. It doesn't matter what it is. You have a lot of work to put into it. And I think it also depends where you are in your life if something's hard or easy."

On whether she's still recording music: "Not currently. I'm working on a little side project that I'm trying to develop. It's all a process. These things take so much time, and I don't want to rush anything."

On preferring acting to singing: "Acting's always been my No. 1 passion. Performance. I love performing, whether it's in front of the camera or on a stage. I just love the act of expressing myself."

On performing "High School Musical" concerts: "What we went through was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I mean, being on a stage for 60,000 people in Brazil, where they speak different languages, and they are singing the lyrics to our songs — it's just something that I will look back on and tell my grandkids."

On what she'd say if Disney asked her to do a "High School Musical 4": "I'm 25. (Laughs) I'm not in high school anymore."

On whether she's just moved on: "It's not that I've even moved on. It's just that I've grown. If Disney came to me and wanted me to make a musical, I would say, 'Hell, yeah.' I love musicals. It's just, I don't know, certain things are done, and then you leave them, and you allow them to simmer and become history. You don't want to tinker with what's already been made into such an incredible phenomenon."

On whether female former Disney stars feel more pressure to change their images than male ones do: "Oh, geez, that's something I've never really given any thought about. I mean, I think it's a struggle for everyone to continue to build and grow in your career, whether you had been on the Disney Channel or not, to go from a child to an adult. It's a tough transition."

On whether, given the career paths of such Disney alumnaealumni as Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, sexuality becomes more of an issue for women: "Well, because men don't have sexuality, do they? They don't have feminine qualities like females do, and it's a beautiful thing, and it's a powerful thing. So I think if women use it, that's amazing."

On the Rolling Stones' documentary "Gimme Shelter": "I haven't seen all of it. I started to watch it and got distracted by something."

On whether she'll forget other cities on this promotional tour but remember freezing her face off in Chicago: "Yeah. Literally. Yeah, it's been good. It's been real. … I'm not stuck here."

mcaro@tribune.com

Twitter @MarkCaro