Vanessa Hudgens for Flare Canada February 2014

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Vanessa Hudgens’ near-Chesire grin glows as she nimbly stretches and bends into a plié between set-ups for her FLARE cover shoot at Milk Studios in New York. A moment later, she flits to the monitor in sling-back heels to peek at her images, appraising them with an awestruck Whoa!followed by a helium-like squeak: Yay!

But when shooting resumes, she oozes a distinctly different attitude. With her hair slicked back, emphasizing the sharp contour of her cheekbones, and wearing a crisp white Tibi jacket, Hudgens transforms into a ’90s femme fatale—a conspiring Upper East Sider from Cruel Intentions.

This tension between her natural self—a sugary spill of happy-go-lucky pep—and a recent readiness to explore darker roles separates the 25-year-old from the crop of aughties Disney starlets whose shifts toward adult pursuits often seem overly try-hard or frightfully boring. While her peers, like Ashley Tisdale, opted for series spinoffs or dramedies of the CW ilk, Hudgens portrayed an exotic dancer and sex worker who sucks on a crack pipe before hitting the pole in the John Cusack and Nicolas Cage thriller The Frozen Ground (released on DVD this past October). Up next, she is unrecognizable as Apple, a down-and-out pregnant teen runaway in Gimme Shelter.

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“I don’t know where it comes from, but ever since I was young, I’ve been so intrigued with the idea of transformation,” Hudgens tells me a few days later between bites of red quinoa salad and gulps of kombucha. It’s a cruelly cold November evening, and I’ve unwisely picked the brightly lit, subway-tiled Dean & DeLuca on the ground floor of the New York Times building to meet Hudgens, who arrives dressed head to toe in AllSaints, occasionally burrowing her face in a furry grey vest. “Naturally, I’m wired to be a little paranoid,” she says, explaining that although the midtown café freaks her out, it would be far worse in Los Angeles, where paparazzi follow her relentlessly. “That’s why I love New York. You can just walk around and be so free!”

Free and happy are adjectives Hudgens employs liberally. The actress and singer hails, after all, from sunny California, where she was born in the smallish city of Salinas and raised in a tight-knit family of four, including her Filipina mother and younger sister Stella, also an actress. Her thoughts often trail into what I come to learn is her signature giggle: an unfurling ribbon of Shirley Temple–type bubbliness. I later Google “Vanessa Hudgens giggling” and discover pages upon pages of links, including a medley of clips on YouTube that an adoring fan has pieced together.

After a few years doing small parts during her teens, Hudgens’ role as shy, straight-A student Gabriella Montez in High School Musical made her a household name. The Disney Channel franchise proved so popular that the studio released the third instalment, 2008’s Senior Year, as a feature film; its opening weekend became the highest-grossing for a musical ever. Legions of tweens—and the gossip blog–obsessed rest of us—also delighted in Hudgens’ four-year off-screen relationship with her High School Musical co-star Zac Efron.

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Bland, family-friendly love-interest roles in Beastly and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island followed (along with the odd leaked nude photo mini-scandal) and then Harmony Korine happened. The enfant terrible writer-director (Kids, Gummo) cast Hudgens in Spring Breakers, his 2013 neon-sexploitation bacchanal, which became a cult hit and a veritable one-film zeitgeist with a thousand think pieces, an Opening Ceremony capsule collection and countless Halloween costumes. Korine’s casting was deliberate—and genius. “I think that’s part of what’s scary in the movie for people,” says co-star James Franco (who played the cornrowed local drug dealer Alien) over the phone from Vancouver. The role bared Hudgens as a bikini-clad, gun-wielding coed named Candy, who thrill-seeks her way into jail, a swimming-pool threesome and, finally, a revenge rampage coda reminiscent of Scarface—that is, if Al Pacino were to wear a pink balaclava and waltz with a semiautomatic to Britney Spears’ “Everytime.” Fellow Disney alum (and Hudgens chum) Selena Gomez joined the cast too, but it’s telling that Hudgens (along with Pretty Little Liars’ Ashley Benson) was cast as the bad seed of the bunch, whereas Gomez’s character, panic-stricken, hightails it home from spring break on a bus partway through the film. “Vanessa and Ashley just kind of take a headlong leap,” says Franco. “It’s two characters who have lived by certain rules for so long and just don’t wanna live by those rules anymore, and they’re not really worried about consequences.”

 

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Despite Spring Breakers being released in 2013, its debauchery was merely a continuation of Hudgens’ commitment to more risqué projects. Gimme Shelter, directed by Ron Krauss and based on a true story, was shot pre-Breakers, nearly two-and-a-half years ago. “That was the first leap of faith into my adulthood,” Hudgens says of choosing the role of homeless teen Apple, whose mother (Rosario Dawson) is a drug addict and whose father (Brendan Fraser) is a Wall Street broker who left and started a new family. “My manager and agent told me, ‘I don’t know what the project is gonna be like,’” Hudgens says. “I sent Ron an email about how I needed to do this with him.”

 

Gimme Shelter begins with Apple repeating to herself: I’m not scared. I can do this. I’m not scared. I can do this. Hudgens wanted to be just as fearless as her real-life counterpart—she arranged to live in a shelter for teen moms for two weeks in order to prepare for her role, and met the woman who inspired the Apple character. “Everybody was pretty private for the most part,” she says. “I was the one prying into their lives.” She slowly stripped away the celebrity high shine, gaining 15 pounds and a faux lip ring, as well as layer after layer of dirty, baggy clothes. In the final stage of metamorphosis, the actress hacked off her real hair on camera for a scene. “The grimier and uglier I got, the more I was like, ‘Fuck yeah,’” she says. Hudgens’ performance conveys startlingly raw despair and a nervy teenage-girl resilience rarely seen in film: Her stare is dogged as Dawson spits venomous words inches from Hudgens’ face; she crashes a car while escaping a pimp, a stunt Hudgens helped perform. She even enjoyed that rite of actorly passage, giving birth: “I popped a bunch of blood vessels in my neck and face from pushing so hard.”

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In gritty New Jersey locations (including the shelter where Hudgens stayed), “we were shooting late at night on the streets where they have gang shootings,” Krauss says. “Helicopters are flying over your head, and it’s just a very dangerous area, but Vanessa never once said anything. She was always in character. She became Apple and lived in that character for a couple months, and I never saw Vanessa the entire time I was working with her.”

 

Hudgens likened the experience to an erasure of self. Emerging from the role was difficult: “I didn’t really know who I was—Vanessa was gone. I came home and I was a complete disaster,” she says. “My best friend is still so concerned about me when she thinks about that day because I was just a bit of a mess. I wasn’t really comfortable in social situations and my self-esteem was super low ’cause I had no hair and I had put on all this weight, so physically I didn’t feel attractive. And I was single.” But when I ask Hudgens what steps she took to recalibrate, her buoyant cheekiness snaps back, just like that. “Extensions!” she yelps, then giggles. “Instant confidence boos

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