Without a doubt, the trilogy of High School Musical films are a big part of why her name is so well known. She made her feature debut with a small role in Catherine Hardwicke and Nikki Reed’s Thirteen, and went on to star in the failed 2004 Thunderbirds movie. But it was 2006’s High School Musical that really launched her career.
She took the female lead of Gabriella Montez, opposite Zac Efron’s Troy Bolton, and the rest is history. Within the next two years, there would be a further two High School Musical films, cementing Hudgens’ status as a bankable icon for Disney.
But being a bankable icon of the High School Musical variety like that naturally has its downsides. For whatever reason, there will always be people who solely associate you with that role, and will therefore believe you capable of nothing more, and be unwilling to take a chance that you might have since taken on more meaty roles.
In Hudgens’ case, that judgement is entirely unwarranted. And in the past few years, she’s done a fantastic job of proving herself capable of so much more than her previous, relatively squeaky-clean image.
In a lot of ways, it began with Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. The dark fantasy saw Hudgens take on the role of Blondie, a professional dancer who is the hardened tough one of the group of young girls.
By way of Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, which was a sizeable pay day for Warner Bros. last year, we then of course come to Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers.
Korine’s Spring Breakers has been the subject of many a discussion since its debut at Venice last year. Whilst much of that discussion has often focused on Selena Gomez’s involvement in the project, whose image has been even squeakier than Hudgens’ once was, I’ve always felt, since watching it at TIFF last year, that Hudgens’ performance in the film is really the stand-out one of the young female quartet.
Whilst Gomez’s character, Faith, does indeed go further in her actions than we’ve seen Gomez play in the past, it’s Hudgens’ Candy that really makes the film for me.
Spoilers aside, it’s Candy that goes above and beyond what we’d previously seen of Hudgens. For me, it was more than enough to shake off any label that may have been stuck to her since her High School Musical days.
Vanessa Hudgens will soon be lending her voice to the animated The Great Migration, alongside fellow High School Musicaler Ashley Tisdale, but it’s her other three upcoming films that should continue to gain approval amongst those as-yet-unconvinced by her many talents as an actress (and a ‘serious’ actress at that).
First up is The Frozen Ground, due out in the UK next weekend, and in the US next month. Seeing the latest trailers reminded me of why it’s been such a pleasure to watch Hudgens’ career progress in recent years.
In the film, based on a true story, Hudgens plays a former prostitute who is hunted by serial killer Robert Hansen (John Cusack), with only Sgt. Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage) to help her bring Hansen to justice.
Like Spring Breakers, the trailers for The Frozen Ground look to show Vanessa Hudgens as we hadn’t seen her prior to Korine’s latest film. But it isn’t just exposure for the sake of exposure, for the sake of shaking off old images – these characters have depth and backstory, and Hudgens’ performance is very much one of the reasons I’m looking forward to seeing The Frozen Ground.
She’ll then be seen towards the end of the year in Robert Rodriguez’ Machete Kills. Naturally, I’m not expecting the film to earn Hudgens any Oscars – it won’t be winning her any extra fans in terms of being taken seriously, as such. But what it will show is how willing she is to step outside her past comfort zone, and work with a director as renowned as Rodriguez, and likely have a lot of fun working with such a stellar cast.
The first trailer for Machete Kills left Hudgens out of sight, and her appearance is definitely something to look forward to in the coming months. With any luck, a great poster for her character, Cereza (‘Cherry’, in Spanish), will surface soon.
And that brings us to Ron Krauss’ Gimmer Shelter, which is currently without a release date. Also based on a true story, Hudgens stars as a teenage girl who is forced onto the streets when she goes in search of her Wall Street father, in an effort to avoid the life of addiction and prostitution of her mother.
Whereas Machete Kills won’t be winning over any fans in terms of being taken seriously (but should earn plenty in terms of her choosing interesting roles), the premise of Gimme Shelter certainly sounds like it has more potential on that front. The set photos that we’ve seen show an unrecognisable Hudgens, arguably even androgynous. Starring alongside her will be Rosario Dawson, Brendan Fraser, Stephanie Szostak, and James Earl Jones, making for a very strong supporting cast.
I have a feeling that it will be Hudgens’ performance that takes centre stage here, as a make-or-break for the film, and that it will be that that makes it a brilliant drama, and quite possibly an Oscar contender – something which really would warrant Vanessa Hudgens to be taken as seriously as she deserves by mainstream audiences, critics, and more.
The past few years have shown her seeking out more and more diverse roles, moving out in entirely new directions from those that launched her career. And thus I can’t help but feel that it’s just a matter of time before people take Vanessa Hudgens seriously. She is an incredibly talented actress, who, for better or worse, found stardom on the Disney path. It was a fantastic launching point to kickstart her career – I, for one, have no shame in admitting that she was great in the films – and it’s been fantastic to see the roles that she’s taken on since. I have every reason to believe that the day will come when Vanessa Hudgens is the Penélope Cruz / Maggie Gyllenhaal of her generation.