An international star thanks to her role as good girl Gabriella in the High School Musical trilogy — and a four-year romance with costar Zac Efron — Vanessa Hudgens plays a beautiful outcast opposite Alex Pettyfer’s pompous beast in Beastly, out filmmaker Daniel Barnz’s modern twist on Beauty and the Beast, costarring Neil Patrick Harris. Next seen as an ass-kicking asylum inmate in Sucker Punch, a Zack Snyder–helmed action flick in theaters March 25, the newly single 22-year-old tells us why she’s drawn to gay directors and doesn’t blame mean gay men for coveting her man-candy.
Advocate.com: Up until the past few years, your projects have been primarily geared to the Disney demographic. As you take on more mature roles, have you become more aware of gay fans? I know you hung out at the Abbey in West Hollywood over Presidents’ Day weekend.
Vanessa Hudgens: I have been called “fierce” a few times. [Laughs] I do have a bunch of gay friends, my hairstylist is gay, and my makeup artist in New York is gay — just lots of people in my life that I love. But when it comes to the projects I choose, I just go with my gut instinct, and hopefully people will enjoy the ride I take them on. And the High School Musical movies actually reached out to so many people, young and old, gay or straight.
Ryan Evans, Lucas Grabeel’s effeminate character in the High School Musical films, is commonly considered a coded gay character. Did you see Ryan as gay?
[Laughs] Maybe a little bit. I remember Ashley Tisdale and I wondering, “Is he or isn’t he?” He is very musical theater–inclined. I think he just hasn’t figured it out yet.
Is America ready for an openly gay character on the Disney Channel?
That would be groundbreaking, and it would definitely be nice. Society is a lot more open than it used to be, so I don’t think there’s a better time than now.
You played Mimi in last summer’s Hollywood Bowl production of Rent, a musical that’s close to the gay community’s heart. When your casting was announced, some major bloggers expressed concern that you might not have the chops or the grittiness to pull it off. Did you feel the pressure?
I tried to not pay any attention to anything anyone was saying. It’s all about manifestation, so if you put something negative out into the world, or if somebody else puts something negative into your head, you can start to believe it. Why put yourself through that? Rent is very close to my heart too. I loved the music, and I thought Mimi was such a fantastic character, so I just allowed myself a fair shot to create something new and have an amazing time doing so.
You met your Rent director, Neil Patrick Harris, while doing Beastly together, right?
Yes, that’s where we met. It was so funny, because when he texted me, “Do you like Rent?” I thought he wanted to go see it with me or something. Little did I know he was directing it at the Hollywood Bowl. He’s just an all-around awesome guy. He’s so smart, so witty, and I adore him in every way. I haven’t met his babies yet, but he showed me pictures of them at the Beastly premiere. I’m so happy for him and David. They deserve the world, and I’m glad they have those little ones to share their love with.
The only problem I had with Beastly is that even when Alex Pettyfer is supposed to be hideous, he’s still kind of hot in a rough-trade kind of way. Well, I guess that’s not really a problem.
Yeah, I guess everyone has a type. Socially, though, it’s not really that acceptable to have tattoos on your face. I mean, that character’s a furry creature in the original Beauty and the Beast, so this is our own spin on it. We wanted it to feel somewhat realistic.
Beastly’s message is obviously one of inner beauty trumping outward appearance. Considering you dated Zac Efron, one of the most beautiful guys in the world, the irony of your playing the lead can’t be lost on you.
[Laughs] Yeah. But I think I was lucky in that sense because he was actually a very good person on the inside as well. You can be an extremely beautiful person, but if you don’t have the personality to match, it just makes you ugly.
How important are looks to you?
They’re somewhat important, I guess, but not necessarily. I tend to always find the beauty in a lot of things, whether it’s a person or just something that I walk past on the street.
Beastly’s writer-director, Daniel Barnz, is openly gay, and he’s spoken to The Advocate about the reflection of his outsider experience in his work. Did his outsider perspective help to inspire your performance?
It totally did. He really took the time to sit down with me and Alex to try to make these characters as real as we could. He helped me create the way that I talked, the way that I carried myself — little things like pulling my sleeves over my hands and things that made me feel like more of an outsider. He was there every step of the way, making sure I was good with everything. He really took care of me. I adore him.
As a pretty, popular young lady, is it hard to get into that outsider mind-set?
Well, I wasn’t always popular. When I was younger, I was a complete loner. I had, like, one or two friends. One of my friends was friends with the popular girls, and they didn’t even want me in their crowd. I was that girl.
You worked with another gay director, Camp’s Todd Graff, on the underrated 2009 teen comedy Bandslam.
Yeah, I’m a big fan of Todd’s. He’s an amazing guy, and we had such an incredible time together on and off set. He really allowed the space for me to be creative and explore this whole new character. I loved that she was also an outcast who didn’t try to please anyone and who just did things for herself. That film is where I learned to play the guitar, but the songs I learned are still the only songs I know how to play. I built up calluses on my fingers, though, and suffered through the pain.
Working with gay directors like Neil Patrick Harris, Daniel Barnz, and Todd Graff, have you noticed any common sensibility there that you appreciate?
Oh, definitely. Working with all of them, one thing I’ve really noticed is that they have — well, not necessarily a motherly instinct, but they are such caring people. They want to make sure you feel my most comfortable, they want you to be able to give your best performance, and they’re willing to do anything to let you do that. I have a very fond spot in my heart for those guys.
You also star in Sucker Punch, which is about a group of girls who break out of an insane asylum. Director Zack Snyder’s 300 and Watchmen both had their share of homoerotic moments. Is there any lesbian action or subtext in Sucker Punch?
Not really, but it is about five girls bonding together to escape reality, and our characters are strong, sexy, empowered women. There are also some awesome fighting sequences. My character, Blondie, is what I would call the fear in all the girls. When you do things out of fear, they aren’t always the smartest decisions, which is why her name is Blondie.
Before I let you go, I’d like to take this chance to apologize to you on behalf of gay guys everywhere. Some of us may have said some unkind things about you in the past, but it was mostly because we were jealous of you and wanted Zac on our team.
Aw. Seriously, thank you for saying that, because you’re the first person who’s ever said that to me. But, you know, it’s totally fine. Everybody’s got to have somebody that they want, right?
You definitely bore the brunt of Perez Hilton’s very public crush on his beloved “Zacquisha.” Did that ever upset you, or did you find it funny?
A little bit of both. I was like, Dude, you haven’t even met me and you’re making these snap judgments about me. But he seems to have simmered down now, which I’m very thankful for.