You might recognise Vanessa Hudgens from High School Musical—and we won’t be surprised if you did because that’s how we knew her too. Twelve years since that show, the 30-year-old actress has gone on to act in various movies, such as fantasy film Beastly and crime comedy Spring Breakers. Her latest endeavour is Second Act, in which she acts alongside Jennifer Lopez.
“I play Zoe who is the vice president at a company called Franklin & Clarke and her father is the CEO of the company. She’s a very strong, independent go-getter. You meet her and she definitely doesn’t want anyone new coming into her space. She’s very competitive. That’s the thing I love about her the most,” Vanessa said.
Read on to find out what she thinks of her career so far and working with JLo.
You have some emotional scenes in Second Act with Jennifer Lopez. Can you talk about that and how you developed chemistry with her?
I think it was one of those things that were written in the stars. Every now and then, you meet someone you feel like you have known for a long time. That was the case with Jen. Working with her was so magical because she was so present with me and I felt like when she was working with me everything was going to be OK. I knew what she was doing and she knew what I was doing and we would come together and put our best foot forward. We also had this weird thing where I felt like she could communicate with me telekinetically. She would look at me and I was like, “I feel like you are saying this”. I would do that and it would guide her to where I thought she wanted to go and that would allow me to move into that place. It was just an amazing cycle that honestly feels magical.
Do you think you had this connection because you grew up listening to her music?
I don’t know. I think God just wanted us to be friends and do this movie. I feel like it is such an amazing message and it will empower girls and women everywhere.
Jennifer’s character is aged in her 40s and undertakes a major career change. Can you talk about the importance of moving forward and overcoming career obstacles?
I think that is such a lovely reminder to see it, and see it happen successfully. I think so much of the time it doesn’t matter how old you are we have this mentality of feeling stuck and almost feel like being a victim to it. In certain circumstances you are really the only person holding you back. If you want something and have enough hard work and focus and perseverance you will get there.
Second Act was shot in New York and you share a few scenes with Jennifer in public locations like Central Park. What was that like? Were there a lot of fans watching?
It was honestly kind of a disaster (laughs). I was trying to have a very honest, real and emotional moment with Jen but there were literally 100 people surrounding us and freaking out. It was rough. Not ideal. But [lucky for] how nurturing and how loving Jen is she looked at me and said, “You’re fine. You’ve got this”. I was like, “OK”.
What was the casting process like?
I remember I went in and did a standard audition with casting and the director and it was a very emotional scene that is meant to happen with Jennifer, but I was doing it to a man. I was like, “You know, I promise you this would be a lot better if I was doing it to a woman.” It’s like yeah, “It’s acting but I can’t really connect with you in the way that I would connect with her”. So I came back in for a chemistry read with Jennifer. I remember being so nervous. They had a little waiting room that I was sitting in and I remembered something from an acting class that I had recently just taken where they said, “Before an audition, lay on the floor and feel your body. Feel where you’re holding tension and just try to breathe into it and let it out.” I thought if somebody walked by me right then they’d say, “Are you OK? Do you need help?” But yeah, then I went into the room and Jennifer was sitting there dead center and of course I had met her once before, but it was just in passing. But to have such an intimate moment with her, I was just like still taken aback by her aura. She’s stunning. There’s just this radiance about her that I guess some would call the JLo glow. It’s a real thing. It’s a very real thing, but once I got over that and we started doing the scene work, I was kind of just so at peace with her. There was something so special about working with her that felt so organic and almost like if we were working together, I knew that everything would be okay. We just had this kind of connection where sometimes you meet certain people and you feel like you’ve known them your whole life and you just have this connection. You can’t describe it and that’s kind of what I had with her. And it was so special being able to work with her day in and day out and allow that to grow.
What was it like working with costume designer Patricia Fields on the movie?
She is such an icon. I mean like Sex and the City was one of my favorite shows. And it was like, “Here I am in New York City with Pat Fields”. That’s pretty iconic and she really just has such an amazing grasp at taking the director’s vision and your vision and running with it and allowing it to grow in a way that the characters grow as well. That’s what I loved about it, you know, you meet my character Zoe in one place where she’s a bit more hard and then throughout the film she softens up and I feel like her clothes reflect that as well.
So did you get to go to Patricia’s place and look through her closets and things?
(Laughs) I didn’t go through her closet, but she would bring coats from her own personal closet and she’s so petite herself that everything would work perfectly on me, which was great. I reaped the benefits of her petiteness.
You didn’t try and steal any?
I mean, I definitely wanted to (laughs). I’m not that girl.
You said you’re still taking acting classes?
Yeah, it’s so important to keep the muscle strong. You know, actors have the one job where a lot of times they think that they can’t do it for a while and pick it back up and it’ll still fully there. Whereas athletes are training every single day, you know. So I think it’s important to get in classes from time to time or intensives and brush up or work with coaches even. My favorite coach is Larry Moss and going to his intensives and even just sitting in the room and soaking up everything that he has to say is so inspiring.
In the movie your character has a hidden talent, photography. What is your hidden talent?
Well, I don’t cook. Not that. I don’t know. I’m horrible at answering those kinds of questions. I’ve designed a suit collection, which is kind of unexpected I guess for people who don’t really know me, but somehow is perfectly aligned with this film because my character is such a young businesswoman who does power suits.
If you could learn something new what would it be? What is on your bucket list?
I would love to get into songwriting classes because I had done two albums, but that was like 11 years ago and I’ve done a couple of singles here and there. I’m not the best songwriter and I definitely have my own opinions and point of view and would like to be able to articulate that in a creative way. And I love music and singing and performing.
So you’d like to do what Jennifer Lopez has perfected?
Yes, I’m literally trying to follow her footsteps. I’m trying to come up with my own perfume line and then my own Vegas residency (Laughs).
Did you talk to Jennifer about that?
Yeah. We talked a lot about a lot of things. I mean I was constantly trying to pick her mind because of A) the icon that she is, and B) What an empowering woman she is. I mean I felt like a better person being around her. Just how hard working she is. Yeah, you assume it because you see how much she has on her plate, but to be there firsthand and see how she really has her pulse on everything. It really is her vision that is coming to the forefront. That was surprising to me because it’s easy to take a backseat and I’ve definitely been neglectful at certain points of my life where I have been lazy and I feel like because I’m entering a new chapter of my life going into a new decade, I was like, that’s the thing that I’m going to take away from her. It’s just how hard working she is. Like I will not stop. If JLo won’t stop I won’t stop (laughs).
You just turned 30. How do you feel about that?
It’s exciting. I love it. I really love this whole idea of change and transformation and evolution. I think that my twenties were so epic. I really honestly had high highs and low lows, but I feel like I’ve learned so much about myself and who I am and what I stand for and that’s the thing that I’m most excited about taking into my thirties with this new sense of self. I’m also getting all my ducks in a row in my personal life, in my career, in my team so that it can be a place where there are no distractions, where I can go full steam ahead.
How did you avoid the pitfalls of being young and successful in Hollywood?
I hold myself to a very high regard. I want to be proud of the life that I’m living and I feel like if you’re setting a high standard for yourself that even if you take tumble, at least you know that you’re trying your best. And that’s what my game plan has always been from day one and that’s what I will continue to be.
Do you have people who keep you grounded?
God’s been so good to me in a sense of putting a really great head on my shoulders. I think that my mom is one of the most radiant women that I know. She’s actual sunshine and when you have that raising you, you could never slip into the dark side. She’s just amazing. I think that I’m intelligent, I know what I should and should not be doing and just don’t do the things that I shouldn’t be doing.
Did Jennifer give you any specific advice?
Yeah. One of the things that it seems so simple but is truly so helpful is if I’m not happy in a certain point of my career to look at the people who I admire and find who is doing that, who’s helping them do that. Just find those people that I want to model myself after and look at the people surrounding them as well like stylists or publicists.
Who are the people you admire?
It’s different people for different things. I mean obviously like Meryl Streep has always been my number one icon when it comes to acting. I think that it’s so important to constantly allow the audience to reimagine you as someone different and so I feel like that’s what I want to try to continue to do throughout my career. There are certain people in the fashion world that I look up to, people who are actors as well who are just very interesting to me with what they’re doing with their fashion and the way that they express themselves.
Do you think it is a good time for women in Hollywood?
Yes, I do. I think that because I did start off in this industry at such an early age and because I myself was such a shy person, it was always easier for me to just stay quiet. I am fortunate enough that I never had anything extremely traumatising happened to me in the industry, but even when it comes to point of view and perspective and being an activist, I was always kind of scared by the idea of it all because if you’re speaking out people are going to listen and then people are going to have their opinions and react. But I’m realising that as a service to myself and as a human being and as a woman, especially at this time, more than ever, or to shout it and I feel like that’s something that’s really exciting for me as a person and something exciting as a woman to be able to share that experience with them.
Was there a particular moment when you decided you were going to speak up?
Yeah. I make a vision board every single year on January 1 and it’s honestly magical what you can manifest. It was about two years ago that I put that on my vision board and also to say ‘yes’. Because I’ve been in this industry for so long, I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed because people knew me from High School Musical and that was not the way I originally saw my career going. And while I was grateful for it, that wasn’t all that I wanted to do. I wanted to do so much more. So I got very comfortable with saying no to a lot of things as a way to deflect being in a box but also to protect myself and keep myself comfortable. So I started saying yes and so much has come from that. So, so much. And [Second Act] is one of the things that came from that. Hosting So You Think You Can Dance came from that. Designing has come from that. I’m working with new charities that’s come through that. It’s just very exciting when you start saying ‘yes’.
Do you remember the first time you met Jennifer?
I had met her once in passing at like a press day she was doing press. I don’t even know what for, but yeah, it was like, ‘Oh wow, that’s JLo’.
You get to jog with Jennifer in the film. What was that like?
I hate running. She used to be in track, so she’s actually incredible and I would watch playback and I’d be like, “You look so much better running than I do”. She was like, “You’re fine, baby, you got it.” And I’m like, “OK.” Then I watch it back and I’m like, “I look like an idiot. I’m supposed to be the one who knows how to run.”
The cast seemed to have a lot of chemistry. Did you have to work on achieving that?
It felt like it happened very organically. I mean, the fact that Jen and Leah were really good friends before brings an automatic playful energy to set. Then with Jennifer, I mean, you have like this weird (telekinetic) thing. I don’t know if it’s just my side, but I just loved her and I felt so comfortable with her and I honestly felt like whenever I had to do scenes with her that I knew magic was going to happen. It was just like there was this driving force that I knew was going to carry me and allow me to rise to her level and be able to create something that was honest. So it wasn’t really hard. Plus we had Treat Williams who is just a big kid himself. He’s just running around singing musicals all day long, so it creates for a really good work environment.
What did you a Jennifer do together when there was a break in filming?
We would scroll through Instagram together. We were looking at her account most of the time. Who says Instagram needs to be a solo experience, right?
Jennifer can’t take a bad picture.
No, she can’t. She’s looking through Instagram the same reasons I look through Instagram. For hair and makeup or looks that designers have just done. I take inspiration from that. So that’s always fun.
Jennifer’s character finds herself aged in her 40s and having to change careers. Do you have friends or family members who have had to embark on a second act like that?
Yes, I know it intimately. Not myself but someone I’m very close to. It’s hard because it truly is like you are the only one holding yourself back. You’re capable, you’re willing, you are intelligent and you can do it, but if you have a belief that you can’t, that’s what’s going to talk louder. I’m hopeful this person will watch the movie and be inspired to do something about it.
In Second Act people are judged by the college they went to or the fact they did not even go to college. There’s a bias. Did you face a bias like that coming out of High School Musical? Was it hard to shake that off when looking for new projects to work on?
Yes. I think that in the beginning it was definitely difficult because everything that was coming in was stuff that I could do in my sleep. I mean, it’s not going to challenge me and I’m not going to grow from that and what’s the point of doing it if you’re not gonna be challenged to grow? So I did have dry spell periods where I’m kind of sitting around calling my agents and managers saying, “Guys, what’s going on? I need to work, I need to do something. I’m starting to lose my mind and go crazy.” But it was just because the right things weren’t around at that time, but because I stayed true to what I felt like I was worth I’ve been able to do so many incredible things like Spring Breakers, which was completely outside of that box and something that I’m so proud of. It has been like 12 years since the first High School Musical. It’s been long enough that I’ve been able to embrace it with open arms. It’s a very special thing if people always remember me as Gabriella from High School Musical because it was a big part of their childhood and they learned to love musicals because of it. I’ll take that as a very special thing. An iconic character is something that doesn’t happen to everyone so I’m embracing it.
You mentioned social media earlier. Do you actually read what people write about you?
I have been in this industry for a while and I have been in the spotlight for over a decade so I have built a thick skin and I know how to not take things personally. I do read my comments if I’m bored and have time or procrastinating, cleaning my house because it’s really easy and a nice way to be able to connect with my fans. They’ll ask me questions and I can respond to them and have a direct conversation with them, which I think is so special and I know they like it too.
Second Act will hit the theatres in Singapore on January 3, 2019.
Images: Golden Village