Vanessa Hudgens on 'Downtown Owl', Coachella, and Her Love for Horror

"I’ve been onscreen for the past 22 years now—there is still so much that I want to do."

<p>Getty Images/ InStyle</p>

Getty Images/ InStyle

There’s an alternative, punk-rock edge to Vanessa Hudgens that Disney fans may not have identified when she first hit the spotlight as Gabriella Montez in 2006’s High School Musical. At 35, the star, married to baseball player Cole Tucker and pregnant with her first child, is known for taking on campy, arguably risky roles that require a variety of skills, from singing to dancing and improv comedy (see: Grease Live!, Rent: Live, and Netflix's The Princess Switch franchise). It’s her desire to take on challenging projects that inspired Hudgens to say yes to Downtown Owl, her latest film.

Set in a middle-of-nowhere North Dakota town called Owl in 1983, the dramedy follows Julia Rabia (Lily Rabe), a high school teacher who moved from Milwaukee in pursuit of a fresh start, only to be confronted by unusual locals and a wildly chaotic blizzard that upends her plans; it also stars Henry Goulding, ED Harris, and Finn Wittrock. Based on Chuck Klosterman's novel of the same name, Hudgens plays Naomi, a bored townie who finds joy and escapism in her budding friendship with Rabe's Julia.

“[Their friendship] is Naomi's chance to shine and be the star that she never got to be. And then she finds Lily’s character and suddenly she’s got the best friend to do it with," Hudgens says of the role. "It was really fun because I felt like my character got to live in this unique, encapsulated world.”

As a major American Horror Story fan, Hudgens gasped when she learned Rabe and Hamish Linklater were co-directing. "I was just enraptured by this tone that they set in the script, where it’s real and dark and heavy, but there’s also comedy. It’s really unique,” she says. “I’m always looking for something that has its own perspective and point of view. The character Naomi was just a hoot and really shot off the page. Plus, the whole ‘80s of it all. I love a theme, I love an era. I was like, I’m gonna have some good hair and makeup and costumes in this. Let’s rock!”

To accurately channel the '80s and Naomi's larger-than-life personality, Linklater told Hudgens to lean into the camp. “I’ll never forget Hamish just saying, bigger is better. Just go for it! And plow through the words—don’t stop for breaths. I was like, OK, you just tell me to go and reel me in if you need to. I really went for it,” she says. “That was the foundation—just be as big, bold, and vivacious as humanly possible.”

Below, Hudgens opens up about Downtown Owl, her favorite horror projects, music, and what’s next.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

InStyle: What was your favorite look your character got to wear?

Vanessa Hudgens: The dance montage moments were the most amplified version of Naomi, which was so much fun. We shot it so quick, so gung-ho. We were just like, slap some more eyeshadow on, tease the hair bigger, change to another ‘fit, do the dance, and do it all over again! It was really fun, and very much in the spirit of the character.

InStyle: You mentioned getting excited about transporting back to the ‘80s for the role. What is it about that decade that you love?

VH: The Madonna of it all, just the unapologetic, loud, explorative sensuality of the ‘80s is totally this emboldened thing that lives purely on its own. The looks were outrageous. The hair was so large and so in charge. I have naturally curly hair, so my hair lends itself to that era. And the makeup was so colorful and so vibrant. It was such a time of playfulness that I feel like we only get these days at music festivals. It was everybody expressing themselves every day.



InStyle: Speaking of music festivals, what was it like to not be at Coachella this year? You were known as the queen of Coachella.

VH: I’m dead. It was fine? I definitely watched a few streams.

InStyle: Is there a type of work you feel like you’ve yet to explore and want to?

VH: There’s a lot. I’ve been onscreen for the past 22 years now—there is still so much that I want to do. Having the genes I have is such a blessing and a curse because I am a woman, but I partly look like a young adult. I’ve been struggling my entire life to look my age, and now that I’m getting older, I’m like, maybe I actually don’t want to look my age. I accept my youth.

I still have yet to step into the role of a lot of women’s stories. There’s also a lot of genres that I haven’t been able to find the right project to do it with. Horrors and thrillers are my favorite and because they’re my favorite, I’m so precious with what I want to do. It genuinely has to be the right one. I’m not working just to work. I’m working because they’re projects and stories that I really love and really want to tell. Sometimes that comes far and few in between.

InStyle: It’s nice to hear you say you choose your roles with intention.

VH: I’m very blessed and fortunate to be at that place. Coming up 20 years ago, it would be a very different story. I guess you earn your stripes.

InStyle: What are some of your favorite horror films or series?

VH: I love American Horror Story, so we’ll start there. I love Ryan Murphy. All [his projects] are so fantastic to me. They’re so whimsical and so glamorous and so over-the-top. They remind me of why I love Disneyland so much. You know? It’s just another world—over-the-top but perfect. The Shining, obviously. I saw a Thread on Instagram the other day that was like, tell me movies that were horror movies that scarred you but weren’t actually horror films, and I was like, Oh, that was The NeverEnding Story for me. I loved that! It’s so weird—not horror but oddly sci-fi and not really for children. I love those fantastical, whimsical worlds as well. What else? I literally have an entire list. I love the spook of it all.

InStyle: You seem to be embedded in social media and internet culture.

VH: As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten more and more private. I’ve always been a pretty buttoned-up, private person, but, especially as of late, I’ve really buttoned it up. But, I let people in in ways that I feel comfortable with and then I kind of just set it to the wind because I’m like, everyone’s going to have their own opinions and as long as my opinion about myself is good, that’s all that matters.

<p>Getty Images</p>

Getty Images

InStyle: You made headlines at the Vanity Fair Oscar party for your maternity style. What’s it like to dress differently for this stage of your life?

VH: It’s wild, but I don’t really like talking about my pregnancy, ‘cause I’m like, we share so much as actors and this is something that’s so personal—like I said, buttoned-up. I try to keep that for myself, but it’s wild.

InStyle: If Ryan Murphy were to approach you to create your dream role, what would it be?

VH: It would be like a two-faced woman, very much in the realm of Christian Bale’s American Pyscho—the female American Psycho, but in the most glamorous version ever, and there would just happen to be spirits and witches involved.

InStyle: What is your playlist these days? It’s a big year for women in music—pop music in particular.

VH: Not a lot of pop. Let me check my playlists. I was streaming the Coachella sets and I came across Olivia Dean, who had a beautiful set, beautiful voice, really loved her vibe. A little bit of Doja Cat. Anderson .Paak. Hiatus Kaiyote. James Blake. I’m pretty all over the place ... A little 21 Savage. Rüfüs Du Solto to Amon Tobin to Talking Heads to Gaslamp Killer and Gnarls Barkley. It’s a lot of alternative rock and hip-hop and electronic music.

Downtown Owl is available to buy or rent now on digital.

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