When Vanessa Hudgens speaks, it isn’t so much speaking as it is singing. The words that spill out of her glossed-over lips flow with a sweet lilt — the ease of someone who knows exactly who she is. Hudgens, 30, is a walking rainbow in a grayscale room at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. The actress and singer, clad in a green, vertical-striped peplum top and faded blue jeans, curls into an ecru couch, as relaxed as her tone.
Hudgens is embracing moments of downtime as she promotes her latest film, “The Knight Before Christmas,” streaming Thursday — her second Netflix Christmas movie in a year.
In it, she plays Brooke, a science teacher disillusioned by love after her boyfriend cheats on her. Well, until a medieval knight travels in time and falls for her. “She’s a very analytical thinker and [is] able to explain everything, so when she meets a knight from supposedly another century, it turns everything on its head,” Hudgens says. The story becomes a case study in having faith: “You don’t have to see it to believe it, and I feel like that’s something we could all use.”
But Hudgens’ focus will soon shift to her next Christmas project. The actress is slated to travel to Scotland to film the sequel to her first Christmas movie, 2018’s “The Princess Switch,” with a “Parent Trap”-esque plot in which a duchess trades places with a baker from Chicago. In the follow-up, there will be three (!) versions of Hudgens featured, as opposed to the original two.
“I grew up loving ‘The Parent Trap.’ My sister and I would recite the lines to each other. We’d know all the scenes,” Hudgens says, twirling her triangular diamond earring.
For her, the holidays bring up a range of emotions. One appeal of Christmas films is their ability to ease the pain of the holiday season for people who’ve lost someone close to them — including Hudgens. (In 2016, her father, Greg Hudgens, died of cancer just hours before she was supposed to play Rizzo in “Grease Live!”) So it’s no surprise that the actress enjoys the escapism that Christmas movies represent. It’s what’s fed this new stage of her career. “If I can bring a family together at a special time of year and allow them to escape from their lives and live the rest of their day feeling a little lighter, then I think that’s a really beautiful gift,” she says.
Hudgens’ encroachment on Mariah Carey’s reign as Queen of Christmas comes amid a renaissance of holiday fare, with cable networks and streaming platforms like the Hallmark Channel, Lifetime and Netflix leaning into them for consistently delivering audiences without blockbuster budgets. In addition to Hudgens’ “The Princess Switch,” Netflix created viral buzz with “A Christmas Prince,” and while the streamer’s numbers must be taken with a grain of salt, Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said the company’s 2018 original movie “The Christmas Chronicles” racked up 20 million streams in just one week. In the fourth quarter of last year, Christmas content helped Hallmark became the most-watched cable network among women ages 18 to 49 and 25 to 54 — two demographics coveted among advertisers.
Hudgens, who has been acting for more than two decades, may have leaned into the business of holiday entertainment, but she says Christmas movies are just her latest “chapter.”
Born and raised in California, she began acting at 15 and made her feature film debut in 2003’s controversial drama “Thirteen.” By 2006, Hudgens had become a Disney star, portraying Gabriella Montez, one of the leads in the Disney Channel Original Movie “High School Musical.” She’d go on to reprise her role in both sequels and release two studio albums, but it was parts in independent films like 2011’s “Spring Breakers” and 2013’s “Gimme Shelter” that continued to hold the most appeal.
“I wanted to be the indie girl,” she laughs. “I always have been and I always will be.”
After completion of “High School Musical,” she and her team were deliberate in her choice of projects. “I wanted to do those dark films, so I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to be put in a box,” she recalls. “And the only way to get out of that is to do different types of projects.” (As for “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” now on Disney+, Hudgens says she “loves” the concept but isn’t sure she’d appear on the series: “I can’t really wrap my head around it until something actually would come in.”)
Hudgens’ desire to venture beyond Disney isn’t uncommon: Everyone from Shia LaBeouf to Zendaya has tried to distance themselves from their Disney beginnings in an attempt to expand their range. But while some former Disney stars have grappled with the darker side of fame, Hudgens has never been tabloid fodder — which may explain why she’s found a niche in the comforts (or guilty pleasures) of holiday movies, with their largely wholesome themes.
“When I think of people’s perception of ‘the good Disney kid gone wrong,’ I think of kids who maybe have had substance abuse [issues] or been in the public eye and having mental breakdowns, and I look at the difference between them and myself. And what I think is, I was a lot shyer than I believe they were,” says Hudgens. “I also didn’t enjoy the L.A. club scene, nor do I still today, so I never got myself into situations that I felt like I shouldn’t have been seen in.”
While Hudgens has favored “dark and twisted films,” she starred last year on the big screen alongside Jennifer Lopez in “Second Act,” which admittedly was a career highlight for her. During her audition, Hudgens recalls how “emotional” and “easy” it was with Lopez. “I called [my boyfriend] Austin [Butler] afterwards, and I was like, ‘I don’t even care if I get this part, because that experience was so beautiful.’ I saw her, and she saw me,” she muses.
Even though she’s been acting for two decades, Hudgens feels she’s “barely scratched the surface.” And her ambition is endless: The actress would love to work with directors like Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Yorgos Lanthimos and Gaspar Noé. She’d even love to do a film with Woody Allen. “I love Woody Allen films. ‘Vicky Christina Barcelona’ is one of my favorite movies,” she says. When asked about mentioning Allen, given the allegations of sexual abuse against him, Hudgens said, “I don’t know him. I’ve never met him. I only know what I’ve heard. And the fact is, I love his films and I love the romantic worlds that are created within [them].”
For now, though, she says she’s content with Christmas movies, whether she’s falling for a time-traveling knight or finding her doppelgänger amid a sea of baubles and decorations: “Right now, with this chapter, I like the idea of using your work to give back.”