Venice Beach is home to dreadlocked hippies, tourists and juiced-up muscle-heads. And sometimes, it's also where former Disney star Vanessa Hudgens likes to hide out.
"I know," she said, rolling her eyes in anticipation of the response to that bizarre scenario. "But I love going to the drum circle down there. Every now and then someone will let me join in and bang on their drums, and I just love people who are completely free. Even if they're drug addicts, who sometimes freak me out. I'm figuring out how to be a better person while observing other people."
The surreal scene doesn't exactly seem like the kind of place you'd find a 22-year-old actress best known for her role as a bouncy teen in the mega-hit franchise "High School Musical." But Hudgens has been trying to get out of the shadow of the Mouse House for some time now.
The first evidence of her desire to shatter any semblance of childlike innocence came last summer, when she decided to play the HIV-positive exotic dancer Mimi in a short Hollywood Bowl run of "Rent." Now, she's one in a band of five butt-kicking girls who sport bustiers and fishnets in Zack Snyder's "Sucker Punch."
In some ways, it seems like the obvious career move: Shed your squeaky-clean on-screen image by taking on racier roles. But when asked about how her approach to choosing roles has changed as she becomes an adult, Hudgens sighed, saying she leaves many of those decisions up to fate.
"After 'High School Musical,' I was not looking for another musical. I was just kind of looking for a different character or an interesting director to work with," she said last month, hiding out from the rain at a cafe near her home in the Valley. "Things have fallen into place in a beautiful way. I can't say it was planned out step by step. It's just the way the world works. At the end of the day, my mom helps me. Of course, I have my agents and my manager who put in their two cents. But if I don't like something, I'm not gonna do it."
In "Sucker Punch," Hudgens joins a posse of strong-willed young women who band bond together to try to escape from an insane asylum. The actress said she was attracted to the project largely because of the name brand of its director, Snyder. But the filmmaker's fanboy audience hasn't turned up; the film opened two weekends ago to a weak $19.1 million and business dropped off 70% in the second week.
Hudgens' last film, "Beastly," a modern retelling of "Beauty and the Beast" released earlier in March, fared better financially because it was inexpensive to produce. But neither garnered outstanding reviews for the actress, leading some critics to question whether Hudgens will be able to break free of her "High School Musical" upbringing.
Even Hudgens admits that in most circles, she's still recognized as Gabriella, the shy, brainy student she played in the tween series.
"Teenagers come up to me and are obnoxious about the whole thing, like, 'Oh my God, you're that girl! You're that girl from the Disney Channel.' And I'm like, 'I was that girl,'" she said, twirling a strand of her hair.
Another moniker she's eager to drop? "Zac Efron's girlfriend." Or, make that ex-girlfriend: In December, she and her former "Musical" costar broke up after a years-long, much-publicized relationship.
"It was interesting," she said of being half of such a high-profile couple. "But we got to a point where it was just like, we just can't pay attention, because one week we'd be married and then the next week we'd be broken up and the next week I would have a baby. It was just the most obscene things."
Indeed, Hudgens became a tabloid staple during the five years in which she and Efron were a pair, and she was often the subject of intense scorn from gossipmongers.
"I was surprised by the level of disdain people have for her," said Neil Patrick Harris, who directed Hudgens in "Rent." "Perez Hilton — before he decided to be nicer — was just ruthlessly anti-Vanessa. And he's not the only person who did that. I think that all of the 'High School Musical' kids, they all became so famous so fast that it seems kind of hip not to join the teenybopper bandwagon."
Hilton assigned her the nickname 'VaneXXXaHudgens' in the wake of a 2007 photo scandal, when a handful of what appeared to be privately self-taken nude photos of Hudgens were leaked on the Internet. Another round followed in 2009, then last month, just after "Beastly" hit theaters, more pictures of her scantily clad trickled onto the Web.
When the first images appeared, Hudgens issued a public apology. Disney, meanwhile, condemned the incident, saying it was "obviously a lapse in judgment." Nowadays, she's doing her best to shrug the incident off.
"It's just silly because I'm a very present person, and that's the thing that has been so in the past," she said, burying her hands into the sleeves of her hoodie sweatshirt. "The fact that somebody keeps bringing up the past is just selfish. I mean, it sucks. I already released a statement the first time it happened. It's just unfortunate that it keeps reminding people about the past and not the present."
Despite the release of the embarrassingly racy photos, Hudgens said she felt comfortable donning risqué costumes in "Sucker Punch" because she found the movie's underlying message empowering.
"I was in the best shape of my life, so why not? The woman's body is a beautiful thing. There's no reason why we shouldn't, like, be our best in our costumes," she said.
Hudgens "came into this known for certain types of projects," Snyder acknowledged. "And she really wanted to go off into something new. She wanted to show a different side of her acting and do this crazy action movie."
For now, Hudgens' post-Disney career trajectory is still unclear. But the actress tries to remain blissfully ignorant of that fact, instead opting to be what she calls "present-oriented." Much of that philosophy is derived from "The Four Agreements," a self-help book penned by a New Age spiritualist that she believes in fervently.
"It has honestly changed me, almost," the actress said, pulling a cap down over her eyes that was bedazzled with rhinestones spelling out the word "Faith."
"You really have to stay strong, because times get tough. Especially in this business. It's a dog-eat-dog world," she said. "There's so many amazing actresses who got taken advantage of. Someone like Natalie Wood, one of my idols — who knows what happened to her? She was on a boat that was mysteriously in the water, and now she's dead. A lot of women get walked all over on by not standing up for themselves, and that's just not what I'm about. I'm figuring myself out now as a young adult more than I ever have. It's like my eyes are opening and I'm awakening to controlling my future."
firstname.lastname@example.org. Times staff writer Geoff Boucher contributed to this report.