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Vanessa Hudgens.

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Vanessa Hudgens on Spring Breakers, Shotgun Ballets, and Sharks

You know the backstory: Before she landed a role in Spring Breakers, Vanessa Hudgens was just another Disney alum (she starred opposite ex-boyfriend Zac Efron in all three High School Musical installments). Now Hudgens can be seen in Harmony Korine's neon fantasia as Candy, the astonishingly vacant spring breaker who robs a diner, points a gun in James Franco's face, and participates in a moonlit pool threesome — all of this before the movie's dramatic conclusion. Vulture spoke with Hudgens by phone about the film and about how she wound up playing Candy, of all people.

When you sign up for a movie like this, you know you’re going to be doing some crazy stuff. But your character ends up being the wildest of the four women. How did you end up playing that particular role?
I read the script, and that was the role that I wanted. I loved how fierce and fearless she was. I just knew that I wanted to play Candy.

Was everything outlined in the script? Were you reading lines?
In the script, Harmony had said, They rob the place. And the script, it literally probably said, "Freeze. Give me your money." But that was what was so amazing about working with Harmony, that he would set up these environments, create a feeling, and allow us to really take flight, be actors, and really do a bunch of improvisation.

So who was the best improviser?
Possibly James. I mean, all of his dialogue for the most part is improvisation. I think he and Harmony probably went over a bit of it. But just seeing James create stuff from the ground up was mesmerizing.

How do you prep for a role like this?
Harmony had us come out a few weeks before we started filming. We would rehearse, go over the script for like an hour or two, but then on the schedule, all it would say for the rest of the day was “Hang out with the girls”: go shopping with the girls, have a dinner, and become as close as we could.

Did you come up with a backstory for Candy?
I think the main thing was for these girls to be as close as humanly possible. It kind of felt explanatory — my character grew up in a small town, and she's just aching for a change. Nowadays, with YouTube and video games, violence is so much more in your face, the news, even. They're just these crazy fearless characters who are just searching for a way to liberate themselves. This is their escape and their release.

Were you ever tempted to judge the character?
No, I think that’s the No. 1 rule. She’s fearless. And it’s a really empowering thing, so I found strength in that.

How necessary is the violence to her liberation?
I think that it's a story. It's a fun and exciting, crazy, fast-paced joy ride that you get to go on. Violence has been a part of films since the beginning of time. It's been a form of entertainment. And these girls are really strong and empowered, especially because it's rare that you get to see a movie like this being held together by four young women. That in itself is such an amazing thing. Normally it’s guys that are holding the film together. They’re the ones that are gun-toting. But in this it’s the girls, and I think that it's really special.

What would you say to critics who feel you're being exploited by the movie?
It's a movie. This is such a special film, and I know it's a project I'm so proud of. And I think that's what's so special about this, is that it's shaking people up. It's forcing people to have an experience. It's not something you can easily brush off. So whether they love it or they hate it, at least I got to make them feel something.

I want to ask you about the shotgun ballet to Britney Spears’s "Everytime." Was that choreographed?
No, not at all. We actually shot that sequence by the grand piano over the course of three days — it needed to be magic hour, so our window was very short. Harmony just wanted us to dance. It's almost like a parody of itself, it's so ridiculous what we're doing. I remember looking at the girls and grabbing hands with them, and before we know it, we're holding each others' guns and doing a circular ballet.

Is Britney someone who was important to you before this movie?
Totally. She's a pop icon. And that's what Harmony wanted with this film, to have it be a piece of pop culture. It's like a song — it repeats itself; it has a chorus. For the "(Hit Me) ...Baby One More Time" sequence, Harmony just told us to sing a song. And we looked at each other, and that was the one song we all knew.

Before you go, someone wanted me to ask if there were any sharks in the water during filming.
[Laughs.] Actually, there was! Someone saw a shark one of the mornings, while we filming by the beach. It really freaked us out.

Photo: Corbis