Vanessa Hudgens on Her Uphill Battle to 'Bad Boys for Life'

Vanessa Hudgens attends the Premiere of Columbia Pictures' "Bad Boys for Life" - Getty 2- H 2020
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
The actor discusses her 12-year journey from 'High School Musical' fame to more varied roles ("The parts that I really wanted were a fight") and the way Zack Snyder's 'Sucker Punch' prepared her for her new Will Smith and Martin Lawrence movie.

[This story contains spoilers for Sony's Bad Boys for Life.]

Twelve years after her final bow in Disney’s smash-hit High School Musical trilogy, Bad Boys for Life star Vanessa Hudgens feels even more validated. With a franchise-best opening weekend of $62.5 million and a fourth installment already in the works, Bad Boys for Life is further proof to Hudgens that her fight to branch out from her beloved role as High School Musical’s Gabriella was worth the resistance she faced.

“In the beginning, it was definitely challenging because that’s all that a lot of people had seen me do,” the actress tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So, the parts that I really wanted were a fight, but it just made it all the more rewarding when I would get those parts because I know that I earned them.”

Oddly enough, a prop weapon on Bad Boys for Life reminded Hudgens of her role as Blondie in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch (2011), a career left turn that Hudgens cherishes to this day, given the uphill battle she faced as a Disney star.

“They gave me my gun right before we started filming … and as I inspected this gun to get to know it a little better, I realized I had worked with it 10 years ago on a movie called Sucker Punch,” she recounts. “It made me so grateful for the fact that I’ve continuously tried to be in all different types of films. If I hadn’t done Sucker Punch, I would’ve been at a complete loss.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Hudgens discusses her thoughts on potentially playing Kelly again in the in-the-works Bad Boys 4, which she learned about during the interview, as well as bonding with her castmates on Bad Boys for Life and Rent: Live’s impact on her Bad Boys prep time.

First things first: I heard about a hiking incident during a weekend off from filming the movie. What happened?

(Laughs.) The AMMO team [the elite Miami PD squad in the pic that specializes in high-tech tactics for bringing down high-profile criminals] really got along well. They became family. We were filming in Atlanta, and I had the idea of us going away to a cabin for a weekend, going hiking and just getting a little outdoors time. Charles [Melton] was unavailable because he had to go back for work or something, but me, Alexander [Ludwig] and Paolo [Nunez] were like, “Let’s just go — the three of us.” We found this really cute house, and we found a hike. We went on it, and it was great. It was lovely being outside, and when we got to the road, we started walking towards the car. We were walking for at least a half hour, and our feet were hurting. We were just ready to get back in the car and drive to the house. That’s when we realized we had gone the wrong way. I was like, “I feel like it’s the other way,” and Alexander was like, “No, I think it’s this way.” So, we were like, “Okay!” and by the time we looked on the map, we had gone so far in the opposite direction. Alexander felt so bad, and being the noble gentleman that he is, he ran to the car so that we didn’t have to walk the entire way. At one point, me and Paolo just sat on the side of the road because we were so tired. That was one of our excursions.

Your character, Kelly, is quite dangerous in the movie. Did you have time to enroll in the Miami PD’s “cop college,” as it’s been described?

Sadly, mine was quite limited. I was coming right off of Rent: Live. We did it that night, and then I took the red eye and was driven straight to set. I was immediately put in hair and makeup for my first day of filming. So, I sadly did not get to partake in the elaborate cop school that I’m guessing the others did.

Kelly is also known as a big Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) fan, and she makes that clear when she tells Rafe (Melton), "Dude, that's Mike Lowrey … Be cool." Since Mike likely influenced Kelly’s decision to become a cop, did you create your own backstory that would explain how she first became aware of his heroics?

I think I just pulled from the fact that Mike Lowrey is this character who’s almost an enigma. He has been around in the zeitgeist for so long. I remember seeing the movies; I also remember hearing Mike Lowrey’s name dropped in a Lil Wayne song [“A Milli”] and thinking it was the dopest thing ever. I am such a fan, and I thought that was easy enough to be able to pull from.

In a way, she’s speaking for the audience, especially the younger generation that grew up watching these movies.


Kelly also pulled off a cool baseball-slide kill in the concluding battle. Do action set pieces like that one follow the same basic principles as most song-and-dance numbers?

Yeah, very much so. I think the reason why I’ve always loved action is because it’s a piece of choreography. You learn the steps, you learn the moves, you start slow and then you speed it up. I didn’t really learn my fight sequences until right before they were happening, but it’s always so much fun. I love being physical. I love being able to tap into all aspects of my body for my craft. I was stoked. What’s funny is I’m a terrible throw. If you told me to throw you something, my throw would be five feet away from you, but as soon as someone calls "action," I have the most perfect aim ever. It will go exactly where it needs to go. I don’t know why. I guess when you put a camera on me, I become everything I need to be. (Laughs.)

Many performers suffer from red light fever as their performance falters whenever they know they’re being recorded. It sounds like you’re the exact opposite.

I am the exact opposite. I just love being in front of the camera. I can’t help it. Something about it just really excites me. I end up either becoming an absolute ham or becoming someone else in a different character.

Since Bad Boys for Life has several shocking moments, I’m betting that the script was also a wild read for you. Did you jump out of your chair when you read that Mike Lowrey was shot in the first act?

(Laughs.) I definitely didn’t, but I was very engaged, though, especially the whole “la bruja” witch aspect. I thought that was really cool. That’s something I personally gravitate towards. So, it made me even more excited because there was something that me, as an audience member, would also be very into.

How much rehearsal went into AMMO’s rendition of the “Bad Boys” theme?

We actually did that for our camera tests and chemistry reads together. It consisted a lot more of me saying, “Bad bitches, bad bitches…” (Laughs.) It’s supposed to be messy, and we’re all such a motley group of people together that it doesn’t take much for us to sound like an absolute disaster.

Kelly and Mike took the lead on that second-act shootout inside the body shop. What do you remember about that sequence?

That was actually my first week of filming. Every day, a “pinch me” moment would happen. They gave me my gun right before we started filming, and I was like, “Wait, this is mine?” They were like, “Yeah,” and I was like, “Are you guys okay with me shooting this?” And they’re like, “Are you okay shooting this?” And I was like, “If you’re okay with me shooting this…” because I didn’t have any rehearsal time with it. I just had it there on the spot, and as I inspected this gun to get to know it a little better, I realized I had worked with it 10 years ago on a movie called Sucker Punch. It made me so grateful for the fact that I’ve continuously tried to be in all different types of films. If I hadn’t done Sucker Punch, I would’ve been at a complete loss.

Once the Disney part of your career concluded, you made some bold choices over the next few years, as many of them were drastic departures from what you'd been known for until that point. Did you encounter some resistance along the way? Did people want to keep you in Gabriella-type roles for a lot longer?

The fact is people still call me Gabriella. People still think the only thing I’ve done is High School Musical. It’s something that’s going to be with me until the day that I die, but I’m okay with it because the fact is they love it. To be a part of something that is so loved by so many people — to the point where it doesn’t matter what I do because I will be ingrained in their brains as this girl next door — then I made a mark in a really sweet and special way. But, yeah, in the beginning, it was definitely challenging because that’s all that a lot of people had seen me do. So, the parts that I really wanted were a fight, but it just made it all the more rewarding when I would get those parts because I know that I earned them.

The funny thing is you did Thirteen before High School Musical

I know. It’s hilarious. That was the path that I thought my career was gonna go. I wanted to be the indie girl and just do really dark dramas, but one thing led to another… (Laughs.) I enjoy having variety in my career. At the end of the day, I think that will give me longevity. I want to keep it exciting for myself. I want to continue to push myself to places I haven’t been to because that’s how you grow — in your craft and as a person.

When you work with a movie star like Will Smith, the amenities on set are often much better, especially the food. When did you realize you were working on a Will Smith movie?

It was probably when I rolled up to set the first time and saw the biggest trailer I think I’ve ever seen. (Laughs.) Will and Martin [Lawrence] have massive trailers. The best crafty is also another bonus of a Will Smith film. There’s so much variety and so many different snacks. That really does come in handy when you’re working a long 12-plus-hour day.

One of the smartest moves this movie franchise made was to create a likeable team that the audience wants to revisit. That’s one of the reasons why Mission: Impossible and Fast & Furious have had such longevity. With that in mind, I presume you’d be happy to play Kelly again?

Oh, yeah. Of course. There’s nothing better than being an ultimate badass, especially with people that you love. (Laughs.) So, it would definitely be a no-brainer.

What’s the latest on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s movie, Tick, Tick… Boom?

I actually just met with him today. We are about to start next week.

You seem to have a great relationship with Netflix. What’s been the key to that?

I personally love working with them. I was at a place where I was doing these indie films that I would pour my heart and soul into and then I’d do a little bit of press, do the premiere, it would come out and then it would disappear forever, never to be seen again. With Netflix, I know the work can be viewed at any point of any day for anyone. It just makes it feel like the work really does live on, and the audience can really experience it whenever they want. It just feels really rewarding. They’ve been really wonderful at having great projects that I’ve loved. They’re just really easy to work with. They really give you freedom in the exploration of the project. They put out so much great stuff.

After two live productions on national television, are you even capable of being rattled before a performance at this point?

I’ve been doing theater since I was 7 years old. That is my home base. That is my place to thrive. I, of course, get nerves right before, but because I’ve been doing it for so long, I label it as excitement. It’s really exciting because anything can happen, and that’s part of the thrill. As soon as we start the show, that all goes away, and I’m so present. I’m just there to tell the story, and I love it. It’s my favorite. I love musicals more than any other format.

Are there types of scenes or certain emotions that you’re no longer fazed by due to the experience you now have?

Whenever anything gets really heavy, it can be daunting because no one wants to dive into pain willingly, but as I’ve been doing this for the past two decades, there’s a thrill that comes along with that and an evolution of self by diving into those places. I kind of look forward to them. If I have a massive monologue where I’m spilling my heart out, yeah, it’s daunting still to this day, but I know that something really special and honest can come from it if I just trust that I have the emotional backbone to take myself there. There’s always going to be things that are daunting, but I think that’s a really good compass of what I should be doing. That means that I can only grow from it.

For someone who’s done so much in this business, what’s the one thing you’re still dying to do?

There’s a lot. I still haven’t done a fantasy. Growing up, my favorite movies were Labyrinth and The NeverEnding Story. So, I would love to do something in that world. A period piece I still have yet to do — whether that be the early 1900s or the 1960s. I would love a period piece, and I haven’t really been able to do that in film. When I did Gigi on Broadway, that was obviously set in the 1900s. Other than that, I haven’t gotten to go there yet. Oh, and a horror! I love horror films very, very dearly. I’m very excited to find that right project and go on that journey.

Well, speaking of playing Kelly again, I have some breaking news for you. THR just broke the story that a Bad Boys 4 script is already underway.

Oh, my gosh, that’s so great! It’s serendipitous. Thanks for being the first to tell me.