Vanessa Hudgens has a lot in common with Emily Locke, her character on NBC’s freshman DC Comics comedy Powerless. They’re both young, endearingly optimistic women taking on a new job unlike anything they’ve ever done before. There’s really just one big difference between Hudgens’ life and Locke’s: a decided lack of superhero-on-supervillain violence.
In the series — the first TV comedy to be set in the DC Comics universe — Emily moves to Charm City for a new job as director of research and development for Wayne Security (yes, as in Bruce). Watching superheroes destroy as many high rises as they do bad guys is a daily occurrence, which annoys pretty much everyone in town except small-town escapee Emily.
“She’s just a really lively and useful ambitious woman in a world that is more jaded, and for sure I see myself in the same way,” explains the actress, adding that she also feels “grateful and blessed that we both get to do what we love every day.” For Hudgens, that’s acting. For Emily, it’s being creative and watching men and women in tights and capes flying across the sky.
It’s no coincidence that Emily seems so much like Hudgens. According to executive producer Patrick Schumacker, “early iterations of the character made her seem a bit more of a demure wallflower.” However, NBC was not thrilled with the direction Powerless was heading in, so the show’s initial creative team (including creator Ben Queen) exited and Schumacker and Justin Halpern took over.
“The network had seen Vanessa’s performance as Rizzo in Fox’s Grease last year, which got them excited about giving her character more gusto and edge,” Schumacker says. “We’ve been embracing that more and more as we go. The first time we sat down with her as showrunners, we were walking on eggshells because creative control had been turned over to us and we didn’t know what to expect. From that first meeting, though, we discovered that Vanessa is a real gamer. She put a lot of trust in us and sparked to what we wanted to do. We walked away feeling like we had some promising stuff ahead of us.”
To make Powerless work, the producers needed Emily to be the most grounded person in a world filled with superpeople. That meshed perfectly with Hudgens’ skill set, Schumacker adds, because of the actress’ Mary Tyler Moore-like optimism. And just like Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Emily is the one trying to stay positive while surrounded by cynical co-workers.
“Vanessa is kind of like the den mother for everyone on the set, which is true even though she’s one of the youngest castmembers,” Schumacker says. “She has taken on a leadership quality and that’s what we’re writing into the show for her now too.”
Starring on a series based in a comic book universe is not something Hudgens ever figured she’d end up doing. Superhero shows and movies were never her thing. OK, so she admits she “saw Tim Burton’s Batman movies back when I was really young and fell so in love with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman that I’d dress up like her every day.” But besides that, her interest in Powerless had nothing to do with the heroes and villains.
“My favorite shows are The Office and Parks and Recreation,” Hudgens explains. “They’re both so fun and silly. They always made me laugh, and both were on NBC. So, when I found out NBC was doing a similar workplace comedy, I knew this was something I wanted to do. Knowing it was DC’s first comedy just made it that much more special.”
As much as she’s enjoying being part of this unique twist on a workplace comedy, there’s also something near and dear to her she’s hoping might make the experience even more special — music. After all, Hudgens’ first big role came in the High School Musical movies. Not a week goes by without someone coming up to her to gush about how much High School Musical meant to them, a reminder of how much the experience also meant to her.
“It was a journey the cast went on together and became this chance to be silly and dance around with your best friends,” she recalls. “It was my first big acting experience. It was when I found a boyfriend. It was all just a really exciting time in our lives so it’s great to look back fondly on how much fun it was to just run, sing and dance with these people I leaned on.”
Her Grease experience was similarly life-changing. Playing Rizzo, she says, helped open the door for “a lot more opportunities in television, which is in an area I haven’t delved into too much.” Not surprisingly given this history, she’d love to incorporate her singing and dancing skills into the show. And the producers are only too happy to oblige, according to Schumacker, who says that “it was a no-brainer to get that into our show because she’s known for her singing and she excels at it.”
“I’m singing on set all the time,” she admits. “I do everything, from Disney princesses to Billie Holiday to New Orleans-style jazz. I’m always singing — in the shower, in the car, everywhere. And I think the writers are going to work all that into the show. I just read a script for episode nine, and that definitely has a musical element to it. I can’t say what it is, but it’s going to be fun to do.”
Hudgens welcomes the chance to teach her co-stars a thing or two about music, just as she’s enjoying them teaching her about comedy.
“This has been a good, constant acting class for me,” she explains. “I’ll admit that comedy isn’t my natural instinct. For a while, I was really into dramas and comedy definitely scared me. I think I’m a silly person but doing comedy on-camera is hard.”
That could have been a problem, seeing as how Schumacker says that “the show is important for DC so it can demonstrate that, as a company and a creative force, it has a sense of humor. Some of the movies, in particular, have been darker in nature.”
While that kind of pressure might make any leading lady a little uneasy, Hudgens has been able to loosen up after a particular conversation with her co-star, Alan Tudyk (Rogue One, Firefly), who plays Van Wayne, a distant cousin of Bruce Wayne’s and Emily’s insecure boss. He assured her comedy was actually very easy, which got her to relax and apply that philosophy both at and away from her new job.
“I thought I was silly and funny before Powerless,” she says. “But being on this show and this cast, … it feels like a whole new world for me now.”
Powerless bows Feb. 2 at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.