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Adult advisory: Vanessa Hudgens leaves High School Musical behind in Spring Breakers

Forget the Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical – her role in Spring Breakers involves a riot of sex, drugs, and guns. Gill Pringle meets an actress who's growing up fast

Nothing severs the Disney umbilical cord faster than starring in a movie about sex, drugs and guns. And just in case Disney failed to get the memo, Vanessa Hudgens has made not one but four films which push the envelope, playing variously a teen mom, a stripper and a drug addict, culminating in her edgiest performance to date as an out-of-control college sexpot in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers.

She plays one of four college girls who land in jail after robbing a restaurant to fund their spring-break vacation; her partners-in-crime are played by Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine (wife of the director) and fellow former Disney princess Selena Gomez. The foursome are bailed out of prison by James Franco's rapper-drug dealer: “It's all about sex, and money, and bitches, and hoes,” offers Hudgens, 24, whose own chaperoned teen years left little time for such diversions.

In the US, the spring-break vacation sees thousands of students flocking to Florida to get wasted and naked at the beach. “Personally? No. I don't really relate,” says the actress, who has experienced neither college nor spring break. “Being young, I can relate to it a little, perhaps, but not to the extreme of the spring break reality itself. I remember experimenting with drinking and feeling like it was so naughty. But that's just self-exploration. My friends are honestly very tame and creative and spiritual so the whole wild thing isn't very relevant to our lives,” says this good Catholic girl who was eight years old when she began acting.

She was just 14 when she landed her first movie role, in Thirteen, but it was Disney's High School Musical trilogy (2006-08), that propelled her to stardom, and her romance with co-star Zac Efron resulted in the couple's relationship being played out in the tabloids.

Post break-up, Hudgens has managed to duck beneath the radar; she's more likely to be spotted at a yoga class than a nightclub, doing her wild living vicariously through characters like Candy in Spring Breakers.

Barely recognisable beneath a mess of unruly blonde hair, she enjoys manipulating her squeaky-clean image: “I just want to be able to try new things and transform myself and have audiences say: 'I cannot believe that's Vanessa Hudgens!'”

Bikini-clad through much of Spring Breakers, Hudgens felt unnerved by the director's insistence that they all look like normal girls rather than someone who has a personal trainer: “It was nerve-racking because, as a female, I feel like you're self-conscious about your body; a little bit... Fortunately he shot this movie on film which is way more forgiving than digital,” says the actress, who has had nude pictures of herself leaked on to the internet three times over the past four years.

Playing out as Girls Gone Wild masquerading as art, Spring Breakers ticks off every male-fantasy cliché along the way: girl-on-girl make-outs, cocaine snorted off bare breasts, chicks with guns...

But Hudgens was more than game for her pool make-out scene with co-star Benson: “I'd rather kiss Ashley than kiss James to be honest – because she's a girl and I was close to her and I felt comfortable. So I was like 'Yeah, I'll kiss Ashley!'” says the actress, who attended acting classes with Benson when she was 15.

Making James Franco perform fellatio with his own gun?

No problem.

“Harmony wanted us to emasculate James. Is that the right word? He wanted us to have complete power over him and push it to the limit; make him our bitch basically. I'd already shot a lot of guns for Sucker Punch and had training with Navy SEALS so I was quite comfortable with guns, although its always nice to have someone there, making sure that you're safe.”

Taking a hit off a bong?

“Urrrgh, it smelt so bad,” she shudders. “They used fake herbal stuff, it was like sage almost. Everything was fake.”

Surprisingly, being a blonde may have been the hardest aspect to handle.

“Me and Ashley went out to a bar once and I had the blonde wig on. I felt like so many girls hated us – instantly. So, if anything, being blonde brought on more hate. I wouldn't be in a rush to try it again,” says Hudgens who, when we meet in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, is sporting her natural black hair, and looks radiant.

“Thank you. I do try and make an effort,” she smiles. “When you're putting love out into the world, the world will give it back to you, it makes a difference.”

Love is a word she uses a lot, especially when applied to her friendships and family.

Clearly she has few inhibitions, and is delighted at the prospect of bringing her family to the Spring Breakers premiere: “Honestly, I think I have to bring the whole family. My family is so supportive of me. They look at this as my artistic development and they're proud of me for pushing myself, so they're all gonna see it. I don't know if my mom's really going to agree with it, but that's her choice,” says this California-raised daughter of a firefighter dad and former office worker mother.

“I'm very particular about the work I do. There's a reason why I've had a ton of time off recently. I'm not going to do anything if I'm not in love with it. As an artist, it's about evolution and self-growth and adventures and self discoveries. It's about working with different directors and playing different roles. I want to try as many different things as I can because I love pushing myself and I love being thrown into situations where I'm not too sure I know what's going on and just figuring my way around it because that's how you grow the most as an actor and a person.”

Part of her newfound confidence, she says, comes from having taken on more challenging roles, such as Gimme Shelter's pregnant teen, a virgin bride in Robert Rodriguez's Machete Kills and a drug-addicted stripper in The Frozen Ground.

Seduced on-screen by a variety of bad men, she personally fails to understand the allure of the bad boy: “I honestly have no idea because I have never liked bad guys,” muses the actress, who's been in a relationship with actor Austin Butler for 18 months, and briefly dated co-star Josh Hutcherson while making Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.

“Bad boys have never held any appeal. I think it's because I was a very shy child; I was very observant and I like to keep things simple. I've always been that way and I am still to this day, so I don't get it. I want to be treated like a princess – not in a demanding way, just in a respect way.”

Not that she is naive about a whole other lifestyle and drug sub-culture going on around her: “Yeah, of course. It's everywhere. Especially in Hollywood. There's so much competition and there's so many people taking their own journey. The human mind is so complicated and everybody is doing what they think is right. So in everyone's mind, what they're doing, they think is justified.”

'Spring Breakers' opens on 5 April