Written by: Gordon K. Smith
You will find no Hell’s Angels or Rolling Stones in GIMME SHELTER, the inspirational new movie by writer / director Ronald Krauss, which stars Vanessa Hudgens, again “branching out” from her Disney image (but without twerking). The fact-based story features the 26-year-old Hudgens convincingly playing a gritty 16-year-old pregnant runaway who reconnects with her Wall Street broker dad (Brendan Fraser) before hitting the streets again, and with the help of a priest (James Earl Jones) joining a shelter in New Jersey. We joined Krauss at a recent roundtable interview with Kathy Difiore, whose real-life work with homeless and pregnant girls in New Jersey inspired the film.
Krauss recounted his reasons for becoming involved in the project: “I work on projects about the human spirit, disabilities, compassion. I’m not a stranger to this kind of work,” he said. “It’s definitely a challenge when you’re dealing with real people, real challenges. It’s a delicate process.
People ask me how this story came about. Kathy will tell you it’s God’s will…someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You know about this place? This former homeless woman runs these shelters in New Jersey.’ In Christmas 2009, I went to visit my brother for the holidays, and he lived one and a half miles from these shelters…I knocked on the door , introduced myself. We’d spoken before. When I first came there I saw exactly what you see in the film, the babies and the mothers. It was holy ground, it captivated me. It was the furthest thing from what I’d seen in the past about shelters…the first thing I thought was, how come nobody’s recording this, sharing these acts of kindness and selflessness, especially in these times.
Kathy knew what it was like, she was an educated woman from an abusive marriage, who said I’m not gonna take it anymore, ended up on the streets homeless, got herself a job and back on her feet. The first thing she did when she got a house was turn it into a shelter to help women – getting them food and clothes, off the street and a chance to breathe, so they can get their lives together.
People see films now as modern literature. Not as many reading books today. I said to her, ‘Kathy, you should make a film to inspire others to acts of kindness.’ ‘Absolutely not! It’s not about me!’, she said. ‘Perhaps, if you want to do a story about the work. That’s something we can do. That could inspire others.’ …I borrowed her camera and started to document what was happening there. Must have shot 200 hours. A trust was forming between the girls, myself and her. I lived in the shelter for a year, writing the screenplay. We would have special nights of dinner, where I’d pass out parts of the screenplay, and have the girls look at it.”
Kathy commented on the script’s veracity. “It was very realistic in the film how the one girl ends up leaving. It happens all the time in real life. They win some and lose some. Some people come there with addictions and so forth. They just don’t know what’s out there and decide to leave. I pray that things will turn out well for them.
The girls totally trusted Ron, which is why, with God’s help, I decided to trust him. Now they’re so excited, they want to see it on movie night, come back to the shelter with their babies and talk about it. They consider this their movie, even if they’re not in it. Girls who lived with me 20 or 15 years ago are e-mailing me about it. So I think it has very broad appeal.”
At that point in their tight schedule Ronald and Kathy left and we were joined by the star, Vanessa Hudgens. She began by describing the radical changes she made to her usual glam look to play the scroungy runaway Apple.
“It was Ron’s idea to cut my hair. He had the idea of Apple having short hair. If you’re on the street, and pretty, there’s a greater chance of being subjected to prostitution, so by making Apple’s look as boyish as possible, she steered herself clear of that.”
Was that look based on the real Apple?
“Apple is loosely based on two people…one is named Darleesha, and she lived in the shelter. We bonded and became close. I get her and she gets me. The other is Alison, who holds her baby up in the credits. She’s had a really tough life as well. I didn’t get so close to her as to Darleesha, who really took me under her wings…Darleesha was actually in it. When I’m first introduced to the shelter, she’s sitting in the rocking chair.”
Prior to her “makeover” in the shelter, Apple sports a couple of facial piercings.
“They did (take some getting used to), but I loved them,” she said. “They were very present, and I’m a very physical person. I love staying connected to my body and to have these foreign things in my face was another thing to play with. It reminded me I was playing someone else…I put on about 15 pounds. Stopped working out and ate whatever I wanted. It was really easy! It’s taking it off that sucks – a lot of yoga, indoor cycling, Pilates and kickboxing. Eating from the earth.”
Hudgens auditioned for the role in character, and won the approval of the actual shelter residents, some of whom appear in the film. She lived with them for weeks to prepare for the role.
“They thought I did a good job and connected to the character, and I could share their story…when you audition for something, you do your own interpretation of the character. So I listened to rap music all day and went in with no makeup and my hair pulled back, in a big sweater, baggy pants on and a little swagger to my step. I don’t think the girls knew that they’d picked me, per-se. They weren’t familiar with my work. Made it much more special when they picked me…I did chores with them, played with their kids, and slowly they opened up to me…as human beings we have so many different sides to us. It’s fun to explore that, whether it a bad-ass chick or a shy girl. I want to play all genres and a lot of different characters…I listen to my intuition about parts. It hasn’t steered me wrong so far…it pushed my out of my comfort zone. So I pray I get to do things that continually challenge me and connect with people. This role’s made me want to work more on humanitarian roles and God-driven movies, made me want to give back. That’s what’s impacted me the most now. The journey is continually growing and always going to change me.”