For Vanessa Hudgens, who became famous overnight with Disney Channel’s “High School Musical” five years ago, self-confidence is the key. “I used to be very shy,” the actress, 22, says. “Hiding behind a character allowed me a certain freedom that I didn’t have.”

Today when doing an interview, she no longer needs to pretend she is an actress doing an interview. “It may have been easier in the past to do that, to put on a face and hide behind it. Now I’m growing into a confident young woman, and I’m proud to show that.”

Her roles in two upcoming films reflect that growth. Hudgens stars as the street-smart Blondie, an action heroine trapped in a mental asylum in Zack Snyder’s epic action fantasy “Sucker Punch” opening worldwide (including the Philippines) on March 25. And on September, she can be seen opposite Dwayne Johnson and Josh Hutcherson in the 3D adventure “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” the sequel to 2008’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

Sitting in a West Hollywood hotel and wearing a white jumpsuit that she describes as “part of my Bianca Jagger-inspired phase,” Hudgens reveals she knows how to be inconspicuous. “Long hair is very easy to hide behind,” she says. “Going out on the street, I can put my hair in front of my face and duck around because I’m really small (5-foot-3).”

But even that desire to blend in has changed. “I cut off about a foot of my hair, so it’s harder now. With two movies coming out, I want to give people the opportunity to truly see me differently. Now I have a new sense of confidence. I don’t have a mane to hide behind.”

As for making the transition from her Disney image, the actress speaks from experience. “I think it’s about surrounding yourself with the right people,” she says. “A lot of people may get lost in the lights and glamour of it all. It should be about the work first and everything else later.”

Hudgens insists she never got lost in celebrity. “I had my family to keep me grounded. I’m so close to my mom (an office worker) and dad (a firefighter). Their world doesn’t revolve around Hollywood.”
She credits her pals, too. “I also had (HSM co-stars) to grow with, like Ashley (Tisdale) and Zac. We all went on this journey together and had each other to fall back on. You’ve got to have your friends to keep your head on straight.”

Looking back on her years as a Disney star, she says: “There were ups and downs. I look at it as my childhood. After I finished the last `High School Musical,’ I was like, ‘Time to grow up.’ “

Hudgens, who grew up on the West Coast, has been performing most of her life. When she was 8, she began appearing in community theater. Two years later, she moved into commercials and TV shows, and in 2003, she made her feature film debut in Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen.”

Luckily for Hudgens, who is of Filipino, Chinese, Spanish, Irish and Native American descent, her interest in acting coincided with Hollywood’s awakening to America as a multicultural society. “It used to always be about the big blond hair and the big blue eyes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the idea of the classic beauty is changing. I’m blessed to have so many different ethnicities. I’m a chameleon, and that’s given me great opportunities.”

Opening across the Philippines beginning March 25 in IMAX and regular theaters, “Sucker Punch” is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company.

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