For many of us, Christmas memories are made over open fires, hot chocolate, and the thoughtful exchange of heartfelt gifts. For Vanessa Hudgens — star and executive producer of the blissfully sweet Netflix rom-com The Knight Before Christmas (out Thursday) — they’re made over bonding with skunks.
“I’m such an animal lover, and we had live skunks on set,” Hudgens tells EW of shooting a particularly comical scene of the film, which sees her small-town science teacher, Brooke, attempting to wrangle beasts and put out a fire (literally and metaphorically) ignited by Sir Cole (Josh Whitehouse), a time-traveling knight sent from the 14th century to steal her heart on Christmas Eve. “I didn’t know a skunk was that cute. Our skunk’s name was Stella, which is also my sister’s name. It’s the cutest little thing and I wanted to take it home.”
While she doesn’t have a new furry friend to call her own this holiday season, the actress can put a bow on her first feature film as an executive producer, a badge of honor she proudly trots at the helm of the project, which she hopes will inspire both universal holiday cheer and other women to take ownership of their destinies — much like Brooke does when tasked with devoting her heart to an unbelievable cause with Sir Cole.
“I wanted it to feel as grounded as possible since it’s already a heightened reality. I went through and took a stab at a lot of my dialogue, and the lovely thing about being an EP is that it was actually heard and put into the script!” the 30-year-old exclaims. “Ten years ago I wouldn’t have even thought about becoming an executive producer, and now everyone is being respected and seen. There are no boundaries. If you want to do it, do it.”
The Knight Before Christmas debuts Thursday on Netflix. Read on for EW’s full Q&A preview with Hudgens, where she teases what to expect from The Princess Switch sequel as well as her upcoming role in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tick, Tick… Boom!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Between The Princess Switch, The Princess Switch sequel, and now The Knight Before Christmas, I feel like you’re Mariah Carey’s successor as the pop culture Queen of Christmas. Are you coming for that throne?
VANESSA HUDGENS: I mean, I’m not mad at it. I think that’s amazing. The reason why I started doing these Christmas films is because holidays can be stressful, and I love the fact that we have films to find escapism. These films bring everyone together and allow the whole family to feel the Christmas spirit and forget about their worries. If I can be a staple in people’s households at Christmastime, I’m totally into that!
So, you’re personally a fan of these annual romantic holiday movies, right?
My go-to Christmastime movies aren’t necessarily romantic films. I love The Grinch, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Scrooged, but I do love a romantic comedy, and I know that others love them as well. So, if you’re going to make something for the people, make it what they want.
It seems that we’re willing to suspend our disbelief with these types of movies more than any other genre. A time-traveling knight sounds crazy on paper, but it’s easy to get swept up in, here. Why are these concepts so easy to warm up to this time of year?
From an early age, we believe in Santa Claus! So, I think you associate magic with this time of year. Everyone wants to believe in the magic of Father Christmas, so we suspend our disbelief from the get-go.
I’m ready earlier and earlier every year. I’m watching these movies from mid-October on. Is it ever too early for Christmas?
I am so not that. I love that for you. [Laughs]. I’m assuming Christmas is your favorite holiday?
So, Halloween is my favorite holiday, and I’m celebrating it at the end of August and everyone thinks I’m crazy. So, I totally get how people are with Christmas.
Well, this movie gives us shots of Mr. Whitehouse in that flowy white shirt with his chest out while he’s flinging a sword around, and I don’t think anyone can complain about it being too early to see that, right?
[Laughs] Of course!
You brought this into the world as star and executive producer. Why were you so passionate about this story that you wanted to produce?
The time travel aspect made it feel fresh and new within the realm of the Christmas genre, but I love my character, Brooke. She’s a strong, independent woman who believes that you don’t need a knight in shining armor to save the day, and that you can get things done yourself. But, she ends up meeting an actual knight, and he tells her: “I don’t know how or why I’m here, but the fact is, I am,” and she’s like, “Time travel isn’t a real thing!” But he’s like, “Just because I can’t explain it, doesn’t mean it can’t be.” That’s a beautiful thing, because that’s faith. You don’t have to see it in order to believe it.
At the beginning, Brooke tells one of her students that she doesn’t need a man, and we see that a lot in empowering stories for young women, but then near the end, I love that the message is flipped, like, well, maybe I wasn’t entirely right, love is important for you as well.
I’m a hopeless romantic! I’ve been in a relationship for the last eight years, and I 100 percent believe in true love. I think that everyone should have a chance at it. It’s a beautiful, special thing. What’s life without love?
Nothing says Christmas romance like jokes about douches, wenches, and medieval punishment. The humor here is so great and unexpected. Was the tone there from the beginning or did you have a hand in shaping that?
A lot of the humor was definitely there. That’s one thing that drew me to it: It was really funny. I had the most hand in grounding it and making it my own. My whole speech [about not needing a man] that I tell the student at the beginning, I rewrote myself. I wanted it to feel as grounded as possible since it’s already a heightened reality. I went through and took a stab at a lot of my dialogue, and the lovely thing about being an EP is that it was actually heard and put into the script!
Is that a refreshing experience for you?
Ten years ago I wouldn’t have even thought about becoming an executive producer, and now everyone is being respected and seen. There are no boundaries. If you want to do it, do it. The women around me have inspired me to continue putting on different hats…. I’m so happy that I did because it felt more collaborative.
I’ve always wondered about Christmas movies: are they actually filmed in the winter or did you guys film this in the summer during the heat?
We filmed it in spring in Ontario, so, luckily it was still cool. I definitely still used my hand-warmers. On Princess Switch, it was summer and hot in Romania, so that was a bit rougher. Even though it was springtime, in Ontario, it’s still cold. I remember one day we were filming in Santa’s Village, which is actually a Christmas theme park that’s open all year round for the lovely citizens of Bracebridge. It was beautiful. They added more lights [for us] and it started snowing, and it was one of those moments where I couldn’t help but feel the spirit. I started singing “Let It Snow” and it felt magical!
Do any other moments from production stand out to you?
The day that Cole lights a fire in my yard and is chasing a skunk sticks out to me distinctly because my mom was with me, and me putting out a fire made her so proud because my father was a firefighter. She kept saying, “Honey, your dad would be so proud of you right now!” Also, I’m such an animal lover, and we had live skunks on set. My gosh, I didn’t know a skunk was that cute. Our skunk’s name was Stella, which is also my sister’s name. It’s the cutest little thing and I wanted to take it home.
There were no smelly accidents with the skunk?
I’m not sure how they handled that, but it was very friendly and not about to spray everybody!
Last week marked the one-year anniversary of The Princess Switch, and you’re getting ready to shoot the sequel. What can fans expect from it? There’s a new lookalike, I hear?
We get to bring in another lookalike, which I’m really excited to create a whole other character and have a whole other myself to act with. Who in their right mind does that? I do!
You’re also getting ready for Tick, Tick… Boom! What can people expect from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut?
I could not be more excited. I did a workshop reading of it and it’s phenomenal. It’s so good. I love Jonathan Larson’s work so much, so to be able to bring it to people’s screens at home is something that’s so special for me. Lin is so talented and passionate about this project. I just worked with Alexandra Shipp on an independent film and we get to work together again and sing a duet here, so we’re just over the moon. It’s going to be great.