Vanessa Hudgens Talks ‘Knight Before Christmas,’ Why She Loves ‘Booksmart,’ and Finding Home on the Stage

Bow down: Vanessa Hudgens is your new Christmas queen. After first top-lining Netflix’s wacky holiday chestnut The Princess Switch last year, the actress is returning to the streamer with The Knight Before Christmas. (This before she continues the story of her maiden Netflix voyage next year in The Princess Switch: Switched Again.)

The Christmas comedy (out Thursday) follows a disillusioned high school teacher (Hudgens) who learns to believe in love again when a medieval knight (Josh Whitehouse), armor and all, magically falls through time and lands in her lap. It’s cheesy, cheeky, big-hearted, and exactly the kind of feel-good holiday viewing that Hudgens, who also executive-produced, thinks world-weary audiences need more of.

By phone, Hudgens and Whitehouse chatted briefly with Fortune about why they decided to make The Knight Before Christmas, their favorite holiday movies, and the responsibility of actors to offer audiences escapism in tough times.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Knight Before Christmas fits into this stable of Netflix-original holiday films, and it’s fairly far out there even for that genre. What led you to get involved?

Vanessa Hudgens: One of the producers, Brad Krevoy, brought it to me. He was very excited about it, and I read it as another one of those really feel-good Christmas movies. It has a great message. It totally invokes that holiday spirit. It makes you feel warm and cozy and feel loved and optimistic, it makes you believe in magic a bit. It was kind of a no-brainer, like, what more do you need?

Josh Whitehouse: For me, the chance to play a time-traveling knight was a fun idea. And it’s such a fun, feel-good film. That time-travel element brings a sense of magic, like Vanessa said.

Vanessa, you’re becoming Netflix’s go-to Christmas queen. This isn’t your first holiday movie with them, since you did The Princess Switch last year, nor will it be your last, since you have a sequel to that in the works. Why do you think Netflix has become such a popular destination for programming like this? It’s practically surpassing Hallmark in terms of seasonal offerings.

Hudgens: It’s the accessibility of it. The fact that you have everything at your fingertips, and esepcially around holiday time, there’s nothing better than sitting around the fireplace, by the Christmas tree, watching a Christmas film, and being able to do it whenever your heart desires. I just applaud Netflix for making it so convenient for viewers to have whatever experience they want.

Whitehouse: Netflix does so many genres and is nailing them all in such a great way.

So many different kinds of movies can be considered Christmas-y. There are musicals like The Nightmare Before Christmas, comedies like Elf, even weirder horror-adjacent programming like Gremlins and Anna and the Apocalypse. What do you guys think makes for a really good Christmas movie?

Hudgens: There are a couple things you have to have, as a checklist. You need, definitely, some Christmas music.

Whitehouse: A hot cocoa scene!

Hudgens: I feel, a love story.

Whitehouse: A happy ending. A moment of sadness. You’ve got to go down to go up again, to make everyone feel happy and warm.

Hudgens: It’s the journey; that’s really important. “Experience the journey.” [laughs]

Do you have any favorite Christmas movies, personally?

Hudgens: Yeah, of course.

Whitehouse: My favorite’s Elf.

Hudgens: I love, love Elf. I love the other Night[mare] Before Christmas. [laughs] Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. A Christmas Story is a classic.

Whitehouse: I’ve never heard of that one.

Hudgens: [mock-outraged gasp]

The Knight Before Christmas
Josh Whitehouse and Vanessa Hudgens in Netflix’s “The Knight Before Christmas.”
Netflix / Brooke Palmer

Vanessa, you’ve moved between theater and film—you were sensational in Grease Live and Rent Live. In terms of approaching a movie in this vein, how does that differ for you as an actor from working on the stage?

Hudgens: Each medium definitely has its own characteristics. With a film, you have to trust your director and editor to put together the best version of the story. As an actor, you don’t necessarily have the final say. You do your best, and you hope it’s all pieced together as well as you’d hope it would be. The throughline, though, is to live your truth and to do what you do truthfully.

Whitehouse: I’ve never done theater before, so I guess Vanessa’s the best one to answer that. I’d be interested in doing it at some point, but the past seven years I’ve been wrapping my head around acting for film. At some point, I’ll expand my horizons, find that new challenge.

Vanessa, you’re working with Lin-Manuel Miranda on Tick, Tick… Boom! coming up, and last year you were in In the Heights at the Kennedy Center. It feels like these hopeful, musical stories are so needed right now. What do you think is there in the culture that makes those stories so popular?

Hudgens: I know that, me personally, I’m happiest when I’m doing musicals. I fell in love with musicals when I was 5 years old, and it has been my goal ever since to do at least a musical a year.

I think there are an insane amount of musicals out there each year, but I think the ones doing particularly well and thriving and being funded are the ones with a deeper meaning. What Jonathan Larson created [with Rent and Tick, Tick… Boom!], he came from a place of such truth and honesty in a time of such desperation. New York in the ’90s, life was really hard, AIDS was a massive epidemic no one really knew how to cure. His musicals are coming out of a place of loss and hopelessness. And through the music and stories, you find hope.

That feels really true for this day and age. Everyone’s in some sort of depth of despair, so whenever we have a moment to pull ourselves out of reality and into escapism—whether that’s through a Christmas film or through a musical—I think that’s always good for everyone.

Whitehouse: I just felt like giving a standing ovation. I think she nailed that. [both laugh] Being in film, and being an artist, musician, and performer of any kind, your role is to help people transport into a holiday from their current life or situation. We allow people to believe in something different or find a place away.

In tackling a movie as far-out as The Knight Before Christmas, do you have to dial your performance anywhere specific that you wouldn’t on a movie that, maybe, wasn’t set at Christmas or didn’t involve time-traveling knights?

Hudgens: My instinct is to say ‘no.’ 

Whitehouse: Something the director said to me on this was that, though my character was far out there even for this genre, we all agreed the best way to handle it was just to play the truth of that character.

Hudgens: At the end of the day, the story is a love story, and it just happens to be set at Christmastime.

What’s a movie either of you have seen this year that gave you that escapism, that sense of joy and solace?

Hudgens: Ooh, one of my favorite movies I saw this year was Booksmart. I thought it was a really, really smart take on today’s generation. I feel like every few years, there’s a great film made about the teenage culture, and the way Booksmart was done was so graceful, so eloquent, so edgy. And it had a musical component. That just had my heart. It’s so good.

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