‘Gimme Shelter’ is a magnetic and magnifying adventure in the most touching and disturbing wanderings of human wretchedness. Based on inspiring true events, the plot revolves around the courageous story of Agnes “Apple” Bailey (Vanessa Hudgens) and her incredible path to motherhood as a pregnant, homeless teenager.
Apple is forced to flee her abusive mother (Rosario Dawson), and is simultaneously turned away by her Wall Street father (Brendan Fraser), finding herself on a desperate and isolated journey of survival. In the depths of despair, she meets a compassionate stranger (James Earl Jones), who leads her to unprecedented support in a suburban shelter for homeless teenagers, run by the humanitarian Kathy (Ann Dowd), whose character portrays the wondrous real-life, founder of Several Sources Shelter, Kathy DiFiore.
Lead actresses Vanessa Hudgens and Rosario Dawson, along with director Ronald Krauss have unveiled for us how this extraordinary piece of film-making was conceived:
Vanessa, how did you get this role and prepare for it?
I auditioned like any other actress and Ron sent my audition, along with the ones of other actresses, to the girls of the shelter and Kathy. They picked me. Preparing for this role was quite a journey. Ron wanted me to put on a couple of pounds, so I started eating, which was fun, I got to cut off all my hair, which was extremely liberating, and I lived in the shelter for a few weeks before we started shooting, so I got to get to know the girls and understand their lives.
Was Apple’s character inspired by one of the girls in the shelter?
Her character was inspired by two real girls, Alison Bailey, who had the father on Wall Street and Darlisha Dozier, who had a mother with the drug abuse. Darlisha actually, was the primary inspiration for my character. Her true story is very touching: she walked for 30 miles in the cold to find a shelter, without a jacket, and her baby was actually traumatised from the weather.
How do you feel connected to this role and story?
Apple is such a strong character, she really fights for her one will, and I think it’s so important to not let anyone tell you what you should be doing with your life. There are so many things you pick up from the movie and that is why I love it so much, I think mainly how easy it is to help out, so this definitely made me want to be a better humanitarian. It also shows that sometimes we’re exactly where we’re meant to be, even during the darkest and hardest moments; when we think that nobody can understand what we are going through, there are people, and through those hard times we are pushed to be the people we are meant to be. So it’s all part of God plan’s and if you’re open to it, he’ll guide you the right way.
What did you learn from this experience?
Most and foremost, to be kind to others. It is such a simple thing but we forget, and we forget that we are put on this planet for a reason, and people ignore each other, when we are actually meant to hear each other and look into each other’s eyes and connect with people. And I feel that whenever I do that, my day is so full.
Rosario, how did this part come about for you?
I was on a plane with Vanessa, we were heading to Cannes, we have the same manager, and he made me read a scene from the script on his phone as we were walking out of the plane. He told me about the film and explained there was a cameo for her mum, struggling with drug addiction and asked me what I thought about it. I had never played anything like that before and was excited to jump into it. The themes really resonated with me, my mother was a teenage mum, she was working in shelters since I was ten years old, which I used to help her with, and it’s all about taking people off the streets also with domestic violent issues, and is connected with the activism I do now with other organisations. On top of that there was the topic of drug addiction, and I had some family members who struggled with heroin, crack, and I watched how devastating that has been for their entire lives. It was really fascinating to get into this dark character since I always approached this whole world from the other side. It ended up being a pretty intense, raw, experience.
Your role as a mother in the movie is rather controversial, how did you handle that?
Motherhood is very complex for my character. Her problems with drug abuse gave her a hard time in putting her baby’s need above her own. But at one point she has that moment of wanting her child, and wanting to love this baby and give her what she needs. My character was never given the help she needed and she succumbed. She is human. We all have moments of denial, we all have moments where we push our skeletons in the closet, but the darker it gets, the harder it becomes to look in the mirror and make different choices. There was that part of her that wanted to be this great mum, but she had no guidance.
How important do you feel this movie will be, to spread awareness on teenage mothers and shelters?
It’s really important to see that even if your family lets you down, there are people who will be willing to help you and support you. This movie teaches how to have love in your heart and pass it on to the most vulnerable. Our most natural trait is to be empathetic and there mustn’t be blood in order to care.
Ron, how did you come in contact with Kathy DiFiore’s Shelter and eventually decide to make a movie on her work?
I work in the human sector of film and I had just done a human trafficking film, which played at the United Nations. So one day someone came up to me and asked me randomly if I had heard of a place in New Jersey where there was a woman who was homeless and got back on her feet and eventually got a home and turned it into a shelter and the laws of the state tried to shut it down, but she reached out to Mother Theresa and managed to keep it going and was then invited to the White House by Ronald Regan. This story got stuck in my head, and one Christmas, a few years later, I went to visit my brother who lived a mile away from the shelter. So I called Kathy to introduce myself and when the opportunity came to meet I showed up. What I saw at her shelter is exactly shown in the movie: mother and babies, everyone doing their own thing, it was so fascinating. As I spoke to Kathy I realised she hadn’t documented any of this and proposed to do it myself. So I borrowed her camera and I started to interview the girls and photograph the place, this was going on for a little bit until one day I came to meet her and there was a young girl standing in front of her shelter, with no jacket on, she was Darlisha. I brought her in the shelter and she was so happy to be welcomed in and hugged me so hard that I went home that night thinking about what I could do to spread awareness on all of this. I came up with the idea of making a documentary or a film and I approached Kathy and she initially was reluctant, but eventually the trust she and the girls had in me, gave us the idea of not making a story on one of the girls, but rather on the work done in the shelter, that hopefully may inspire people to do the same.
Do you consider it a pro-life movie?
It’s a pro-LOVE movie. I don’t get into the political matters. I had no intention of channelling it into pro-life, or pro-choice. This film is about teenage mothers, but it also covers so many other topics, family, poverty, foster care, homelessness, helping people who suffer. We’re all here to support each other and that is what this film represents. A woman in Houston who saw ‘Gimme shelter’ told me “This film brings dignity back to Hollywood. It makes people want to go back to the theatre and relate to it.” Well, my objective as a film-maker was simply to honour the story of the shelter of these young girls and their struggles, that was the only thing that mattered to me.
Did the making of this film change you?
I think so. I think every time I work on a subject matter where there is any kind of social cause, it opens me up very deeply, because I become very close with everybody and I grow as a person. This occurs when I’m reaching out more as a humanitarian and as a helpless person who is helping others. This is part of my work and part of who I am.