Harmony Korine, the hellion and pop-culture dadaist behind the films Kids and Mister Lonely, knew full well what he was doing when he cast ex-Disney starlet Selena Gomez in Spring Breakers.
In the film, Gomez plays Faith, an evangelical Christian who, along with her three disillusioned, libidinous collegiate girlfriends, wants to raise her freak flag high on spring break. Without any money to fund their hedonistic fantasy, the other three rob a diner, and the neon bikini’d quartet head down to Florida for some booze-soaked fun in the sun. Things get dicey when they cross paths with a fugazy rapper and drug dealer named Alien, played by James Franco, who molds the girls into his own twisted version of Charlie’s Angels.
Korine’s film is a gonzo commentary on American pop-cultural wish fulfillment packaged like a sexy thriller and is, in a way, an example of art imitating life imitating art for the wholesome Gomez, who seems eager to escape the daytime-TV trappings of her Disney Channel past and embark on a new, decidedly edgier chapter in her acting career.
“It’s never really an easy transition to make, and there’s not a wrong or right answer, but I want to pick projects that I’m passionate about,” says Gomez. “It is weird, though. I want to experience new things, and that requires stepping out of your boundaries.”
It was Gomez’s mother, believe it or not, who brought the Spring Breakers script to her attention. According to the actress, her mother is a big fan of Korine’s, and as soon as she read it, she ran in and was “totally geeking out.” Since Gomez wasn’t familiar with the writer-director’s risqué oeuvre, which also includes Gummo and Trash Humpers, the two watched several of his films and traveled to Nashville so she could audition for Korine. After their meeting, she claims to have had “no reservations” about doing the film.
On set, Korine would throw the girls into real situations and see how they reacted, including partying with real spring breakers, which Gomez says was cool because they were “totally hammered but respectful.” Plus, it was “pretty cool to chill with normal people” and try “riding scooters at 4 in the morning and disrupting the Floridians.”
The Spring Breakers stars, which include another ex-Disney star, Vanessa Hudgens, as well as Ashley Benson (Pretty Little Liars) and Rachel Korine (the director’s wife), formed a tight clique during filming.
“These girls have my back till death,” says Gomez. “They’re so amazing, sweet, and protective. We did a lot of partying in the movie, so after we partied for 18 hours straight on set, we would like to go home, have great food, and watch movies. We’re not nearly as crazy as they are in the movie.”
Like her character, Gomez grew up surrounded by religion in Grand Prairie, Texas. She’s Catholic, and her father, Ricardo Gomez, is of Mexican descent, while her mother, Amanda Teefey, is Italian. “You know, the bigger the hair, the closer to god!” she says with a laugh.
Teefey was a theater actress, and Gomez vividly remembers watching her rehearse.
“I’d listen to her going over her lines over and over again, and I would catch myself saying her lines back as well,” she says, adding, “Being overdramatic and making situations into a stage was definitely influenced by my mom.”
Her parents split when she was 5, and she was raised by her mother, which she says “wasn’t easy,” but they persevered. Around that time, the young Gomez began getting into acting, doing many, many, commercials for, among others, T.G.I. Fridays, Chili’s, Radio Shack, and Joe’s Crab Shack. It was doing the latter, she says, that was the most unpleasant.
“I had to eat shrimp a hundred times in a row and it was absolutely awful!” exclaims Gomez. “It was 11 o’clock at night and I had to keep scarfing it down! I started eating it at first since I was like, “OK, it’s free food,” and then I began spitting it out.”
She also credits her mother with grounding her as a youth, suggesting that she treat acting “more like a hobby,” and urging her to still be a kid. (Only later did it grow “into a passion.”)
And while it’s not exactly Spring Breakers status, the most trouble she got into as a kid, she says, was when she was about 9 and committed some light shoplifting.
“I wanted a ChapStick from the convenience store and I didn’t have money, so I thought I’d go ‘get it,’” she recalls. “My friend dared me, and I got caught and I got in trouble. That’s probably the worst thing I did! I was so freaked out by it.”
After she landed a gig on Barney & Friends when she was 7, the family caught wind of a nationwide talent search by the Disney Channel. Her mother drove her over to Austin to audition, and Gomez was then flown out to L.A., where she was signed. After a few failed Disney TV pilots, including a Lizzie McGuire spinoff and another spi-off to The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, she finally hit pay dirt, appearing as the lead character on Wizards of Waverly Place. The series won multiple Emmy Awards, and its series finale in 2012 was the most watched in Disney history, averaging 10 million viewers.
“I was really appreciative of having that be the end result,” she says. “Being shot down twice humbled me in a way that made me more appreciative, and I understand why those ones didn’t work out, because this was the one that was supposed to be mine.”
Gomez also sings in the band Selena Gomez & the Scene, which has released three hit albums. Since she’s named after the singer Selena, she says she’s been musical all her life and was trying to develop avenues to pursue it.
Her Spring Breakers costar, James Franco, is apparently a pretty big fan, too. The actor released a self-made video of him, as his character Alien, singing along in his car to Gomez’s catchy single “Love You Like a Love Song.” The video went viral.
“I was dying laughing and immediately texted Harmony,” says Gomez. “I thought he was hilarious.”
At this point in the interview, she is asked what she thought of the video Franco and her other Spring Breakers costar, Ashley Benson, did parodying her ex Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend.” A publicist immediately threatens to end the interview, but after some light cajoling, it continues.
Despite Franco’s cheeky video, Gomez says she was really freaked out by Franco’s character. In one of the film’s most intense scenes, his character’s heavy flirtation with hers brings Faith to tears.
“He actually really did creep me out—as the character—with the braids and the way he talked,” she says.
In addition to Spring Breakers, Gomez’s mature new chapter has included a glamorous cover shoot for Harper’s Bazaar courtesy of the brilliant Terry Richardson, as well as an upcoming action film, The Getaway, in which she’ll star as a tomboy car expert opposite Ethan Hawke.
“The transition is a little weird, but I’m honored to be a part of things that allow me to grow,” she says. “I want to continue doing that, and if it works out and people like it, that’s awesome, and if not, I’m trying to do all I can.” She pauses. “I’m just hoping for the best!”