Powerless' Vanessa Hudgens previews NBC's new super comedy

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DC Comics is dipping into the world of comedy with Powerless — and it’s brought some star power and geek cred to support it.

After a lauded turn as the edgy Rizzo in last year’s Grease Live!, Hudgens finds herself returning to her High School Musical roots as the optimistic and doe-eyed Emily Locke. (After Powerless went through an overhaul, gone was Emily’s biting wit as an insurance adjuster that specialized in regular-people coverage against damage caused by the crime-fighting superheroes.) Now, when viewers first meet Emily, she’s taken a job as the new director of R&D at Wayne Security, a subsidiary of Wayne Enterprises that specializes in products that make defenseless bystanders feel safe in a world full of demigods.

Hopeful for a better future, Emily must navigate a team (Community‘s Danny Pudi, among them) that, well, has no hope at all, and a boss (Alan Tudyk) who puts the Trump boys to shame when it comes to nepotism — he’s Bruce Wayne’s cousin! Much like Emily, Hudgens handles the new challenge of entering the world of comedy with aplomb. Below, she teases what’s in store for Powerless: (Read our review here.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What attracted you to Powerless?
VANESSA HUDGENS: I love work space comedies. The Office is my all-time favorite show, and Parks & Recreation. They’re both at NBC, so when I heard that they were doing another one, I was like, “I have to get on this!” Plus, the added aspect of it being DC Comics’ first comedy, and it was going to be something original and something fun. I haven’t done much comedy, so I knew that it would push me to grow and be a new, fun challenge.

Are there any comedians you’re inspired by?
Amy Poehler, for sure, because her character on Parks & Recreation was extremely radiant, positive, and wants to inspire everyone around her. I think Emily Locke has that in the making.

Talk about Emily’s dynamic with her new team.
They don’t really know what to do with her. They haven’t really been approached with this sort of optimism in a really long time. She’s from out of town, so where she grew up, superheroes just flew above, they never stopped there. She’s very excited and in awe by the whole situation that they’re very used to and annoyed with. So it’s really her trying to find her place and gain their affection. It’s so funny because she’s such an adorably likable character, but they just do not want to let her in.

Emily comes into Wayne Security with a lot of hope, but immediately gets push back from her new team. How long can she stay that positive?
It takes a lot for her to crack, but she’s human.

In the original pilot, your character had a little more edge to her. What do you think of playing a more doe-eyed version of her on the show?
I love it. I feel like it gives Emily a place to grow. That’s another big thing with comedy is contrast; setting her up to have somewhere to go to is really great. We’ve had a couple of moments where she snaps a bit, so it’s been a lot of fun to play with that.

What’s your favorite part of playing in this world?
The stuff that they come up with is just so clever, it just has not been explored very much. Like in the episode we’re filming now, my character is dating a henchman and she doesn’t know it. That’s just a casualty of living in a world full of superheroes and villains. It’s just really funny and really great being able to explore mundane things in a brand new world, but one that is still extremely relatable.

How does Emily actually getting to work in Wayne Security change the show?
We’re able to help more and invent more and create, which I think is a lot of fun. Seeing our characters test out new products and invent new things that then come into fruition is a really neat way to dive into the Bruce Wayne world, whereas before, it was great, but it was like, “Approve this claim or don’t approve this claim,” so it’s opened up a lot of comedic opportunities.

What does her dynamic with Van Wayne, the boss at Wayne Security and Bruce’s cousin, look like moving forward?
It’s a lot of him thinking he should get the credit for the things that I’ve done. He doesn’t want to put a lot of hard work in, and that’s all Emily wants to do, so there’s a lot of argument between the two of them, but always in a really comedic way.

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How much do you actually know about comics?
I mean, I kind of just know the big characters. It’s funny, through this I feel like I’ve learned a lot of new characters in the DC Universe. There’s just so many. The list goes on and on.

So when someone like Crimson Fox comes up in the pilot, do you recognize her?
No, I have no idea who that is. [Laughs] I was such a girly girl growing up. The extent of my comic book knowledge was Catwoman, from Michelle Pfeiffer, because I love Tim Burton. I’ve learned many things over the course of filming.

Have you started reading some comics now?
No, I’ve got enough to read when it comes to work.

From your perspective as a non-comic book fan, do you feel like audiences will be able to follow along with Powerless?
Oh yeah, of course, because it’s not about superheroes; it’s about normal people in their everyday lives, which we all live and can relate to.

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Do you have any dream guest stars from the geek world you’d like to see come on the show?
I’m not super big in that world. I feel like I would want the fans’ opinions and then send that to the writers so they can get what they want. I’m just having fun and there for the ride.

How overwhelming was Comic-Con then?
I had been before with Zack Snyder, who I adore, for this movie I did called Sucker Punch. It felt like an honor going with him, because I was obsessed over 300. It’s a really amazing world. I love being in an environment where a bunch of people who are like-minded and have the same passions get together and can geek out over things that they love. It’s just a really fun environment to be in. If anything, I was really excited by all the energy and love that everyone had being in a room together.

While Powerless is a comedy, what message do you think the show sends in this trying time?
The main theme is that you don’t have to be a superhero to be a powerful person and change the world. A lot of the times we get intimidated by the big ideas we’d like to approach, but we show that if you just approach anything with willingness and openness, if you take that first step, you can make a change. Hopefully it inspires people to follow their dreams and their passions.

Powerless will debut Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

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