The romantic thriller Safe Haven, from director Lasse Hallström and adapted from best-selling author Nicholas Sparks’ (The Notebook, Dear John) novel of the same name, tells the story of Katie Feldman (Julianne Hough), who arrives in the tiny coastal town of Southport, North Carolina, looking to make a new start. Even though she’s hoping to keep a low profile, she finds herself interested in and attracted to local store owner Alex (Josh Duhamel), who has two young children. Each are haunted by their past, but hopeful for their newfound happiness and love.
At the film’s press day, actress Julianne Hough spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how she came to this role, what it’s like to be part of a Nicholas Sparks movie, what a big fan of his work she’s been (A Walk to Remember was her favorite movie, growing up), that she finds the emotional work more challenging than the physical, and how scary it was for her to try improvising. She also talked about how excited she is for people to see another side of her, as Lamb in Diablo Cody’s directorial debut, Paradise. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
JULIANNE HOUGH: A bit of both. My agent has known, for a long time, that I want to branch out of just doing musicals, and stretch and grow as an actress. Eventually, I want to do really great acting pieces. So, this was the first step for that to happen. And I had such a good time doing it because it was scary, since I didn’t have the dancing and singing to rely on, but it also gave me so much confidence, in knowing that I was hired to act and that people believed in that and gave me a shot.
What’s it like to be part of a Nicholas Sparks movie?
HOUGH: It’s incredible! I’m a huge fan of Nicholas Sparks. I loved The Notebook. I loved A Walk to Remember. A Walk to Remember was my favorite movie, growing up. So, for me to be a part of one of his babies is a huge honor.
Are you typically someone who’s a sucker for romantic movies, or did you like the fact this was a bit of a different story for him?
HOUGH: Look, The Notebook is incredible and there are such high expectations, not just for a Nicholas Sparks movie, but for any movie to live up to that because it’s such a great romantic movie. So, I loved that this was a little bit different. I love fantasy. I love thrillers. I love action. I’m all over the place. As long as the story and characters are good, I’ll love it. My sister hates fantasy. She will not go and watch something like that. She likes chick flicks, and that is it. I liked this because I do like romantic movies. Who doesn’t? Who doesn’t like to feel swept away? But, what I like about Nicholas Sparks movies is that, even though they are a fantasy, there’s something that is like, “Well, that could actually maybe happen to me? Maybe not as romantic, but I could find that,” or “I do have a second chance,” like what this movie stands for, or “I can fight for who I love,” whether it be the right path or not. There are certain elements where, even though it takes you away and makes things much more romantic, it’s still a possibility that could happen to you.
HOUGH: Absolutely! In real life, I found a family in Southport, and that was Dave Lyons, Josh [Duhamel], Cobie [Smulders], Stacey [Panepinto], who did my make-up and (make-up artist) Nicole [Wodowski]. It was my family, and it was amazing! It was three months of pure fun and love.
There were so many layers to this role, and physical and emotional work. Do you find one of those more challenging than the other?
HOUGH: Emotional is more challenging than physical, for me. I think that one thing that helped, being a dancer, was the fact that a lot of it is choreographed. I get to use my athleticism and I’m not afraid to get hurt. But, the emotional stuff is hard, especially when it means something to you, to do it justice, and to be exposed. It is personal, but at the same time, it’s also very freeing and liberating to be able to feel safe, in an environment where you can be vulnerable and let it all go, and know that you have 25 people behind you, who will be there for you when it’s done. It was great. I loved it!
HOUGH: It was extremely scary because everything I’ve done has always been very staged. With a live performance, you know exactly where you’re going to stand, for the right camera shot. With these musicals, it’s all pre-recorded and you do certain things. It was scary! I’d never done anything that was improvised, except for in acting classes. But, it’s different when you’re in a huge movie and you’re being told that you can do whatever you want. It was also really cool because it helped me grow so much faster than I would have, if I did another thing where it was like, “Here’s what you’re saying, and that’s it. Do not go off page.” Right before this movie, I did a Diablo Cody film (her directorial debut, Paradise), where her writing is very specific with certain inflections and an “and” or an “or”can really change the tone of it. So, I went from one to the other. But, I actually really enjoy improvising because there’s something about feeling the realness. Sometimes you have to think about what you’re going to say, in real life, so when you see that thought process going on in a movie, it feels real and looks real.
Did it especially help, in working with the kids?
HOUGH: Completely! They say some incredible things that you can’t write. It’s so natural for them. So, to be able to react to what they say, in real life, is the same as it was in the movie. One of my favorite scenes is with Lexie (Mimi Kirkland) at the counter, when I first meet her. She knew what we were supposed to talk about, but she said it, in her own way. She didn’t even speak with the script in mind, and some of the greatest moments came out of that. Kids tend to over-think things, or they’re afraid to be themselves or to mess up, so they practice it with their moms and dads, and then it looks forced. Lasse Hallström is so great at bringing the magic that kids have to the screen.
HOUGH: It was kind of dreadful because it was so hot. They literally did these spray-downs for ticks, weeks before. It was smelly. In 100 degrees with humidity, everybody starts smelling because everybody is working hard. It was not as glamorous as I thought it would be. I said, “Oh, I should spend the night and really get into character,” but I was scared out there. There were alligators and bears, and all sorts of things out there.
Was it fun to get to have the casual singing and dancing moments in this film?
HOUGH: My favorite way to dance is being swept off my feet by somebody who doesn’t know how to dance. They make it about the moment, rather than the performance. Josh and I were actually both pretty reluctant about doing that, but it ended up being one of our favorite moments because it felt authentic and cute. We were falling over each other and it was dorky, cute and charming.
Your acting career has progressed really naturally, from Burlesque to Footloose to now doing roles without any singing or dancing in them. Does it feel like this is the way you wanted to establish your acting career?
HOUGH: Absolutely! It’s not about staying in one place, for me. It’s scary to take risks and it’s scary to get out of your comfort zone, but it’s also the most rewarding when you do. I always feel so proud of the things that I was most scared to do, and they usually end up being the right decision. It becomes magic. It’s scary, but I always say, when you’re scared to do something, you should probably do it. I definitely wanted this career path. From the outside looking in, it must look like it was easy, but it really wasn’t. I’ve fought for everything that I’ve gone for. I was not the first choice for Diablo Cody’s movie or this movie, and I really fought for them. I was basically pleading, “Please give me a shot! I won’t let you down, and I won’t let myself down. I know what I can do, and I’m grateful for the shot that you’re giving me.” Especially with this role, I knew that I could do it justice because of how close it is to home for me, and the fan that I am of Nicholas Sparks and this story. It’s definitely been a struggle and hard work. That’s why I’m a positive and uplifting person. That way, on the outside, it doesn’t look that hard.
How excited are you to show another side of yourself in the Diablo Cody movie?
HOUGH: So excited! The character, Lamb, is a little bit of a know-it-all, but she’s very, very naive. She’s a lot younger than the role in Safe Haven. She’s 21, but it’s like she’s 15. She’s been brutally changed on the outside. She’s burned over 2/3 of her body. From being changed on the outside, it obviously changes you on the inside, and there’s a bit of bitterness and trying to break free and figure out who you are, now that your whole life has changed. It’s very different. She’s not as sweet. She’s sweet because she’s naive, but she’s a know-it-all and a prissy, bossy girl.
Safe Haven opens in theaters on February 14th.