Former "Dancing with the Stars" champ Julianne Hough doesn't have a lot of big-screen experience that doesn't rely on her dance background, so after "Burlesque," "Footloose" and "Rock of Ages," she was ready for a challenge. "Yeah, I left the dancing and the singing outside," she says of her new film, "Safe Haven," a romantic thriller based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks. "For me it [meant] going to an acting coach and getting more training. It was definitely a lot more heartfelt and personal, definitely."
Her role — a woman on the run from an abusive past who finds solace with a widower (Josh Duhammel) in a small North Carolina town — also required her to take on some pretty heavy issues related to domestic violence. "It's a big responsibility to do it right," Hough says. "If somebody has gone through that, it feels real and honest for them. I talked to women at shelters, I know friends of family, my own experiences but at the same time it was such a safe environment to do it in."
She could at least draw on her dancing background for some of the more extreme scenes. "We had a stunt woman but these guys will tell you, there's no way I was gonna let them do that," she says of some of the flashbacks of her character's abuse. "This is fun to me. It's like dancing. It's choreography and I love that acting feeling. I did get hurt a little bit, but I didn't tell anybody."
For her co-star, Duhammel, filming "Safe Haven" introduced a new luxury: two weeks of prep time on location before shooting started. "I was like, 'Really, what am I gonna do for two weeks?'" Duhammel remembers. "But it was great because I really got to soak in the local environment, live in Southport. Really think about what I want to do in this movie. Wrote a lot, spent a lot of time with the kids, and by the time we started shooting I felt like I was this dude. I wish that I always had the luxury of getting there that early and just sort of becoming part of the local environment."
Of course, being a small-town boy at heart, feeling like part of that environment wasn't too terribly difficult. "I grew up in a state full of little towns like that," the North Dakota native says. "It's sort of in my blood, I guess. I grew up in a place like this so I would be more akin to live in a place like this than a big city. I love New York, but that's too much for me. That town just swallowed me up. I lived there for three years. I'd probably prefer a smaller town... like Los Angeles. It's a whole bunch of little villages just next to each other."
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The Sparks pressure
"Safe Haven" marks the eighth Nicholas Sparks romance novel to be made into a film, from 2002's "a Walk to Remember" to last year's "the Lucky One." But it's his hugely successful second film adaptation, "the Notebook," the moviegoers remember most. And that can put a lot of pressure on the romantic leads of a new one, something Julianne Hough and Josh Duhammel are all too aware of.
"There is a lot of pressure to live up to the success of these previous movies, but we try not to think about that," Duhammel says. "If I tried to do what Ryan Gosling did in 'the Notebook' I'd be pulling my hair out. If we try and replicate that in any way, it's a trap." And Hough agrees completely. "I am the demographic of Nicolas Sparks books," she says. "I loved 'the Notebook,' but this was our version of what this story is."