There's a certain crackle of energy, almost an ozone smell in the air, when one interviews a celebrity who's about to bump up to the next level of stardom. The handlers are suddenly busier and more numerous, the hair and makeup people hover in a newly solicitous way. During Julianne Hough's (pronounced "huff") buzz through Toronto last week to promote her new romantic drama, Safe Haven, it was evident that she's at one of those thresholds.
She was doing interviews with her co-star, Josh Duhamel – the tall, handsome fellow in the poster, who cradles her face in his hands as he bends down to kiss her – but he was performing much the same function as he does onscreen: supporting Hough, gazing at her, filling in the blanks in her conversation, while letting it all revolve around her. A mere 24 years old, she's a tiny dynamo, with the practiced sparkle common to people who were professionals as children. (She's been dancing competitively since she was 10.) Though it was January, she sported the newest spring clothes – floral dress, corset-style stilettos – and her beauty is just intimidating enough, comfortably between Naomi Watts and the girl next door.
Huge audiences already know Hough: that she won back-to-back seasons as one of the professionals on Dancing with the Stars; that her self-titled country album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard country album chart in May, 2008; that she hoofed her way through the film musicals Footloose (2011) and Rock of Ages (2012), and that she dates Ryan Seacrest, the radio star and American Idol host who's on a quest to rule the entertainmentscape as the next Merv Griffin or Dick Clark.
But there are whole swaths of pop-culture consumers to whom she's still "Julianne who?" Safe Haven is the kind of project – not precisely prestigious, but prestige-y enough – that could make her their darling, too. First of all, it opens Valentine's Day, which all but guarantees it an audience. Second, it's based upon a novel by Nicholas Sparks, who inhabits the zeitgeist sweet spot for romantic drama the way Stephen King inhabits the one for horror. Safe Haven is the eighth of Sparks's 17 novels to be adapted for film, and the previous seven have delivered – among them, A Walk to Remember, Nights in Rodanthe and, especially, The Notebook, which made bona fide stars out of Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling. And third, it's directed by Lasse Hallstrom, a dab hand at exactly this type of higher-IQ romance (Chocolat, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen).
This is also the point at which a celebrity decides what persona she's going to present, and Hough has chosen sincerity, which works for her. "I suck at [being guarded]," she says. "I'm an open book. I have no filter. And sometimes that's a bad thing. But at least you know it's honest."
This month, she chose to reveal to Cosmopolitan that she was "abused, mentally, physically, everything" between the ages of 10, when she moved from her native Salt Lake City to London to study dance after her Mormon parents split up – her father was twice chairman of the Utah Republican Party, and both her parents and all four grandparents danced competitively – and 15, when she came back to the United States. In a largely improvised scene in Safe Haven, her character, who's on the run from a battering husband, describes the loss of personality that results from abuse; the speech seems to come directly from Hough's own life.
But Hough is about nothing if not forward momentum; her spine is too steely to allow her to wallow. "I championed Julianne for this film because I knew she was hungry, a hard worker, sweet and down to earth," Duhamel says. "On a movie like this, where everything depends upon the connection between the two people, there can't be any hang-ups. And with her, there are none. She is who she is. It made it easy to open up to her, and for her to open up to me."
"It's my first real opportunity to show a different side from the performance/dancing side of what I've done," Hough says. "Everything's been so – not exactly campy, but a little bit. This was a lot more raw.
"But I think everybody feels that – 'I have so much more inside of me, I just need the shot,'" she continues. "What I've learned in the last little bit, I think I was trying so hard to prove that I was so much more than a dancer and singer that I downplayed them, instead of just embracing them."
She and Duhamel, who is 40, have that in common: They're both creatures of television who are trying to be taken seriously as film actors. He was born in North Dakota, and was a model and a soap actor (on All My Children) before landing a lead role in the NBC series Las Vegas and a recurring one in the Transformers movies. "I always feel like I'm trying to bust out of some kind of box," he says.
Both also have public love stories with more-famous partners – Duhamel's wife is Stacy Ann Ferguson – "Fergie" of the Black Eyed Peas; they've been together for nine years. "Ryan [Seacrest] and my wife, they're both well-adjusted to the business," Duhamel says. "They both understand what we're doing, and they're both supportive. I actually talked to Ryan before we shot and said, 'Listen, I know this is a very romantic movie, but I love my wife, and I want you to know I respect you.' He was like, 'Yeah. Of course.' Then I felt dumb for even bringing it up."
Hough continues her habit of frankness with me: She admits that her relationship with Seacrest wasn't love at first sight. "Sometimes it doesn't have to be bells and whistles," she says. "I was very guarded." Seacrest is an influential person, she was 18 and new in L.A., and she wanted to "create my own career and my own life. Let's just say I made him work."
She cackles gleefully describing their first date, which occurred when she was 22, four years after he first expressed interest. "I basically interviewed him," she says. "I was like, 'How many years have your team been working with you? 15? So you're loyal, okay, good. And how close are you with your family?' This went on for three hours."
"Wow," Duhamel says. "I don't know how long I would have lasted."
"I feared the worst, but it turned out to be the best," Hough says, smiling blissfully. "My character in Safe Haven wasn't looking for love. And I definitely was not. But you know it when you find it."
Just like you know a star is rising when you see one.