Julianne Hough got her start on the hit ABC reality show Dancing With The Stars, which parlayed into a stab at being a country singer. Soon, Hollywood came calling and she got roles in musical films like Burlesque, the Footloose remake, and Rock Of Ages. Now the 24 year-old hopes to prove herself even further as an actress with her first non-musical film, the romantic drama Safe Haven.

Hough plays Katie, a young woman who comes to the small North Carolina town of Southport, who falls in love with a widowed grocery store owner and father of two children, Alex Wheatley, played by Josh Duhamel, while struggling with a dark secret from her past. She was asked if she had to do anything to prepare for this role.

“Yeah,” she replies, “I left the dancing and the singing outside. I was really just blown away and blessed that I got this opportunity. My whole life, I’ve just wanted to entertain, sing, dance and act, and the fact that I got this opportunity to do that was huge.”

“For me it was going to an acting coach and getting more training,” Hough adds, “[Director] Lasse’ [Hallström] is such an actor’s director, so I got to put my trust in him. It was definitely a lot more heartfelt and personal definitely.”

In the film, Katie deals with an abusive husband, played by David Lyons, something Hough says she herself experienced when she was young. She talks about how she approached it for the film.

“It’s a big responsibility to do it right,” Julianne 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. Dave is one of my closest friends now and with Lasse, he can put you in a vulnerable situation, but not feel exposed. It was interesting and hard but it also was comforting.”

Safe Haven was directed by Swede Lasse Hallström, who is best known for directing the music videos of the legendary Swedish pop group ABBA, as well as My Life As A Dog and The Cider House Rules and had the actors do a lot of improvisation on set. Julianne was asked what doing improv with the director was like.

“It keeps you on the tip of your toes making sure you’re listening and you’re being as real as possible,” Hough describes, “Especially with the kids having them, like Lasse used to say, ‘Don’t even look, just say whatever you want to say,’ especially the scene when I first meet Lexy.”

“It started out very on script and then it moved on,” she continues, “You would do like ten minutes scenes and then just find the best of what was there. It was really fun because with kids you don’t know what they’re going to say anyways in real life so you kind of just have to go along with it. It was scary at first, but I’ve never felt so trusted in anything I’ve done. Thank you, Lasse.”

Hough reveals what a guy has to do to get her attention.

“There’s a list,” Julianne claims, “Honestly, the freedom to be me. Anyone who I want to keep their attention or they want to keep mine is just to let me be myself and support me and vice versa. Is that a good answer? Be hot? I don’t know.”

Julianne was asked about what she learned from her character’s struggle to breakaway from her abusive relationship with her husband and find true love.

“I think both Katie and I are fighters,” she says, “I think it’s very easy to. People say it’s easy to walk out, but it’s sometimes not. It’s sometimes harder to walk away in situations. With this it was her own journey of setting herself free. Obviously she had the love of Alex and the security there, knowing there’s now two people in this together. Not to give away the end, I really liked that Katie was the one who ended the situation between her and Kevin.”

“She didn’t need saving from him, she did it on her own and she became that strong fighter,” Hough adds, “Having Alex there just gave her more strength. You have to be able to be on your own and secure with who you are and confident in who you are to move forward. It always helps to have great friends and family around but at the end of the day it has to come from you.

Hough talks about what her own ‘safe haven’ is.

“Mine’s my dogs,” Julianne says, “I like having my dogs. They’re kind of like the mascot of ever film that I do, because at the end of a long, maybe emotional, maybe exciting day, they’re always there to love me and for me to love them and to get a shower from Lexi who kisses my face off. They’re like my safe place and home. They’re Clavier King Charles Spaniels. I have two.”

Safe Haven originally was a novel written by Nicholas Sparks, whose previous film adaptations, The Notebook and A Walk To Remember, have gone on to be beloved. Julianne talks about what it was like to tackle a film based on one of Sparks’ novels.

“I am the demographic of Nicolas Sparks books,” Hough says, “I loved The Notebook but again, this was our version of what this story is and having Lasse to bring us down. And there is pressure to have these big movie moments, and at some point it was like ,’Well, this sure be more dramatic,’ and it wasn’t and it didn’t need to be. Giving the audience the credit that they deserve and they are intelligent enough to know what real love is without having to overdo it.”

Hough talks about what it was like actually shooting Safe Haven in Southport.

“I thought I was going to be all method and stay in it one night,’ she says, “And then I was like, wow, it’s tick infested and I don’t want to get lyme disease. It was amazing, it’s not everyday you get to shoot in the location where the story is set. It’s gorgeous. I love Southport, it’s kind of a hidden gem. I think that if I would go there on vacation it would be just as wonderful but the fact that we got to hang out with some of the local residents there, and the restaurants were amazing, the vibe, going to the beach on the weekends when you have a day off.”

“ Everything about it was amazing,” Julianne adds, “Honestly, one of the best summers of my life so far because it was so calm. Something about the South in general like you have more time in the day and you get to enjoy each moment and not rush to the next Not that you’re forced to hang out but you kind of are because there’s a small amount of places and there’s only a certain amount of places and you would see people out. It was so fun. One of my favorite things was the ring game where you have to toss the ring onto the hook, it’s really addicting and awesome.

Julianne talks about what it was like during her audition and first day of shooting.

“I remember my audition for the movie,” Hough says, “The first time I went in, Lasse was still in Bedford and he was on Skype and I remember going in and doing the best that I thought I could do but when I left I was like, oh man, I wish he could have been in that room, so he could have felt what we were feeling and the chemistry, but I worked my booty off. I called and said, ‘You better let me audition again, please. Let him be in the room!’ I wanted it so bad. Like I said before, this is the greatest opportunity for me to grow and expand.”

“When we went in the second time for the audition, I got my wish and it was even better,” she adds, “The more you hang out with somebody and the more you get to know somebody the chemistry either works or it doesn’t and it just kept working the more we hung out together on set, whatever. He’s not bad to look at either. My first day of shooting was with Dave when all that went down in the house, so it was like, hey, how are ya?’ Boom! We got to be really close really quickly and we became really good friends.

Hough was asked if a stuntwoman was needed.

“We had a stuntwoman, but there’s no way I was going to let them do that,” Julianne says, “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.”