LOS ANGELES — During her four seasons gliding through “Dancing With the Stars” in skintight, bedazzled bodysuits and spray tans, professional ballroom dancer Julianne Hough confidently guided an Olympic gold medalist and an Indianapolis 500 champion to victory.
Getting Hollywood directors to consider her a true leading lady, however, hasn’t been easy.
“When people’s primary association with you is dancing around in a sequin costume being sweet and happy, that sophistication doesn’t always come through,” said Diablo Cody, the writer of films including “Juno” and “Young Adult” who encountered Hough when looking for stars for her directorial debut, “Paradise,” due out later this year.
But after showing off her dancing and singing ability roles in three films — “Burlesque,” “Footloose” and “Rock of Ages” — Hough this year gets several real shots to prove, as she put it, she’s more than “just that chick from the dancing show.”
The first came on Valentine’s Day, when “Safe Haven,” an adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ bestselling romance novel, arrived in theaters. Though the movie isn’t exactly Michael Haneke’s latest somber European drama (it is from the man behind “The Notebook,” after all), the film offers Hough, 24, an opportunity to explore a darker side of herself — with no musical numbers to fall back on.
Hough plays Katie, the victim of an abusive relationship who flees to a sleepy seaside town in North Carolina to start her life over. But just as she begins to fall for a local widower (Josh Duhamel), her past threatens to derail the relationship.
The actress said part of the reason the role resonated with her is because of her own history with abuse. In an interview with Cosmopolitan magazine last month, Hough revealed that while studying dance in London as a teenager, she was subject to both mental and physical abuse, though she didn’t identify her abuser. Hough shared her personal stories with “Safe Haven” director Lasse Hallstrom in the pair’s first one-on-one meeting to help convince him she was right for the part.
“I was like, ‘All right, I have to sell myself for this movie.’ And I wanted him to know that there was more to me than just this happy, bubbly, jumpy girl,” she recalled in an interview the morning after the film’s Los Angeles premiere.
Hallstrom was surprised by Hough’s candor. “I thought it was bold of her to share this,” the Swedish filmmaker said, “and I could tell she used a lot of that experience. She was doing things on set that were very interesting because she knew who the character was.”
Hough declined to get into specifics about her experience in London, where she attended a performing arts school and competed in professional dance competitions from ages 10 to 15. As a sophomore, she returned home to Utah, where she is one of five children in a devout Mormon family. Her father, Bruce, has twice been chairman of the Utah Republican Party.
At 18, she told her dad that she had $5,000 in her bank account when she really only had $2,000, and she moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams of being in show business. Shortly after arriving in town, she landed a spot on “Dancing With the Stars,” but was hesitant about taking the gig.
“At first, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I should do this, because I really want to be a respected actress and singer, and I don’t know if being a reality star is where it’s at,’” she recalled. “But after saying no a few times, I thought this could be a really good opportunity to get my foot in the door.”
Indeed, the program did lead her to some film roles, including as a wide-eyed, aspiring singer fresh to Hollywood in “Rock of Ages” last year with Tom Cruise.
“I didn’t want to go so far out of the box that people who watched me on ‘Dancing With the Stars’ would be totally freaked out. But also it was like, well, I’m not really getting offers for ‘Silver Linings Playbook,’” Hough admitted, referring to David O. Russell’s Oscar-nominated dramedy featuring Jennifer Lawrence.
Hough will follow “Safe Haven” with Cody’s film, in which she stars as an evangelical Christian who renounces her religion and embarks on a wild night out in Las Vegas. Cody said she considered virtually every well-known actress between the ages of 18 and 27 for the role before Hough won everyone over with her audition tape.
“You had the Jennifer Lawrences and Emma Stones — people who have the commercial and critical heat on them — but the funny thing is that after everyone saw Julianne’s tape, they all agreed she was the best,” Cody said.
Hough also had the least experience of anyone up for “Safe Haven,” said her costar, Duhamel. She initially auditioned for the role with the actor via Skype, and the producers weren’t sold on her, but Duhamel — who was already attached to the project — urged Hallstrom to let her try out in person.
“I said, ‘If you’re in person, there’s a lot more going on than you would think — especially for a girl that beautiful who doesn’t have a lot of experience,’” he said. Though Hough said executives at Relativity Media, the studio behind the film, told her that she’d “had her shot and it was going to be a tough thing for (her) to get back in there,” she eventually convinced them otherwise.
The actress has exhibited bullheadedness in other areas of her life too. Her boyfriend of three years, 38-year-old “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest, had to pursue Hough for months before she decided to overlook his celebrity and go out on a date with him.
“She really resisted going out with him,” said Adam Shankman, who directed Hough in “Rock of Ages.” “But he is so madly in love with her that he treats her like beautiful blown glass — she is so precious to him.”
The actress says Seacrest often offers her career advice. “On the business end of things, he’s like, ‘Don’t let people … you. Make sure you’ve got good people around you to get you the best deal,”‘ she said, imitating his voice.
As for her conservative father, Hough said he doesn’t have as big an issue with the couple’s 14-year age difference as he does with the fact that they live together.
“He won’t stay at our house,” Hough said.She’s more than a pretty face and nimble feet, she insists, and her past is not all sweetness and light.