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,” 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 will get several real shots to prove, as she put it, she’s more than “just that chick from the dancing show.”
The first comes with “Safe Haven,” an adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ best-selling romance novel. 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 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 that she was right for the part.
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.”
After attending school in London for a time as a teen, she returned home to Utah, where she was one of five children in a Mormon family.
At 18, she told her dad that she had $5,000 in her bank account when she really had only $2,000, and she moved to Los Angeles to pursue show business. Shortly after arriving in town, she landed a spot on “Dancing With the Stars.”
The program led 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.”
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.