02/12/2013 09:25 am ET

Julianne Hough, 'Safe Haven' Star, On Her Favorite Nicholas Sparks Movie (It's Not 'The Notebook')

In 2007, Julianne Hough won her second "Dancing With the Stars" title. Just six years later, after roles in the 2012 films "Footloose" and "Rock of Ages," she's a movie star. It's in 2013, however, when Hough will take the next step to lead actress.

On Valentine's Day, she stars with Josh Duhamel in the Nicholas Sparks adaptation "Safe Haven" as a young woman who gets a second chance at life and love after escaping an abusive husband. Later this year, Hough plays a devout young woman who loses her faith after surviving a traumatic plane crash in "Paradise."

"I'm really excited," Hough told HuffPost Entertainment about "Paradise," the directorial debut of Oscar-winning writer Diablo Cody. "I was so blown away that they gave me the shot to do this. Diablo could have had anybody she wanted."

She wanted Hough, 24, who spoke to HuffPost Entertainment about why "Safe Haven" is her most important role to date and which part of Shane West she considers the "cutest."

You've built up a big body of work in a very short amount of time; how important did you think this film was to your career growth?
This is huge! Even while I was doing "Footloose" and "Rock of Ages" and my first film, "Burlesque," I was constantly looking to see what projects I could get that weren't necessarily singing and dancing. Those just happened first. This is definitely a step in the direction that I want to keep heading. For me, I just want to keep growing as an actress, so each project I do gets more difficult and more rewarding. I'm really proud of this film. Being discovered as a dancer in the eyes of the fans and the audience and then having a project like this, where you can really expand and you have to be able to trust yourself and have confidence. For me, just knowing that I got hired to be an actress was huge. It gave me the confidence to do what I felt like I needed to do. I never felt so trusted by a director [Oscar nominee Lasse Hallstrom] and cast. It was really liberating and freeing and also scary at the same time.

Was it difficult for you to get this role?
I definitely had to fight for it. I was not the first choice on a lot of these movies, but I always tell people that all I need is a shot. Nobody has seen this side of me and until I do get that shot, nobody will see this side of me. I know what I can offer; I know I will work hard for it. There were plenty of people who are more talented or have a better lineup of job experience, but there was just something about this character and this story that I latched on to. I knew I could pull it off. For Lasse to give me that shot, was incredible. What I'm here to do is work with the most prestigious director I've worked with and learn and grow so much. I'll use that for the next project I do.

What part of the character did you latch on to?
The fact that she's a fighter. She wasn't going to stay in this situation that she knew was not right. Everybody deserves to be happy and be loved and you should know that you deserve that. It was a hard decision for her to leave and it definitely wasn't easy, but she found happiness in the end. Sometimes taking risks are really hard and worth it in the end.

Not including "Safe Haven," what's your favorite Nicholas Sparks movie?
"A Walk to Remember."

Wow, not "The Notebook"?
Well, I mean, of course I love "The Notebook," but "A Walk to Remember" is underrated. I loved that movie so much. What I loved again -- I don't know, maybe it's because I related -- was that they picked Mandy Moore. She was so good in that movie. She kind of had something to prove. I was always so surprised by how well she did in that movie. I always liked that aspect of it. Plus, Shane West. I think I was like 15 or 16 when "A Walk to Remember" came out. He does this thing with his lips, where they kind of purse. They poke out a little bit. Like a pout. I was always so like, "Oh my gosh, he's got the cutest lips!" That was another reason I liked the movie.

It's interesting to me that these Nicholas Sparks films have a long history of launching the leading actresses to stardom -- not just Mandy Moore, but Rachel McAdams and Amanda Seyfried. Do you feel any pressure to replicate that success?
I'm the demographic of this film. So to be in one of them is a huge deal. I don't take that lightly. It's a lot of responsibility but it's also kind of a dream. To be able to do a movie where you've loved all the other ones that have been made, and then you get to be in one of them? To me, this film also feels a little bit more adult and mature and darker. I think as Nicholas Sparks fans have grown, so has his work. I was 13 or 14 when I first read "A Walk to Remember," but now I'm 24, and this is a little bit more mature. It's about second chances rather than first love. It's a little bit more adult. I think his work and his fans have grown at the same pace. I'm excited about it. I think, too, a lot of females and especially males may be surprised how much they like it. I'm really proud of the movie. This is definitely the most patient and not shoved-down-your-throat movie that I've ever done.

'Safe Haven' Photos