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Taking the Lead – Julianne Hough

Thanks to a top-billed role in the new “Footloose” remake, ballroom dancer and country singer Julianne Hough adds one more line to her résumé: big-screen star


SEQUINS CAN BE A POWERFUL WEAPON, and never more so than when on the hips of Julianne Hough, whose gravity-defying moves on five seasons of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” only just outshone her glittery, barely-there costumes. But Hough wasn’t content to merely dazzle TV audiences: One minute she was dancing with the stars, it seemed, and the next she was one, headlining a remake of Footloose that showcased her natural sparkle (if not her embellished dancewear) on the big screen.

That the 23-year-old Utah native would first make her mark in the ballroom world was almost a given. All of her grandparents were professional dancers, and her parents met and fell in love on their college ballroom dancing team. Bubbly and fleet-footed, Hough quickly became a fan favorite on “DWTS” and was crowned series champ twice, along with celebrity partners Apolo Anton Ohno and Hélio Castroneves.

Yet clearly she had itchy feet. Leaving the show in 2008, Hough produced a line of bestselling exercise DVDs, began working the red carpet for “Entertainment Tonight” and released a self-titled album that debuted at No. 1 on the country charts. And that’s when Hollywood came calling.

Following her film debut opposite Cher and Christina Aguilera in 2010’s Burlesque—in which Hough spent most of her time onscreen in little more than her underwear—she landed the female lead in Footloose, a remake of the ’80s classic starring Kevin Bacon. Her performance earned Hough comparisons to Jennifer Aniston and brought in a flood of offers, including a role in the upcoming Rock of Ages with Tom Cruise. (“People are going to be blown away by what an amazing singer and dancer he is,” she says.)

Play recently caught up with Hough to talk about making Footloose, taking a break from being “happy, positive Julianne” and why husbands across America are so damn terrified to dance. And, of course, Kevin Bacon.

The original Footloose came out in 1984, four years before you were born. Do you remember the first time you saw it? Not the first time, exactly, though I do remember having watched it over and over by the time I was 10, which is also the age when I knew I wanted to be a professional dancer. If you’re someone who wants to dance for the rest of your life, it’s just one of those movies you have to see again and again. But once I got the part [in the remake], I made a conscious decision not to watch the original. I needed to make it my own.

You play Ariel, the overprotected teenage daughter of a small-town preacher. In real life, you were raised Mormon and your dad is a former GOP chairman in Utah. Any similarities? My upbringing was definitely strict. Not in a mean, cruel way—it was more to protect me, like it is for Ariel, and I understand that now—but it did take a toll on my relationship with my parents. So I rebelled. Of course, what I thought was bad behavior was actually pretty tame: I got in trouble for things like leaving the house in shorts that were way too short and wearing more makeup than I needed to. But still, those experiences eventually came in handy. The scene in Footloose where I’m in the church with Dennis Quaid [who plays Ariel’s father], and I’m really emotional about my past and feeling lost about where I’m headed next—it was one of the easiest to relate to and yet so emotionally taxing, because it felt so familiar.

How did it feel to finally take on a role that features your acting as much as your dancing? I loved “Dancing With the Stars” and Burlesque, but since I’ve been working, people have pretty much only seen me be “happy, positive Julianne,” with the smiles and the glitter. It was such fun to play a role that was a little darker at times.

Was dancing as a character in Footloose different from dancing in real life on “DWTS”? Oh, absolutely. The hardest part about playing Ariel was figuring out how to dance as if I didn’t already know how. I really wanted to let loose and move in the way I know I’m capable of, but in the movie I’m supposed to be 17 and from a small town, a girl who’s just making it up as she goes along. Nowadays, because TV dance shows are so popular, audiences know what good dancing is. So while I didn’t want to look too professional, I did want to give them something entertaining. But, you know, I had to make a conscious effort: less butt-shaking and hair-whipping, that sort of thing.

When you first started filming, you were quoted as saying that director Craig Brewer’s script is “like the original—people aren’t going to get mad.” Were you worried about a Footloose backlash? I mean, Footloose is a classic—it has Kevin Bacon in it! People who have seen the original were like, “Why would you remake this?” We were nervous about messing up a movie that’s so iconic. But at the same time, we had faith that we were doing it justice, and I think the film ultimately does have the heart and soul of the original. Still, people kept asking us, “So, did Kevin give you his blessing yet?”

Did he? He said no to making a cameo. He went to see it, though, and he tweeted a photo of his ticket stub and mentioned how much he liked the movie. That was a huge deal for us. I was thrilled!

What do you make of the fact that Footloose has earned you many comparisons to Jennifer Aniston? Yeah, well, it’s funny. A friend in London told me that she was talking about going to see the movie, and the person she was talking to said, “Oh, is that the one with Jennifer Aniston?” And earlier I had auditioned for the movie Just Go With It, which she was in with Adam Sandler. I was told that one of the reasons I didn’t get the part was I looked too much like Jennifer. It was actually the best rejection ever.

20/20 called you one of the “best dancers on the planet.” What makes somebody a great dancer, anyway? Oh, my gosh. They said that? Living in the moment and really giving it your all, like it’s the last time you’re ever gonna dance. As a kid, I was definitely not the best dancer but I had the most commitment and the most drive. I ended up becoming better than a lot of the dancers that I looked up to because I wanted it more. I wanted it so much.

By the way, my husband refuses to dance unless plied with copious amounts of liquor. What’s your take on why men are so scared of dancing? It’s an expression of how you feel at that moment. You’re expressing raw emotion through your body and your movements. Having your body and your emotions exposed is a scary thing. It takes you to a vulnerable place of showing how you’re feeling. I think some men can have a hard time with that.

You and your boyfriend, Ryan Seacrest—who I hear is an excellent dancer—have to be two of the busiest people in Hollywood. How do you make it work? We definitely set up special occasions, but—what’s the expression, distance makes the heart grow fonder?—I think the fact that we’re away from each other makes us want to be with each other even more. We end up seeing each other more than people would think, though.

You’re also the youngest of five in a pretty tightly knit group of siblings. Do you all do a good job of keeping up with each other? We have a family reunion once or twice a year. In the summer we all vacation together in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and in the winter we snowboard in Utah. Growing up, we had a family singing group called White Lightning, because we were all super-blond—if you haven’t seen the pictures, you’re definitely missing out!—and even now, we’re constantly singing and dancing when we’re together, trying to get in front of the camera. I love performing with my brother [Derek Hough, another “DWTS” alum]; it’s one of my favorite things to do. But the rest of them have their own things going, too. I mean, my oldest sister has six kids.

Next up for you is a film written and directed by Diablo Cody, who also wrote Juno and Young Adult, both of which are fairly dark in places. You play the lead, right? Yes, and it’s a dark comedy for sure. My character, Lamb, is a Christian fundamentalist who gets into a terrible plane accident and is now a burn victim. It tests her faith, and she decides she wants to do things that she’s never been allowed to do before. So she decides to go and be with the “sinners” in Las Vegas. She wants to be more like them … but they want to be more like her.

Playing a burn victim sounds sort of serious—I’m guessing there’s no butt-shaking involved? Ha! No, no dancing. Not even a little!

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