Walking through the garden of Hollywood's famed Chateau Marmont in a sleek beige dress and a killer pair of Louboutin heels, Julianne Hough
radiates movie-star confidence. But after a few moments of discussing her first leading role-in the new remake of the '80s hit Footloose
-she can't help but blurt out, "I'm freaking out inside right now."
Then again, she wouldn't have it any other way. "I've always liked the pressure," says the two-time Dancing with the Stars
champ, 23. "Adrenaline is the reason I do what I do." Lately she's had plenty of pulse-quickening moments, beginning with landing the sought-after role of rebellious preacher's daughter Ariel in Footloose
. "I met with her and she said, 'Look, I'm a fighter. You need to audition me right now,'" recalls director Craig Brewer. "Not many actresses actually ask for that. So we went through every scene in the movie. Tears were rolling down her face in the argument scene with her father, and I knew I had Ariel."
The rest of Hollywood is taking notice too. Following the Footloose shoot, Hough joined the all-star cast of the upcoming big-screen musical Rock of Ages
in Miami, and she just landed the lead role in the directorial debut of Oscar-winning Juno
scribe Diablo Cody. In August she also found time to attend a friend's wedding-Kim Kardashian
's; perhaps you heard about it?-on the arm of omnipresent American Idol
host Ryan Seacrest
, 36, her boyfriend of more than a year. She's circumspect about the relationship but acknowledges she's taking it slow. "Everything is wonderful, so let's just keep going," the Utah-bred star says between sips of mint tea. "You know? No rush." Just 18 years old when she broke off her engagement to dancer Zach Wilson in 2007, she says she has grown up "so much" since then. "Now that I'm older, I'm like, 'Wow, I'm so glad I didn't do that.' I think it's important to be happy before you can make anybody else happy," says Hough, who also dated country singer Chuck Wicks from 2008 to 2009. "So that's my goal right now."
Now there's another famous leading man in her life: Tom Cruise
, her costar in Rock of Ages
. "He took care of me on-set," she says. After she injured herself during one of the dance scenes, "he was making sure I was okay, and I was like, 'Somebody cares about me, and it's Tom Cruise
!'" She bonded on-set with R&B singer Mary J. Blige too. "If I had to pick a soulmate as a best friend, she would be my soulmate," says Hough, adding, "It's the oddest match: Mary J. Blige and Julianne Hough! But we became so close."
She's also close with her big family-including four sisters and brother Derek Hough, a fellow Dancing with the Stars
champ-and relished the chance to host dinner parties while shooting Footloose in Georgia. "I had my mom and sisters, and Ryan's parents are from Atlanta, so they came, and I made pumpkin ravioli and maple-glazed chicken," she says proudly. (Raised in the Mormon faith, she says she retains "the foundation" of those teachings.) Even in the kitchen, her family's competitive streak is fierce. "We take pictures [of our dishes] and send them to everyone. We're freaks."
A competitive dancer since age 9, Hough says she regrets not having more fun in her early years. "I was 15 and living in London by myself and making these big, life-altering decisions," she recalls of the time she spent training as a professional dancer in England, far from her family in Utah. "I took everything way too seriously. I just wish I was a kid."
She's still got the same relentless drive, but these days Hough is also focused on enjoying her life at home in L.A.-"within walking distance" of Seacrest's home, she says coyly-with her beloved dogs Harley and Lexi. Given her head-spinning year, "I'm just taking it one day at a time," she says, before pausing to reconsider with a smile. "Actually, that's a total lie. I always think about what's in front of me."