"We couldn't force it. That was the mantra throughout," Duhamel said. "Let's not think of this as a Nicholas Sparks movie. Let's just think of this as a story of two people . . ."
" . . . Just getting to know each other," Hough said, completing Duhamel's sentence.
While "Safe Haven," which opens Thursday, follows the familiar beats of a Sparks-branded product, Sparks decided to add an element of danger. In most Sparks books, the villains that keep the star-crossed lovers apart aren't tangible: time, space, war, illness. But in "Safe Haven," there's a concrete evildoer, and he's coming after Hough.
Hough plays Katie, a mysterious woman who hops a bus in Boston after being chased by the cops. She gets off in a sleepy North Carolina town and meets Alex, a widower with two young children.
Duhamel praised director Lasse Hallstrom, who gave him the freedom to add layers to his character in order to make the chemistry between Alex and Katie feel more real.
"I thought [Alex] was too perfect. I didn't want to play a guy who was wishy-washy, soft . . ."
"Too nice," Hough added. "You hate that word."
"I know that ultimately the role I'm playing in this movie, but . . . I just wanted to mess him up a little bit. He just felt too polished. Of course, he's the perfect guy who is waiting for this girl, so sympathetic with the two kids and the widower. . . . Whenever I could, I just tried to play against . . ."
" . . . what was written," Hough interjected.
For Sparks, it was important for the love story to stay center-stage despite the violence surrounding the plot, with elements of evil creeping into Alex and Katie's romantic entanglements. He wrote the villain - an abusive spouse played by David Lyons - before he created the story of Katie and Alex. He then interspersed the two plots. "You have to keep the seed of the thriller alive through the use of mystery," Sparks said.
Because Katie is at the heart of both a love story and a thriller, Hough had to essentially play two roles: the lover and the victim.
"She has dual personalities by nature," Duhamel said, laughing.
"I'm bringing you here today to tell you I'm bipolar," Hough said, playing off Duhamel, but then she got serious. With the release of "Safe Haven," Hough (who got her big break on "Dancing With the Stars") recently revealed that she had been abused as a teenage ballroom dancer while working in England.
"People see me as this happy, optimistic girl, which I am, but that's because I've chosen to be that way. By having those experiences, I know what it feels like to be in this situation, and I know how to disguise those hurtful things. It's a trait I needed for Katie," Hough said, adding it was the appropriate time to speak out.
"There are people out there going through something similar, they're going to be inspired or feel strong enough to know they should be loved. I'm working with a foundation and creating my own about women, self-esteem and young girls. How hypocritical would I be if I didn't open up about what I've gone through?"
On Twitter: @phillygossipdn