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CASTING SAFE HAVEN The heroes of Nicholas Sparks' novels tend to be handsome, strong, principled and vulnerable -- and Alex, one of SAFE HAVEN's young lovers, is no exception. Josh Duhamel, who plays Alex, was the first performer cast in film.

"We were all thrilled that Josh took on the role," says Bowen. "Alex is an intelligent guy and a very kind, decent man. He married the love of his life, but she passed away a few years earlier. All of a sudden, he found himself being mom and dad to two small children. He veers between being really sad that his wife's gone and being mad that she's gone. We needed someone who could juggle a combination of sadness, love, anger, and concern for his kids. Josh had exactly what we were looking for."

Duhamel decided to dig deep to find the flaws beneath his Alex's shiny exterior in order to fully flesh out the character. "He is a really good guy, but I wanted to find what goes on underneath that facade," he says. "Sometimes with characters you think are going to be simple, the more you explore, the more dynamic they get."

Hallstrom encouraged the actor to find Alex's core. "It was fun working with Lasse to figure out how to make him multi-dimensional," says Duhamel. "Lasse is an artist through and through. He completely trusts his actors and I trusted that he was going to find the best moments."

The challenge in working with Duhamel, according to the director, was to rein in his charm. "Josh is a really winning guy with a great sense of humor," says Hallstrom. "The character is a small town guy who owns a store. We tried to play down the outgoing, urbane side of Josh."

Hallstrom's emphasis on improvisation was intimidating to Duhamel at first. "I'd never worked like that before, but he wanted everything completely authentic and organic," Duhamel says. "We had to know each scene from every angle, which allowed us to find a lot of interesting things that we might not have considered otherwise."

As an example, the actor points to a scene in which Alex discovers some uncomfortable truths that Katie has kept hidden. "There's a lot of confusion, hurt, and anger. We talked for weeks about how to handle that scene. I was probably the most apprehensive about it because I really didn't know what I was going to do. We shot at least seven different versions of the same scene for Lasse to choose from later. It was liberating in many ways, because there was no way to make a mistake. We could experiment knowing that we would get it right."

For the role of Katie, the filmmakers met with a number of prominent actresses before deciding on Julianne Hough. While the actress has played major roles in big-budget movie musicals, including FOOTLOOSE and ROCK OF AGES, SAFE HAVEN is her first dramatic part.

"The most important thing we looked for was great chemistry with Josh," says Bowen. "But we also needed someone who could bring complexity to the role, because Katie undergoes such a metamorphosis. Julianne has real grace and depth. She is unafraid to be vulnerable, but there's an underlying strength that girds her character. And of course Josh is one of the most charismatic young actors working today, so it is fun to see the two of them together."

Hough's commitment to getting things right impressed Duhamel. "Julianne jumped in 100 percent," says the actor. "There is a sadness about her, despite that bright light that shines from her, and that was essential to Katie. The motherly part of the character came easily to her, which I don't think people will expect. She surprised everybody."

Hallstrom notes that the role hit close to home for Hough. "Julianne knew this character very well," he explains. "She's had experiences in her life that relate a bit to the story of the character and she used her personal experiences in the performance. I really appreciated that she was willing to share that with us."

The actress acknowledges that she has a connection to the character that goes deep. "I've been in situations where I haven't been able to be myself and the light that's inside of each of us has become dark," she says. "Katie is not who she wants to be and not who she knows she can be. She has to change her situation. That idea of redemption is so appealing."

The fact that Katie has made mistakes and is facing up to them is key to her transformation, says Sparks. "She allowed herself to be sucked into a life she never expected. All she wants is not to be hurt again. Little by little she gets drawn into the town and feels as if she really truly belongs there. And little by little her strength begins to take form."

Hough admits that being a longtime Nicholas Sparks fan made her especially keen to take on the role. "I read all of his books," she says. "A WALK TO REMEMBER was my favorite when I was growing up. I must have read it seven times and then watched the movie over and over and over. Nicholas really speaks to women. He understands that we want compassion and love, safety and security."

But SAFE HAVEN will appeal to men as well, she points out. "It's a very suspenseful movie and I think that guys are going to enjoy the action. I also think there are some sexy scenes between Josh and me that are definitely for men and women."

The acting challenge in playing Katie was in the character's transformation, Hough says. "Katie is almost two different people. She goes go from being super guarded to falling completely in love with somebody she just met. I was able to find the balance because Lasse gave me the time to explore."

During Katie and Alex's love scene, the director asked Hough to share something from her own experience. "It is completely improvised," he says. "We just rolled two cameras and she told a story and there was no script."

It was uncharted territory for Hough, who had never done improv before. "We used the script as a guideline, but then we just went with it," she says. "Honestly, some days Josh and I wished we could just have a script, but it kept us on our toes."

Sparks began writing SAFE HAVEN with a lengthy profile of the character that is the biggest departure for him, Katie's pursuer, Kevin Tierney. "It was fun living in his voice without worrying about anything other than making him a little bit off and scary, while still making him feel very real," Sparks says. "Kevin is a police officer from the Boston area. He's a very good detective, but he's a little bit paranoid and he's got a major drinking problem. When those two things come together, it comes out in a nasty violent streak."

According to Hallstrom, the character was fully realized on the book's pages. "He's an absolute badass. We shaded him a little bit to keep him from becoming an outright villain. And David Lyons' performance brought him to life vividly. He even helped us write a scene or two."

Lyons, an Australian import who has recently received praise for his role as Sebastien Monroe on the NBC drama "Revolution," found his character believable and even sympathetic in some ways. "Lasse has created a film that is grounded very much in reality, and therefore words like 'villain' and 'evil' don't really apply," he says. "If you judge this character by his actions, he's not a very nice guy. But working with Lasse, I tried to hold on to whatever threads of humanity he has."

The actor found Hallstrom's approach to filmmaking and character liberating. "In an effort to find real moments, he throws a lot of curve balls, but in such a caring and loving way that you always feel like you're supported."

The darker aspects of the story pleasantly surprised Lyons. "It's not your typical Nicholas Sparks novel," he says. "You get a look at some of the uglier side of humanity, and, for me, that's what makes it really fascinating. I was able to make some adjustments in order to feel like I'm playing him truthfully, but there was incredible insight there in the book and talking to Nicholas gave me more of that."

Katie's first friend when she settles in Southport is another young woman who lives alone, Jo, played by Cobie Smulders. Sparks says that character's candor and verve made her a pleasure to write.

"Jo is an interesting character in many ways," he says. "She becomes Katie's friend even though Katie doesn't want to befriend anybody. She has an aura about her that says, 'This is your life. Make the best of it!' And Katie realizes that she's right. She can become part of this town, even become part of Alex's life."

Hallstrom praises Smulders' humor and intelligence, as well as her beauty and talent. "Cobie is a very smart lady," he says. "There's a soulfulness to her that I really enjoyed spending time with."

Both young women are at a crossroads in their lives and both seem lost at the beginning of the film. "Katie and Jo build a bond that grows deeper over time," says Smulders. "Katie is very hesitant to talk to anybody about anything, but Jo is great at gently prying the truth out of her."

The actress counts herself as a genuine fan of Nicholas Sparks. "He has an amazing ability to transport you to another world," she says. "THE NOTEBOOK was huge for me. I remember sitting in the theater with about seven of my best girlfriends. I was sobbing hysterically at the end. When the lights came up, I saw that they were all sobbing, too."

The experience of making SAFE HAVEN was an unforgettable one for Smulders, who has always wanted to work with Hallstrom. "One of the main reasons to do this was to work with Lasse," she says. "I think he's a genius. Lasse is so patient, sweet and Swedish! His eyes twinkle."

But what he is, in her eyes, is a master director. "He exists on a different plane than the rest of us. He's always happy and seems not to get flustered by anything. He creates such a safe environment and lets the actors be a big part of the creative process, as opposed to just showing up and just saying words that need to be said."

The two youngest actors in SAFE HAVEN captivated their co-workers with their enthusiasm and professionalism. Noah Lomax and Mimi Kirkland brought a youthful energy and honesty to the roles of Alex's children, Josh and Lexi.

"A movie without kids is like Christmas without kids," says Duhamel. "They lighten the mood. A lot of care was taken in choosing real kids that had real spirit. They're very soulful, both of them. And they can both improvise which was a little scary sometimes."

One of the director's favorite scenes is early in the film as Katie and Lexi meet and become friends. "There is something really fresh and genuine about Mimi Kirkland," he says. "When we did the scene the first time, it was obvious that someone had been working hard with her on the lines. She was very 'actressy' and affected. Then I told her that we just wanted her to be herself in that moment. We started again and she soared. She's very real and I'm proud to have been around for her debut as an actress."

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