We’ve long loved Diablo Cody for her whip-smart writing, on display in such films as Juno and Young Adult. So we were super excited to see that her directorial debut Paradise (out now), starring Julianne Hough, Russell Brand and Octavia Spencer (how’s that for a unique cast?!), is brimming with Cody’s irreverent spirit. In the film, Hough takes on her deepest acting role yet, playing Lamb, a young woman from a hardcore evangelical background who, after surviving a nearly fatal freak accident, flees her God-fearing town for the bright lights of Vegas. Havoc ensues in Sin City, of course, but not of the usual ham-fisted Hollywood variety. Lamb’s story is more nuanced and spiritual than you’d ever see in something like The Hangover—even Russell Brand, who plays a sleazy-yet-secretly-sweet bartender, tones down his usual schtick for the film. We talked to Hough about taking on the role of Lamb, and how fashion played a role in her character’s transformation.
Lucky: This character is a bit similar to the one you played in Rock of Ages. You’re cast as the innocent who leaves home and goes off on her own journey.
Hough: For some reason, I’m always doing these identity movies. I don’t know if it’s what agents think of me, if it’s like I need to find myself—but you know what, I do feel like it runs parallel with my life. There has been a lot of discovery of what I want to do and who I am. I’ve tried different career paths and they’re all a part of me, but I’m 25 now, and I’m on my own and I’m single and focused on my career.
What drew you to the role? Was it just the character of Lamb or Diablo Cody’s involvement too?
I know that there were so many actresses that wanted to do this movie, and I thanked her every day for putting her trust in me. Knowing that I was hired to do this as an actor and not as a dancer or a singer or performer was a huge deal. I had a lot of responsibility and I loved it. Diablo really is the woman’s voice of our generation, and she creates these unbelievably strong, complex female characters that women want to play. You get a chance to actually show this unbelievable journey.
Let’s talk a little about your character’s transformation in terms of fashion. There are a lot of fashion references in the movie—at one point Lamb says, “My mom calls glitter Lucifer dust.”
Lamb wasn’t allowed to wear shorts and her skirt is one of those evangelistic jean skirts where girls aren’t allowed to show above their ankles. It’s all about modesty—nothing that could draw attention from the opposite sex. It was about protecting and covering up. There are still cultures that believe that—even the Mormon religion, which I was brought up in. We were taught not to wear any shorts or skirts that hit higher than four fingers above your knees. And you’re not allowed to show your shoulders, and no belly—nothing past a certain mark on your chest that might show cleavage.
Lamb, who’s a burn victim, is also forced to cover her body for medical reasons. How did you feel wearing those garments?
It’s a very restricting feeling and when I went to do research and visit the burn survivors and I asked them how their muscles and their joints felt, they told me about how stiff they were and that they weren’t able to move so easily. Just putting on the compression garments changes you. I thought about how active I am, and how I talk with my hands and I dance and all of that. All of that energy that’s external, I had to create internally. I can only imagine how that must feel literally every single day for them, and it definitely put me right into the character.
What about wearing the makeup to create the burns?
Sometimes I left work with the burns still on, and I’d be in my own hair and makeup and clothing, and I would see the looks that people would give me or how they would turn and not want to look. And some of these burn survivors would tell me “I wish they would say ‘Hey, what happened?’ instead of looking at me like I’m some kind of freak or I’m ugly.” It was interesting to be in their shoes. Fortunately I could take it off and, unfortunately, they can’t. I know with the kids that I talked to, there was a lot of self-discovery of asking “why me” and “why would God do this to me” and “is there even a God"—it was very spot-on with what Lamb went through.
Your hair in the movie, which is super blonde and long, is almost its own character. In one scene, a prostitute tells Lamb it’s so good that it must be a weave.
It was a full wig that I wore the whole time, because my hair wouldn’t get that long even if I tried. It was kind of fun to have that much hair and just play around.
It was even longer than your Rock of Ages hair!
It was definitely more hair than I had in Rock of Ages, just not as teased!
In a lot of movies, when a woman goes through a transformation, she goes from being the good girl to the bad girl—like with Sandy in Grease, for instance. But Lamb basically stays true to herself. Yes, Octavia Spencer cuts off your long denim skirt, but she still doesn’t really go too wild.
I think that’s what was key. All of these sins that she’s doing—cutting off her skirt, cutting off her hair—they’re all ridiculous to us because they’re, like, nothing. But for her that’s a huge change and a huge deal and a huge sin. And just for her to do that takes a huge courageous leap. But what’s great is that she never truly loses herself while having her eyes opened up to a world that she’s never seen. She’s able to balance the pendulum and it’s right in the middle.
It’s more surprising that way, I think.
I think people may look at film and see the trailer or read what it’s about and think, “Oh great, it’s going to bash religious beliefs” or, “Now she’s going to go live in sin and have a great time.” But it’s not about that. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Lamb is awful at being awful. She wants to do all of those things but really, that’s just not who she is. But she has to go through it to really know what she wants.
Can you talk a little about your own fashion evolution? It definitely seems like over the past couple of years you’ve really upped your game, both on the red carpet and in terms of your off-duty looks.
Honestly, again, I feel like Lamb. My eyes were opened to a world I never knew. I knew dance clothes, and I knew workout clothes and pajamas. That was the extent of my fashion. So, now that I’ve been accustomed to it and around it, I’m able to pick and choose the things that I like. I wouldn’t even say that I have one specific style that is totally me. I love to try new things and take risks. I’m never concerned or worried whether people like it or not. If I like it, I’m going to go with it.
Is there anything lately, style-wise, that you’re really into? Like a new designer or something you never thought you’d wear before but discovered really works for you?
Oh man, I’ve been really into boyfriend jeans, kind of rolled up with heels or boots. Before, I always thought that boyfriend jeans and ankle boots didn’t make sense. But now I’m trying to be different and come up with outfits that I didn’t wear last year.
Paradise opens in theaters today.