Julianne Hough reflects on her most personal project yet

Just days ahead of her final set of off-Broadway shows last month, Julianne Hough met with CNN on a quiet tree-lined street in downtown Manhattan, close to where she now calls home.

Over a cup of coffee, Hough reflected on her 15-plus years in the spotlight. Although she was still a teen when she first rose to fame in 2007 as a professional dancer on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” alongside her brother, Derek Hough, her work in entertainment began years prior.

Destined to dance

Hough, the youngest of five children, was raised in the small town of Orem, Utah, in the Mormon faith. Her older siblings were all either dancing or acting, all four of her grandparents were dancers. At age 9, Hough went to London to study ballroom dancing, that’s where she met Mark Ballas, who would eventually star alongside her on “DWTS.”

“I love what I do, but I think I was choosing it from a different vantage point,” Hough said about her tireless training throughout her childhood. “From like, ‘Oh, this is what I’m supposed to do … Is this actually my path? Do I love it? Do I wanna do it? And why am I doing it?”

Hough made her acting debut in the 2001 film “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” She was a favorite on “DWTS” for several seasons before starring in a series of film roles in “Footloose,” “Rock of Ages” and “Safe Haven.” She returned to “DWTS” as a judge in 2014 and made her Broadway debut last spring in “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive.”

Now 34, Hough says she is in place of discovery with her work again.

“I have fallen in love with dancing and music and acting and being a student of the craft again,” she said, crediting her renewed approach with her move to New York.

“When I came in March, I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ My eyes were just opened up to what New York really is, which is so many different communities where you feel immediately like you know where you stand,” she said. “I love LA, it’s amazing. I have my group of friends, but it takes me a long time to figure out like, ‘Who are my people? Who do I trust?’ Whereas here, you’re either like, I know you like me, or I know you don’t.”

‘Life’s about choices’

For Hough, working on her self-titled caberet show at the Paradise Club, which ran for two weekends in December, felt like perfect timing. She directed, choreographed and produced the show loosely based on her life. She said that the inspiration actually came from her father, who told her after watching her in “POTUS” that she should write her own show.

“I tell my story about the last few years through a lot of the loss and you know, pain and grief that I went through from choices that I made and choices that I didn’t make,” she said. “Life is about choices … I’ve always shared a lot of my personal, private life on Instagram, especially when I was married and people loved that, but that felt like, oh my gosh, I have nothing left for myself that feels sacred. Cause everybody knows everything. So how can I stand for what I believe politically or emotionally through my art?” Hough said.

Adding, “That’s what I’m doing with this show. I’m sharing my life, but through my art expression versus I’m getting on Instagram and telling you all my thoughts and feelings, emotions and private details … This was a show for myself to kind of gain my confidence back of like, you are an artist, you’re not just a performer and you can create.”

Reflecting on her 2017 marriage to former NHL player Brooks Laich, which ended last year, she said that Laich “created that safe place for me to unravel a lot of those protective survival mechanisms and was able to allow the space for me to find that depth and a lot of healing. And through that, a lot of change,” she said appreciatively. “When I look at that experience, it was one of the most beautiful experiences, while also the one of the most painful because it was uncovering everything that I ever knew or what what I was building for my whole life. And so that deep sense of like identity crisis, like, ‘Who am I?'”

‘Happy is a place that you go to visit’

The conversation turned to her longtime friend, Stephen “tWitch” Boss, who had tragically died by suicide just days prior to our interview. Hough shared her fondness for Boss and the compassion she felt toward him.

She reflected on her own experiences curating a life in front of the cameras.

“I think happy is a place that you go to visit,” she said. “And I think that for me, striving to be a hundred percent happy all the time is just unattainable. It’s like sometimes you have to look in the mirror and be like, ‘I’m having a great day today.’ You know what I mean? And you have to give yourself that pep talk. Then some days you’re like, ‘No, I feel like absolute trash right now.’ But I think that the point is like you never know what’s really happening and life is complex and so nobody’s one shade of anything. There’s a spectrum of light and dark and happy and sad and it’s constantly moving.”

Hough said she’s open to bringing her cabaret show to Los Angeles and potentially other cities across the country, but that she’s not looking too far down the road. She is trying to just enjoy life’s uncertainty.

“I think in this business, we’re constantly going after these highs and then there are these come downs. And so it’s like, how do you find this in between space? And I think that this chapter and this season of life, for me, is how can I change the meaning of stillness to not be boring and not to be like, I’m stagnant. But actually the stillness is safe, it’s stable and I’ve created this foundation.”

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.