Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta have nothin' but good time on 'Rock of Ages'

Actors lead all-star cast in adaptation of smash Broadway musical

You often hear of films being described as "having it all." The difference between "Rock of Ages" -- director Adam Shankman's jukebox musical based on the Broadway smash of the same name -- and those films, though, is that "Rock of Ages" truly does.

"Every day was insane and unpredictable, and you never knew what you were going to see on set. I think at one point there were prostitutes, monkeys, strippers and drug dealers, all literally in one scene," Julianne Hough told me, laughing. "It was pretty crazy."

Crazy, yes, and to quote the Poison song heard in a mash-up to kick off the film, "Rock of Ages" was also "nothin' but a good time" for its cast and crew.

Opening in theaters and on IMAX screens Friday, "Rock of Ages" follows small-town girl Sherrie Christian (Hough) and city boy Drew Boley (Diego Boneta) as they pursue their dreams of music stardom while working at the hottest club on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip in 1987.

The film also stars Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Mary J. Blige, Paul Giamatti and Malin Akerman -- and Tom Cruise holds forth as Stacee Jaxx, a hard rock icon struggling to hold himself together in the midst of the madness.

"Rock of Ages" marks the feature film debut of the 21-year-old Boneta, a hit singer in Mexico who to date has appeared in supporting roles on such television series as " 90210" and "Pretty Little Liars." He hadn't seen the Broadway version of "Rock of Ages" prior to being cast in the film, and Shankman preferred it that way to keep the young performer's mind free of any pressures or preconceptions.

"When I finally saw the Broadway show and was able to compare the two, I was very surprised with what Adam and (screenwriter) Justin Theroux did, because it's not an easy musical to adapt into a movie," Bonetta told me in a recent interview.

"Half of the stage play's experience is being in the audience, drinking and getting wasted with your buddies and characters, since actors are breaking the third wall and interacting with audience members," Bonetta added. "You can't really do that when you're filming a movie. So Adam had to make it just as entertaining without having those tools from the show."

The thing that surprised Boneta was just how laugh-out-loud funny the musical was -- a musical told through some of the greatest hard rock hits of the 1980s. But to be clear, Hough adds, the purpose of "Rock of Ages" isn't to laugh at, but to laugh with it.

"It's definitely campy, but without making fun of the '80s," Hough said. "Basically, it makes you remember all the things you love about the '80s in this film."

And besides, Boneta added, this particular depiction of the '80s has Cruise returning to the era where he became a superstar actor -- but as a completely different character than you've ever seen him before.

"Rocking out onstage with Julianne and Tom Cruise in front of a live audience? Come on, man, it doesn't get any better," Boneta said.

In Tune With The Tone
Capturing the right tone for "Rock of Ages" first falls squarely on the shoulders of Hough, who we meet as a starry-eyed Sherrie Christian on a bus out headed to Los Angeles. Appropriately, Sherrie's first song in the film is Night Ranger's classic power ballad "Sister Christian."

"That's the hardest thing, to start singing at beginning and set the tone for the whole movie," Hough told me in a recent interview. "You wonder when I start singing 'Sister Christian,' are people going to think that we're being full-on serious, or are they going to laugh, because it's OK to laugh. That's what we're here for. That's why we have a Hare Krishna singing a line in the song. It made people feel like they could be OK with laughing."

In a sense, art is imitating life for both Hough and Boneta in "Rock of Ages." Sure, while neither are fresh off the bus from Heartland, USA, both have been long honing their skills as actor-musicians (and in Hough's case, dancing, too, as a professional who spent three years on "Dancing with the Stars"). And with a chance to showcase all of their talents in "Rock of Ages," both really are living the dream.

"This is the perfect project and movie that I ever could hoped for," Hough, 23, enthused. "I literally get to do the three things I love to do the most -- sing, dance and act. I'm glad that my first three movies ("Burlesque" and "Footloose" preceded "Rock of Ages") are these kinds of movies."

Hough and Boneta duet on several songs on "Rock of Ages," but perhaps none of them give the chills more than the mash-up of the power ballads "More than Words" by Extreme and "Heaven" by Warrant. In some ways it makes sense. After all, it's what Hough and Boneta ("I'm a sucker for power ballads," he quipped) sang together to seal his role in the film.

Oddly enough, Hough said, they almost didn't get to see "More than Words"/"Heaven" through to completion.

"It almost got cut out during the shooting of the movie," Hough said. "The filmmakers were thinking it was too long and too slow of a song. But I was like, 'Please don't cut it out, this is the moment you really feel the love between Drew and Sherrie and the audience will be captured by it.' I'm glad it was kept in."

In the end, Shankman saw the passionate performance as one of the many reasons Hough and Boneta were the perfect people to play Sherrie and Drew in "Rock of Ages."

"They have the hardest job in the movie because they have to be there the whole time," Shankman said. "They had no eccentricities in their characters to work off of, they just had to be normal people in this outrageous world and that was not easy. They are absolute heroes to everybody else in this movie. Catherine Zeta-Jones was so awestruck by Julianne Hough and Tom Cruise loved the two of them so much."

In fact, Shankman added, Cruise was willing to let some of his best work hit the cutting room floor for Hough's benefit after seeing how audiences reacted to some of their scenes together at test screenings of the film.

"Because of the nature of morality and sexiness issues in some of the scenes, Tom could tell that moms were turning away from her," Shankman said. "Even though they were big and important scenes and they worked really hard on them, Tom was like, 'Get rid of it. We can't hurt her. She's too important to the film and she's too good.' That really speaks to the kind of family we became."

And in that family, Cruise became a big brother that Boneta was proud to look up to.

"Tom is such a cool guy. He's just as humble as he is talented, and he was treating each day on the set as if it were his first and last movie ever," Boneta said. "That was so motivating since it's my first movie and his 5,000th. But he looked like a little kid doing his first movie. He committed like no one else and he nailed it."