ORLANDO -- There's a tempting change of life/ change of pace subtext in the books and the movies made from the books of Nicholas Sparks. Things move slower, take on a gentler "beach novel" tempo. And that can be appealing, even to a Hollywood star married to a pop star.
"You know, I think about that, from time to time," says Josh Duhamel, star of "Transformers" movies and a string of romantic comedies, husband to Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas. "What would it be like, to just chuck everything for a while? I can't do that in my career right now. I've got be out here looking, ready to work. But I've got a place out in Minnesota that's so far removed from everything -- literally 'the middle of the woods.' You can't see or hear a hint of anybody else -- for miles."
Duhamel, 40, got a taste of living on Sparks time when he made "Safe Haven," a romantic drama set in the lovely, Mayberry-quiet hamlet of Southport, N.C.
He plays a widowed convenience store owner, father of two, who takes a shine to the new waitress in town (Julianne Hough), who happens to be a woman on the run.
"It's tranquil, a peaceful and beautiful little town," he says. "Great little marina that they built my general store on, the little seafood joints along the shore. Old Colonial houses, big old trees, all that made for something that felt authentic, a great backdrop for the story.
"I had two weeks before we started shooting to just wander around and soak the place up. By the time we left there, we felt like locals."
And feeling like small-town locals gave the Minot, N.D., native time to take stock.
"I am a boy from North Dakota and I need my space and my solitude, every now and then. It's a state of mind, because you can't get off into the woods somewhere to find that every time you need it. Not in my business."
Movies made from Sparks novels aren't always hits -- but often they are. And the things they can do for a leading man -- Ryan Gosling in "The Notebook," Channing Tatum in "Dear John," Zac Efron in "The Lucky One" -- are obvious. Duhamel's made a lot of movies, and if he hasn't turned into a major star yet, it's not for lack of trying. Paired up with Kristen Bell ("When in Rome"), Ginnifer Goodwin ("Ramona & Beezus") or Catherine Heigl ("Life as We Know It"), he often earns better reviews than the movie he's co-starring in.
"Duhamel has a mischievous charm that tugs nicely even when he's a bit of a jerk," Denver Post critic Lisa Kennedy wrote of his turn in "Life as We Know It." Philadelphia Inquirer critic Carrie Rickey once compared him to Shaggy in "Scooby Doo." He's that Hollywood rarity -- a masculine leading man who is light on his feet and reluctant to take himself too seriously. That creates chemistry, no matter what the film or the leading lady.
"I'm not trying to put anything over on the women they pair me up with. Heigl, Bell, I've always approached this business trying to be me. If I'm putting on this fake guise, women detect that and react to it. The closer we play to who we really are behind the scenes the less we have to put on when the camera is rolling. I try never to act like some smooth this or phony that. And if they're acting the same way, it clicks."
And, he adds with a laugh, when you're about to do a kissing scene, "Don't forget your Altoids."
Duhamel has an indie survivalist drama "Scenic Route" about to premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival. He's hosting the Kids' Choice Awards on Nickelodeon March 23. And he's got high hopes for "Safe Haven," a Valentine's Day release that "feels natural, without a rush to the romance, without these big, force-fed romantic overtures. I've done a lot of movies like this, and you never want things to feel forced. When two people get together, in real life, they've earned it. You want the audience to feel that if Julianne and I get together in this one, that we've earned it."