HOLLYWOOD - Miley Cyrus is munching away on M&Ms as a full day of press interviews winds down for her new movie, "The Last Song," which opens Wednesday. You can tell she's in the home stretch for the day because she's kicked off her high heels and piled the heavy silver rings she was wearing earlier on a coffee table. But, after hours of talking to reporters, Cyrus shows no signs of fatigue. Maybe it's a sugar rush from the candy, or maybe it's because she's 17 with an endless supply of energy.
Either way, the popular "Hannah Montana" star is obviously excited as she embarks on the next phase of her show-business career. She's shooting the final episodes of her long-running Disney Channel series, in which she plays the dual roles of Hannah, an international pop star, and Miley, a regular schoolgirl.
She's got a new album, "I Can't Be Tamed," with songs inspired by contemporary bands like the Killers, in the works. And, of course, there's her new movie, a heartwarming coming-of-age drama in which she plays a rebellious young woman who learns to open her heart to love. It's the first time she's played a character that's neither Hannah nor a fictionalized version of herself. And it was written expressly for her by none other than best-selling author Nicholas Sparks.
"I was honored when Nick brought his script to me," said the young performer with a hint of her Tennessee roots in her voice. "It inspired me to pick up the role and do the best I could with it."
It was important to Cyrus, daughter of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, that her first non-Hannah movie project have music. But it was not necessarily important for her to sing. (Though she does sing briefly and has two songs on the soundtrack.)
"I didn't want to be a singer in another film," she said. "I don't want to do that anymore. You have no idea how many musicals show up on my door. I want to do something a little more serious."
In "The Last Song" she plays Ronnie, a gifted pianist who has been accepted into Juilliard without so much as an application. But Ronnie is rebellious, so for most of the movie she insists that she won't be going to the prestigious music school. Heck, she won't go near a piano until a handsome local boy (Australian hunk Liam Hemsworth) begins courting her, and she finally can't resist the charms of the grand piano at his family's stately Southern mansion.
Cyrus had to learn to play piano for the role, and it took her all of two lessons to understand the basics.
"[Director] Julie Anne [Robinson] loves it when I complain that it took me two whole lessons to learn it," she said, followed by a throaty laugh. "I'm just used to playing instruments and I'm not really scared to sound like crap at the beginning."
Cyrus admitted that she was "kind of messy" early in her piano education, but by the end of the movie, she actually could play a complex classical piece. Learning the instrument inspired her to use more piano in the songs on her new album, she said.
She liked playing rebellious Ronnie - Sparks allowed her to pick the name - and in some ways could identify with her. "I feel that way sometimes, but I also feel that she could learn from me," said the wise-beyond-her-years teenager. "I gave her a journey of what I already discovered. I always say love is my religion, and she figures that out later in the film."
In "The Last Song," Ronnie and her younger brother are sent to live with their estranged father (Greg Kinnear) at his Georgia-shore home one summer. Ronnie, of course, is resentful because she believes that her dear old dad abandoned her years earlier, and initially she acts out. She meets Will, a hunky volleyball player with some parental issues of his own. The two bond over sea turtles - Will works part time at the local aquarium. Ronnie gradually learns to trust and love, but her newfound faith in the people close to her will be tested.
"I love animals, so the aquarium stuff was really cool," Cyrus said with a smile. "I'm really close to my family, so family and faith and all that was brought into the script specifically for me."
She feels particularly connected to the role because it means so much to her mother, Tish Cyrus, who served as executive producer.
"My mom's really proud of it because it's the first big film she's produced, and second, because I mainly took this for her because her dad passed away when she was 18," she said. "It's kind of the same story, though my mom wasn't the rebel Ronnie is."
Cyrus found romance while shooting last June. She is dating her co-star Hemsworth, 20, in real life. She revealed he has met her family and she has met his.
In the months ahead, Cyrus - who turns 18 later this year - sees herself moving toward more acting. She's mulling over other movie roles.
"I'm ending a chapter that's been wonderful and starting a new one," she said.