John Young
March 26, 2010 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Miley Cryus isn’t a little girl anymore. When the Disney Channel sitcom Hannah Montana launched in March 2006, the daughter of country crooner Billy Ray Cyrus was only 13. Four years later, Hannah Montana has become the network’s most valuable property, spawning an original movie, a 3-D concert film, and four soundtrack albums (three of which have gone platinum), not to mention a mini-mall of books, clothes, jewelry, dolls, and other tchotchkes directed toward tween girls. ”I opened a lot of doors for the Disney Channel,” says Cyrus, now 17, ”and I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot.” Ya think?

But despite all that Hannah Montana has done for Cyrus, the actress — who’s in the midst of shooting the series’ final episodes — is eager to transition into the next phase of her career: serious movie actress. ”It’s hard doing Hannah Montana now because it feels too immature for me,” says Cyrus. ”I’m ready to break out with something else.” That something else is The Last Song (in theaters March 31), a film that’s been tailor-made for Cyrus from its very inception.

While discussing her future with Disney executives in 2008, Cyrus mentioned her desire to star in a movie akin to 2002’s A Walk to Remember, which was directed by Adam Shankman and based on Nicholas Sparks’ best-selling novel. Faster than her TV alter ego could yelp ”Sweet niblets,” Shankman signed on as a producer and Sparks began crafting a script (and subsequent novel) with Cyrus in mind. ”It’s good to be Miley,” jokes producer Jennifer Gibgot. ”Ask, and you shall receive.”

Sparks penned a coming-of-age romance about Ronnie, a troubled piano prodigy from New York City who’s forced to spend a summer in Georgia with her estranged father (Greg Kinnear). This being a Sparks story, Ronnie experiences both the ecstasy of first love and the anguish of an unforeseen tragedy. (Cyrus’ love interest is played by Aussie newcomer Liam Hemsworth, 20, who also became the actress’ real-life boyfriend.) ”Her role is the equivalent of what Rachel McAdams had to do in The Notebook,” says Sparks. ”I had the same expectations for Miley.”

Cyrus, in her dramatic-acting debut, worked hard to meet the challenge. ”She was unbelievably serious about this,” says director Julie Anne Robinson, who had previously helmed episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Weeds. ”Even when we were pushed for time, Miley would always say, ‘I don’t want to move on until we’ve got it.”’ Cyrus was also required to shed her Tennessee accent and learn how to play classical piano, the latter of which came naturally to the musically inclined star. ”She said the piano was a lot harder than she thought it would be,” says Sparks. ”I asked, ‘How long did it take you to become proficient?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, two or three days.”’

All Cyrus can do now is cross her fingers and hope The Last Song attracts both gung ho Hannah Montana fans and moviegoers seeking a heart-tugging drama. Regardless of the box office results, Cyrus — who’ll next shoot the mother-daughter comedy L.O.L. with Demi Moore — knows she has found her true calling. ”I’m putting music on pause because I want to focus on what I love,” she says, ”and that’s movies.”

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