AJ Michalka stars in “Grace Unplugged,” the story of a girl who wants more out of life than singing with her church’s worship band. When she has some success as a pop singer, she has to decide whether secular success is as meaningful as a life using her gift to praise God. I spoke to AJ, best known as half of the sister duos Aly & AJ and 78Violet about playing Grace.
What made you want to play Grace?
I was inspired by the film, wanting to be part of it as an actor. It’s a beautiful family film, an inspiring coming-of-age drama about this young girl who really wants to branch out and become an adult artist and get into the music industry, going on the road and creating her own music, her own identity. She ends up really finding herself. It’s a very sweet film. I wouldn’t have done this movie if she hadn’t learned a lot as a character. I love that about her. She’s really driven. She has the willpower to do it. Sometimes she goes about things in a weird way. She doesn’t always give her parents the respect they deserve. But she’s a young girl; we can all relate to that.
What do you want people to get from the movie?
I hope this movie opens up a lot of conversation, between fathers and daughters especially. I hope they talk about compromise. So many people think they need to sell themselves short or give up a part of themselves to succeed in this industry. Even if you’re not in the industry, people, especially young women, should know you don’t have to compromise your morals or who you are as a person to achieve some career goal.
How do your acting and singing careers give you different opportunities for creative expression?
They are so different and bring different pressures and different creative energies. There’s this instant gratification that is so special with music when you’re playing a show live or creating a song from the ground up. As an actor, there’s that rush when you go to the theater and see that something you are a part of has really come together. But they do go hand in hand and help each other. I’ve noticed I am a more comfortable artist when I am on stage because I’ve learned to deal with the pressures of being an actor. I feel more comfortable, whether it’s doing an interview or being part of a photo shoot. Musically, I’ve been trained that if something goes wrong on stage, you just kind of go with it. Both of them have similar pressures about performance. And doing both made me more confident and less nervous.
You and your sister got started very young.
I started performing professionally when I was about nine. When we were 12 and 14 we got signed for recording and musical performances. We knew what we wanted to do at an early age, whether it was professional or not. It wasn’t, “Maybe we’ll get signed or book a job,” but “We want to do this, we love entertaining, maybe just for pleasure or maybe as professionals.” We knew it was something special we wanted to do. So when it took off in a bigger way, it was just the icing on top. We always tried to be very professional on the set. I was around a lot of adults who were good examples. We never wanted to be those child actors who become adults right away, like some child performers who want to grow up very fast and start acting like those little robots, but we knew we had to take it seriously as a profession. We were getting paid, we were on a set, so we took it seriously as professionals. We still stayed children, which is nice, and that is partly because our parents are so normal. And I couldn’t really do it without my sister. We really have been grounding for each other. Especially as a musician. I don’t really see myself as a solo artist. But even when I’m acting, she’s my first phone call. She really helps me get through things.
What other things do you do to stay grounded?
So many people surround themselves with people who say yes to everything just to keep their job. I like to surround myself with people who are going to be honest with me. If I’m about to do something that is not going to enhance me as a person, or if I am about to make some tricky mistake, I want someone there who will say, “Look, AJ, this is not necessarily the best decision.” And my sister will be the first one to do that.
What do you do for fun?
My sister and I are both active, really athletic. We kick-box and it is fun to be outdoors. We take the dogs to the dog park and we ride horses. We love being outside. We love to go camping in Joshua Tree. I love being around nature; I got that from my mom. We also like to invite people over for game night or a movie.
Would you like to kick box in a movie?
I would love to do an action movie. I feel like my body would be ready to kick into gear for something like that!
What was the biggest challenge in playing Grace?
Really, making sure I wasn’t playing AJ. We’re both musicians, we’re like in a lot of ways. But when I’m on stage, I’m very comfortable. I have my sister with me. I know what I’m doing. My goal was to strip away the comfortability and play a girl who has no idea what she is getting into. I wanted to be true to someone not used to playing a live show. And I wanted to be sure to bring some nuances to the character. She’s a sweet, fresh-faced Southern girl, but I wanted to make it my own.
And what is your favorite advice?
Separate yourself from the industry as soon as you come offstage. Let it go, come down from that high, and get into who I am as a person. When I’m done, it’s time to settle down and relax and snuggle up with my dog, read a book, call a friend. That’s how you can sustain being normal.