AJ Michalka plays a talented young singer who aspires to more than just singing at church with her father, in GRACE UNPLUGGED, coming to theaters Oct. 4 from Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions.
AJ Michalka plays a talented young singer who aspires to more than just singing at church with her father, in GRACE UNPLUGGED, coming to theaters Oct. 4 from Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions.

Recently, I sat at a round table with other press people for the upcoming faith-based film, “Grace Unplugged,” which will be arriving in theaters on October 4th. In walked AJ Michalka with her hair braided like Heidi from the Alps, a little shorter than I imagined and very poised. If you unaware of who Ms. Michalka is, go ask your kids.

For years, AJ has partnered with her sister Aly, singing songs for Disney and even appearing in a few Disney movies for TV. In 2006, the duo was nominated for their first American Music Award. Previously known as Aly & AJ, the pair have rebranded themselves as 78violet and have produced their first single, “Hothouse,” under their own production company label. Now 22, the accomplished musician and business woman is becoming known as an accomplished actress as well.

AJ was given the chance to play the role of Grace Trey and star alongside James Denton, Kevin Pollak, Michael Welch and Shawnee Smith. Grace is a talented young girl who wants her turn in the spotlight despite her father’s wishes. One of the other reporters made a comment that she thought that the role of Grace seemed to be tailor made for AJ and AJ agreed.

“Yeah, I felt like that. Her moment of vulnerability is so beautiful to me,” she says about the character. “She kind of escapes who she is and at a certain point. She will kind of do anything to make it into the business, no matter if it risks her relationship with her family or her friends. I think that her transition of trying to get back to who she is, is really solid. So, I wanted to play this role because I had respect for her. I think I can relate as [my sister and I] have blossomed into a new band and we’ve changed our writing and just how we perceive life. In a way, I feel like Grace trying to blossom out of the church. I think that she feels like she’s stifled.”

In the movie, AJ plays the daughter of a worship minister (Denton) who was a one-hit-wonder when he was younger, but almost destroyed his life with drugs and alcohol. Despite his wishes, Grace meets up with Mossy (Pollack), her father’s former music manager who is intent on changing her image. This storyline allowed for some great sparring matches between the two actors. So, how was it working the “Desperate Housewives” star?

AJ Michalka and James Denton star as father-daughter worship duo Grace and Johnny Trey, who are torn apart when she runs away to Los Angeles to pursue pop stardom.
AJ Michalka and James Denton star as father-daughter worship duo Grace and Johnny Trey, who are torn apart when she runs away to Los Angeles to pursue pop stardom.

“It couldn’t have gone smoother. James and I connected right away. We got along so well,” she says of Denton. “He is amazing and very much like a father figure to me. I really look up to him just watching him with his family on set and how he treats his kids and his wife. He even fixed my shower head – he was literally my plumber and I said, ‘You really learned a lot from “Desperate Housewives” haven’t you?’ He is super, super talented.”

AJ can relate to Grace in other ways as well. Born and raised in a Christian family in Seattle, Washington, both she and her sister got the bug for performing at a very early age. Their parents saw this behavior as more than just playing, but of a genuine passion. Still, they were not completely on board with the idea. “We saw this flyer about a workshop and it really scared [my mom] at first. Her mother wanted her to be the business [when she was younger] but she didn’t want to be in the spotlight. It was a little scary to see her kids, two of them, wanting to go out there and put themselves out there to start auditioning.”

After much prayer and long talks with the family’s pastor, AJ’s mother finally relented realizing that she couldn’t stop something that they loved. Still, we have seen many young people who were raised in the church go sideways in their thinking when they finally get a taste of fame.

“It’s sad to see that,” says AJ. “I think it’s a shame because some of these young girls have kind of set themselves up in a sense that they [have been] so honest on who they are that all of a sudden, they make one wrong turn and ‘Whoa – what did you do? What did you change from?’

So how does AJ stay grounded? “Not everyone can say that have really normal parents, a strong church life or a sister like I have which helps me. When we are acting, we are usually separated and it is a huge difference. It’s just a different feeling that you get when you don’t have that partner in crime with you.”

AJ considers Aly to be her best friend and someone she admires greatly. “I couldn’t imagine being a solo artist. I love doing music as a solo artist when it comes to doing a movie like this. I think to be on the soundtrack and performing in the movie was really exciting outside of my band, but as an artist, I really couldn’t see myself making a career out of being on tour alone. I just feel like I would get lonely and I feel like the decisions that you could make could change because you don’t have that other body  there guiding you and telling you, “No, let’s be real. Maybe this is not the best choice.”

So, should parents be concerned if their children want pursue show business?

“It has to be the arts not the business. That’s the first thing. You recognize that your kid has this talent and passion and if they want to pursue it to a level where it’s greater than not just in their bedroom but on a stage or on set, then that’s another step. But it really has to come from a passion for the arts.”

Okay, but what about if your kids don’t want to sing Christian music?

GU__03511“My sister and I are a good example of girls who got saved at a really young age but felt a passion to go into more secular side of music. I feel like you can completely stick to your beliefs and what you believe in in any form of art. I think that if you have people who are there to grow with you, you can make the right decisions and I don’t feel like you have to compromise your work for it. I also feel that we don’t have to be labeled. You can do both. You can serve different kinds of audiences if you’re doing it for the right reasons. As long as you are staying true to who you are and staying  true to what you believe in. At the end of the day, we all know what feels right and what doesn’t. You’ve got to go with your gut if something just doesn’t feel genuine or forced then I think that’s a sign that’s it’s time to back out. There are times when you think,’ Wow, my parents are not here right now and that was a real interesting conversation going on in there and I’m not going to partake.’  I felt like my boundaries were already set and I have been able to stick to that without wondering, ‘What would my parents do?’  No, it’s what would I do in this situation? What would be right for me?”

So, then, just how important is it for AJ to share her faith?

“It’s really important to me. Without being judgmental in any way, Brad (the director) was very clear that he wanted a Christian girl to play the role of Grace just to be true to the story and the faith-based element behind it. When we met, I felt this overwhelming sense of peace and I just knew that this is something that I wanted to do. I love Grace as a person. I kind of consider her a friend now.  I think it would be a really different film if some of the people in this film weren’t believers. I do kind of feel that my own belief systems played out in this film. This movie has kind of given me an opportunity to be loud about my faith.”

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