Beautiful inside and out, AJ Michalka, star of Grace Unplugged, opened up about her relationship with God and how she strives to be a shining light for Him everywhere she goes. Determined and focused from a young age, this former Disney princess has had quite an impressive career. AJ shares with Sonoma Christian Home how she stays grounded, what she loves to do for fun, and how serving God is more important to her than the shiny lights of Hollywood.
SCH: Being a Christian performer, in what ways did you relate to Grace?
AJ: I related to her in the sense that I grew up in the church, and am really close to my family. I was an entertainer from an early age, like Grace, really precocious personality. I knew what I wanted to do at a young age, and I was gonna do it. I’m really driven and confident and those are some of the great characteristics of Grace that I love about her.
SCH: And in what way were you different?
AJ: There’s a naiveté about Grace that I love about her but I think she gets ahead of herself. When she gets so excited about making it in the industry, she’ll compromise who she is as a person, which is never the right thing to do. I try to warn other people who are new or maybe want advice. Grace is like a fish out of water coming to LA from another state. She ends up losing who she is a little bit, but the good thing is that she finds who is again, which is amazing because it doesn’t always happen.
I also feel like growing up, she would go to church and worship with her parents she was connected to God in a sense that her parents were, so in a way, she was motivated to go to church because her parents were, not necessarily because of a personal relationship she had with Christ. I don’t think she really gets that until the end of the film, where she realizes what is she doing? Who does she want to be?
As for me, I accepted the Lord into my heart when I was a young girl, and as I got older, I knew this was a personal relationship. It wasn’t just because my parents went to church or brought me up in a Christian home. It was a personal connection that I wanted and that I had. So that’s really where we’re different, but she definitely finds it.
SCH: What was the toughest scene for you to film?
AJ: Probably the toughest scene was when I was backstage and seeing my dad again (James Denton’s character). At that point it’s a little awkward, and at that point my mom’s character kind of leaves us alone. We’re backstage and it’s just us two, and he starts playing that hymn. It just brings back how I grew up and him teaching me that song. I pick up the guitar and he’s starting to cry and so am I.
It’s a really emotional father/daughter moment that is really beautiful and so pure. I remember James and I were so exhausted after because of that emotional drainage. But that scene is probably one of the most intimate because it’s just us two. The set can be crazy and fast-paced; people are walking around, so you have to really just keep your focus.
Put your headphones in and listen to music that moves you and really just get into the scene. For me, that scene is really important and it’s really the turning point in the story of their relationship.
SCH: When Grace goes behind her parents’ back and flies out to Sapphire Records, it shows a yearning to find herself, yet she chooses to rebel. Have you had to deal with that yourself in this industry—where you felt like you needed to rebel a little bit?
AJ: You know, I haven’t ever felt like I needed to rebel or do something extraordinary that went against the will of my parents or anything like that. But I think that’s only because I did this in a really healthy way. I knew what I wanted to do at a young age, and my parents knew. They were hesitant at first since we don’t have any family members in the business. They were afraid of what Hollywood could do, but I was driven at such a young age and motivated to do this that I never felt the need to rebel for it.
My sister (Aly Michalka) and I came to our parents and said, “This is what we want to do. It’s in our hearts and God’s instilled it, so how can we go about doing this?” And they were really supportive, so I’ve never had a reason to go off the deep end to prove that “This is what I want to do. Can’t you see me trying to do this?” It was just very natural, so I’m really lucky.
SCH: In LA everyone’s throwing drinks at an underage Grace. Obviously, drugs and alcohol are associated with show business. How prevalent have you found the pressure to use drugs and alcohol in this industry?
AJ: I haven’t seen it on a set where people are encouraging that, but it does happen at parties and functions. Definitely, those things are around. It’s not just a movie façade –it’s a real thing. But I think that’s anywhere, whether it’s Hollywood or a small town. It’s around, but it’s never been forced on me in a professional or personal way.
Watch the music video for AJ’s “All I’ve Ever Needed” from Grace Unplugged:
SCH: Personal question! Has being famous made it harder to date? Have you found the selection pool to be bigger or have you had to narrow your selection criteria?
AJ: I don’t think it’s affected dating in the sense that it ruined it for me, because I’ve really had some beautiful relationships and friendships. I feel that God has blessed us with meeting some beautiful inside and outside of this industry.
SCH: Grace finds out who her true friends are. What are your thoughts on maintaining friendships while being famous?
AJ: I think you have to be so discerning about who is enamored by what you’re doing or who loves you for who you are. Is one of the reasons they are drawn to you or connected to you because they want to get in the business? Or because they’re wanting to find out things about you? But I try not to look at that first. For me, hopefully everyone has pure intention. You just have to be careful and weed out the people who don’t.
SCH: Do you maintain any special friendships from the cast of Grace Unplugged?
AJ: For sure! Jamie Grace, Pia Toscano, Tiffany Campbell. I literally made three best friends who love the Lord and who I talk to often. I’m so happy about that. And also, Brad Silverman, the writer and director, is like family. I just adore him. So, there are definitely people that I will know the rest of my life. It’s so cool!
SCH: A major theme or issue for Grace is hiding her faith. Mossy asks her “your other songs aren’t religious, are they?” You’ve performed in some amazing hit tv shows and films. Is there pressure to not be a Christian on non-Christian shows?
AJ: I don’t find that there’s pressure. For me, I would never change who I am no matter what set I’m on. Before I go on any set, whether it’s Christian or not, my mind frame is “Lord, just permeate through me so I am a light on set.” Whether I brighten someone’s day or bring something to the set that’s different that people don’t know what “it” is, but they know it feels good and feels right to be around. My biggest thing is to shine for Him no matter what the set is like. But I don’t find the pressure to change myself when I’m on different sets, which is really great.
SCH: So many young girls have huge dreams. What’s your advice to these girls who are just starting out?
AJ: It’s all about not compromising who you are. It’s so important to not change who you are as a person. People think they are going to find happiness if they get a record deal or if they do a film or tv show. For me, it’s all about heart before business. How are you as a person—are you stable in who you are? Are you searching for something? Are you in a good relationship with the Lord? How are you before you go into this crazy industry?
Because if you’re wobbly, it’s not going to be a very easy path. I feel like it’s really important to center yourself and ground yourself before doing anything that’s as intense as the entertainment industry…or anything, whether it be sports or whatever…I really feel young women need to put themselves first and how they’re going to feel as a person before they feel something great from getting signed or getting a song on the radio. That should come later.
SCH: What is your favorite thing to do to relax or have fun?
AJ: Ride horses! It’s so awesome. I don’t get to ride enough. We don’t own horses here in California, but we used to in Seattle. I just love that feeling of freedom and being on God’s creatures. It’s so incredible and majestic. They’re such beautiful animals. That’s probably my favorite thing to escape.
SCH: Your new song “All I’ve Ever Needed” was the credit song in the film. What was the inspiration behind it?
AJ: The song was already written before I was on board for the movie, but I am so close to it. I love it. I’m so happy it’s gotten a positive response. I think it’s a beautiful, beautiful song.
It’s really about putting God first. Yeah, I can do what I love to do, but at the end of the day, all I really need is God’s love and it never goes away. It’s always there, we just forget it sometimes. Look to the Lord and you’ll find peace. I just love that.
If I’m ever down or discouraged, I’ll put it on in the car, not because I’m singing it (laughs), but because I love the message. I think it’s a beautiful message and I adore it. It feels like I wrote it just in the sense that when I’m playing it, it really comes to life and feels like an original song, for sure.
SCH: The song “You Never Let Go” opened and closed the film. Did you experience a difference in the performances?
AJ: Oh, for sure! Absolutely. I did experience a difference because Grace went through an entire journey before you hear that song again. She has changed as a woman and become closer to the Lord on a personal level. “Never Let Go” has a personal meaning for her.
But also, those songs we recorded more than one version of, so we would do a film version and then one for the actual soundtrack. In a way, I was able to do different takes in different ways. I was able to do the song as Grace, and then was able to do the song as AJ, which was really cool.
So I love the fact this movie has so much music in it. I love that I was able to connect both my passions. I think it’s really cool…and rare.
SCH: With the busy schedule you have, what do you do to maintain your relationship with God? Is it quiet time? Is it music? What can you tell us that you do, and what can you share with our readers so that they can stay connected with God, too?
AJ: For me, it’s all about peaceful moments with the Lord. Sometimes I have crazy days where I don’t get a lot of time to just relax, and take that time to be in my car and listen to worship music, and silence everyone else out—put the phone down and just say, “Alright, Lord, what can I do to show your love today? What can I do to witness to other people? What can I do to get closer to You?”
I really love this devotional that I started this year called God is Faithful by David Wilkerson before he passed away. It’s just absolutely incredible. For me, those moments right after you wake up, just take the time to start your day by reading these devotionals and praying, “God, what can I do to serve you today, and not myself?” I think that’s so important.
I have a church that I love, and a Bible study that I love. So throughout the week, I purposefully stay connected to the Lord so I don’t get caught up in this industry with appointments or meetings or whatever. I think it’s really important to center Him.
SCH: We’ve seen several past Disney stars take a negative turn with their lives. What’s been the one thing that’s made the difference for you and kept you from following in their footsteps?
AJ: You know, for me, it’s my relationship with the Lord. I don’t know other people’s relationships with Him, but I know my relationship with Him has kept me really centered and grounded, and I’m so happy that I can say that.
I check in with Him a lot! (laughs) That kind of puts everything in perspective without going nuts or changing who you are to make it in this business.
I also feel that my parents are super-super grounded people, and they’re very normal. They’re all about, “If you’re not having fun anymore, or if you’re not doing anything that’s pleasing the Lord, then don’t do it.” It would be something really horrendous to give up, but I’ve got to say, if it’s going to completely change who you are as a person, and get you off track in a negative way, you should probably find something else to do that’s going to keep you in a good headspace.
I feel like my parents are a big grounding for staying normal and on track, and number one is staying connected to the Lord and not putting the industry first. I don’t worship the industry, I worship the Lord, and then the rest can kind of just come.
Grace Unplugged comes out on DVD and BluRay on February 11th. With it’s amazing cast, incredible themes and message, it’s a film you’re sure to love, and can watch again and again.
To learn more about Grace Unplugged, please see Grace Unplugged – Movie Review
Interested in another great celebrity interview? Check out this Interview with Lori Loughlin – New Star of “When Calls the Heart”
Find more about the author at Bethany Jett