BIRMINGHAM – AJ Michalka, star of the Christian-themed film “Grace Unplugged” which has been filming in Birmingham since mid-August, began her singing career in church.
She plays the character of Grace Trey, a teenage church singer who goes out on her own to land a recording contract in Los Angeles. She cut off contact with her parents, including her father, a former rock star turned cult leader at a small town Alabama church.
“As soon as I read this, I felt Grace was a part of who I am,” Michalka said. “I connected with her immediately when I read the script.”
Michalka, 21, has appeared in the films “Secretariat”, “Super 8”, “The Lovely Bones” and the upcoming “Jesus in Cowboy Boots”. She sings in the 78violet group with her sister, Aly Michalka. The sisters previously performed as Aly and AJ and were stars of the Disney Channel.
“We grew up singing in church, leading worship,” said Michalka.
“That’s how I started,” Michalka said during a break from filming a scene at Liberty Park Baptist Church. “I feel like I’m back in church.”
James Denton, who was a cult leader in a church before becoming a professional actor and a star on “Desperate Housewives,” plays Johnny Trey.
Michalka and Denton sing and play guitar in the film.
It worked perfectly for writer-director Brad Silverman. “It’s really exciting to see art imitate life,” said Silverman, between the shots shot Wednesday at WorkPlay.
Silverman and Russ Rice, a producer, have previously worked together on another Christian film, “No Greater Love”. The script for “Grace Unplugged” was inspired by Rice’s own life. “I have a daughter who did this – she ran away from home when she was 18,” Rice said. “We’re not preaching in there. We’re trying to tell a universal story.”
“Making a movie like this for the Lord is something I don’t do often,” said Michalka, who brought her beloved poodle, Willow, in a baby stroller to the set.
The film is shot in Alabama to take advantage of tax incentives and shooting expense rebates established in 2009 when the state passed the Entertainment Industry Incentives Act.
“The reason we were pushed here was for the tax cut,” Rice said. Much of the crew is from Alabama and Georgia. There is only a handful of LA crew, Rice said.
“Grace Unplugged,” slated for release in fall 2013, follows a series of low-budget but high-grossing Christian films including “Fireproof” and “Courageous”.
“It’s a growing genre that has found a receptive market,” said Chris Zarpas, producer of “Grace Unplugged,” former vice president of production for Jeffrey Katzenberg at Disney and former CEO of Scott Free, the company. production from directors Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”) and the late Tony Scott (“Top Gun”).
Zarpas has said that “Grace Unplugged” is being filmed on a budget of less than $ 2 million and will be released by Lionsgate.
The cast includes veteran comedian and actor Kevin Pollak and Shawnee Smith, who stars on the FX show “Anger Management” with Charlie Sheen. The entire cast is hitting a home run, Rice said.
“AJ is right off the charts,” Rice said. “She’s a Christian. She’s an incredibly talented girl, an amazing actress. James Denton was a worship leader before he became an actor. He really identified with the role. It was great working with them.”
Michalka said she enjoyed sharing the stage with Denton playing her father.
“It’s a big role for him and for me,” said Michalka. “This is my first time performing with a male singer. It has always been my sister and I. The songs that were written for the film blew me away.”
Michalka and Denton both felt comfortable filming scenes in church. “It was so cool,” Michalka said. “It’s so crazy how life keeps coming back.”
A scene was shot at the Club, with a glimpse of the city lights of Birmingham overtaking Los Angeles. The most important stage is scheduled for the Alabama Theater on Tuesday, when a concert featuring Christian singer Chris Tomlin is filmed, with no less than 2,000 extras.
Filming ends on September 7.
“Cinema is a business and the point is to make money,” Zarpas said. “It’s not all about that. We don’t just sell popcorn. We share the gospel.”
“It’s about redemption and reconciliation,” Rice said.
To learn more about how to become an extra for the film, visit www.facebook.com/graceunplugged.