Denton Answers a Higher Calling in ‘Grace Unplugged’
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 in "GRACE UNPLUGGED." ©Roadside Attractions. CR: JP Yim.

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 in “GRACE UNPLUGGED.” ©Roadside Attractions. CR: JP Yim.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—James Denton played hunky plumber Mike Delfino for eight seasons on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.”

Since the long-running series wrapped, Denton has opted for the simpler life in a Minnesota. He has returned to doing theater, where he began his career a quarter century ago. The son of a church deacon, raised in the Christian faith, the 50-year-old actor appears in his first faith-based movie “Grace Unplugged.” He plays Johnny, an ex-rock ‘n’ roll musician who got out of the business after his life spun out of control with booze and drugs.

He lives with his wife and daughter in Birmingham, Ala., where he is active in the local church. He and his daughter, Grace (played by AJ Michalka, half of the pop duo AJ and Aly,), play music at church on Sundays. But Grace has bigger aspirations. She wants to go to Hollywood and become a famous pop singer. An opportunity arises when Johnny’s former manager comes to town to try and convince him to get back in the business after one of his old songs becomes a hit for a new hot singer. While Johnny is adamant about not getting back into the biz, Grace’s musical talents catch the manager’s eye and he invites her out West to start her career. Against her father’s wishes, Grace leaves home and discovers the challenges of the music industry that her father warned her about. Ultimately, both father and daughter realize they need to listen to each other more.

Denton, who has two children with his second wife Erin O’Brien, a fitness instructor, says he can relate in some ways to his onscreen character’s struggle to balance working in Hollywood with his religious beliefs.

He also reveals that he already had plumbing skills when he took on the role of Mike years ago on “Desperate Housewives.” He learned them not at a trade school but while working with a small theater company in Chicago when he was starting out on the business. Those skills also came in handy when his young co-star ran into some shower trouble at her hotel room when they were in production on “Grace Unplugged.”

Q: You fixed AJ’s showerhead?

Denton: Yeah, I’m pretty good at that stuff. I learned that back when I was in the theater. I had to do all of that stuff myself.

Q: Is that how you got cast on “Desperate Housewives?”

Denton: You know, on the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) Awards, at the beginning of the show, they always have a group of actors tell their stories about how they got their start, and I told them when I was 35 years old in Chicago, I was cleaning toilets and urinals in a theater company for the right to be onstage, and now I’m on a the No. 1 TV show in the world playing a plumber.

Q: Which is better?

Denton: Great question. Well, I’m back in theater now so that should tell you.

Q: I mean cleaning urinals or being on a No. 1 show?

Denton: (He laughs.)

Q: So you’re doing theater again?

Denton: Yeah. I’m doing a play right now for virtually free so that tells you.

Q: You met Brad Silverman, the director of “Grace Unplugged” a couple weeks before “Desperate Housewives” ended. What was that conversation like?

Denton: I don’t know why they came to me but my manager got the call and he was really discouraging me from taking the meeting for all kinds of reasons. I said, “No, my mom spent her life working for the church. I grew up in the church. My father was a deacon, so I think they’d want me to do it.” I was really fascinated with the idea of doing a Christian movie. It was Brad, (and producers) Russ (Rice) and Larry (Frenzel). We just met to get to know each other. We were probably there at the restaurant for three hours. We talked about faith and entertainment. I called my manager afterwards and said, “Just so you know, I said yes.” He said, “What are they paying you?” and I said, “I have no idea, but I’m doing it.”

Q: Your kids are 8 and 10. Do you consider them when you look at roles?

Denton: It’s tricky, because I haven’t chosen roles based on what I want them to watch because I don’t find that very productive. But I’m excited they’re going to see this film because I wanted them to see this and to do something like this because that’s the world I come from. My first job out of college was as the minister of music at a Methodist church. So I know these (characters) very well and I have respect for them and the lives they live and how they raise their kids. I get that question a lot from my Christian friends—how did I rationalize being on “Desperate Housewives” being that I’m a Christian? So it’s personal. It’s tricky. For me, it’s just a matter of … there certainly are things I said “no” to doing, and I’m sure there will be other things I will turn down in the future because they conflict with my beliefs. The way I’ve reconciled it is if you’re depicting life in a way that’s more than just entertainment, it’s like turning a mirror on life and letting people learn something about human nature and each other, there’s a lot to be gained from that, virtually and practically. So it’s a very personal thing to decide what you’re saying in the role and in the project and your intentions with it. You also take into consideration that some people will see it and take it for something other than you intended, and you can’t control that. So I just make my choices and don’t look back.

Q: You and AJ (Michalka) are at odds for most of the movie as father and daughter. Did you hug after those argument scenes and tell AJ that you didn’t really hate her?

Denton: (He laughs.) We almost hugged during the scene. That’s one of the funny things about acting—you have to mean it (during the scene) but then you’re laughing right afterwards. “Oh, I spit right in your face!” “Oh yeah, I know. What happened?” So it’s more about a practical reaction once it’s all over with. You’re thinking about “did I have the keys in this hand or the other” or “Was I carrying the bible at this point?”

Q: Do you know guys like Johnny? Did you have a difficult relationship with your father? Or did he try to stop you from becoming an actor?

Denton: Not personally. My father was very generational. He was sort of stoic and not very emotional at all. He never would have chased me down to bring me home, ever. He said to me a number of times when I was a teenager if I was about to get into trouble, “It’s your life if you screw up.” He was great. He was always there for me and strong but he was always hands off. He never would have come after me if I ran away from home. But I love that Johnny (his movie character) goes after Grace—that’s the kind of dad I think I probably would have preferred, one that showed me how much he loved me. Even though it seems like Johnny is driving his daughter away at every turn, he’s really doing the best he can. It’s not all selfish because he’s been in that world and he knows how dangerous it is. But I don’t know any friends that have been that way.

Q: Are you a strict parent?

Denton: My kids are really little. My wife and I had them pretty late in life so they’re only 8 and 10 years old. So I’ve got that coming. So far they don’t have a lot of ambition. They still think we know everything, which is awesome. But I know it won’t last long. My son knows better but he also knows its’ to his advantage to pretend that he thinks we know everything. We’re loving that phase where they still love us and want us to be around. But I know (those rebellious) years are right around the corner. It’ll be tricky, because my son loves acting. He’s shy but he loves the idea of acting. He has this great imagination and he’s always playacting these things. I think he’d be a very good actor, but I’m not sure I want him to go in that direction. I won’t stop him but I also won’t enable him. It’s a tough business for kids. I won the lottery (with ‘Desperate Housewives’). You’re not likely to get a call from Warner Bros. to start your own TV show. When I was 30 years old, I was working in Chicago as a theater actor making $11,000 a year. That’s what I lived on at 30, with a college degree. My friends would say to me, “Why don’t you go be on a soap opera.” I’d say, “Well, if you know somewhere where they’re taking applications, I’ll go down there and sign up.” It’s just so impossibly hard to make money as an actor.

Q: Do you feel judged either doing a faith-based movie by the secular community and vice versa?

Denton: I can’t worry about it. There are some Christian producers that have been very successful with very popular faith-based films that have said they will only work with Christians. They never would have cast any of us who are in “Grace Unplugged.” At least, that’s what I’ve heard. So it has crossed my mind that some people would say, “What are you doing in a faith-based movie—the guy from ‘Desperate Housewives,’ or the guy from ‘Face-Off,’ a crazy, violent movie?” I thought about that but I can’t worry about it because I know why I did it and what my intent was.