As rare as it is that an actor gets to play the same character over the course of six seasons, it’s even rarer for them to do so on two separate projects simultaneously. Yet that’s just the welcome situation AJ Michalka finds herself in while playing Lainey Lewis on ABC’s “The Goldbergs” and now its spinoff, “Schooled.” The latter series brings her up to the ’90s and mid-20s adulthood, where after a failed music career she finds herself teaching at her old high school (with a bevy of familiar faces to spare). Michalka—also known as one-half of the musical group Aly & AJ with sister Aly Michalka—came by Backstage HQ to talk process, the challenges of network TV, and how she gets through pilot season.
Having Lainey’s story front and center is a new chapter.
“It’s been kind of a whirlwind with this character because she appeared in the beginning [on ‘The Goldbergs’] as a very small role and grew into something much bigger, and now I’m able to tell her story as an adult. As an actor, it’s so fulfilling to know that your work creating a character is getting another chapter in their life. I feel very close to this role, so the fact that I’m able to continue to tell Lainey’s story is an emotional high, a little bit. It’s really neat.”
No matter the size of your role, you have a responsibility to the material and your colleagues.
“I think it’s important that you know no matter what size your role is, or how much you have to do with the show, how seriously you take the role and the prep before going to set is always there, no matter what. So I don’t really feel that my role has changed—although I do have a lot more to take on, whether it’s a lot more dialogue or just a longer day or whatever it may be. But I’ve been able to see people like [‘The Goldbergs’ stars] Wendi [McLendon-Covey] and people like Jeff [Garlin] and Troy [Gentile] and Hayley [Orrantia] carry a lot of ‘The Goldbergs’—that whole family. Sean [Giambrone]. And they’ve done it for six years, and now we’re kind of coming in as the new generation: me, Tim [Meadows] and Bryan [Callen], and Brett Dier, who is also on [‘Schooled’]. I don’t feel like my responsibility has changed, but I do feel like there’s a heightened sense of responsibility in the sense that I am carrying a lot more than I ever was. So it’s rewarding but also challenging.”
On network TV, you’ve got to roll with the punches—and script changes.
“Our show is tricky because we’ll do a table read on Friday for the Monday to start that episode, and usually over the weekend there are so many changes, and I’ll get rewrites at midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m.—and I’m already asleep at that point. So I memorize as much as I can the night before because I have to take it day by day with this show, and then I’ll have to memorize revisions while I’m in the hair and makeup trailer, which I’m not used to at all; I’ve never done that. I’ve always prepped a whole project all at once. With this, you have to just be really patient because the writers are constantly revising these scripts and [creator] Adam [F. Goldberg] is very particular about what he wants, which I love. Sometimes Brett Dier and I will have a 5 a.m. call, and we’ll look at each other and be like, ‘Do you know what we’re saying yet?’ And I’ll be like, ‘No, we’re waiting on pages.’ It’s not always that way, but Season 1, we really had to figure a lot of things out and there was a lot of people to write for and the changes came quickly. So you just have to prepare yourself as much as possible. I don’t necessarily have a memorizing trick, but because I’ve been doing this for so long, I think it is kind of built-in muscle memory that once I look at a page two or three or four times, I’m able to look up, recite it, look down, look at the next sentence, look up, recite it, now memorize all three sentences—so you kind of build upon it. It’s like a layer.”
If she weren’t an actor, Michalka would eye up casting.
“I always told myself that if for some reason being in front of the camera just didn’t work out anymore, I would still love to be in the industry, just behind the scenes. I think my world would probably be casting. I love actors and I understand what they go through, and I would be able to have the grace for an actor in a room coming into an audition knowing how hard it is, but also feeling connected to the work in a sense where I’m able to hopefully give that actor the best shot they have at their audition because I know what I’m doing on the other side. We don’t always get that as actors, so I think it would be interesting to play a hand in an actor hopefully getting a job. The one thing that I’ve learned that I think is really important in an audition room is that they don’t want you to fail, they do want you to succeed. They want to find the role that day, they don’t want you to go in and suck. We go in sometimes as this, ‘Woe is me, oh my gosh, this is going to suck, I’m not right for this.’ And meanwhile, they want you to walk in and go, ‘Oh my gosh, we found the person!’ That’s easy to forget.”
On how she preps for pilot season.
“A lot of times, you don’t have a lot of prep when you’re in the middle of pilot season because it can be an audition on Monday, an audition on Tuesday, a test on Friday. So it’s a lot. But there’s this pilot season course that I take in January right before it kicks off that’s a four-week course with acting coach Leigh Kilton-Smith—who’s based in L.A., whom I love. [She] really just kind of reminds you of the power we have as actors in a room and how important it is to be engaged and use eye contact with the casting director and to really care for that person so that when you’re doing the sides, it’s not just, ‘I’m reading with this person; I don’t know if I’ll get it; I don’t know if I’m good enough.’ You’re changing your mindset by really engaging in visual eye contact, which is really important. And also preparing yourself for hearing an hour later that you’re not gonna book it. It’s like, ‘Well, that’s OK. I’m gonna treat myself to an ice-cream cone and go home.’ [Kilton-Smith’s] mindset is like, how to keep the day feeling as normal as possible, even though what you’re doing is kind of an abnormal thing, and not making it feel like anything was a failure. You can’t change anything you did in the room, and you have to just continue and move on. You can learn from it, absolutely, but life is not gonna stop.”
Want to work on network TV? Check out Backstage’s everything you need to know about pilot season!