Singer-songwriter-actor Moriah Peters stars in Because of Graćia. The twenty-four-year-old never even auditioned for the film, but instead was discovered by director Tom Simes after he watched an I Am Second, YouTube video that featured her. Despite being her first film, Simes cast Peters to star in the title role of Graćia – a girl with charisma, intelligence and conviction and a dark past, which makes the role that much more complicated to play. It would require an actor marked by their own struggles, pain and overcoming. Something Peters could relate to. It was not long ago that Peters was rejected on national television for her purity and perfectness by American Idol judges. But, it was after that rejection that Peters said she truly began to experience a life that she could write songs about. Since then, she left her hometown and moved to Nashville to pursue music full time. She met and married Australian, Joel Smallbone, from the group for King & Country, and founded an all-girl band, Trala, with some of her best friends. She opens up with Risen about everything from defending her faith, to her American Idol experience, marriage and her new movie.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Can you give me a glimpse of what your upbringing was like?
Moriah Peters: I’m one of the few who can speak incredibly highly of my family upbringing. I think my situation was very rare. I had two parents that were still together and a father that was incredibly involved. For a girl, the father-daughter relationship is huge. My dad set the bar high.
RM: What was your high school experience like?
MP: My parents were deliberate about putting us in a diverse school. I had a teacher who was agnostic. He really challenged me in my beliefs. He asked very direct questions about what I believed. And he helped me define why I believed what I believed, simply by asking questions. This kind of questioning is sometimes referred to as “persecution” in Christian circles. The portrayal of Christians as “victims” is very popular right now. I don’t necessarily believe that having to defend your faith, or explain your faith, means you’re being persecuted. I actually think it’s a privilege. Not only do I think it’s a privilege, I think it shows who we are and what we believe as individuals when we are tested. The fear that many young people face is, “I don’t want people to single me out or to disagree with me, because it’s uncomfortable.”
RM: Were you ever close to losing your faith in those high school days?
MP: The only way that I would’ve fell away from the faith or been turned away, was if I became apathetic. If I just turned away from the argument and said, I don’t care. But, what it did for me was it challenged me to say, I have no idea. God, are you real? Are you a real concept? Having to defend my faith in front of this agnostic teacher, whom I’m still in contact with by the way, forced me to see my faith from another person’s point of view.
RM: In high school, you received a college scholarship and had plans to be a lawyer. Then you had the American Idol moment. On national television, the judges praised you for your look and your voice, but criticized you for never having been kissed. One of the judges said, “Go live some life, kiss someone, and come back.”
MP: My American Idol experience was an interesting one for me. It gave me the proof that I needed to take music more seriously. It set me off on an interesting path. The fact that I talked about having never been kissed was always something I had intended to keep private. After that show aired, I had to figure out how to navigate through that purity conversation. I never wanted my stance to negatively influence people. If it is not communicated in the right context, that kind of line in the sand can be a shaming thing, which I did not want. But, it also opened the opportunity to speak about something that hadn’t been spoken about in that way. So, I was glad to be part of the conversation.
I don’t necessarily believe that having to defend your faith, or explain your faith, means you’re being persecuted. I actually think it’s a privilege.
RM: Did you know the judges would ask you about your purity and faith?
MP: It’s actually a pretty intensive process. I had several months of auditioning and extensive interviews with the producers and staff. I opened up in conversation with people behind the scenes about my life in general. By the time you’re in front of the judges they have a one pager about who you are.
RM: So…this is the moment you’ve been working towards. You’re a high school girl, standing in front of celebrity judges. Can you recall the moment, the adrenaline rush, and what was racing through your mind?
MP: The conversation was only about sixty seconds long. They asked me about the whole first kiss thing. And they didn’t really get it. They were like, “Why would you do that?” As business people they knew I wasn’t a marketable product. They would have a hard time selling an innocent image. And I honestly think they were right. And I completely understand where they’re coming from now. It’s really hard to be a songwriter if you haven’t experienced much of life. There are so many differences between my first albums to my last album. I’ve experienced a broken heart, trauma, loneliness, jealousy, anger, extreme joy and victory. As a sixteen-year-old girl, I don’t even know what I would’ve written about.
RM: What was it that you remember feeling in that moment?
MP: I think the one thing that I was feeling was, “Ah man…I’m being rejected. I’m being sent home!” When your world is small, your problems are really big. That rejection definitely stung. It was sad and I was heartbroken. At that point, I had invested so much time and energy in the audition process. It was very hard to hear their decision, despite their logic and reasoning. I was very sad.
RM: I have three daughters and I’m fascinated about what it was about your upbringing that gave you the strength to make bold stands of faith and purity.
MP: I would say it was a combination of things, but I would credit most of it to my parents, especially, my father. From the time we were young, my father set the expectation of being treated well and being respected. My dad set a great example by the way he loved my mom. And when you’re young, you’re absorbing everything. I watched the way he spoke to her and treated her. So, if I ever dated a guy that was disrespectful to me, I was pretty quick to say, “You’re not the one.”
It’s funny – sorry if this is a tangent – in a world where feminist conversations are becoming more popular, we’re getting better as women in banding together and encouraging and empowering one another. But, I don’t think the good men in our lives get enough credit. My father shaped the woman I have become. And so has my husband. They both instilled in me a sense of strength and confidence. It’s so important to give credit where credit is due. My husband and father are incredible men—absolutely, incredible.
RM: How did American Idol change things for you?
MP: It led me to a key advocate. This world of music is so unpredictable. You need advocates and you need believers. I met a woman by the name of Wendy Green through this American Idol experience. She said, “I’m taking you to Nashville, you’re staying at my house, my husband is producing some songs, you can make a demo, I will help you find a label. I believe in you. I believe in your voice. And I want to be a part of your journey.” If I had not done American Idol I would not have met Wendy Green. And had I not met Wendy Green, I would not have met my manger, or my label, or my husband! So, I am very grateful for that experience.
RM: How did you go from singer/songwriter to actor?
MP: Oh man, it was miraculous. I didn’t even audition for the role in Because of Graćia. Nor would I have considered myself to be an actress. Being on camera, it’s a breaking. It will mold you. Being in entertainment can go one of two ways. It can either refine you to the point where you’re completely vulnerable. Or it helps you create a veneer.
RM: Which did it help you do?
MP: It’s interesting, when most people get on stage, their natural inclination is to put on a fake voice, to get into a character of some sort, or to exaggerate how they would normally speak. But over the years my goal has been to crack my own veneer. To get to the point where I’m comfortable in my own skin, even with the spotlight on me, to have a normal conversation with the people, without being fake.
RM: If you didn’t have to audition for this film, how did the role come about?
MP: The director of the film is a Canadian by the name of Tom Simes. He is amazing. I couldn’t speak more highly of this man’s character and his heart for people. He came across a YouTube video of me and liked my vulnerability in the I Am Second video. He called my management and asked me to read for the role.
RM: What was it that made you say yes to the role, having never acted before?
MP: Well, I really loved Tom. But, I also loved that the movie was about a relationship between a Hispanic girl and a Caucasian guy. But, the script never comments on the difference of skin color. It’s just about two people from two different cultures coming together and falling in love, and I loved that.
RM: You play the leading role of Graćia, a girl who has conviction and rises above the status quo. What would you say to a young person who wants to be bolder in their faith but is scared they might be outcast?
MP: Having an album called Brave, I’ve really been able to dissect this concept. And what I’ve come to believe is that bravery looks different for everybody. For some people it’s being bold and speaking out in the classroom to defend your faith. For other people bravery can be reconnecting with somebody who might’ve burned a bridge in the past. Or hanging out with that person who has been outcast or marginalized. You know bravery can look like a lot of different things. I think bravery can be a whisper. I think bravery can be silent. Don’t measure your bravery by what films and culture – even Christian culture – tells you. Through prayer and meditation ask to know what bravery looks like in your own life.
RM: You brought up your album, Brave. Could you talk about the season of life you were in that inspired some of the songs on that album?
MP: I was in a season of learning how to be at peace in my own skin. There was a long list of things that I tried to do to wrestle with my anxiety. My pastor recently said, “Anxiety comes from not being able to orient yourself in your own existence.” I feel like that’s an accurate description of the kind of anxiety that a lot of adults feel. For some, it’s chemical. For some, it requires medication, counseling and time. For others, anxiety is a struggle to come to terms with peace with ourselves; the struggle to come to terms with who we are, not what we do. We are human beings not human doings.
RM: Let’s talk about you and Joel. He has said that you were crashing a wedding the night you met. And you have said that he came off as arrogant at your first introduction. How did he win you over from that first introduction?
MP: Persistence and lots of patience. We were set up by Wendy Green, and she was talking him up like he was the most spectacular man, and me, being the pessimist that I was, made it my mission to put this guy in his place, whoever he was, and to let him know that he wasn’t as great as he probably thought he was. Seeing a line of women around him the night we met, only added to that feeling. So, I was incredibly rude when we were introduced. But, ironically, he was motivated by my attitude. I think it was his competitive spirit that ultimately won me over in the end.
This world of music is so unpredictable. You need advocates and you need believers.
RM: Are there still lines of women waiting for Joel?
MP: Of course! After every concert there are lines of women who want to talk. But what I’ve come to appreciate in our relationship is that we trust one another. Something we’ve been very intentional about is allowing our love to be built on trust.
RM: Both you and Joel have successful careers in the entertainment industry. How do you remain pure?
MP: Accountability is so important. We set boundaries with our time and with our work. Having two demanding careers, we have had to set aside one day a week as a sabbath. After all, it is a commandment. It’s just as important as “Do not murder.” But also, if we don’t set aside time with one another we just won’t get it. We always have twenty-four hours a week to make sure we’re connected in person. And we’ll keep our phones in this treasure chest and lock them away so we can’t do emails. And we sleep with our phones in the kitchen not in the bedroom. Little things like that are practical and simple boundaries.
RM: Your band, Trala, is made up of you and two very close girl friends. How do you foster those female relationships amidst the fame? And does comparison and insecurity ever play a part?
MP: I love that you asked me about my bandmates! I love them so much. It’s amazing to have people you love to do life with and to run a business with. Jesi (Jones) and Julie (Melucci) and I have traveled together for five years. When you’re touring, the worst sides of you can come out. There is no space for veneer. Pleasantries go out the window when its 3:00 a.m. and you’re just trying to get home. Over the years, the three of us have done a lot of investment in our relationships. Communication is the foundation of how we stay connected and move forward and resolve issues. For us, that honesty and willingness to dive into an awkward or hard conversation is paramount. I feel like I am a better person because of how these women have shaped me. We have so much respect for each other. It’s so exciting that after writing together for years we are putting out our first song this month.
RM: I’m looking at your family tree. Your husband is Joel Smallbone from for King & Country, your sister-in-law is [singer, songwriter, actress] Rebecca St. James, and her husband is Jacob Fink, formerly of Foster the People. I’m imagining your family holidays with lots of singing.
MP: [Laughing] Honestly, Smallbone family holidays are very loud, but with very little singing. Most of us associate singing with work so I think we like to take a break from it. It’s a lot of shouting over games, and food, and little kids running around. It’s really fun!