by Dan Ewald - SUSIE Magazine
Walking into the lobby of the Hilton hotel in Universal City, Calif., Debby Ryan could be your average 16-year-old, except for the reaction she gets from a group of girls staying at the hotel. Standing out in a sparkly dress and a full head of curly hair for a big night benefiting soldiers, Debby takes a seat and finishes a text message she's sending for her mom. Then she begins talking a mile a minute about her exciting career with The Suite Life on Deck, one of the highest-rated shows on cable.
Her fans crouch nearby as Debby sits down with SUSIE Magazine; they hide behind artificial plants in the hotel lobby. Every now and then, they giggle and take a photo of the Disney star. She waves to them while trying to talk about a woman from the Bible most of us have never heard of—Jael—who appears in only the Old Testament book of Judges.
What a Woman! Questioning Her Faith Bible Study on Set
Way Back When Debby on Beauty Debby in the Movies
Debby on Must-Reads
What a Woman!
"She was really bold!" Debby says of one her heroes from the Bible. "In a dangerous and terrifying situation, Jael probably felt all alone, coming against something that was so seemingly impossible."
Debby was referring to the woman who killed Sisera, the leader of evil King Jabin's army. Jael took Sisera into her tent with hospitality and gave him milk in a dish. After he fell asleep, she bravely crept up to him and drove a tent peg through his head. God used Jael to give the victory to Israel.
Debby loves how Jael handled her difficult task in an obedient and confident way. "Jael takes his hand, gives him some warm milk, and says, 'Go to sleep, now.' And he's like, 'Yeah, you take care of me, woman!'"
At this point, Debby laughs at what she just said. "I'm sorry, I have that kind of offbeat sense of humor. . . . Anyway, Jael gets a tent peg and nails this guy in the head, and that's how the victory was won! She takes the evil general out with a tent peg! At the end of the day, she was what she was. She believed what she believed, and it didn't change her. No matter how she was feeling, she didn't try to let that interfere with what God was trying to do. 'Get'er done!' And she got it done!" Debby laughs.
Being a Christian, trying to live out her convictions in Hollywood, Debby takes inspiration from women like Jael. "I mean, I'm a strong girl. I would like to think that if I was in the same situation . . ." she trails off, lost in thought. "I don't know if using a tent peg would be my first thought! But if that's the way it had to be done . . ."
As she finishes the story, Debby keeps looking over at the teens taking her picture. She asks if she could run over and take a few shots with them, but it's too late. Her fans have disappeared, their cameras full of candid shots of the actress.
Questioning her Faith
Debby wasn't always so sure of the Christian faith her parents presented. "If someone tells me, 'You should be a Christian and go to church,' that's great," says Debby. "But that would kind of send me running the other way if it didn't mean something to me personally. I kind of rebel against the norm . . . to a certain extent. I'm one of those people who will wear a type of T-shirt until it becomes fashionable. And then I will literally give it to Goodwill."
When she was 9 years old, Debby broke her parents' hearts. She told them that while she enjoyed going to church, she just wasn’t sure she believed in God. "I was like, 'You guys, this is great for you. It seems to work for you, but I don't know if this is me. I know the stories. And either way, I have boundaries. I want to be a classy person, but I just don’t know about this God stuff.'"
Her mom and dad still expected her to attend church, but said they wouldn't drag her kicking and screaming. She would go with them, and if she had any questions about what the pastor said, she could always ask them anything.
One night in her room, Debby began a conversation with God. She prayed, "God, no disrespect . . . but how am I supposed to have a relationship with You? I mean, people talk to You and sing to You. I can’t see You, so if I'm meant to be with You, let me feel You beyond a shadow of a doubt."
Eventually, she says she began to feel His presence. "I felt His presence like He was sitting next to me. God was like, 'Don't you understand? I want to love you. I created you. I sacrificed for you. And I want to spend time with you.'"
Bible Study on the Set
Years later, Debby's family moved to Los Angeles when she booked the role of Bailey Pickett on The Suite Life on Deck. It wasn’t long before Debby and a friend started a Bible study for other kids in show business with the purpose of "refining each other and refining ourselves."
A bunch of young actor-friends meet in Debby's dressing room on the lot where she shoots the show. "It's literally a bunch of kids in the industry—kids with hearts after God and kids who want to make a positive difference," Debby says. "We all have the same common drive that runs through us, and we want to share it."
It isn't religion Debby wants to talk about at these gatherings. "I don't find it a religion. I feel like religion is a word that's synonymous with rules," she says, crinkling her nose. "For me, it's all about a relationship I have with God. I'm accountable to Him. People can judge it all they want to, but it's not going to change my mind."
While she clearly reaches out to her friends in Hollywood, Debby also cares about the way her fans see her. She stares over at the area in the lobby where the girls were taking her picture. "I hope they know I wanted to take a picture with them and was going to. I appreciate them watching and recognizing me!" Debby muses.
"I want them to know I'm not some celebrity who blows off my fans. I don't consider myself a ‘celebrity.’ I just play 'the friend' on the Disney show," she laughs, adding a sarcastic, "Yay!"
Way Back When
It all goes back to that day when she was 9. Debby told God she wanted Him to be proud of His creation. She says she still has that same desire, even as a 16-year-old successful Hollywood actress.
"Every time I say no to a drink at a party or I offer to pray with someone and it might be super, super scary, it's a little tent peg. A little boldness, just like Jael—my own tent peg through the darkness," Debby says with sincerity in her voice. "At the end of my life, when I'm in heaven I want to hear God say, 'This is how you lived on earth, and for a human who’s sinful by nature, you made Me feel proud.'
Debby on Beauty
"In this industry, it's part of the job to stay presentable—thin, clear complexion, big hair, white teeth, fake tans—whatever is marketable. I'm surrounded by people who have so many fake hair extensions and wear the enamel off their teeth. It’s scary to think this is what they feel they need to do, just physically, to be successful.
"At the end of the day, I want to be healthy. If I had to run a mile in a movie—if I was cast as a spy—I want to make sure my lungs are in good health and that my heart is in good shape. No matter what I'm doing, I want to take care of my body in such a way that it's practical. I wouldn't starve myself, because I realize my body needs nutrition. So if I'm cutting something out, it's going to be pointless carbs. I'll replace that with a handful of almonds.
"I can imagine Jesus saying, 'I created you they way you are. Don’t trash the temple I've given you. Take care of it. Don't go to one extreme or the other. Be healthy, be wise, be informed. Just like you admire the sunset, the beach or the mountainside, look in the mirror and say, "This is something that my Father made and something He’s very proud of."'"
Debby in the Movies
Debby stars in the new family movie What If, which is a heartwarming tale about a man who gets a chance to see what his life would look like if he’d followed his true calling to become a minister married to his college sweetheart, instead of leaving that life to pursue his career.
Director Dallas Jenkins visited the set of The Suite Life on Deck to watch Debby’s acting style. I went back to my dressing room, and he looked anxious. He had a smile plastered on his face," Debby laughs.
"I kept hearing the Suite Life director telling the actors to 'go bigger,' and I wanted to talk to Debby to make sure she could shift from that TV mode into movie mode," Dallas says.
According to Debby, Dallas was very nervous about her ability to rein in her over-the-top "Disney sitcom" acting and be more subtle in his film. "He was so worried that with a movie, with the camera inches from your face, that I'd come off as being cartoony," she says.
Not to worry. Upon arriving in Michigan and walking onto the set of What If, Debby immediately followed the scrip's instructions to burst into tears during her first take. "He was so nervous for me," she says. "I could almost see him crunching his fists in nervousness.
"He called 'Action!' and after the first take, he came up completely speechless and gave me the biggest hug. And I was like, 'Disney enough for you?'"
Her film director was, indeed, impressed with her range. "Even in scenes where she had to cry or laugh, she didn’t overdo it or push it," Dallas says. "That's very rare in a young actor. After her first scene, I knew I was going to love her performance."
For more photos and behind the scenes videos, go to the movie website.
Debby on Must-Reads
Debby recommends three books every girl should read:
I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have To Kill You by Ally Carter (part of the Gallagher Girl Books). "It's empowering for girls to find their identity and strength outside of guys."
Dateable by Hayley DiMarco and Justin Lookadoo. "I like this because it applies to every relationship, no matter what type you have, until the day you pass on!"
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. "It's a classic, standard read. I think every young woman should read it, because while having romance, it also teaches a lot of about upbringing, marriage, education and morals."
Dan Ewald is a film writer and producer living in Los Angeles, Calif. He looks forward to watching Debby’s new movie What If.
This article originally published in Susie MAgazine and on the Susie Magazine Website