We chatted to J. Michael Finley, who plays Bart Millard in the inspirational, true story film I Can Only Imagine about the story, theatre and acting.
What inspired you to get into theatre?
I started taking choir when I was 13 and fell in love with singing and music. Choir led to doing plays and musicals and eventually I decided to focus on being an actor. I decided to go to University to study Musical Theatre. I played sports my entire life and loved it but there was something new and special about the arts that I really enjoyed discovering.
What would you say to anyone wanting to get into theatre?
Take it slow and take your time. Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons because it’s not gonna be what you think it is. Don’t rush anything. Just like most things: it’s worth the wait. Study and take classes as much as you can. Don’t get frustrated with the process. It never goes away. There’s always someone better than you. Learn to love that.
Tell us a bit about I Can Only Imagine
I Can Only Imagine is the best selling Christian song of all time. It debuted in the early 2000’s and has taken the world by storm. Everyone just fell in love with this song, but nobody knew the powerful story behind it. This movie tells the story of Bart Millard and how he came to write this incredible song.
A lot of people know the song, but not the story, what was your reaction after hearing the story?
I was blown away. It really changes the meaning of the song, for me. It makes the song so much deeper and stronger. And I couldn’t believe it was a true story. I was so drawn to Bart as a person and a character and a song writer. It’s been a joy telling his story.
How did you feel about being cast as Bart Millard?
Great! I was pumped. Like I said, I really felt drawn to this character. We have a lot in common and have been through some similar experiences, so in a lot of ways this has been very therapeutic for me.
Was acting in a film easier or harder than theatre and why?
I don’t want to oversimplify it but it’s really all the same. My job is to know my character and tell a story. It’s the same onstage. I’ve always been lucky to have great directors and great actors to work with and they make it very easy. I was a bit anxious about transitioning from the stage to behind a camera but the Erwin Brothers and everyone on set were really patient and kind to me and did everything they could to clear the path and just let me do my job. They allowed me to be as comfortable as possible so I could relax and do my thing.
There are pros and cons to both. There’s something really great about getting to do the same show every night. Getting to tell a full story in a couple hours. But, in film, it’s really great to film something and then just wipe your hands clean of it. Done and done. Now, let’s move on to what’s next. And the total filming process seems so short compared to the length of a Broadway run. Days and weeks versus months and years. It’s all really wonderful. You just have to adjust a bit.
How did you prepare for the role?
I did as much research as a I could on Bart, the band, and his story. I went on iTunes and purchased all the MercyMe albums I didn’t already have. Still hoping to be reimbursed for that. Just kidding! I got to chat with Bart and ask him all the questions I could think of. I got to hangout with him and the band and see them in concert a couple times and this was all before we even started shooting. It was incredible.
Has playing this role had any impact on your life?
It’s had a huge impact on my life. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some incredible people and I got to tell an awesome story of redemption and hope. It’s really opened some doors for me and I can’t wait to see what’s next!
What is your favourite scene in the film?
This is a tough one. I really, truly, had fun every single day of filming. There’s a really intense scene I do with Dennis Quaid where I flip the script on him and really come after him. That was a lot of fun. One of the best scenes in the film. I don’t think either of us really knew what to expect but we both charged forward full steam ahead and it was great.
What do you hope people will take away from watching this film?
This story really does a good job of doing what the song did: it gives you a rush of hope. It’s a powerful story of redemption and I think everyone can connect with that. I hope people leave this movie realising that nobody is worth giving up on. Nobody is too far gone. Everyone deserves a chance.
What is next for you? Do you hope to do any more films?
I’m currently working on the West End doing Book of Mormon. It’s been awesome being in London and getting to explore Europe. I’d love to do more film/TV, but I also really love what I do onstage. No complaints here. I’m ready for whatever is next!
I Can Only Imagine opens in UK Cinemas on Aug 10th – click here for a list of cinemas showing the film.