Some actors act, some performers perform. John Michael Finley transcends his roles to stir deeper dimensions within his audiences. His credits include Broadway musicals such as Les Misérables and The Book of Mormon. Currently this Lebanon, Missouri, native is commanding the lead role as Arnold Cunningham in The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London’s iconic West End
In addition to jumping over the pond, John recently made the leap to the movie screen. He’s starring as Bart Millard in I Can Only Imagine. Both in his stage life and personal life there are deeper stories, as the greatest of all showmen is repeatedly revealed. John was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and spent most of his childhood in Lebanon, Missouri, playing sports with his four siblings: James, Joshua, Jennifer and Jamie. Church was also a center point in his early years, as his father was and currently is a minister at Heritage Baptist Church in Lebanon.
“I want people to know that even though the spotlight may be on me at this particular moment, I did not do this alone,” John humbly points out. “I’ve been so fortunate to have so many incredible friends and mentors help me along the way.”
One pivotal mentor was his seventh-grade choir director, Mr. Lackey. After ranking choir in the very bottom of his electives, John found himself pouting in his least-wanted class. Quickly, Mr. Lackey took him and the boys into a separate room for a pep talk. “All I remember are the last words he said,” John recalls. “‘And remember, girls like guys who can sing!’
From that point on I just fell in love with music and singing. I think I had some natural talent, but I was REALLY, REALLY bad at it all.” “He wasn’t a theater prodigy,” John’s father, Wayne, agrees. “I think that was good for me,” John answers back. “Sports came naturally to me, and I never had to try very hard. But music was something I had to really work on.” A harbinger of his future movie role.
“John played all the sports,” John’s father, assures. But in that seventh-grade choir class, John had a lightbulb moment. He has
had a few of those “maybe there’s something here,” moments. John earned the leads in his high school musicals. As a junior he went to the Missouri State Thespian Conference. Wayne recalls John thought he might nonchalantly try out for the lead role. He landed it.
Next, he secured a seat at Roosevelt University in Chicago after his 2007 high school graduation. John was familiar with this college through another esteemed mentor. Randy Sproat was a member of his church and his high school drama teacher. During the summers, Randy took his masters in directing classes at Roosevelt. John visited one summer and remembers, “I fell in love with Chicago and with the school and its program.”
“John excelled there,” his Dad says. But John nearly didn’t return to Roosevelt after his first year. It was very expensive and John had planned not to return. Yet John’s older brother, James, and Providence helped provide a path for John to work hard and fulfill his dream of a college degree. In each and every playbill, John honors his brother’s ultimate sacrifice while in serving in the Army in Afghanistan by highlighting, “For my brother, SPC James Matthew Finley. Without him, I would not be here.”
After attaining his degree, John applied the techniques he learned and remained in Chicago. “I had more jobs than I can count,” John recalls. “Mostly bartending or waiting tables. Pretty normal for an actor. I auditioned, auditioned and auditioned. I worked backstage at theaters and universities. Everyone is just trying to survive from gig to gig. The backstage crew might be onstage at another theater and vice versa. That’s why you never take people for granted and you never treat anyone disrespectfully.”
Next, in 2015, John moved to New York City booking Les Misérables on Broadway. “New York City is a tough, tough city. But I think challenges are good for us.” John and his wife, Elizabeth Doran, have lived in NYC for the past two and a half years. Elizabeth works on the “music team that organizes, enhances, develops, distributes and works on the evolution of the score throughout the process of putting a new show together,” John explains. She’s helped open five different Broadway shows, most recently Tina Fey’s Tonynominated Mean Girls.
John’s first big Broadway opening was being a part of the ensemble and an understudy of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. This musical is based on Victor Hugo’s book, and is set in post-revolutionary France. Even though John was an understudy of the lead, he performed often as the lead, his father recalls. John remembers his debut: “I thought I’d be terrified but I wasn’t. It was truly an out-of-body experience. I let my preparation and my technique take over. I felt like I was cruising down the road. It wasn’t perfect, and I screwed some things up, but I was really free and calm. That’s something I’ll never forget. I’m very proud
of that performance.”
After Les Misérables closed, John was cast as a standby for one of the lead roles in The Book of Mormon. “The character I play, Arnold Cunningham, doesn’t have a negative bone in his body,” John explains, “Every night I’m on stage for three hours and play a character who just wants to support everyone, lift everyone up and make everyone’s life easier. There’s something incredibly therapeutic about doing this show eight times a week. It makes me a better person. I love every minute of it.”
The movie I Can Only Imagine was in its first stages when the castingcrew saw John’s audition tape and offered him the lead role playing Bart Marshall Millard. This movie, purposely debuted on 3.16, is based on the all-time
best-selling Christian award-winning song of the same title. It was composed by Millard and released in 2001 by his Christian band, MercyMe. He draws upon his tragic personal life to share his song and the details in the movie. His mother left him and his family when he was three years old. His father, Arthur, played by Dennis Quaid, beat him three or four times a week. During this abusive time, Millard found solace in music. When he was a freshman in high school, his father was diagnosed with cancer. Arthur was redeemed by the grace of God and mended the chasm between him and his family before perishing. At the gravesite, Millard’s Granny remarked, “I can only imagine what he’s seeing in Heaven.” Millard became entranced with Heaven and those words. Yet it took time to compose the song that keeps reverberating among all who have heard it — and now by watching the movie, all who have seen it.
“Bart and I hit it off instantly,” John says, smiling. “I think we were both weirded out by how similar we are.” Bart was on the movie set during the nine weeks of filming in and around Oklahoma City. When John laid down all the audio tracks, “Having Bart literally two feet away from me the whole time was incredible,” John thrillingly tells. “He’s a musical genius and an incredible vocalist. Bart’s so expressive with his voice. We’ve stayed in contact ever since.”
John’s contacts in this movie include Dennis Quaid, Cloris Leachman and Trace Adkins. “Everyone knows Trace for his musical
ability but THAT DUDE CAN ACT!” John exclaims. “Some of my favorite scenes were with Trace. He’s such a nice guy. The depth he carries as an actor and a person is remarkable. He’s just the real deal,plain and simple.”
Leachman, who plays his grandmother, was not a disappointment to work with either. “I just couldn’t stop smiling or laughing when I was around her,” John says. She was the life of the party. She even played the piano as John sang “If I Loved You” from the musical Carousel. She and John visited between takes about Mel Brooks and auditioning for Oscar Hammerstein II. She was “kind and encouraging to me,” John shares. “Just like most 91-year-olds, she doesn’t have much of a filter, so you can imagine what that was like!”
But Dennis Quaid did have a filter. “Every day he’d start with a handshake, a hug and a word of encouragement,” John says. Quaid spent time explaining to John why filming their scenes would stop and what needed to be adjusted. Quaid shared with John his expertise as a writer, director and producer. “He was great,” John tells. “His patience paid off because at the end of the week, we were filming some very intense scenes. It was like a good game of ping-pong. He’d serve it up and I’d just keep hitting it back. It was so fun and challenging. I’m very proud of the work we did together.”
John’s work on this movie was made easier by his upbringing. He attests, “Without a doubt, I believe I would not have been qualified to play Bart if I wasn’t raised the way I was. I grew up listening to praise and worship music. I saw MercyMe in concert when I was a kid. There’s a certain vocabulary that comes with this story. A certain mindset. An understanding I would not have, had I not been brought up in the Bible Belt.” This project was special to John, like a homecoming. “This is my childhood and my upbringing and my family. I loved every minute of it.”
John goes on to explain the difference of pace between the marathon of a musical verses the sprint of filmmaking “Learning how to take care of your mind and body is a challenge,” John says. CrossFit helps him meet these challenges. “I love working out,” he reports. “I used to lift and work out all the time when I was young. One of the most important things about a long-running musical is keeping your body in shape. I don’t mean skinny. Round is a shape. I just mean keeping active and keeping your endurance up. Singers really rely on breath support and diaphragm control.”
John also loves baseball. “I’m a huge baseball nerd. I love the St. Louis Cardinals. I love all sports, in general, but baseball is the only one I get homicidal about.” He even stays up until the very early hours of the mornings while he’s working in London to watch the Cardinals’ games.
John will remain in London through 2018 and possibly 2019. “Right now, the future looks like The Book of Mormon, and I love
that. But I’d love to keep auditioning. I can’t wait to see what project is next, in theater or in film.”
Upon reflection, “My favorite message from the movie is ‘Don’t give up on someone.’ Nobody is too far gone to love. It takes time.
It takes patience. Nobody deserves to be given up on.” His message is eerily similar to the major roles he’s excelling in. John promotes on stage the message of hope just as his family, friends and mentors have given him. This mid-Missourian shares with his audiences the stories and feelings of fear, pain, anguish and sorrow. Yet with faith, determination, hope, inspiration, forgiveness, redemption and love, John’s characters and himself exude happiness, laughter and awe.•