Theatre alumnus stars alongside Dennis Quaid in ‘I Can Only Imagine’

Chicago College of Performing Arts Alumni Profile

by SIBILA PATSY

Few theatre students have gone on to make their big screen debuts as the lead character in a Hollywood film. Even fewer have done so after enduring the extent of personal tragedies suffered by one Roosevelt graduate.

J. Michael Finley, a 2011 graduate of Roosevelt’s Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA) Theatre Conservatory, starred in 2018’s “I Can Only Imagine,” which tells the true life story of American singer-songwriter Bart Millard.

The film brings new light to the titular award-winning song, the most-played Christian radio single of all time. Finley starred as Millard, showcasing the acting and singing skills he developed at Roosevelt. Depicting the iconic Christian musician’s childhood and adolescence, the movie reveals Millard’s relationship with his abusive father, Arthur, played by Dennis Quaid. Millard wrote “I Can Only Imagine” after enduring a deep catharsis and forgiveness of his father, who died from cancer.

Finley was moved by Millard’s story from the very beginning of shooting the film. “What really captivated me, after first reading the script, was how flawed Bart is,” he said. “He’s not just a nice guy who falls victim to hard times and tough circumstances and then uses that inspiration to write a hit song. He’s so much deeper than that and this is what makes him so interesting and likable.”

Shortly before finishing the film, Finley lost his mother to cancer, sadly giving him one more reason to relate to Millard’s character. He sang “I Can Only Imagine” at her funeral before the release of the film.

“I grew up at Roosevelt and became who I am I learned how to be a person and how to be comfortable in my own skin.”

– J. Micheal Finley
BA, ‘11

The movie premiered on March 16 and grossed $59 million worldwide in its first two weeks. “People really seemed to be drawn to this movie and I loved seeing how well it did,” Finley said.

Finley’s path through the theatre program was rocky. In 2008, shortly after he had been admitted, Finley nearly had to drop out because his family was unable to afford his tuition. Then, Finley’s brother died in the line of duty while deployed in Afghanistan. Finley’s parents used the death gratuity to keep him at CCPA.

“It’s a very bittersweet feeling,” Finley said. “I love what I do and I’m so thankful for the incredible opportunities I’ve been given, but I’d trade it all in for just another conversation with my brother, without hesitation.”

Finley asserted he feels extremely motivated to do everything in honor of his brother. His time at Roosevelt was one of those opportunities. “I grew up at Roosevelt and became who I am,” Finley said. “I learned how to be a person and how to be comfortable in my own skin.”

Finley’s vocal coach, Roosevelt theatre faculty member Rebecca Schorsch, said that Finley is “very humble, a warm man with a great sense of humor.” Schorsch continues to be Finley’s mentor and is not surprised by his early career success.

While studying at CCPA, Finley had a clear vision of what he wanted to do after completing the theatre program. “He had dream roles he wanted to be able to play and he worked for years on them, ahead of time,” said Schorsch. “When the opportunities arose, he was ready.”

Finley’s determination materialized quickly after graduation with a role on Broadway in Les Misérables as Jean Valjean understudy. “This is a dream role and I got to play it over 60 times in my first year on Broadway,” Finley said. Finley also appeared in the musicals The Dead at the Court Theater in Chicago and Carousel at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Finley currently lives and works in London, in a replacement role for Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon on the West End. Finley is thrilled that it is a full-time commitment and allowed him to be on stage eight times a week. “This has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my career so far,” said Finley. “It has nothing to with acting or singing or being talented. It is a marathon.”

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