Chris McMiller is about to surprise Broadway in MJ the Musical—which makes it surprising that he didn’t originally intend to be a stage actor. Ahead of his debut in the multiple Tony Award-winning production, I spoke to Chris to discuss his path to theatre and everything that’s going into his portrayal of one of music’s legendary artists.
Brittany Frederick: Many theater actors specifically decide on that career path. Was that also the case for you, or did your interest in the stage develop later on?
Chris McMiller: I wanted to do television; I still do. I wanted to do television [and] theatrical. I graduated at 16, and when I went to college, that’s when I started taking introduction to theater. I started to learn [the Sanford] Meisner [technique] and started to learn [the] Stanislavski [method] and all that. The instructor there was like, “You have such a wide range.” So that’s when the whole theater thing came about.
BF: What was it like making that transition to theater? Because television acting and stage acting are two very different styles, with different needs and opportunities.
CM: It was a crash course because I never saw myself in it. And with theater, it’s almost like live television. You mess up, you’ve got to find a way to get your audience back into it, or even make them think that you didn’t mess up. It was very different. And even now, it still is different.
I had about four auditions for the MJ role. Honestly, believe it or not, I didn’t tell anybody—didn’t tell my close family, didn’t even tell my parents, my sister didn’t know. Nobody knew. It was me going up to New York all the time. And the casting director that was there and the choreographer that was there—his name is Christopher Wheeldon—they kind of formed a bond with me and one audition led to another, and then the next audition led to another.
BF: This is a massive role for you to take on at the relative beginning of your stage career. Everyone knows Michael Jackson, and he meant a lot to many people. So how did you prepare to play a younger version of him? Did you research the real-life star, or focus on the character as written on the page?
CM: There’s three Michael Jacksons [in the show]. There’s the Jackson Five, there’s me, where he breaks off into Thriller, Off the Wall and all that, and then there’s the third Michael Jackson that everybody knows—the King of Pop. What the director [Wheeldon] wants us to focus on is who Michael Jackson was at that particular time.
I try to embody his full character. Mannerisms and the way he speaks and everything. You would honestly think that I wouldn’t know how to talk like him because I have such a deep voice. (laughs) But that’s something else that trying to get down pat. So [I’m] just trying to embody who he was during that time period.
BF: Obviously a role and production of this magnitude comes with its fair share of challenges and nerves, but what have you enjoyed about this process so far? What have you learned as you step into the Broadway world?
CM: One of the most impressive parts about being MJ [was that] I went to his old house in Indiana about two to three weeks ago. The production flew down there and you felt like he was really there. Just having the feeling of what he went through as a child and then looking at old artifacts that they had of him.
I love the fact that I get the opportunity to play someone as prestigious as he was, but [there’s] definitely work that needs to be done, so I can’t get too caught up in my thoughts. I try to stay on path as much as possible…I’ve always dreamed of something like this, even though it wasn’t in theater. I’ve always dreamed of being where I’m at now. So it’s pretty cool.
BF: It’s also a great springboard for the rest of your career. Are there other roles after MJ the Musical that you’d like to pursue or other people you’d enjoy working with in the future?
CM: I’ve done skits in the past where I’m different characters, and a person that reminds me of [how] you can play different characters is Eddie Murphy. I feel like I would be a great fit in a movie with him or if it’s directed by him. I’ve always been told that the type of energy that I give off [is like] Will Smith. A lot of people have told me that they would love to see me in a project with Will. And that’s actually pretty fascinating because Bad Boys 4 is in the works.
I feel like in the near future you could definitely see me in some big projects, as long as I continue to perfect my craft, and as long as my talent manager and my agent work hard in advocating for me. [MJ the Musical is] definitely a spotlight for that.
BF: What goals have you set for yourself in general? What’s going to be your definition of success, when there are so many forms of what it means to be an actor?
CM: There are numerous goals that I’ve set for myself. But about a month ago I met Wesley Snipes. I was on set with him for a commercial that I was shooting. When I met with him, he told me “Congratulations,” and he was like “I’ll definitely be at the first show.” Like three weeks ago I was with Michael B. Jordan. Just them hearing the news that I got and them telling me [to] keep going and everything like that, that’s success to me.
But also making sure that my family is taken care of. And once it does get to the point where I’m able to take care of my family as well as myself, that would be success to me. Making sure that my family is taken care of and that people that have already been established acknowledging me, that’s a very successful life to me.
It’s just a matter of every day perfecting my craft to the point where it wouldn’t have to end up wit me looking on TV and seeing the next person where that could be me in that role. I’m definitely excited for what the future holds. I’m definitely excited for the projects that I’ll get from this play, and just continuing to perfect my craft every single day so that I can look back at the legacy that I’ve left.
For tickets to and more information about MJ the Musical, visit the production’s website.
Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.