Exclusive: MercyMe's Bart Millard on Emotional 'I Can Only Imagine' Movie

The new movie, I Can Only Imagine, opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, March 16. The film, which stars Dennis Quaid, Trace Adkins and Cloris Leachman, is based on the true story of MercyMe lead singer Bart Millard, and the physical and psychological abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, Arthur Millard. MercyMe's biggest hit, "I Can Only Imagine," was written after the father and song reconciled, shortly before his father's death.

"It was pretty emotional," Bart Millard tells PopCulture.com of the first time he watched the movie in its entirety. "It was emotional on multiple levels. One, that it had been eight years [in process], and it was finally a movie, which was pretty crazy. And, there's not really a manual anywhere that tells you what to expect, to make a movie like this. So just seeing some of the scenes played out, even though I was there when some were filmed, it's just different when the music and everything's in it. It was emotional. I don't wanna say it was hard; I don't regret it."

Child actor Brody Rose played the younger Millard, suffering merciless beatings at the hand of his father, who was raising him as a single dad after his mother fled.

"It was difficult, but I got through it because Bart Millard was there and kind of put me in his shoes and told me how it was," Rose shares. "It was very emotional."

One scene shows Quaid hurting the child so bad that he had to miss school to recover from his injuries. It was an intense, challenging scene to film, even moreso because of the tender emotions of Rose.

"He was such a sweet kid and a great sport," Millard boasts. "I remember the scene where he kind of takes a swing at Dennis, and he kind of pins him to the floor in the beginning, and he wouldn't hit Dennis very hard. He wouldn't hit him hard enough, so they kept doing take after take. Dennis was like, 'You gotta hit me harder man. You gotta hit me harder' ... He wouldn't do it, and so Dennis wouldn't follow through with pinning him to the floor. He got him so worked up about hitting him and hitting him and hitting him.

"All of a sudden Rose pounced on him, and he never saw it coming," continues the singer. "They did 20 takes without him following through, so he just forgot and just thought, 'I guess he's gonna let me know when he's – Oh! He's doing it,' so he jumped onto the scene, it was money, and when they said, 'Cut,' he was like, 'I think I've had a heart attack,' and he started laughing and he was like rolling around and said, 'My heart! My heart! My heart!' He was a great sport."

Quaid admits the scenes with Rose were among the most difficult he has played, of any role.

"There's things in this film that are difficult to watch, let alone difficult to play," says Quaid. "But Bart was brave enough to tell his story, so we all wanted to get it right, especially for him and Arthur too."

I Can Only Imagine also stars Trace Adkins, who plays MercyMe's manager, Scott Brickell. Although Adkins is a seasoned actor, appearing in numerou films, including The Lincoln Lawyer and Wyatt Earp's Revenge, Millard says Adkins was insitially hesitant to take part in the film.

"He killed it. He's one of my favorite characters in the movie," Millard says. "I remember [director] Andy Erwin calling me and saying, 'Man, I don't think Trace is gonna do it. He just thinks he's messed up too much, that he'd be bringing bad karma or just baggage to the movie with stuff that's going on in his personal life.' Andy was like, 'Well, I guess I can't make the movie either if we're talking about whoever got it right and is qualified to do this.' Andy just kind of stayed on it and he's like, 'You're the guy, you're the guy for this,' and some of my favorite scenes are the ones he did."

I Can Only Imagine was directed by brothers Jon and Andy Erwin, who made sure to cover every aspect with the movie with caution.

"It touches on domestic violence.That’s a really difficult thing to do in a film," Jon Erwin notes. "We wanted lots of people to go see it, so we had to figure out how to make people feel the violence, without making it an overtly horror picture, so little kids couldn’t be there. We really wanted it to be a family film. We wanted it to be a film that lots of people would go see. Our approach was showing the violence in a way that made you feel it, but would allow families to still go see it."

The song, "I Can Only Imagine," was originally recorded by MercyMe and covered by numerous artists, including Wynonna Judd and Amy Grant. But although there is a clear spiritual theme running throughout the entire movie, Millard wanted to make sure I Can Only Imagine would resonate with everyone, regardless of their faith.

"That was a concern of mine," he concedes. "I didn't want it to be a, no disrespect, like a fluffy Christian movie. I wanted people to know how much of a monster he was, so the redemption story is not watered down. And I think they did a good job of that.

"I think the thing I love about it most," continues Millard, "is that Jesus just happens to be a part of his story... It's an amazing redemption story. But it's not like we have an agenda or are trying to shove anything down anybody's throats."

Millard acknowledges it was hard to share his story, but he felt that it was imperative that others know the journey he and his father endured.

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"All of the stuff I've went through, it just feels like it's not so much in vain if I'm able to kind of share the story and connect with people that maybe go through the same stuff and feel like they're completely alone," he explains. "I think it's just what being in ministry is about, and so it just seemed to make sense. I was just more afraid it was going to be done poorly than anything and was thrilled with the way it turned out."

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