By Rachel Deal
TENNESSEE (The Hollywood Times) 5/12/22- “Gary Lee Miller is a Renaissance man.” He is a self-prescribed “Forrest Gump.” The guy good things happen to through a beautiful string of unlikely events. If the Southern accent doesn’t immediately grab you, his warm-hearted charm will. On May 11, I sit down with Miller for an interview. It’s this day that happens to be the anniversary of the death of Miller’s wife, Sharee. Had I known this was the anniversary of that terrible day, I’d have chosen another to meet. But the author and screenwriter is ready to share in what seems to be a venerated assemblage.
Finding Grace is a 260-page-turner that chronicles the journey of Judith Lee, a tech company CEO who is set to travel across country by bus on request of her dying grandmother. The people she meets along the way open her eyes to the world around her. A cathartic experience for both writer and reader, this tale is an emotional confrontation of personal growth, loss, and healing. Judith begins her journey with her blinders on. Type-A and obsessed with efficiency, it’s been awhile since she’s stopped to enjoy life. When the Gucci donning exec gets life-altering news of her grandmother’s terminal Leukemia, Judith slowly realizes that success does not necessarily bring happiness. She is faced with the heartfelt stories of her fellow passengers and in doing so she experiences her own character arch. While Judith sheds the layers between her present and younger self, inner joy and inner sorrow are revealed as well.
Parallel to Judith, Gary Lee Miller experienced his own journey of grief and contemplation. In 2015, Miller’s wife was diagnosed with MDS, a precursor of Leukemia. It was this shocking diagnosis that pulled the Millers from hospital to hospital in search of a cure. However, their journey came to a halt on May 11, 2019. With the passing of his wife, Miller sought writing to process his grief.
“She was the greatest blessing in my life,” Miller shares of his wife. They met in 1972 on a blind date and the author tells me that he “knew at once she was the one.” His wife was a school teacher, eventually earning a PhD in Education. For much of their marriage Gary Lee Miller worked in business.
However, in 2012 when Miller sat in the stands for the filming of the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, he could never have anticipated the opportunities that would unfold. They were looking for an actor with umpiring experience and Miller had just that. That was when the director hired Miller to play the role of umpire in the baseball film. He spent 14 days on set, eventually befriending the director Brian Helgeland. Through his connections, Miller played various roles as an “Anchorman” in Anchorman 2, a “Hob Vendor” in Catching Fire, and a “Candor Man” in Divergent sequel Insurgent.
“I was hoping to be cast in the stands as a spectator to see how a baseball movie was made. They found out I had umpiring experience. I got invited down to Atlanta to audition for an umpire’s role and got it.”
“I worked in three dozen different movies and TV shows,” Miller casually remarks on his acting credentials.
Considering his humble and pleasant demeanor, it’s no wonder Miller landed roles in such memorable films. And it’s no wonder that screenwriting should be added to his repertoire, with the on set experience he has. Throughout the interview, he nonchalantly mentions household names like Robert Duvall and James Franco and the conversations they’ve had. It was through these amazing connections that led him to publish his writing. Published in 2022, the book has already accumulated its accolades, winning five book awards including the Firebird, Maincrest Media, and Literary Titan awards.
“I’ve been very blessed in life,” he tells me in his Southern accent.
Miller is sitting in an Alabama beachside house when we talk, wearing a blue polo shirt, and remarking on the variety of dialects heard in the South. He resides in Chattanooga, Tennessee and tells me he can spot the outsiders by the way they say “Chattanooga.” Miller took some time exploring vernacular when he wrote Finding Grace. As his main character, Judith, travels from California to Tennessee, the reader is met with new expressions and jargon. The characters seem to blur from one culture to the next in a wide spectrum of Americana. The book takes its detours along I-40 to American landmarks like the Road Kill Cafe and the Petrified Forest National Park and touches on American history. Miller’s story certainly gives a sense of exploration and adventure while living vicariously through its characters.
It’s difficult to see this story as simply a road trip, however. The plot line interlaces a deep spiritual journey that seems to accelerate with every new passenger and every new conversation. By the end of the book, one is left in rumination over the lessons life begs to offer us. And it’s through this emotional narrative that the bystander can process the greater complexities of human nature and our existence. The book takes itself seriously, but leans into humor and personality with its authentic characters.
“I really put a lot of effort into each of the characters, trying to make sure that their speech patterns and the way that they were presented was as accurate as I could make them,” Miller explains.
In truth, the characters do seem realistic, and it’s refreshing to see such characters offering vulnerability. The story touches on themes of abuse, love, loss, and trauma. It accurately depicts the wonder and pain of these events, as well as the hope that will eventually present itself in unlikely places. The author admits that he put a lot of himself and those he knows into many of the characters and he advises other writers to “write what you know.”
At this moment Gary Lee Miller is turning his novel into a screenplay and hopes to see it through as a film.
“Writing a screenplay is mostly just dialogue,” he says. Because Miller has such a natural conversational ability, this should flow easily for him. It’s important to mention that Miller also writes song lyrics and he includes these lyrics at the end of each character’s saga. The question is, what can’t Miller do? If acting, novel writing, lyrics, and screenwriting don’t already convince you, Gary Lee Miller is a Renaissance man. He’s the guy that gets the job done with a charisma and grace that is entirely his own.
Finding Grace would indeed make for an original movie. It has opportunity to introduce memorable characters and spectacular scenery to cinema. And it does so in a remarkably heart-wrenching tale. His next venture will be seeing Finding Grace on the silver screen and is now seeking a studio to make it happen.
What’s next for Miller seems like endless possibility.
On this sunny May 11th, it’s a Wednesday, and the third year mark of what inspired Finding Grace. Through his writing he has memorialized his wife who fought fiercely against a vicious disease. He tells me that it’s about creating more experiences that he will be able to share with his wife someday on the other side. Miller has since remarried and he offers both raw honesty and a devotion to hope that resounds through his work and words. Call it compassion, hope, or just our painful reality of life and loss, but it’s difficult not to feel that lump in my throat as we talk. The truth is, I’m inspired by Gary Lee Miller and what wisdom he has to share with me feels paramount to my own personal journey. This is not an interview like any other. This feels like a monumental moment between strangers becoming friends and I can’t help but want to follow along his path from here.
“Once you move past the fear and anger and the things going on in this world, and you start focusing on realizing that other people are being challenged in their own journey, you start being willing to help them on their journey. That allows us to find our own grace,” Miller eloquently reflects.
From his generous spirit to his words and vulnerability, what burgeons through is a truly powerful message of grace. Miller emphasizes the help he’s had on his own journey and the lessons he’s learned through those individuals. He talks of the doctors and hospitals like St Jude Hospital that are giving back to our world in ways that help us find grace and healing. Through his book, Miller offers atonement from pain and catharsis for the wayward traveler. He experienced it himself as he wrote Finding Grace, after all. And the book feels like coming home after a very unusual and difficult trip.
Finding Grace shows us that the places we go and the people we meet are not just detours but destinations all of their own. And they mark off for us powerful lessons that will carry us onward wherever that may be. For Gary Lee Miller, who knows what will unfold, but I have a feeling it will be a blessed journey.