"Only you know which road you have to follow"
Mark Janicello has always chosen his own path. With endless energy ("My mom says she gets tired just watching me"), and tons of passion to create, in just about any possible medium for artists, Mark paved his own way for success, working in 49 countries and acting on film and tv in multiple languages, such as German, Dutch, English, and Italian.
Always willing to try something new ("I have never accepted anyone's idea of what I should be doing, or what is "correct" for an artist like me to be doing"), Mark created The Finellis, a TV series that is loosly based on Mark's life experiences ("Tony and I share some traits, but the longer I have worked on this project, the more Tony Finelli has become a separate, quite individual personality of his own").
In the following interview, Mark takes us on a journey, from his fascinating background to creating The Finellis, and explains how hard it was to convince others to join him on this journey ("No one in the entertainment business was waiting for a former opera singer, over 50 years old, to write and produce his first television series"). But for Mark, challenges are what make life interesting.
Meet this unique artist whose battery never ends.
-Mark, before we talk about the Finellis, can you share a bit about your background, what made you interested in visual storytelling?
As a child, I was a TV junkie and a huge movie buff. I loved the places I could visit, the stories I was being told, the fantastic personalities and the different lives I could take part in when I sat in front of a screen.
I never planned on a stage career -- that happened out of necessity. I had always wanted to work in film and TV and thought I was going to have a career like Gordon McRae's or Mario Lanza's, both of whom were brilliant singers who made
some of the best Musical Films in Hollywood. Unfortunately, when I started my career, musical films were out of fashion. It's only now since the success of "Chicago," "Glee" and the "Live on TV" Musicals, that singing onscreen is a viable career path again.
-What were some of your first steps in the entertainment industry?
I sang regularly as a soloist in my Grandfather's Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn, New York. I sang my first solo at 4 years old. I became a working professional at 17 playing a singing "Superman" in a Cabaret Show in Greensboro, North Carolina called
"Comic Books Tonight." However, before that, at 15, I had BEGGED my family to let me drive from North Carolina (where we were then living) to Hollywood to audition for "The Gong Show." Cheryl Lynn of "Got To Be Real" fame had just won the first season of "The Gong Show" and became a big star. I figured, if she can do it, so can I. Unbeknownst to my parents I wrote to the producers in California, sent them a tape of me singing in Church and secured an audition. My parents said I was too young, and would not sign the papers for me to be on the show. At 15, that was tough to swallow. In hindsight, I realize that they were right. I wasn't ready for that yet.
-You are fluent in so many languages, including English, German, Dutch, Italian, and more. Where does this knowledge come from? Are you often required to act in a certain dialect?
I studied singing for 16 years. I worked on and off as a professional opera singer for nearly 30 years. To convincingly perform in foreign languages requires a fundamental understanding of the language you are working in. So, I began to study languages in High School. I am a pretty good mimic and impressionist, so I guess I have a good ear for the "melody" of different languages or dialects. Over the years, I have worked in 49 countries. I have worked and spent extended periods of time in both German-Speaking Europe. Scandanavia, and the BeNeLux countries. I feel that as a performer, the more you can communicate to your audience in their own language, the better they understand you -- and more importantly, you understand them. I sing in many, many languages and have acted on film and tv in German, Dutch, English, and Italian. I also speak different dialects in a couple of languages. I spent a lot of time in Asia last fall and had Corona not happened, I would have done a concert tour of Asia in February-April. Because of my fascination with Asian History, and culture, I am also very interested in learning Chinese. Unfortunately, with everything that's been going on, I simply haven't had the time to start on that yet. I'll get to it eventually.
-Your resume is incredibly impressive. You have extensive experience in the entertainment industry, working in TV, commercials, and corporate videos. You also performed in leading tenor roles in Opera, Operetta, and musicals productions! Honestly, it sounds like you're involved in everything- do you ever sleep? How do you balance between all the things that you do?
Thank you. You're very kind. Ha, ha. I sleep pretty well, but I am a bit hyperactive by nature. I have a huge curiosity about life and art and an awful lot of energy. I was born that way. My mother always says "I get tired just watching you." I am genuinely interested in the creative process -- regardless of the medium -- and I just start. I never overthink things, I start, and I simply keep working at whatever I'm doing until I can master it. I also have never accepted anyone's idea of what I should be doing, or what is "correct" for an artist like me to be doing. If I want to try something, I do.
-You often wear many hats, including Actor, Singer, Author, Producer and Director. Do you have a preference?
I love creating. I love the process of putting something there, that wasn't there before. The biggest issue for me is time management. To sing well, you need to practice. So regardless of whatever else I am doing, I always make time to sing, as the vocal chords are muscles, and like any muscle they need to be exercised to stay "fit." Other than that, whatever project I'm on, gets 150% of my attention. I love everything that I am doing -- or I wouldn't be doing it.
-Which movies/ shows influenced your acting and/or writing style?
My acting teacher Bill Wendt, was a member of the Actor's Studio and was a proponent of the Stanislavsky Method. I worked with him for 14 years, both in University and then privately in New York. Through Bill, I became fascinated with Elia Kazan's movies or any film or tv project involving "method" actors. I'm now 57 years old. I grew up during the golden age of 1970's Sitcoms. Norman Lear's groundbreaking work had a HUGE influence on my perception of what a TV Comedy can do. "All In The Family," "Maude," "Good Times" (among others) showed me that you can tackle tough subjects, mix comedy with drama and still ENTERTAIN people. The goal is not specifically to make the audience laugh, or cry -- but to create characters that the audience can relate to. Then you touch their hearts and minds and make them FEEL SOMETHING, ANYTHING!!!
More recently, I consider "The Nanny" one of the funniest, and most-clever SitComs ever to be on television. I love Fran Drescher. I think she's a brilliant comedienne and a gorgeous woman. Together with her ex-husband Peter Marc Jacobsen, they created one of the most memorable characters and shows that's ever been on television. If I had to pick one show that had the most influence on "The Finellis" it would have to be "The Nanny."
-Your involvement with Scientology is fascinating. From 1993 to 2003 you were a part of this organization. How did you come to realize you need to get out of it?
Around 1993, I had a very serious situation in my personal life that I was trying to solve. Unfortunately, I ended up at Scientology. I generally don't speak much about that organization anymore, because I've already written a book about it, and my involvement with Scientology nearly destroyed my life and career. Long story short, I went to Scientology, looking for answers. I was desperate. Needless to say, it didn't help with that particular situation. By the time I realized that there was a LOT in Scientology that I didn't agree with, and that a lot of their philosophy was hot air, I had gotten trapped into their whole twisted game of "Us against the world."
To your question as to why I needed to get out it. One of the reasons I wrote "The Finellis" was to take the "lemons" that life had given me and to turn them into "lemonade." Great comedy generally comes from finding humor in moments of great pain or desperation. In our show, my character Tony Finelli spends 15 years in a Berlin prison for a crime he did not commit. When I conceived of the show, I wanted to find a suitable analogy for the years I spent in Scientology which would allow me to tell the story of my "escape" and "rehabilitation" -- without giving Scientology any free publicity or getting into any legal issues. As everyone in Hollywood knows, Scientology is a very, VERY litiginous organization. So my Scientology years became Tony Finelli's years in prison. The only difference is that unlike Tony Finelli, Mark Janicello (out of his naiveté or stupidity) willingly put himself in the prison of Scientology.
One of the advantages of getting older is gaining perspective. After a few years in Scientology, I realized that the only person who could solve my problems was me. A religious belief or a philosophy can give you tools to help you get there, but the responsibility for your happiness or unhappiness lies solely in your own hands. The same goes for success. If anyone says to you "We are the ONLY ones with the answer" RUN FOR THE HILLS. No one organization, religion, or individual has ALL the answers. Like the old saying goes "Many roads lead to Rome." When I realized that I was the author of my own destiny, I took back whatever power I had given Scientology over my mind and soul and began a very slow, very difficult rehabilitation of my life and career. It took me 6 years to extradite myself physically from Scientology and even longer to free my thought-process from the "Scientology Mindset."
-Let's talk about your latest masterpiece, The Finellis. The pilot episode presents a rich plot that crosses multiple genres – it goes from comedy to musical to crime film, and from live-action to animated sequences, and it works! Tell us how it all started, in your mind, even before you wrote the first page.
Wow. Thank you for the "masterpiece" comment. I'm very touched. In 2012, I was involved in a gigantic musical production in Hollywood, "Loving The Silent Tears." The musical was directed by the brilliant Vincent Paterson. We had Oscar-, Emmy-, Grammy-, and Tony Winners involved in that show...and me. I had an enormous success in that show, and it was the high point of a very long stage career. By 2012, I had already done 100 stage productions of various sorts. This show was so spectacular that I felt "Any show after this is going to be a disappointment. Quit while you're at the top." So, I made the decision to stop working on stage and make the move to television and film. In 2013, I moved to Germany after many years in Amsterdam, with the intent to change the focus of my career. Within 3 months of my move, I had worked as an actor for every major network in Germany. Pretty soon, producers started talking to me about getting my own format, as they felt I was a great television presence. However, they were interested in doing some kind of "scripted reality" á la "Keeping Up With The Kardashians." I was not interested in that at all. I'm much too private to put my home life on display. I started thinking about what kind of show I'd like to do, and what kind of stories I'd like to tell. That's how I came up with the idea of a SitCom with both musical- and animated sequences -- "The Finellis."
-Was it hard to convince others to join you on this journey, given the unusual circumstances of your life? How did you go about bringing this project to life?
Please, don't get me started. No one in the entertainment business was waiting for a former opera singer, over 50 years old, to write and produce his first television series, forget about a SitCom that stretches the family comedy format to its very limit.
YES. It was very, very difficult -- but I am very, very persistent -- and I believe in this show more than anything I have ever done. My first meetings were with composer Ulf Weidmann, who wrote all of the new music in "The Finellis" and with 908 Motion Design in Berlin, who create and produce all of our animated sequences. Once I had convinced 908 and Ulf about this idea, the show started to become "real."
The Finellis - Trailer
-The Finellis mixes both comedic and dramatic elements while tackling such “hot topics” as racism, age discrimination, sexism, and LGBTQ rights. What are the main messages, beyond the entertaining part?
During the "Scientology Years," I had every reason to kill myself. I even considered suicide a couple of times when things were incredibly bleak. Through my involvement with Scientology, I lost literally EVERYTHING that a man holds dear: all my money, my career, my reputation, and worst of all, my family. However, I am still alive when I had every reason not to be. The main message of "The Finellis" is that you never, ever give up on your dreams -- no matter what. Anything that is worth having, is worth fighting for. I know that besides entertaining everyone, "The Finellis" will bring hope to people all over the world. That's the reason I have fought so hard to bring this show to life. I lived through what should have killed me and that is why I am the only person who could have created this SitCom.
Tony's flashback scene in prison
-Tony's flashback in prison is hilarious! We believe that this was an important scene, not only because it makes the audience laugh to the sounds of "Outside", with Tony and the naked men in the bathroom, but also because it sets the atmosphere in the entire film, and tells the audience: don't try to find any rules here, this is going to get extreme. How do you find The Finellis different than other sitcoms?
First of all, "The Finellis" is a SitCom where almost all the musical sequences are sung LIVE, not pre-recorded (as in "Glee.") Add to that, the "Flying Finelli" Animation and the wide-ranging storylines, and you come up with a show that has never, ever been done in this way before. I'm glad you liked the "Outside" sequence in the Pilot. I wanted a scene to put Tony and Jürgen's life in prison in perspective .. but to do it in a comedic, musical manner. That scene is the first one to say, "Ladies and Gentlemen, this ain't your normal SitCom." I always say, "If you're going to do something, GO FOR IT!!" -- and we have.
-The Finellis tells the story of Tony Finelli, a once-famous singer, who has never quit, and who has remained the “eternal optimist” regardless of whatever life has thrown at him. Now, he's ready to fight for his dreams again. We have to admit, it was very easy to connect to Tony's character. Despite everything that goes wrong in his life, he always stays positive, and more than anything, he's just a good man, who has a passion to succeed. While writing the screenplay, did you know you were going to play Tony? How does it feel to play the lead role of your own screenplay? And how did you prepare for this role?
"The Finellis" was conceived as a vehicle for me and my music. There is a saying "Write what you know." Of course, Tony Finelli is based on Mark Janicello, but it's not really me. We share some traits, but the longer I have worked on this project, the more Tony Finelli has become a separate, quite individual personality of his own. I'm happy that that is how it developed. I wanted to write as "close to the bone" as I could stand it because I knew that if I did that, the authenticity of the characters and the situations would make a genuine impression on the audience.
To write "The Finellis", basically I took my own personality and split it into three different characters. Tony Finelli is the "Good" Mark. Jürgen Drahtseil (Tony's manager) is the "Bad" Mark and Nonna, Tony Finelli's 90-year-old demented Grandmother is the "Crazy/Creative" Mark. I am convinced that everything in my life and my entire 40+ year career was preparing me to write "The Finellis." The show is a loosely-based, quite fictionalized version on my life, but still, there were scenes that were very, very difficult for me to play -- because they were quite personal and some of them were very painful. I had to stop filming quite a few times to regain my composure. I shed a lot of tears on set...and this is a comedy. LOL!
- The dialogue, which is the basis of any sitcom, is fantastic! "Tony! Earth to the loser!"; "Your butt must be so jealous of all the crap coming up of your mouth"- How long did it take you to write the screenplay, from the first to final draft? Were there improvisations on set?
I started writing a "proof of concept" episode in January 2016. It took me about a month to figure out the SitCom format. I had written 6 musicals, and an autobiography but telling comedic stories in 30 minutes is completely different and much more difficult. We then filmed that first "proof of concept" episode in March 2016. After watching that version quite a bit, I began to re-think my entire approach to storytelling on television. I went back and extensively re-wrote that first episode to make it visually more interesting and funnier. I had to up the quotient of one-liners, while still keeping the integrity of the characters and situations. It was a learning process. Once I found the "style" of Episode One, I wrote the rest of Season One pretty quickly. I think it took me only a couple of months to write 13 complete episodes.
Timo Merkhoffer as Jürgen Drahtseil
-What was it like to play alongside a character that never stops swearing (Timo Merkhoffer as Jürgen Drahtseil)? How was this character created to being with?
Jürgen Drahtseil is the only completely fictional main character in "The Finellis." I've never had a manager. As I said, he's based on "Bad Mark." I'm a New Yorker. New Yorkers curse A LOT. I also can curse like a sailor. I loved the idea of having a character who can't express himself without cursing -- partnering up with Tony Finelli -- who's a bit of a "goody two shoes". It's Laurel and Hardy--- opposite personalities, which creates conflict, which in turn, creates comedy. Jürgen cursing becomes a running joke in and of itself. We then watch Jürgen struggle to speak without the F-Bomb. I think it's hilarious. By the way, we edited versions both with and without bleeping the cursing. I find the bleeps funnier, as you the audience gets to "fill in the blank" with their own idea. It also allows parents and children to watch the show together, without the parents cringing over the language.
-If you could chat with a younger version of yourself, what career and/or personal advice would you have for him?
First and foremost, only you know which road you have to follow. Don't try to fulfill other people's ideas of you, your talent and your work. Stay true to yourself and your own vision.
However, more importantly -- Be kind to everyone, always. Be grateful and gracious for every opportunity that you are given. It will keep you grounded and make your life a LOT easier.
-What can you tell us about your next projects?
We hope to finish filming Season One of "The Finellis" after the Corona Lockdown is done. I am also busy writing Season Two of "The Finellis". Right now, here in Berlin, I am directing the English-language dubbing of three brilliant foreign films. That's something new and very exciting for me. After that, I hope to have a CD of new music to release by the end of the year. My concerts in Asia and Europe that were cancelled due to Corona need to be rescheduled at some point, and perhaps, if I have time, I will have another exhibition of my paintings. It's a busy year.
-Where can our readers follow more of your work?
I'm on all the major social media channels and I have a website at www.markjanicello.org
-Is there anything you wish to add, or someone you'd like to thank?
After all that I've been through, and all the many difficult years that I had -- it's wonderful that my parents and brothers get to see me find my way back to happiness and success. They are so happy for me.
I'd like to thank my wonderful fans and my Fanclub for standing behind me all these many, many years. They kept me going when no one wanted anything to do with me.
In addition to Ulf Weidmann and 908 Motion Design, I'd also like to thank my wonderful co-producer Marco Bischof and our director Joris Hermans. Without their unshakeable belief in me and "The Finellis," the show would never have been possible.
I'd also like to thank LAFA for our awards and their vote of confidence in "The Finellis." It means so much to me, my cast and my crew.