By Gerrad Hall
April 15, 2019 at 10:00 AM EDT

Chrissy Metz could have given up on her Hollywood dreams a long time ago. Even when she had less than a dollar in her bank account at the time of landing her role on This Is Us, she wasn’t deterred.

“I didn’t feel like I could completely give it up yet; there was something I was searching for, stuff that I needed,” Metz tells EW about her days struggling with unemployment, credit card debt, and even finding a place to live (fortunately, a friend let her move in, rent free).

The Florida native just needed a break, something to help her break through. She got that on TV thanks to the juggernaut NBC drama. And now she has it on the big screen in Breakthrough. In the inspired-by-a-true-story movie, she’s the star as Joyce Smith, mother of a teen boy (One Day at a Time‘s Marcel Ruiz) who drowned, submerged in an ice-covered lake for upwards of 20 minutes. Pronounced dead at the hospital, his pulse returned as she stood over his lifeless body, pleading with God to save him — though his fight to survive didn’t stop there.

Metz could especially relate to the medical emergency of it all; her mother suffered a stroke in recent years, ultimately leaving her with aphasia, a language impairment.

“Gratitude is really the only word that comes to mind … well, and unbelievability. It’s just sort of unbelievable,” Metz tells EW, as seen in the video above, about the change of course in her career. “I’m so grateful that I get to be a part of this life and this journey and that I get to tell really incredible stories.”

EW’s conversation with Metz continued off-camera, where she explained why quitting was never an option, what got her through the tough times, why making the movie was a form of therapy, and the “daunting day” while filming that proved emotionally challenging.

Allen Fraser/Twentieth Century Fox

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You said you have a lot of gratitude about your struggles prior to landing This Is Us… but also how it seems unbelievable. Had you put a timeline on how long you were going to keep going to auditions and trying to “make it” in Hollywood?
CHRISSY METZ: It’s interesting because I was a talent agent so I would understand why people would do that, but then personally I was like, I don’t want to do that — I feel like it sort of defeats the purpose. I get it when you’re like, okay, I’m 36 years old and I literally don’t have a pot to piss in — I have a car — so perhaps I should have been that way but I’m glad I wasn’t. I also think as actors we can sort of meld into whatever we decide to do and we do it well because I think we’re committed to it. So whatever was going to happen, I was going to do it to the best of my ability. So I didn’t really have a timeline and I’m glad I didn’t because I think I would’ve given up long before 12 years.

What kept you going?
Well, I think about it like, they say 10 years makes a master – 10,000 hours – and I think doctors and lawyers practice, so maybe that’s what I’m doing; I’m practicing, I’m getting prepared. But I didn’t feel like I could completely give it up yet; there was something I was searching for, stuff that I needed. And also, my mom was very clear; she said, “You could either be miserable in Gainesville or you could be miserable in L.A. but pursuing your career.” And I was like, “Yeah, but you don’t get it, it’s really expensive here and it’s really hard and I’m compared to everybody else and”…blahblahblah. But it’s like, I feel like you’re never given a vision without a pro-vision; there’s a reason why you want to do something. There’s a reason why it’s placed upon your heart. So until that’s fulfilled to some degree, I was like, I don’t want to live my life in a shoulda, coulda, woulda, because I’ve done that so often, whether I was afraid to talk to a guy or afraid to put my résumé in or afraid to go to an audition. Ugh! So I had to get off that train.

You related to the story on a personal level because of your mom’s own health crisis. So was making this movie therapeutic for you?
Sure, sure! I think everything is put into our lives for many reasons, and it definitely was therapeutic but it also was really emotional. My mom has aphasia, which means she doesn’t have vocabulary; it’s sort of locked in the brain. That, for me, I didn’t even know existed until my mom went through it and is going through it.

So she struggles to find words or…?
She speaks in ba ba ba’s. We can, of course, understand her, but it’s like playing charades with your mom. Whatever it is that you believe – that everything happens as it should and that we’ve asked particular things to come into our lives so we can learn life lessons from them — this and that is a part of my mom’s lesson, and what is it that I can learn from that? Whether it’s maybe not talking because you talk too much, or maybe it’s understanding and patience and empathy. There are so many things we can learn from every single situation, I think, if we’re open enough to it. But yeah, it’s still difficult, much like with John that he’s experiencing now. After the incident, he was like, why me? Why would I be saved and not somebody else? There are so people who go through strokes and don’t make it out.

You mentioned this being emotional. I have to imagine to some extent emotionally exhausting? Was there a day or scene that it all finally caught up and was harder to get through?
You know, I think because I had such a sense of responsibility being the lead of the movie that I — and I had just come off my book tour, which was incredibly exciting but very, very fast and furious — and I was like, okay, let me just pace myself. Out of the gate, I was like, “Woo! Woo! Woo! Yeah, this is good! Okay, I got this!” But when it’s sort of the middle, that gray area — it’s not the beginning anymore but you haven’t made it to the end — we had the first responders scene [in the church] where we had over 300 background artists and there’s so much coverage, it’s a daunting day. And it’s also when we first met the Smith family — everything was really charged. And I remember getting a really, really, really terrible headache, and I rarely get headaches, and I was like, okay, this is just energy, this is just energy that I need to, like, make sure [is channeled properly], and the rest of that day was one of the most wonderful days, but also one of the most challenging for me.

Allen Fraser/Twentieth Century Fox

Are the Smiths in that scene? Do they have a cameo?
No, they were behind the monitors. But that was the scene that inspired Diane Warren to write “I’m Standing With You.” It was just so moving to see how many people had a hand in his recovery and his healing. Even if we never see them or even if they never get the recognition, because they’re not an actor or… there are so many people. It was chilling.

You aren’t a mom, so, first of all, you had to embody that, but then you had to face every parent’s worst fear. Tell me about taking on all of that and working with Marcel.
That selflessness of being a mother, there’s nothing else like it in the whole world. I have many nieces and nephews – of course, I’m not their mother – but I know what it’s like to want someone to survive and a loved one to make it through. It was difficult. Marcel is so exceptional as a human being, as an actor, what we went through — the challenges of the cold and the water and the ice, having to lay there for take after take — it’s not easy! So yeah, it was definitely something I wanted to get right. John and Joyce both thought, when did I do that voiceover?, and DeVon’s like, “That’s Chrissy,” and she was like, “Oh my goodness, that sounds just like me!” It was so important for me to get it right.

Allen Fraser/Twentieth Century Fox

When you were shooting all of these hospital scenes, did you know you’d be going through the same thing on This Is Us?
No! What’s so interesting is, Kate obviously had the miscarriage, and then when we went to do Breakthrough, Joyce informed Kate on how to be a mother, which is so interesting because I thought Kate was going to be a mother to inform Joyce. So it was pretty cool that I could take on something so similar. I didn’t know — I mean, we sort of have the bones of what’s going to go on [on This Is Us], but things change. But then to know that she was going to go into labor at 28 weeks and then go through that, it was intense.

You’re spending too much time in a hospital.
I’m tellin’ ya! It’s not my favorite place to be either, but it conjures up a lot of emotions, so I guess that’s a good thing.

Breakthrough, directed by Roxann Dawson (The Americans, This Is Us) and produced by DeVon Franklin (Miracles from Heaven, The Star) opens Wednesday, April 17.

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