DF-07227_07232_R_COMP – Marcel Ruiz (John Smith) and Chrissy Metz (Joyce Smith) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BREAKTHROUGH. Photo Credit: Allen Fraser.
Photo: Photo Credit: Allen Fraser
Photo: Photo Credit: Allen Fraser

INTERVIEW: Chrissy Metz (‘This is Us’) has a breakthrough with ‘Breakthrough’

Based on a true story, Metz plays a mom whose son nearly drowns

Originally posted Monday, April 15, 2019 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

The use of the word “miracle” sometimes gets thrown around loosely, like “hero” or “triumph.”

But in the case of the real-life story of teenager John Smith, who fell through the icy surface of a St. Charles, Mo. lake in the winter of 2015, the word “miracle” is no exaggeration.

It took an EMT worker 15 minutes to arrive and get John to the surface. He was given CPR, but he wasn’t breathing on his own for 45 minutes. The doctor at the hospital gave Smith’s mom Joyce time to say goodbye to her son. Instead, as she prayed for his revival, he came back alive.

While doctors expressed doubt he’d ever fully recover, he did. The film “Breakthrough,” starring “This Is Us” star Chrissy Metz, chronicles his mom Joyce’s unwavering faith in God as John fought death and walked out of the hospital on his own accord just two weeks later.

Metz, who was in Atlanta last month for a screening with film-maker DeVon Franklin to promote the film, said she was thrilled that the real-life Joyce Smith told her she liked Metz’s portrayal of her. “We captured the energy and the essence, what was important to her and what she valued,” she said.

L to R: Topher Grace (Pastor Jason Noble), Marcel Ruiz (John Smith), Chrissy Metz (Joyce Smith) and Josh Lucas (Brian Smith) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BREAKTHROUGH. Photo Credit: Allen Fraser.
Photo: Allen Fraser

Franklin, who had box-office success with hit 2016 faith-based film “Miracles from Heaven,” said he is naturally hunting for great stories and this one just fell in his lap after a pastor suggested he meet the Smith family. He helped Joyce not only get this movie done but also line up an agent for her autobiographical book “The Impossible.”

Much to Metz’s happy surprise, 20th Century Fox insisted that “Breakthrough” would only be greenlit with Metz as Joyce Smith. Metz, who effortlessly emotes as Kate Pearson on the tear-jerking NBC drama “This is Us,” had never starred in a film before but executives felt only she could anchor the movie properly.

“This is a mother’s story,” Franklin said. “We needed someone who could embody that. That was Chrissy.”

And while “This is Us” is a classic ensemble team effort, this film was placed firmly on Metz’s shoulders. She said she took that responsibility seriously.

“I was the first one on set, the last one to go home,” she said. “I put blood, sweat and tears into this. I wanted ot make sure people knew this was very important to me.”

While “This is Us” certainly paved the way for this particular role, she said she tapped a lot of her own life to channel Joyce’s maelstrom of emotions during a trying time. “I’ve gotten comfortable being uncomfortable,” Metz said, “being bullied and having a tumultuous childhood. All of that has been helpful. I can laugh about it now. Getting to the other side has benefited me. I use all of that in my acting.”

Indeed, the very first scene Metz shot was a crucial and extraordinarily difficult one: her prayers and tears over her presumably dead son, whose heartbeat popped up while she was talking to God.

“It was so intense,” Franklin said. “We spent the majority of the day doing coverage. There were 10 takes. She nailed every single one. We were watching the moments and were crying ourselves. She didn’t bring any ego into it. She didn’t bring any fear into it. It’s just pure vulnerability.”

Metz said prayer is typically such a private exercise. “It’s hard to pray on camera,” she said. “How do you make that believable?”

She also knows if her TV character Kate watched “Breakthrough,” “she’d be a wreck!” While Metz herself is not a mom, Kate recently became one on the show. “This film taught me how to be a mom,” she said. “It helped me on the show. It’s kind of wonderful serendipity.”

Franklin wants viewers walking out of the film to feel inspired. “It’s a reminder that we all have a place, we all have a purpose. There’s a plan. Sometimes life is difficult. It’s easy to lose sight of things, to become discouraged. My hope is they leave saying, ‘Wow! The impossible is possible!’”

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.