The actress shares how overcoming early hardships helped prepare her for her first feature film
Posted in , Mar 25, 2019
Some people call me an overnight sensation. I play Kate in the hit TV series This Is Us, and now I have my first feature film, Breakthrough, coming out this Easter. But I wouldn’t exactly call my success “overnight.” More like 365 nights and days—multiplied by a dozen years.
In Breakthrough, I play the mom of a boy who drowned and was declared dead. She refused to believe it and kept praying, praying when no hope seemed possible, praying when all the evidence argued against her prayers, praying that the boy would come back to life. Miraculously he did.
That kind of resilience is something I can relate to. In life and in prayer.
A year and a half ago, I was gearing up for the Emmys. I’d been nominated for best supporting actress in a drama series and convinced Mom that she had to come out to Hollywood to be my date for the red carpet. But one August morning back in Gainesville, Florida, where I’d grown up, she’d just come home from getting her hair done—prepping for the awards—and fell outside her car. An ambulance rushed her to the hospital. She’d had a massive stroke, two major clots in her carotid artery.
I took the first flight I could out of L.A. and drove from the airport two hours to get to Gainesville. Rushing to Mom’s bedside, I passed the hospital chaplain. “Oh my God, you’re Kate from This Is Us,” he said. No, not at that moment. I was just Chrissy looking for her mama.
The doctor said her prognosis was grim. The stroke was on the left side of the brain. He said he was certain she would have paralysis on her right side and that her speech and swallowing would be severely compromised. “You don’t know my mom,” I said.
I looked down at her unconscious form. They said it was unlikely that she could hear me or understand anything, but I refused to believe that. “You are strong,” I told her again and again. “You are healing.”
I could be there for only 36 hours—I had to get back to shoot another episode of This Is Us—but I was joined by my brother and three sisters, all of us gathering around Mom, talking to her, praying. A friend of Mom’s dropped by and took in the scene. “I cannot tell you,” she said, “how much the energy and light of Jesus is in your mom’s room. There is so much love here.”
So much love after so much struggle. It had taken a lifetime for me to even admit my need for love. Mom has been married twice. My father left us when I was eight years old. Mom struggled to raise the three of us on a pittance of child support. She worked the checkout line at Food 4 Less, going hungry to feed us.
I was the youngest and, by second grade, a latchkey child. Our electricity got shut off often, and I hated to be alone, especially when thunderstorms hit. I’d take myself to a grocery store—not Mom’s—and wander the aisles, staring at all the stuff we couldn’t afford: the Capri Suns, the Chips Ahoy! I got to know the store’s Muzak playlist by heart.
Mom remarried and had two more kids. We finally had food in our refrigerator, but I felt as if I had to eat it before it disappeared. Eventually my stepfather would make me stand on the bathroom scale and berate me over every ounce I’d gained.
One bright light was my gift for mimicry. I would entertain my two little sisters by imitating the actors I would hear on TV. The family would laugh. For a moment I’d be in the limelight, which felt good. But then I’d retreat to the shadows again, afraid of my stepfather’s wrath.
At age 15, I got a job at McDonald’s, working at the drive-through. To keep myself entertained, I’d turn each customer moment into an 11-second mini performance. I’d put on a British accent when I spoke in the mic, asking for the order, then the drivers would see me at the window and I’d give them my best Southern: “How y’all doin’ tonight?” Not that I ever thought I should try acting in any high school shows.
Instead I sang. Our choir director, Miss Rollo, singled me out. Junior year she told me I should go to choir camp that summer and strongly suggested that I would be able to get a scholarship, the only way I could afford it. The whole thing was magic, working with teachers who seemed like me, square pegs in round holes.
Senior year I auditioned for chamber choir and not only got in but was given solos. We even went to State, where I performed “The Lass From the Low Countree,” a beautiful song written by folk singer John Jacob Niles. I loved singing in church too. Somehow our family had stopped going, but I’d go by myself and sing along to my grandmother’s favorite hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings,” or “Be Not Afraid” or “Here I Am, Lord.” Here I am, Lord, I’d say. I felt safe, secure, noticed, loved. Me, Chrissy.
With all that insecurity, all that self-doubt, it still amazes me that I made my way out to Hollywood. Maybe some of it was just to get away from home. Escape. After graduating high school, I had started as an assistant for a talent manager based in Orlando, and that led to what was supposed to be a short jaunt to L.A., promoting some of our younger talent. Instead of going back, I stayed and became an agent myself.
For nine years, I worked as an agent, nurturing actors, getting them parts, negotiating their contracts, putting in 80-hour weeks. All the while, a voice in the back of my head said, “Isn’t this what you want to do, Chrissy? Don’t you think you should be an actor too?” Listening to it meant silencing another voice inside that said, “Are you ready for the business of rejection?”
I started taking acting classes, working on monologues, discovering that there was a place to put all my vulnerability. It wasn’t a drawback but an asset. I could call up memories of that girl wandering the aisles of the grocery store, wishing someone would notice her, and put them to use. I had once thought that acting was hiding who you really were. Just the opposite. It meant being myself.
It was scary to give up a good job for the uncertain rewards of being an actor. At least I’d learned enough as an agent to know the ropes—meeting casting directors, going to auditions, presenting myself. Here too I could call on my upbringing and memories of my mom’s toughness. Channeling all that resilience.
I was making progress, getting called back, getting parts—and finding my best scenes getting cut. I had only 81 cents in my bank account when I drove to the final screen test for a new show called This Is Us. I wasn’t sure I had enough gas in my car to get to the studio and back. I must have made it on fumes.
I was certain I’d bombed the audition. I was heading out of the parking garage afterward, and my phone rang. An unknown number. I figured it was a bill collector, so I didn’t answer. I called my agent. “I’m not going to get the job,” I told him, then lost the signal. That other number popped up again. I answered, ready to hang up.
It was the producer of the show. “You’re our Kate,” he said.
This Is Us has proved successful beyond my wildest dreams. People recognize me in the street—as that hospital chaplain did. But fame isn’t a cure-all for any of life’s problems. I still struggle with the same issues. That’s why Kate is such a good part for me. I can be honest about my insecurities and inform the character through my tragedies and triumphs.
My mom didn’t make it to the Emmys red carpet. But to none of our surprise, she made a strong recovery. The swelling in her brain went down without surgery. She went from being bedridden to going to the bathroom on her own in less than two weeks. Soon she was able to put playing cards in order from the king to the ace. After three weeks, she was in rehab, walking so fast that the aides had to tell her, “Slow down!”
My mom is back living at home, walking a lot, spending time with her children and grandchildren, entertaining us all and imparting her motherly wisdom.
Maybe that’s why I was so glad to play the part of that movie mom in Breakthrough—showing the world what resilience can do. It gives you the strength to pray without giving up. To believe when others around you have said you’re holding on to false hope. My own life’s journey has been one of proving others wrong. More important, it has been about proving those negative voices in my head wrong and listening to the voice inside that said I would always be loved.
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Catch Chrissy on the big screen in the movie, Breakthrough. Inspired by a true story, Chrissy plays Joyce Smith, a mom of unflagging faith, whose son, John, fell through ice on a lake and was underwater for 15 minutes and without a heartbeat for an hour.