This story about Chrissy Metz previously appeared in the Comedy/Drama/Actors issue of TheWrap Emmy magazine.
It came as a shock, the explosion that hit Chrissy Metz last fall. There she was, an actress in her mid 30s who’d rarely found herself in the spotlight, when she landed a key role on the series “This Is Us.” Within a week of the show’s premiere last September, NBC picked it up for a full 18-episode season.
Then came the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Award nominations, including a Globe nod for Metz herself, and the spot on the AFI’s list of the year’s top 10 shows. By January, the network committed to two more seasons, while more nominations came in from the Peabody Awards, the SAG and WGA Awards and more.
And for Metz, that suddenly meant red carpets, interviews, photo shoots and the kind of attention that can be tough to take in for someone who’d been in the public eye for less than a year. “It’s very strange because I came from very humble beginnings,” she said. “I’m really grateful. But initially it was like, ‘Um, what is all this?'”
All this is what happens when you land one of the hottest roles in primetime. Since “This Is Us” first debuted last September, Metz has found herself smack in the middle of Hurricane Hollywood. Her candid portrayal of Kate Pearson, a woman navigating dating life and family drama as she struggles with her body image, is already being credited with redefining long-held standards about beauty and perfection.
“Everyone I meet, from an 8-year-old kid to an 80-year-old woman, has stopped me to talk to me,” Metz said. “I’ve cried with strangers in bathrooms who told me, ‘I’ve never understood my daughter’s weight issue. Thank you so much for bringing this to light.'”
Even though she’s not the first plus-size actress to make a big splash in the Hollywood pool (Melissa McCarthy, Rebel Wilson, Gabourey Sidibe and Amber Riley have all helped change the perception), her character is one of few to tackle the issue without being the punch line. And Metz is keenly aware of her role in the national conversation.
“I think we fear what we don’t know,” Metz said. “The show is educating people in that people who are overweight don’t just sit in a corner eating themselves into oblivion. The food is the symptom, it’s not the issue. When you put the food down, the issues come up. And that’s what we need to be talking about.”
She admitted there have been some snarky comments about her weight on social media, but none that she’s taken to heart. “Hurt people hurt people,” she said matter-of-factly. “That has nothing to do with me. It’s their projection. If you love yourself then you love other people.”
Metz, 36, spent most of her childhood in Japan (her dad was in the U.S. Navy) before moving to Gainesville, Florida. She said she always wanted to perform but was “too intimidated” by her school’s drama department to try out, though she did join a chamber choir. It was only years later, after becoming a preschool teacher, that she found herself in an actual audition room.
As the story goes, when she was 20 years old, she drove her sister, who was interested in modeling, to a local open call. She was filling out her sister’s forms when a woman gave her a nudge, both literally and figuratively. The stranger, whom she did not recognize, said she was a former teacher at Metz’s high school and suggested that Metz audition too. “I’m not kidding, I never saw this woman again,” Metz said. “I felt like it was a guardian angel giving me a little push to have the confidence to audition.”
She insisted she still doesn’t know who that woman was, but she’s thankful for the advice. Soon after her audition she got a call from a manager who offered to “cultivate” her. Within months, she headed to Los Angeles for pilot season, eventually moving west a couple of years later. When her agent in L.A. needed an assistant, she reluctantly took the job as a way to learn the business and make ends meet. For the next nine years, Metz worked her way up the Hollywood ladder, becoming an agent herself. She continued going on auditions, but there weren’t too many roles for “plus-size women,” as she put it.
“I worked at really great firms and learned so much,” she said about those years. “But it was like watching your boyfriend take a girl out every day.”
She managed to book a few small gigs, including the part of “Heavy Girl” on “My Name Is Earl.” But otherwise she had little to show for more than 12 years pounding the pavement. In the process, she gained about 100 pounds and suffered bouts of depression. Things got so bad that on her 30th birthday she was rushed to the hospital thinking she was in cardiac arrest. (It was actually a panic attack.)
In 2014, she landed the role of Ima Wiggles, the Fat Lady on Ryan Murphy’s hit series “American Horror Story: Freak Show.” “I thought it was going to be a catapult for me,” she said. Instead, she spent the next year twiddling her thumbs, waiting for the next gig. “I had like 81 cents in my bank account,” she recalled.
“I learned a lot of humility.”
She was about to throw in the towel and move back home when she got the call for “This Is Us.” “Dan Fogelman, the writer and creator of our show, had the courage to write this role and he just stuck to his guns,” she said. “He was like, ‘No, I want it to be a plus-size woman.'”
Fogelman based the character on his own sister who, like Kate, was living in the shadow of her successful brother. The show became an instant hit and a ratings phenomenon, making Metz an overnight superstar. “I can actually pay my bills and take my friends to dinner,” she said with a laugh. “I even brought my family out for a Vegas weekend when I booked the show–things I’d never imagined I’d ever do.”
She wouldn’t divulge much about Season 2 — particularly when it comes to the death of Kate’s father, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) — except to say that it’s “pretty traumatic” and that “the way that Jack passed away is the way that he lived his life and that is really beautiful.” Nor would she talk about whether or not Kate, who nixed the idea of gastric bypass surgery last season, will be losing any pounds.
And does she ever get tired of being asked about weight issues? “For me it’s about longevity of health,” she said. “If I’m healthy, great. Who I am as a soul, as a spirit and as a human being? Small, thin, tall, fat, whatever it is — that doesn’t mean anything. We are opening up discussion about weight. And people fear it so much.
“That’s why we create art and movies and television,” she added. “Because someone somewhere needs to know that they’re not alone.”
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