Roxann Dawson arrives for the Los Angeles premiere of her movie “Breakthrough” on April 11 at Regency Village Theatre in Westwood, California. (Photo: Lisa O’Connor/ AFP/Getty Images)
She has become an in-demand director of popular TV shows, including “This Is Us,” “The Americans,” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Science fiction fans know her as Lt. B’Elanna Torres, the Klingon chief engineer during seven seasons of “Star Trek: Voyager.”
But Roxann Dawson would rather be known as a mother raising two girls, including one adopted from China—and for how her Christian faith informs every aspect of her life.
“It’s a shame that people of faith have to go undercover in Hollywood,” Dawson said in an interview. “In a place which supposedly preaches tolerance, there is not a lot of tolerance for religious discussion.”
With her most recent film, Dawson is out to change that.
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Released last spring by 20th Century Fox, “Breakthrough” earned $50 million at the global box office. It recounts real-life events involving teenager John Smith, who fell through the ice of a frozen lake in 2015 near St. Louis. He had no oxygen for an hour, but was revived in events doctors called “miraculous.”
“We don’t embellish this true story,” said the director, who made her feature-film debut with this family drama. “I’ve spent time with the family, the doctors, and the emergency team. We’ve been to all the actual locations. These events did happen, including some things we can’t explain.”
Her longtime fans have their own pressing question: Does Dawson still sign autographs at “Star Trek” conventions?
“I haven’t been to one in a long time,” she said with a laugh. “But it’s funny you ask, because I am going to the Las Vegas ‘Star Trek’ convention [that runs from July 31 to Aug. 4] in a few weeks.”
In a phone interview from Los Angeles, Dawson discussed directing “Breakthrough,” which was released on DVD on July 16, as well as her own journey of discovering faith and life in Hollywood as an adoptive family.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: What led you into the arts with an outlook informed by faith?
A: I’ve always loved acting, maybe even from the womb. From the time I was a little kid, I was putting on shows in my living room. It was always in my blood—though neither of my parents were involved in the industry, so it was new to them.
As a child, I grew up in an agnostic or atheist household. There was really no discussion of religion. Perhaps it wasn’t outright condemned, but it was not encouraged at all. My father brought me up believing that religion was a crutch for those who didn’t want to accept reality.
In my heart, I felt that was not right. I began searching on my own from the time I was little.
I can look back at my journals, examining how I knew that there was a God, but couldn’t quite figure out how to contact him as a child. Throughout high school and college, I was sort of on a search. I explored everything from Buddhism to going to different churches and trying to figure out where I belonged.
Regarding my start in professional acting, I went to [the University of California at] Berkeley and graduated with a degree in theater arts. I got my first job out of college after I auditioned for a chorus line in San Francisco.
A few days later, I got the part and was rehearsing on Broadway—a dream come true for me!
Q: How did your journey of faith coincide with your rising career?
A: When I met my future husband, I began attending the Catholic Church with him and really found a home there. There was a deacon I could talk to and ask questions. I found that Catholicism not only touched me emotionally, but touched me logically.
It all made sense to me, and I really felt at home. Eric and I were married in the Catholic Church in 1994. It is something that is now just a part of me, and I am profoundly glad that this is where I ended up.
As my career progressed, I started doing television and film. I landed the “Star Trek: Voyager” series in Los Angeles in 1995, and it went for seven years. I began directing in the fifth year of that show and never looked back.
Q: Have your religious convictions ever caused you to turn down certain roles or discuss changing certain scenes in a script?
A: When I was still searching, before I became a Catholic, one of the most difficult things was being in Hollywood. A lot of the TV projects I would audition for would hit me wrong.
I kept thinking the script didn’t align with my beliefs, but I didn’t know what my formal beliefs were at that time. There was a lot of dissonance back then.
Hollywood is very secular. Admittedly, this is where it’s fine to make fun of people of faith. When I bring up aspects of faith, especially with “Breakthrough,” I’ll have people behind the scenes come and whisper in my ear, “You know, I’m a Christian, too.” They want to talk about their beliefs, but it’s not done in overt ways.
I wish Hollywood could start to walk the talk in terms of their tolerance. At times, it has been difficult.
In the past, I have looked at scenes and asked, “How much do we need this? Is this gratuitous? What [are] we trying to say with this believer character?” I’ve tried to do what I can. As I’ve gotten older in my career, I have become more emboldened to speak to things and make the changes I can.
Sometimes, you’re signed on to certain shows and ultimately have to live up to their vision. What I loved about “Breakthrough” is that it was my vision. Now, I feel there is a spiritual path that I’m on that aligns with my career—for it to feed me, and for me to feed it in a way.
Q: While you’ve mentioned your Catholic faith, “Breakthrough” centers on a family from an evangelical-charismatic religious background. What appealed to you about this story?
A: The fact that it’s true. I read it the first time and couldn’t believe it was true. I thought it had to be embellished. I went online and saw the interviews, including with the doctors, then read it again.
I called my agent and said, “I’m interested in telling this story.”
I see it as a testament to the power of faith, the power of prayer, the power of love. All of these things are completely aligned with what I believe. The story gave me chills and inspired me. It gave me hope.
In doing this project, I hoped it could bring that to all audiences—people without faith and believers. As a Catholic, my connection was wanting to be able to tell stories that strengthened people’s faith—whatever their beliefs. It was not for me to preach to a potential Catholic.
Q: Reviews from The New York Times and Los Angeles Times lauded “Breakthrough,” noting performances by Chrissy Metz, Topher Grace, and Josh Lucas. Why did such big stars sign on to a faith-driven film?
A: “Faith-based movies” is kind of a dirty word in Hollywood, but it shouldn’t be. I would love for that label to go away, to be honest, because it boxes your film into one audience. It doesn’t allow your film to reach people who don’t normally go to these films.
Because it was labeled that way, though I was trying to not have it be so, each of these actors had conversations with me ahead of time. They wanted to know the quality of production and how faith was going to be handled.
They wanted to know that their characters were not going to be treated in a propaganda way [but] rather, used to tell a true story. I sat down and told each of them: “My goal is to be faithful to the true story and those involved.”
They all chose to be part of this film because there was something they connected to. Each of these actors spoke to me privately about where they were in their journey of faith and what this meant to them. Once we were aligned that way, they signed on to do this project.
Q: This film’s premise—that miracles happen today—is controversial even among some believers. How do you respond to critics wary of the supernatural?
A: I believe there are miracles every single day. Look around—from grabbing somebody who’s about to step in front of a car, to making a connection with a homeless person on the street. These are miracles of love, and people need to expand their idea of what a miracle is.
These events wouldn’t have happened without all the things that happened beforehand. The first responders, for example, had just practiced water-ice rescue a few days before. They were adept at doing that.
In the hospital, they continued the CPR even though it appeared there was no hope. All of those elements helped.
We shouldn’t deny that miracles exist. But I think this film is not about the miracle. It’s about how the miracle affects everybody. Near the end, the film lingers on a question: “Why him, when there are other people who were prayed for and died?”
We needed to bring that up. Then the audience knows that we don’t fully understand what happened here, why some people are spared, and other people are not.
I truly have a belief that God has created this amazing world we live in; this playground that we play in. He weeps with us when we fail or fall. He celebrates with us when we succeed. But he has given us free will to make mistakes and to go off in the wrong ways. He is there for those who want to turn to him, to help them move in the right direction.
If people open their eyes, these kinds of miracles are everywhere. We just have to pay attention. As Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life—as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle.”
Q: “Breakthrough” portrays the complex dynamics adoptive families face. Could you share about your own family’s adoption journey?
A: That was another strong connection I felt with the script. I have an adopted daughter, about the same age as John [Smith], as a matter of fact. I went through very similar circumstances with her. It was so fascinating. I felt that aspect of the story was so real, and I knew I could strengthen it through the reality I know so well.
I also have a biological daughter, who was born 22 months before my adopted daughter. I have a picture in my office of me holding my biological daughter when she was handed to me in the hospital, and I also have a picture of me holding my adopted daughter when she was handed to me in China.
My expressions are exactly the same, because there is no difference. Both of these children were meant to be in my life and our life. The two girls were meant to be sisters.
It really challenges our notion of family—that blood is the most important thing. The key question is, “What is the role of a mother and father to their children?” Parents and children can come in many forms, but it really is about who we are to each other.
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy issues for media outlets including The Stream and The Federalist. He previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation, Bound4LIFE International, and Focus on the Family. He, his wife, and their son live near Washington, D.C.