The Man Behind the Woman Behind Unplanned … and the Man Who Plays Him
With her biopic staying strong at the box office, America is coming to know pro-life advocate Abby Johnson. The untold story of her husband Doug has its own twists and turns.
In its second weekend, the Abby Johnson biopic Unplanned again beat box office expectations. The Pure Flix release remained in the Top 10 even as several big-budget films released. So far the movie’s earned over $12.5 million.
Many stories have emerged surrounding Unplanned, with some saying the film challenged their views on abortion. One narrative largely untold is that of Abby’s husband Doug, seen in the film staying by her side despite disagreeing with her job as clinic director at Planned Parenthood.
“With Abby, she was waving this flag for the longest time: I am right, what I’m doing is good,” says Doug Johnson in a live interview in Washington, D.C. “Then to have it all crumble, it was a long way to fall. When things are crazy, you have to be the soft place to land.”
When film directors Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman cast Brooks Ryan as Doug, they did not know his own depth of conviction. Like Doug, the father of two wears his faith on his sleeve.
“This was unlike anything I’ve ever done before,” says Ryan, who lives in Oklahoma with his family. “In the entertainment business, you work with a lot of great people whom you disagree with on a lot of things. It’s a business mindset of getting the job done.”
He contrasts those experiences with the pro-life film. “From the directors on down, they cultivated a family and faith-filled atmosphere,” adds Ryan. “Even while tackling a sensitive subject and a very impactful story.”
Relationship Forged In Difficulty
The inciting incident of Unplanned, setting the story in motion, occurs in fall 2001.
College freshman Abby Johnson stops at a student fair table to learn about Planned Parenthood. She signed up to become a volunteer, resulting in her eight-year career at the nation’s top abortion provider.
Another story also began that fall, one that alters her life significantly. Abby met Doug Johnson as they were working together at Acme Glass in College Station, Texas.
“The first full day we worked together was 9/11,” recalls Doug. “It’s hard to forget that. She was engaged to be married to her first husband. I actually went to the wedding, as a guest with a date.”
“They were only together a year,” he adds. “Once her divorce was final, we knew we were going to start dating. We just had to wait on the paperwork.”
Having seen Unplanned, many wonder how Abby’s pro-choice advocacy was not an issue for Doug.
“We differed on that, but we could be friends and get along,” he says. “It was a year of getting to know each other before it came up. I couldn’t articulate how I felt very well. Though I was brought up pro-life and believed abortion was bad, I didn’t have my stance put together.”
Doug and Abby married in 2005. Commenting on who he portrays on-screen, actor Brooks Ryan sees a selfless motivation at work.
“Sometimes in life, we see the worst in our spouse and get upset at the ones who are nearest to us,” says Ryan. “Doug never let that get in the way. He was going to be the first to stand beside her the entire time. The mindset is getting yourself into a place of Christlike love.”
Grateful a major film made its way to rural Oklahoma, the actor says he was ambivalent about the issue of abortion not long ago. “Like so many people, I would’ve described myself as pro-life before that season, but trying not to step on toes or offend anybody.”
When Real Life Is Rated R
Doug shared details of real-life “disturbing images” the MPAA board noted in slapping Unplanned with an R rating.
“She didn’t have friends to fall back on,” he recalls Abby post-divorce. “It was just me. I was probably the only person who knew about her second abortion. She was doing it with or without me. I couldn’t leave her alone or break off a friendship over something like that.”
As depicted in Unplanned, when taking the RU-486 abortion pill regimen, Abby experienced hemorrhaging and severe blood loss. Doug says he “blew off” her several texts, having gone to play volleyball with friends visiting town. He made it to her apartment near midnight.
“When I finally went over to check on her, she hadn’t drained the water in the bathtub,” he says, recalling a graphic scene more severe than seen on-screen. “She was back in bed. Seeing that, I felt terrible about not being present with her.”
Doug attests to the realities seen later. Fast forwarding several years, Abby was promoted at Planned Parenthood. To assist with their daughter at home, Doug quit as a special education teacher.
In the film, newborn Grace is portrayed by actor Brooks Ryan’s own baby boy — swaddled in a pink blanket.
“In recent years, I’ve come out of that gray area to being pro-life with a voice and action,” says Ryan. “But for Doug at the time, they paid Abby well. He can’t say flat out: I’m done with this deal.”
A scene shows Abby rushing home after a full day at the abortion clinic. Audiences see her drive to assist women, almost seeming to forget it is abortion services being offered. In retrospect, it’s a set-up for the scene that follows.
Her preschool daughter runs to embrace her at the front door, then stops. “Mommy, are you okay?” asks Grace. Abby looks down to see dried blood on her sneakers. She explains it away as a co-worker’s nosebleed.
“The blood on the shoes — that really happened,” says Doug. “Sometimes Abby would have Grace at work, and I didn’t like her being part of that world. They had a (sex toy), showing people how to put condoms on, right there on the counter. A little girl didn’t need to see that.”
The Day Everything Changed
Millions nationwide have now experienced Abby and Doug’s journey, adding fuel to their pro-life advocacy. With debates over abortion raging, Doug has gained an ally in his on-screen doppelgänger.
“Doug and I talk often,” says Ryan. “We understand how much Abby and Ashley carry this, which is great. Ashley is in 90 percent of the film, if not more. She worked so hard every day.”
Ryan notes he and Bratcher both used their past improv experience. “You would never know watching it that a few things are ad-libbed,” he says. “Both Ashley and I are spouses and parents, so we’d rephrase some lines in the script. It’s us just being Doug and Abby, being a couple, allowing that energy to feed off each other.”
The actor’s hardest scene was just as difficult in real life, according to Doug. He shares about the complexity of his feelings as his wife considered leaving Planned Parenthood.
“I wanted her out of there,” says Doug. “We didn’t want to get death threats anymore. She was no longer proud of her work. In public she was towing the company line, but in private she was very much questioning. That day she went to the Coalition for Life, I saw it coming.”
Ryan sets the scene for what happened next at home. “She comes to the point where she breaks down after she’s decided to leave,” he says. “It’s three in the morning. They’re in the living room and just weeping, thinking about all she has done and facilitated.”
The emotional depth demanded much from the actor. “OK, I have to get her up off this floor,” Ryan recalls thinking. “And at the same time, I have to let her know that what she’s feeling is right and she has to truly be sorry. It’s a weird balance of: I’m not going to tell you everything is ok with a pretty ribbon on it. But I will tell you that I love you and God loves you.
“Basically, this is good and you have to repent,” he says. “You’ll receive a love from him that you never felt before in your life.”
Stay-At-Home Father of Eight
Today, Doug and Abby have an unconventional home life.
As Doug chronicles on his popular Facebook page, he has embraced the role of stay-at-home dad to their seven children including one adopted. Their eighth is due to be born in June.
“You have to redefine what it means to be a provider,” says Doug. “Think about Abby’s job. I can’t go out and tell everybody what is happening in the abortion industry. That’s her story. God tapped me on the shoulder and said: I need you to take care of her while she does this.”
Ryan recognizes that Christians can get hung up on strictly adhering to societal gender expectations. A father of two with his wife Jesse, the actor offers his perspective.
“Doug staying at home with the kids is not taking a back seat or giving up his masculinity,” says Ryan. “It’s the opposite. He is saying: Our story is God’s, first and foremost. For Abby to tell it, it involves her being gone a lot and speaking publicly. It’s hard for people to understand that if they don’t know where you’re coming from.”
Having earned a degree in kinesiology, Doug has dreams of one day running a gym. Though he left teaching in public schools years ago, he finds their young offspring eager for lessons.
“Being at home, I just built my kids these big bunkbeds — and the boys helped me,” he says. “They saw Dad working with his hands doing a job. Sure, women build things. But as Dad, I feel like it’s my job to teach hunting, safety around guns, building things… and also folding laundry.”
Better than putting them to bed. pic.twitter.com/uChvJChF4K
— Douglas Johnson (@dougontap) December 12, 2016
He shares the flip side, discussing his well-known wife’s role as mother. “Just because Abby goes to work doesn’t mean the nurturing side of her is gone,” says Doug. “When she comes home, they all want to snuggle with Mom. Dad becomes obsolete!”
Ryan says his real-life counterpart has a significant role in the ministry. “Not only does Doug govern what goes on in their home, but he’s involved in the places she goes,” says the actor. “If he has a sense she shouldn’t go somewhere, he’ll speak his mind: We need to say no to this one. Or, We need to make sure you have an extra day or extra person around.”
“Doug always has those eyes of wisdom and protection on her and the family.”
Affirming the Value of Every Person
Discussing the national landscape, Doug echoes the compassion seen in Unplanned. “We judge the action, but we don’t condemn the person,” he says. “Abby is opening peoples’ eyes to the fact that those in the abortion industry are people, and we have to love them.”
His friend Brooks Ryan picks up on this theme. “As men, our voices often get silenced in the waters of this difficult issue,” notes the actor. “But fertility is a shared concern, whether it’s casual or committed. Look at the statistics. If the man can be there especially during that first ultrasound, how much that makes a difference.”
The Johnsons see the pro-life movement advancing on several fronts. “Our country is very divided on this,” says Doug. “Yet this film is exposing how much of Planned Parenthood’s work revolves around abortion. If you change the culture first, laws will change along with it.”
As the interview concluded, Ryan noted he and his wife were speaking that evening at a local pregnancy help center’s annual gala. They garnered financial and prayer support for the nonprofit, which provides counseling to expectant parents, practical help and adoption referrals.
He follows in the footsteps of the man he portrays in the box office hit Unplanned. Doug and Abby Johnson sometimes make it a date night when she speaks at such fundraiser dinners.
“This really is not a political issue,” says Ryan. “It’s a human issue but it’s been made political. If you’re going to be pro-life, believers around the country and the world need to be ready to be the hands and feet for what is to come.”