Finding Abby: Actress Who Portrays Johnson in Film Unplanned Nearly Lost to Abortion
When she signed on to play the lead in Unplanned, actress Ashley Bratcher had no idea that — decades before — her mother had walked into an abortion center.
As the topic of abortion remains headline news, the upcoming dramatic film Unplanned — with release tentatively set for March 22, 2019 — will attempt to offer a different take on decades-old dividing lines.
Abby Johnson worked for a Planned Parenthood clinic in central Texas for eight years before abruptly leaving. Her bestselling memoir Unplanned, the basis for the new movie, recounts how and why she changed.
Rising star Ashley Bratcher portrays Johnson. Produced by Daryl Lefever and Joe Knopp (I Can Only Imagine), Unplanned also stars Robia Scott (CSI), Brooks Ryan (Overexposed), newcomer Jared Lotz, Sarah Hernandez (The Mentalist) and Emma Elle Roberts (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay).
Only upon getting the part did Bratcher learn unexpected secrets from her own past. “To know you almost didn’t exist is an incredible thing to hear,” says Bratcher in an interview. “I was just seconds away from not existing. I still don’t think I’ve processed it, because I’ve been so busy nonstop doing this film.”
She spoke to media on the Unplanned movie set in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The story begins with writer-directors Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman. In late 2014, they inked a deal with Johnson to produce a major motion picture of her life story.
The Crucial Element to Begin Filming
Within a year, Solomon and Konzelman had completed their script and received a thumbs-up from Johnson. Bigger challenges were on the horizon: casting and funding a multimillion-dollar movie.
Four days before filming was set to start, the directors still hadn’t found their Abby Johnson. “You don’t wait in the movie business,” says Solomon of their casting process. “But the Lord had put it on our hearts to wait.”
The two admit it even even cost them investors on the project, a necessity for an independent film. Konzelman recalls one high-stakes meeting.
“This billionaire had been dancing us around for a year,” recalls the film co-director. “He asked: Well, who’s your lead? We told him we hadn’t cast the lead yet. He dismissed us as insane amateurs, saying we would be an irresponsible investment.”
With past hits such as God’s Not Dead under their belt, they were no amateurs. But they knew the investor had a point. “A movie like this costs like twenty thousand dollars an hour,” says Solomon. “If you don’t have a lead, you’re in big trouble.”
Konzelman finishes his production partner’s thought, as the two often do in interviews. “What size does the wardrobe team design clothes for?” he asks. “When is her hair going to be dyed? These are big issues when you’re four days out.”
They were seeking an actress who not only looked like the national pro-life figure but also “had the spirit of Abby,” says Konzelman. “Then we came upon Ashley Bratcher.”
Actress Makes Startling Personal Discovery
A North Carolina native, Ashley Bratcher has starred in over a dozen faith-centered films including 90 Minutes in Heaven (with Hayden Christensen) and War Room.
“It’s undeniable that I was meant to be here,” says Bratcher. ”They told me I got the part, then added that a flight was leaving for Oklahoma in four hours. They said, Can you hop on the plane and get out here? I answered, ‘Well, nothing’s impossible.’”
After a week of filming, Bratcher realized she hadn’t even told close family about landing the part. On a phone call with her mother, Bratcher recounted the basics of Johnson’s story.
“I knew she would be emotional, but the intensity of the water works was something I did not expect,” she says. Her mother revealed that, at 19 years old, she had walked into an abortion clinic.
Bratcher recounted the details from her mother, as first reported by Catholic Mom. I’ve never told you this before, but I was actually at the clinic with your dad. They had called my name. They took me back. The woman who examined me was very pregnant. I decided on the table that I couldn’t do it, and I got up and walked out.
Later, Bratcher called her father to process the revelation. “He told me they had actually pawned a family heirloom to pay for the abortion,” she says. “It was a shotgun. I thought, Man, the price of a life is a shotgun?”
The directors spoke with her about it, surprised she didn’t miss a beat of the filming schedule. “Literally, she was within 30 seconds of being aborted,” says Solomon. “Thirty years later, she is about to become the face of the pro-life movement.”
The Most Difficult Scene
Bratcher has embraced portraying the driven, direct Planned Parenthood clinic director. “You have to be dedicated to honoring the authenticity of the story,” she says. “Really, I feel like I am a lot like her. I’ve been called ‘feisty’ a time or two myself.”
Halfway through their shooting schedule, the weight of carrying nearly every scene began to wear on Bratcher. “When you film a movie, it’s not just one and done,” she explains. “You do multiple takes. To put yourself through these emotions over and over again, that’s the most challenging part.”
Unplanned covers the full gamut of Johnson’s personal and professional life. Though scenes filmed outside in blazing heat presented challenges, the actress notes an intense interior sequence demanded the most from her.
“Mentally and physically, the most difficult scene so far has been where Abby had an abortion by taking the RU-486 pill,” says Bratcher. “On Friday, it was almost like torture, reliving this moment in her life for hours. Every single take, I physically went there. I allowed myself to be emotional to the point that I literally threw up during one of the takes.”
Portraying 23 year-old Johnson and the side effects she faced from the RU-486 pill regimen exacted a toll on Bratcher. “The director yells, Cut! and I can’t stop crying because I’m overwhelmed by what I’m experiencing,” says Bratcher. “And it’s not even the real thing for me.”
“I went through that alone,” recalls Johnson, seated next to her on-screen counterpart. “It was such a lonely time. Seeing what I went through, from a different lens — that is going to be a hard scene for me to watch.”
Distribution Deal Coming Soon
Having observed the young actress in action, Johnson endorses the choice. “You’ve got to see her in some of these feisty scenes,” says Johnson. “I watch her and say: That’s just like me!”
Johnson today leads And Then There Were None, a nonprofit that assists those desiring to leave the abortion industry.
For the film crew, they face another crucial decision in the coming weeks. Producers will soon announce the movie’s distributor, a key partner in determining how many theaters will show Unplanned next spring.
Chuck Konzelman believes providence will guide them, as he says occurred with earlier funding concerns. “Days before we had to start shooting, we needed a million dollars,” says the co-director. He recounts how one potential investor had still held back after many meetings over several months.
“This guy called us from his jet and said: Give us your bank account number, I’m sending you a million dollars,” recalls Konzelman. “I told him, ‘We don’t have time to do a contract.’ He said he didn’t care and wired us exactly the funds we needed.”
From producers to actors, personal convictions clearly play a part in how and why Unplanned became a major film. What impact this narrative may have in the wider culture remains to be seen.
“We’ve had some miraculous, crazy stuff happen on this film,” says Solomon. “But some people are just not going to accept this story. The way we look at it is: we’re going to tell the truth. America has got to decide.”