The new movie Unplanned hits theaters this weekend. This riveting, sobering drama tells the true story of Abby Johnson, a Planned Parenthood clinic director in Texas who eventually had a change of heart regarding abortion.
In the film, Abby is portrayed by actress Ashley Bratcher. This week, we had a chance talk to Ashley and to learn a little bit more about her participation in this important film (a conversation you can either listen to or read below in this lightly edited interview.)
Adam Holz: Good morning, Ashley!
Ashley Bratcher: Good morning. Thank you for having me.
Holz: I’m excited to talk to you. So thank you for taking time to talk to Plugged In today. Ashley, can you tell us a little bit about what drew you to be involved with Unplanned?
Bratcher: Well, that’s a complete God story in itself. I actually had no idea that the casting was going on. I had a random Instagram follower who happened to have been praying for me for a year without my knowledge. She reached out to me, and she said, “I think that God is telling me that you’re meant to play this role.”
Bratcher: And I’m like, “Yeah, OK, this is a little crazy. I don’t know you, I don’t know anything about this project. That’s so sweet. Thank you. Buh bye.” And a couple weeks later, though, she reached out to me again. She was just really persistent. And she said, “Ashley, you know, I really think you’re meant to do this. Will you please consider reading the script and auditioning?” And I thought, “You know, why not. I’ll take a look at it.” And they sent me over the [information] for the audition. I read [it], and all I really knew really was that Abby worked at Planned Parenthood. The girl who reached out to me told me that it was based on a true story.
So after that, I was even more curious because Abby seemed really charismatic and kind of cool, and I wanted to know if she decided to become pro-life. I looked her up, I heard her testimony, and I was floored. I mean, it wrecked me, because I thought that I was pro-life, but in hearing her testimony, I realized that I was not as pro-life as I had led myself to believe. And I knew, I knew as soon as I heard Abby’s testimony, that this was something that I wanted to be a part of, that I needed to be a part of. And I just kept praying and praying and praying. And I was really grateful to that Instagram follower, by the way, because it was due to her obedience to the prompting of the Holy Spirit that I auditioned. She had just committed herself to praying for people in the film industry. And I was lucky enough to be one of those people.
Holz: Wow. Well, obviously abortion is one of the defining cultural issues of our time. Did you have any hesitation about being involved in a movie that’s focused on this important but obviously controversial subject?
Bratcher: I had no hesitation whatsoever. I think it’s because from the moment I auditioned, God had started preparing my heart. I was spiritually convicted immediately. I mean, I knew that regardless of whether or not I was going to have this role, that I had to do something. I had to do something to change and reach out and help women. I didn’t know what that was going to look like, but the audition in itself had changed me. So when I got the phone call and they said, “Hey, you got the role. You’ve got five hours,” it was really easy for me to say, “OK. Let’s do it. Because my husband and I had already prayed about it and talked about it. And I just knew in my heart that I was ready to do it.
Holz: Well, speaking of family members, I’ve heard that your mother had a pretty surprising response to hearing that you’d gotten a role in this film. Would you be willing to tell us a little bit more about that?
Bratcher: Yeah. Like I just mentioned, I had a very short notice to get on a plane and go film this movie. I had to leave before my husband got home from work. It was kind of funny, because he was really excited. He was like, “Oh, I’m so glad you got the role,” and I said, “Oh, and by the way, I’m leaving before you get home from work.” He’s super supportive. So we worked it out. I got on the plane. I hit the ground running in Oklahoma, because we were just days away from the beginning of filming. And because I was so wrapped up in preproduction meetings, wardrobe, hair, makeup—anything you can think of, I was doing that—I didn’t have time to tell anyone where I was.
So when my mom called me on the fourth day, I hurried to tell her I was in Oklahoma, making a movie, but I was very hesitant to share with her all the details of the movie. Because when she was younger, she had explained to me that she’d had an abortion. It was something that I had kind of known for a while, but we never really talked about it. It was just casual conversation. We never talked about abortion in our family. And so when I got the chance to start telling her Abby’s testimony, I didn’t want her to feel judged, because that’s not what this movie’s about. And I didn’t want her to think I loved her any less. I was really proud of telling Abby’s story. So I was explaining everything in the movie.
And as I did, my mom became very emotional. She started crying, and it was like her spirit was crushed. She was just sobbing through the phone. She said to me, “Ashley, I need to tell you something that I never told you before. What you don’t know is that when I was 19, I was in the clinic for the second time. They called my name, I was being examined by a very pregnant nurse, and I got really sick to my stomach. I knew that I couldn’t go through with it. I got up, I walked out, and I chose to have you.
Bratcher: And it was really profound to hear that getting ready to step into filming in just a couple of days, to tell one of the greatest pro-life stories of our time, never having known I had my own story. It was mind-blowing to me. And I was never angry, I was never upset that she told me that. More than anything, I felt closer to God. Because it was like He had made it very clear to me that my steps had been crafted from conception to bring my story full circle to line up with Abby’s [story] for such a time as this. And her telling me that, it gave me confidence to really step forward into this role, leaning completely into God, knowing that He had called me here for this.
Holz: Well, speaking of Abby, did you have a chance to spend any time with her before production began or maybe afterwards? And how did that impact your portrayal of her during the film?
Bratcher: You know, you’d think we would have spent a lot of time together. But that was honestly not the case. Things were happening fast. Abby was still in Texas. She’s really busy. She’s a mom of seven kids, about to have her eighth. And the first thing I did though, was I said, “Hey guys, if I’m going to be playing a real person, maybe I should have her phone number.”
They gave me her phone number, and I remember the first conversation we had we hopped on the phone for a little over three minutes, and we hit it off immediately. It was like we had known each other for years; I could have considered her one of my best friends immediately. She was just so transparent about everything. I could ask her anything and she just, she answered it, in all of her vulnerability. She was able to guide me through how she was feeling. So until she came to the set, there was a lot of calling and texting. And then she did spend about a week or so on-set, where she was able to be there firsthand. More than anything, it was great to have her walk over and just put her hand on my shoulder and support me. Because it was tough.
And I know it was tough for her, because this is like her diary being ripped open and showed to the world. I was having a hard time portraying her, so I can only imagine what she was feeling. It was just this really kind of cool experience to be standing beside each other and think, We’re doing this. This is happening. We’re going to make a difference.
Holz: What would you say is most surprising to you about her story and what she went through?
Bratcher: I think hearing all … that was happening in Planned Parenthood was shocking to me, because I’m part of that generation that Planned Parenthood really campaigns to. I’m a millennial. I’m one of the ones that they’re like, “It’s just a clump of tissue. It’s just a clump of cells. It’s just fetal tissue. You know, women’s empowerment. You don’t have to have a child. You can have a career. Don’t ruin your career by having a child.” You know, they want to make us believe that they’re the ones who are doing something compassionate for women by helping us end the life of our child.
But the reality is that they’re preying on women’s vulnerability. Women don’t go into abortion clinics because they’re excited to have an abortion or because they’re strong women. No, they go into abortion clinics because they’re scared and they don’t think they have any other choice. Because they don’t think they have the support that they need to have a successful career, to finish school, to do all those things. So really, in my eyes, they prey on women. And it was very evident when we get to a scene in the movie where Abby is asked to double her abortion quota. Then I realized, OK, this is a money trail.
Holz: Obviously, abortion is an issue that many people have strong convictions about. How do you think this movie could serve as a catalyst or a spark for further conversation about it?
Bratcher: Well, I don’t think there’s any way that you can walk out of the movie and not want to talk about it. It’s definitely not a movie you just go see, go home, have pizza and go to bed. It’s something that sticks with you for a while. Even after filming and being a part of it for several weeks, it was all I could do to just continue to have this conversation when I got home and say [to people], “Gosh, did you know this? Did you know this? Can you believe this? And to jump into further research.
For me, this is way more than a [movie] role. I committed myself to learning everything I could about fetal development, about what the Bible says about abortion—going to Notre Dame and studying, learning from philosophical, theological [perspectives], what the law says. I wanted to know everything. Because if I was going to stand up and speak out on this movie, I wanted to do it well.
And I wanted to be able to answer people’s questions, and not to have any sort of doubt in my own stance. I hope that’s what this does for people. I hope that they question it. I hope that people who are pro-choice, I hope that people who are already bashing on the movie, who just hate it, I hope that it at least makes them question what is happening. Why would we make a movie about this? Why would 500 people now join Abby’s ministry? Why would they leave abortion clinics if there wasn’t something happening? I just really pray and hope that people will be challenged to find answers.
Holz: That leads me to my next question, and you’ve already begun to answer it a little bit. What kind of impact have you seen so far with the advanced screenings of the film? Tell me about the impact it’s already making.
Bratcher: It’s been incredible. Every screening I’ve gone to is little bit different. But the overwhelming response is—people are weeping with joy. They’re weeping while they’re healing. They come to me afterwards and tell me the most incredibly personal stories that they’re finally courageous enough to share. And I don’t know that they’ve even shared them with anyone but me, but I feel so honored that they would. They talk about their post-abortive experience—men and women—and how the movie has ministered to their hearts. They talk about the things they didn’t know.
I’ve had a lot of messages lately from teenagers. A lot of teenagers have seen it in the last week because they’re reaching out to me on Instagram. And I’m getting messages from them saying, “I had no idea what happens during an abortion procedure. I can’t believe that’s what happens.” And I’m like, “Me, too, girlfriend!” I had no idea, because I was so blind. Going into this, I had no idea what happened. I was really easily blinded and shielded from what goes in the procedure. I’m glad this movie brings people face to face with that, because we have to start talking about it.
Holz: Yeah. You know, there’s been some controversy about Unplanned’s perhaps unexpected R-rating, with a number of prominent voices on social media saying the rating was unfair given what we actually see onscreen. But we know there are Christians who don’t see R-rated movies on principle. What would you say to Christians who might be interested in the film but who are leery of the fact that it’s been rated R?
Bratcher: Well, first I just want to say that the MPAA gave us the rating only because of abortion. We do not have nudity. We do not have sex. There is no language. There’s nothing else that warrants the R rating, except for the abortion scenes. They said if you’ll take out the abortion scenes, we’ll drop it to PG-13. Well then that defeats our entire purpose in telling the story. When these abortion scenes happen, what people need to know is that the first one is all CGI. It’s all looking at an ultrasound machine. It’s one of the scenes people have considered to be the more graphic in the film. But there’s no blood. It’s just a CGI ultrasound machine. … The other two, there is quite a bit of blood. But you don’t see anything other than that. You’re not seeing any body parts. You’re not seeing the procedure actually happening. You’re just seeing the ramifications of these procedures, and there happens to be blood, because that’s what happens.
Abby had a chemical abortion with an RU-486 abortion pill, and she hemorrhaged. So when we’re talking about blood, we’re talking about her hemorrhaging and almost dying. So it’s not like there’s this gratuitous sort of blood and gore. That’s not what this movie is about. Anyone who’s worried about going to see it, there are only two scenes where you’re going to see blood. Everything else is just really hard to watch. It’s not that it is bloody and gory, it’s just disturbing. And that is why the MPAA gave us the rating.
I will say also I took my 9-year-old son to see the premiere in Hollywood. We’d had a discussion about abortion when I was in Oklahoma filming. But we felt like it was very important, my husband and I, that he understand why mommy’s gone. That this was an important cause to us, that we wanted him to understand what we were fighting for as a family. And so when it came time to go the premiere, I let him know, “Hey, baby, this is an R-rated movie. So because I know the movie so well, what I’m going to do is when I know that it’s about to get intense, I’m going to reach over, and I’m going to whisper to you that it’s about to get intense, and if you start to get scared, you’re going to squeeze my hand, lean in and cover your ears and eyes. And I will talk you through it.”
And he did. He was so self-aware to know when he didn’t want to watch, when he needed to turn away. What happened afterwards is that he had a lot of questions. And I was glad to be the one to answer them. Because if I hadn’t taken the time to have this conversation with him, to take him to the movie, someone else is going to have this conversation with him in public school, because he’s in public school. And sex ed is just around the corner. He’s 9 years old. They start teaching it at 11 or 12, and I want to be the one to have the conversation with my child about what abortion is and what reproduction and reproductive rights look like. He needs to know that this is something that is a consequence and is legal in our country right now. I wanted to be the one to answer those questions. And I was proud. I was proud that he had those questions and that he was thinking about it, and that I was able to be there to guide him through it.
So I don’t recommend, you know, that everyone take their 9-year-old. My son’s been a little bit more involved than most. But I say 12 and up, you have got to take your children. You have got to talk to them about this. As hard as it is to come face to face with, we have a responsibility to make sure that we are feeding our children the truth. Please, I’m begging and encouraging parents to not be scared of the R rating. And if you are, prescreen it. Go see it first so that you know what’s coming. And then you can take your children back and see it again. Or the youth leader, go see it as a mentor. As a church leader, go see it, and then know what you’re taking your congregation to, so that you can prepare them.
Holz: Yeah, that’s really great counsel that echoes what we often say here at Plugged In, that we want parents to be intentional and engaged and promoting conversation, but also wise about anything that they have a question about. So I think that your suggestion to prescreen it, that’ll help parents to know whether their kids are ready to navigate that kind of content yet. And I totally agree with you that this is where our culture is at. The culture’s having the conversation whether we’re ready for it or not. And so I think that you’re movie helps with that.
Well, Ashley, are there any final thoughts that you’d like to share with our Plugged In audience today regarding Unplanned?
Bratcher: Oh man … just that this weekend is really important. So if you or someone is on the fence who feels like you’re pro-life and you don’t really need to see the film, or you feel like you’re pro-life but you don’t have a voice in expressing that to other people, you’re the one I really encourage to see the film. Because I was you. A year ago, I was you. And Abby’s testimony completely changed my life. It changed my perspective. So I encourage people who are kind of in the middle to make sure they see the film. I encourage Christians, specifically, to see the film. Because this is a problem within the church. We know that women who have abortions, 60% of them identify as Christians. So this is something that we need to be ministering to and providing healing for. And the movie does an incredible job of exemplifying the love, grace and forgiveness of Christ.
Holz: Ashley, thanks so much for taking some time to talk to us this morning. I really appreciate hearing your heart for this film and how it’s impacted you personally. So, thank you. And we hope and pray that the film has a really deep and lasting impact on our culture.
Bratcher: Thank you so much.
To find theaters in your area where Unplanned is playing, go to unplannedtickets.com.
To learn more about Focus on the Family’s efforts on behalf of the preborn, including our “Declaration for Life” and upcoming Alive From New York event, check out our pro-life articles and resources page.