Actress Ashley Bratcher had no idea who Abby Johnson was. The role came to her in a completely unorthodox way.
One day, Bratcher received a comment from an Instagram stranger who told her she would be perfect for this part.
“She said, ‘Ashley, I have been praying for you for about this year, and God is telling me that you’re meant to play this role.’”
Bratcher thanked her, and then ignored it, because it sounded crazy.
“It was the strangest thing,” Bratcher said.
But a while later, the commenter came back around, and told Bratcher she was really meant for this role, and if she could just please take a look.
She relented, and agreed to look at a few pages of the script.
Abby Johnson was funny, witty, and charismatic. From the pages Bratcher had, she had no idea it was the story of a woman who was responsible for 22,000 abortions, and who would do a complete 180 on her position.
Bratcher auditioned for the part.
“I learned that she was a real person, and after the audition, I thought that the character was really cool,” Bratcher said. “So I wanted to look her up and see what she was like in real life.”
“And it was then I heard her testimony for the first time, about what she saw, and what happens during the abortion procedure,” Bratcher said. It hit her, emotionally and spiritually. “I was absolutely floored.”
“I knew that this was something that I wanted to be part of, and I wanted to make sure the world heard the story,” Bratcher said. “From that point on, I was really all in, and ready to just take on the role.”
Abby Johnson is a former Planned Parenthood clinic director; she’d worked for the organization for eight years and in that time rose to employee of the year. Later that year, in 2009, Johnson quit.
Not only did she quit, but she turned to a pro-life organization because they were the only people who understood. And then she spoke out about what she had seen, shocking millions with the truth of abortion.
Johnson had been with the organization, recommending abortions to women, for eight years before she had ever seen the abortion procedure take place via ultrasound, because Planned Parenthood didn’t do it that way. It was only when she was asked to assist an outside doctor with a procedure that she saw it take place—and learned it was common that the baby, still a fetus, would jump away from the abortion instruments, before being dismembered and suctioned out.
It turned her worldview upside-down, and was the final nail in the coffin. In press conferences and talks around the country, she exposed Planned Parenthood as an abortion-driven business, aiming to increase their sales, rather than a health provider as it claimed to be. She’s written her story down in the memoir “Unplanned,” and the film “Unplanned” came out earlier this year.
Johnson and Bratcher didn’t meet until halfway through production, but they talked on the phone and texted constantly and became fast friends.
It was an intense seven weeks of filming.
“I was cast and I had a four-hour notice to get on a plane,” Bratcher said. She had a hundred pages of lines and appeared in nearly every scene of the movie, and she dove right in.
Before “Unplanned” Bratcher’s stance on abortion was a common one in the current cultural climate. She personally didn’t want to get an abortion, but didn’t want to stand in the way of women who felt they needed one.
“I wasn’t really familiar with the pro-life movement,” Bratcher said. But in the few days she had to prepare for the role, she was researching non-stop. She watched all sorts of videos and talks, and heard Johnson’s story for the first time, reducing Bratcher to tears.
“It was a lot,” Bratcher said. “It was probably the biggest undertaking I’ve ever had as an actor.”
The “Unplanned” story put a face on the victim. “Knowing that and seeing that in my research just really blew my mind—to think that I’m my age and I had never known what really happened,” she said.
Another twist in Bratcher’s own story occurred while filming was underway. It was on set when she learned that she was almost aborted herself.
Bratcher had already known her mother had an abortion at age 16, and wanted to share this story she was working on as it was about mercy and forgiveness. But as she was describing the story, her mother broke down in tears, and told Bratcher that when she was 19, and pregnant with Bratcher, she had decided to get an abortion. She was on the clinic table before she had this gut feeling she couldn’t go through with it, last minute, and left.
Bratcher told Fox & Friends she later confirmed the story with her father, who told her that they didn’t think they could afford a child, and couldn’t even afford the abortion. To pay for the abortion, he had pawned a family shotgun—that was the price of her life.
Bratcher is often asked whether she was worried the film would negatively impact her career. Twitter had suspended the film’s Twitter account and revoked its ads, and a number of television networks refused to run its advertisements. The filmmakers have protested the R rating given to the film, which prevents minors from seeing it. But Bratcher says she is fearless, because she knows where she stands.
Despite efforts to limit the distribution of the film, “Unplanned” hit No. 1 in DVD sales on Amazon and received rave audience reviews.
Bratcher got into acting almost by accident. In her last year at college, she needed to take an elective and chose an acting class on a whim, since she had fun in theater classes in high school.
“It kind of ignited that fire inside of me,” Bratcher said. On stage, she had escaped. She wasn’t Ashley Bratcher, whose mortgage was due and had to go grocery shopping later. She got to tell someone’s story.
Then, out on a date with her high school sweetheart—now husband—at the North Carolina State Fair, she saw a big booth with a sign: “Do you want to be an actor?”
Bratcher signed up, and auditioned for a local commercial—and got the part. From there an agent took her to New York, where she auditioned for a hundred managers and agents, and received over 20 offers.
“It just made me realize, ‘Oh, wow, I can actually do this,’” Bratcher said.
But at the time, it was driven by a desire for fame, and Bratcher, who is competitive by nature to begin with, said she had more or less been living with a selfish mindset. Life was about what she wanted, and what she could get out of it. She moved to New York and lived an emotionally and spiritually exhausted life battling rejection. One acting workshop planted some positive seeds, when she was tasked to write a letter to herself.
She had to write down why she decided to become an actor, and what it meant to her, and what sort of impact she wanted to have with her career.
“That was the first time where I said, ‘I do have a serious, legitimate reason for wanting to be a part of this,” Bratcher said. “From that moment on, I always took that letter to heart.”
“In the last couple of years … I have been able to be a part of stories that I feel give people a sense of hope,” Bratcher said. “I wanted to be part of telling really good stories that did something good for people on the inside.”
Much of this is rooted in Bratcher’s faith, which hadn’t been a big part of her life until she became a mother herself.
“I had my own unplanned pregnancy,” Bratcher said. She had just started acting, with few results, and her husband had graduated college and had a job, but neither really had a career.
“I had to be on government assistance. I had Medicaid, I used WIC; we just couldn’t afford it,” Bratcher said. “But at the same time, we were figuring out ways to solve that problem. And I totally believe in government assistance when it picks people up and gets them on their feet. I think when it’s used appropriately, it empowers people to get back up and do what they need.”
Bratcher needed it for a little over a year, and it helped put her on the right track.
“Having my son, first and foremost, deepened by faith. I looked at this tiny little person, and I just could see nothing but the love of God,” Bratcher said. “I couldn’t imagine loving him so much. And it just clicked with me that if I love him so much, how much more God must love me to be able to hold this little baby in my arms and feel this incredible amount of love.”
It changed her whole outlook on life.
“The most important thing I learned from my son was what it meant to love selflessly—because I had been so selfish in the past,” Bratcher said. At the root of all her choices was pleasing herself; other people weren’t even a consideration. But the moment she understood selfless love, she realized what a shallow life she had been living.
“I had experienced a love that I feel like we’re on this planet to experience. I had felt, for the first time, this very pure and selfless love,” Bratcher said.
“That was a huge spiritual awakening for me,” she said. “After I had him, and I got back into the film industry, I had this sense of faith and identity.”
“I wasn’t looking to anyone for validation, I didn’t need to book a role to feel like I was going to be successful, I didn’t need anyone’s approval to know what my worth was,” she said. “It is critical for me to make sure that I am digging into my faith.”
Bratcher initially never wanted children, didn’t want to be responsible for another life and forego all the travels and experiences and the career she dreamed of. Now she has all of those things, and her son as well.
And “Unplanned,” far from ending her career, has opened up avenues for Bratcher to help make a positive impact. She’s done two TV shows and is the lead in a romantic comedy where the proceeds of the film will go towards charity. She recently partnered with Heartbeat International to launch the Unplanned Movie Scholarship to help moms with unplanned pregnancies with educational scholarships.
“A lot of times women choose to have abortions because they don’t have the support that they need or want or desire,” Bratcher said. “They’re told if they have kids they can’t be successful, they can’t finish school, all of these things.”
She wanted to provide an option to solve the problem, such as the scholarship fund that would give mothers financial means to finish their education, and partner with an organization with resources and expertise. Heartbeat International has 3,000 pregnancy health centers and provides everything from parenting classes to formula and childcare.
“I wanted to make sure that I was using my voice in a way that was loud enough to say ‘yes, you can’, and actually do something about it,” Bratcher said.