I messaged Ashley Bratcher in the early days of quarantine, after recognizing her in my favorite television pastime, The Encounter. Like anyone with a PureFlix subscription, I knew Ashley’s face. She’s starred in a myriad of Christian favorites: Princess Cut, War Room, 90 Minutes in Heaven, and most recently and most controversially, 2019’s Unplanned.
The last of these, which chronicles the conversion of former Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson from abortion marketer to pro-life advocate, catapulted Ashley from small screen recognition to entertainment and political stardom. A self-described “spitfire,” Ashley brazenly defended her role, as well as the larger message of the film. When she challenged the statements of pro-choice actress Alyssa Milano, she garnered praise from many and ire from others.
Ashley may be bold, but she’s anything but harsh. Her love for Jesus is on display during our video call — so much so that my “AHHH it’s Ashley Bratcher” nerves faded out almost as soon as she began speaking. Within minutes, she feels like an old acquaintance. This familiarity is due in full to a commonality — Jesus, our Savior and mutual friend.
Many have seen your first film, Princess Cut, but I’m wondering about your true beginning. Did you feel called to acting?
I think it’s more so that acting found me. I acted a little bit on the stage in high school. I did drama club and loved it, but I didn’t think it was a real career option….I lived in rural North Carolina, where nothing was going on [laughs]. I actually went to college for graphic design. My senior year, I needed to pick an elective course in order to finish my degree. I chose acting, because why not? I loved it. And I’m glad I did, because that class reignited the fire in me.
Soon after, I went to the North Carolina state fair, where I saw this sign over a booth that read, “Do you want to be an actor?” I thought, “Yeah, sure, why not” [laughs]. I went over to the booth, auditioned for this little commercial, and ended up booking it. From there, I signed with an agent who took me to a bunch of agency auditions in New York City. I secured representation with a New York agency and moved there right after graduation.
Were you already following Christ at that point?
No, I didn’t grow up in the church and was fairly lost at the time. I’d had an unplanned pregnancy and was in an on-again, off-again relationship with my high school sweetheart. I was living away from my family for the first time and quickly became a partier. I drank a lot and had begun dabbling in drugs.
I’d been introduced to Jesus through my grandparents, so I kind of believed, but I had a love-hate relationship with Him. I was like, “Okay, fine, I know You’re there, but leave me alone.” But, fortunately, He didn’t let me go. He made His presence known to me throughout that whole time.
One particular encounter happened at maybe three or four o’clock in the morning. I was walking home, completely obliterated from drinking all night. I mean, I could hardly walk. I was headed towards this long, dark alleyway, which I always cut through to get to my apartment. There was a safer, more well-lit route, but I was just so tired and drunk that I decided to go through the alley. I was about halfway through the alley when I heard a taxi driver call out to me: “Miss, please get in my car and let me take you home.” I told him I didn’t have any money and He was like, “I don’t want your money. Will you please just get in the car and let me take you home.” Something — Someone — pushed me to get in that car. That man took me home, walked me to my door, and drove away.
I remember thinking it was so weird. Like, why did he do that? But now, I look back and wonder what was on the other side of that alley. I put myself in so many dangerous situations back then…there are so many things that could’ve happened to me, but God’s provision covered me. He was looking out for me. It doesn’t make sense, you know. And often, when you have moments you can’t explain, God had a part in it.
Was that a pivotal moment in your faith journey or was there a breaking point?
Oh, there was a breaking point. It came when David, my high school sweetheart, broke up with me. He’s my husband now, God worked it out [laughs]. But, I was putting him through a lot at the time. When we broke up, I was devastated. I was already battling some depression. I’ve since been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but I wasn’t diagnosed at the time. I just knew I was suffering.
Then, God sent me this super vivid dream. To this day I still remember all the details. I was standing on the edge of a skyscraper, looking out over the landscape of New York City. I looked down and when I did, I had this overwhelming urge to jump. I knew that I wanted to die. Then, the Lord spoke to me. He said, “If you don’t change your life, this is where you’re going to end up.” Then, I woke up.
The dream was so powerful, I just started crying and didn’t stop all day. I knew that God was trying to reach me and it shook me to my core. I had to get out of my current lifestyle, so I decided to move back home to North Carolina and finally begin seeking the Lord. He faithfully showed up and gave my life purpose. In 2012, when my son was two, I dedicated my career to God.
As you began walking with Him, did you sense Him leading you towards certain roles?
Yes. I told Him, “If you want me to take an opportunity, then bless it. If you don’t, then block it.” From that moment on, He started putting me in faith-based films and it just kept getting better and better and better. To this day, I pray over every audition, whether it’s a Christian project or not. This takes all of the pressure off of me, because I don’t have to worry about my decisions or my future. I just put everything in His hands and use discernment. And I remain at peace.
Well, you must’ve had some crazy type of peace to accept the Unplanned role! I’m assuming you knew that it would change your career forever. But you accepted the offer pretty much immediately. How did that play out?
Oh, it was such a wild ride. People don’t even believe me when I tell them how I got it. A random follower messaged me on Instagram like, “Hey, I’ve been praying for you for over a year and God wants me to tell you that you’re meant to play the role of this woman named Abby Johnson.” I was like, “Yeah, okay…” [laughs] Like, yeah, right! I just replied, “Oh, you’re so sweet, thank you so much.” And then I totally blew her off. A couple of weeks later, she messaged me again like, “No, seriously. I know the people producing the movie. I’m telling you, you’re meant to play this role. Will you consider auditioning?”
Long story short, I had the producer send me a few pages of the script. As soon as I read it, I was interested. I didn’t know Abby’s story beforehand and I only read the scenes where she was working at Planned Parenthood, so I didn’t even know that she eventually became pro-life. I went in for the audition without reading anything. I didn’t even know who was making the movie. But after, I did some research. When I read Abby’s testimony for the first time, something in me shifted. I mean, the Holy Spirit was just all over me. I felt that I was meant to play this role. My husband and I prayed on it for weeks and weeks and weeks and we were both just like, “Yep, this is it.”
When they offered me the role, they gave me four hours notice to hop on a plane. I accepted and boarded the flight! It’s not your conventional casting story [laughs]. It was so crazy — God really worked in my heart. Once I received that peace from Him, there was no hesitation on my part. I was prepared and so was my family. I got on the plane and did my job.
Did that sense of peace remain with you during production and thereafter, through all the backlash?
There were only four days between when I arrived on set and when we began filming. The night before we started shooting, I was hit by this overwhelming anxiety. I called my husband and just bawled my eyes out. I was like, “David, how did I get here? There should be some A-list actress playing this role, not me. Like, I’m nobody, I’m not worthy.” And he poured truth and the Word of God into me.
The next day, I showed up to work to find that we had an on-set prayer team. They came into my dressing room before we started filming and began praying over me. Soon after they started praying, this one woman goes, “Ashley, I feel like I just got a message from the Lord for you.” I’m thinking, “Here we go again” [laughs]. She said, “Ashley, the Lord wants you to know that He chose you for this role and you’re worthy. You’re meant to be here. He is so proud of you.” In an instant, those words washed away every remaining bit of doubt. I knew that God was with me. And I felt that assurance throughout filming. Because I had so little time to prepare, I had to rely on God a lot during filming. I just did what I could do and gave the rest to Him. And because of that, I felt closer to Him on that set than I ever have in my life.
And I’m guessing you maintained that courage and strength post-production, given your willingness to share your thoughts on abortion. I’m thinking primarily of your statement to Alyssa Milano.
Well, I’ve always been a spitfire. I don’t simply follow the rules. When I heard that Alyssa was calling for a boycott of Georgia over the state’s heartbeat bill, I felt that I had to say something. I’d been a Georgia resident for around two years and the boycott was already affecting everything in my industry. It really peeved me to hear her equate such a heavy topic and decision to tax dollars and production money…her statements were so business oriented and it really offended me.
I remember thinking, “If only she could see this movie.” Once your eyes are open to the reality of abortion, you can’t unsee it and you have a responsibility to share it. So, when I wrote to her, my words were sincere. She’s opened up about having her own abortions and I think that’s probably part of it. Many people who lash out in anger do so because they’re in pain. So, in these situations, I always try to speak with love, compassion, and kindness because I know that if someone’s attacking me, they’re not really attacking me, they’re attacking a belief that they find threatening, often because of something they’ve experienced.
Have you seen the fruits of this labor — both the acting and the advocacy?
Yes, across the board. I’ve had young women facing unplanned pregnancies come to me for guidance. Then, there have been women who’ve had abortions tell me that the film was healing for them. Even men have come forward saying, “I feel like if I had been there for her, she wouldn’t have made that decision. I carry this guilt and shame.” And the forgiveness that they saw in the film relieved them of that burden. So, I know that our work provided healing for many.
There were also people who were very pro-choice when they went into the movie theater with their friends. Many told me that the film changed their minds or, at least, shifted their perspective in some way. It’s been incredible to hear stories from all across the world. I would have never anticipated that we’d have that reach.
The reach has been incredible…I wonder what that means for the pro-life movement. The film does a fantastic job of differentiating hateful, “you’re a baby killer” pro-lifers from those who are Christ-like and eager to provide alternatives. Do you think that the film has influenced viewers in the former camp?
I hope so. I also hope that the shift towards kindness that we’re seeing during this pandemic will have a lasting impact on the pro-life movement. Because I’m already seeing some members of the pro-life movement using the pandemic as an opportunity to push an agenda. It bothers me, because I’m not one of those people who just wants to push legislation, I want to be a resource — and people are facing all kinds of hardships right now! Instead of condemning, we should be asking people how we can help. Let’s lift up our pregnancy resource centers. The unemployment rate is through the roof, so let’s be there for people.
Exactly. To love as Christ loves. On that note, our goal here at Then God Moved is to share Christ’s transformative love with non-believers. Do you have any sort of message for them?
If you’re not a believer, challenge God to show up for you. Scripture tells us “Seek and you will find” (Matthew 7:7) and it’s absolutely true. If you approach God with a genuine heart and open mind and ask Him to reveal Himself to you, you better be ready because He will rock your world. I’ve had moments of doubt or anger, when I’ve asked, “God, where were you in that moment?” And when I’ve cried out, He’s revealed Himself. I could talk all day about the crazy things I’ve experienced. Unplanned is just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, even the way I came to faith was like that…it happened when I sought Him out. I asked Him to show up and when He did, I went on a wild ride.
I love it. That’s what this is about. So many people reject God because they haven’t recognized an experience with Him and don’t think that they ever will.
He will show up if you are truly open to it. You can’t pursue Him in the hopes of proving his nonexistence. You can’t ask Him to reveal Himself while keeping Him at arm’s length. You have to invite Him in. If you look for Him, you will find Him.
Note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.