Roe v. Wade plaintiff stars in abortion-themed film

Fri May 6, 2011 7:39pm EDT

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The plaintiff in the landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade is making her acting debut in a movie about a woman seeking to terminate her inconvenient pregnancy during the 1960s.

Norma McCorvey, a.k.a. Jane Roe, appears in "Doonby," a psychological thriller from British writer/director Peter Mackenzie. She plays an elderly woman who tries to talk the expectant mother out of going through with her plan.

Mackenzie wanted to cast someone with the gravitas to deliver anti-abortion dialogue without being preachy. So last year, over lunch at a restaurant in tiny Smithville, Texas, he persuaded McCorvey, one of the most controversial living Americans, to play the role, despite the fact she had never acted before.

"I thought she encapsulated American thinking on the issue," says Mackenzie.

The niche title tackles abortion head-on, taking place in modern times but with significant flashbacks to an era when illegal abortions were conducted in back alleys. The filmmakers know they've created something controversial but maintain it is apolitical -- a position that will be a tough sell beyond pro-life circles.

But plenty of small movies have turned a profit by wooing narrow demographics. "The Kids Are All Right," with its initial appeal to gays and lesbians, was made for $4 million and earned $21 million at the domestic box office; "Facing the Giants" targeted Christians and earned $10 million on a $100,000 budget; and "Sideways" appealed first to wine aficionados and took in $72 million on a $16 million budget.

Political films can be less forgiving, though. "An American Carol" was a money-loser, for example, and the jury is still out on "Atlas Shrugged: Part 1," both of which chased right-wingers.

"Doonby" -- planned for September release, though no distributor is attached -- stars John Schneider as a drifter and Robert Davi and Joe Estevez (Charlie Sheen's uncle) as the town's sheriff and doctor, respectively. It was made for $2 million and financed by a wealthy person making his first film investment who wishes to remain anonymous.

In 1969, when McCorvey was 21, she used the pseudonym Jane Roe and hired attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington to force Texas to allow her to abort her third child. Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court in 1973 -- long after McCorvey gave birth and the baby girl was adopted -- making it illegal for states to outlaw abortion.

McCorvey converted to Catholicism and became pro-life two decades ago and described her transformation in her 1998 book Won by Love. "I abused alcohol, sex, everything. Now that I have God, I'm nicer," she told The Hollywood Reporter. "I understand the role that I've played in history. Of course I have regrets, but I'm so glad that I don't have the regret of having had an abortion on my conscience."

McCorvey has appeared as herself in documentaries about Roe v. Wade, but it was divine intervention, she says, that led her to make her acting debut in "Doonby." Before researching her whereabouts, the director chose to shoot his film in Smithville -- population 3,902 -- where McCorvey lives.

"I guess you could say the project chose me," she says. "God told me to move there two years before but didn't really tell me why. So I obeyed. I had no family there, no friends. I just obeyed."

Says Mackenzie: "I tried to find Norma, and that's where it got a little spooky. Out of the blue, during some random conversation, I discovered that Norma actually lived there."

The director says McCorvey was suspicious of his motives, but he won her over with the script. "Our movie has people talking not about whether abortion should be legal or illegal," Mackenzie says, "but about something that we should all be able to agree on: Every abortion performed means that something is lost."

Despite their intentions, Mackenzie and company have created a film that could appeal to Christian conservatives more than other demographics, which makes low-budget marketing a tricky endeavor. Phase 1 is acknowledging McCorvey's role in the film. Talk radio and Fox News Channel are in the mix, but the filmmakers have no intention of excluding the other side. After all, there's no shortage of pro-lifers with otherwise impeccable liberal credentials. Martin Sheen and Warren Beatty, for example.

The filmmakers have been showing the unfinished movie to politicians and commentators, and Mackenzie has even made postproduction tweaks based on feedback, in the same way Mel Gibson did with 2004's "The Passion of the Christ."

And because "Doonby" should also appeal to blues enthusiasts and people who have struggled with alcoholism, both themes in the movie, screenings are being arranged for professional musicians and support groups. "If the film raises an issue that touches a constituency, we'd like them to be aware of it," a marketing executive attached to the movie says.

Mackenzie betrays no agenda on the part of his backer: "He liked its message and called it a cross between The Sixth Sense and It's a Wonderful Life. I guess he figured it would be a good investment, too."

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