Nick Sweeney had no idea what he was getting into when he made the late Norma McCorvey the subject of his first feature-length documentary, AKA Jane Roe. The Australian best known for directing a U.K. TV series about transgender kids, Born in the Wrong Body, was less interested in ideology, and simply curious about the woman at the center of the landmark Roe v. Wade 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion. He wanted to understand how, in 1995, after the court ruled in her favor and she’d lived for years “as an out-and-proud lesbian” with her girlfriend Connie Gonzalez, McCorvey renounced that life — along with her pro-abortion stance — and became a born-again Christian aligned with the anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue.
“I’m gay myself, and Norma gave up her sexuality, and her relationship ended in a very sad way,” he recently told Vulture. “I was curious about how she identified, where she saw herself on the spectrum.” He quickly found out. “We were walking into a restaurant and an attractive woman walked past, and Norma wolf whistled at her,” he recalled, laughing. That turned out to be the least of McCorvey’s surprises. The Texas native, who died in 2017, went on to deliver a “deathbed confession,” admitting that the anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue had paid her hundreds of thousands of dollars for her testimonials — and that she had always been pro-choice.
Ahead of the FX film’s debut tonight, Sweeney explains how he gained McCorvey’s trust, and whether he knew in advance about the bombshell she was about to drop.
When did you first meet Norma, and how hard was it to convince her to do the documentary?
In 2016, I reached out [to her]. She had all these questions about me. She asked what [religious] congregation I went to, and what organization I was reaching out from — which of the different factions was I from. My answer was none. I think because of that, she agreed to meet up, and we started hanging out. We spent time in Texas driving around, and going to pick up barbecue a few times. Not filming, just kind of talking about her life. And the things she was saying to me were not what I expected.
Was she already sick and in a nursing home?
She was in a home —and her health wasn’t great. Her health deteriorated quickly towards the beginning of 2017. But when we first started filming in early 2016, she was very feisty, very fun. She had a wry sense of humor and was very charming.
In the film, abortion counselor Charlotte Taft says being friends with Norma was “a complicated experience.” Her early life was filled with abuse. Is it possible she was simply seeking out people who would love and accept her, from the pro-choice people to Operation Rescue?
The people Norma came in contact with wanted her to fit a mold that perhaps suited them or their needs. Norma was always thrashing against that. She wanted to be herself, and that meant subverting people’s expectations — for better or worse. I think she alienated some people … by not fitting into what they wanted. There’s a really interesting line from Charlotte where she says [Operation Rescue] made [Norma] feel like she was right: We’re the ones that are with God. I don’t think all of these things are mutually exclusive. When I ask Norma [in the film] if she thinks she was a trophy, her response is, it’s a mutual thing. “They’ve got me out front and tell me what to say. And I took their money.” It’s a really interesting point that you raise. Charlotte says when Norma was at a Georgetown University appearance, there was so much adulation. That was something that was certainly intoxicating to her.
Were you surprised by her confession — and what do you think her motivation was?
I was shocked. It was not what I expected to be the direction the film took. I did sense from the onset that she felt used by different anti-abortion groups [and] in many ways … by the abortion-rights movement. One of the things that became clear over that final year was that she realized she didn’t have all that long left. She knew that she could tell her story, or somebody else could. But I didn’t ever expect her to say those things.
The people who knew Norma were very surprised she came out with it. Particularly Rob Schenck, the Evangelical leader who was one of the chief figures at Operation Rescue. I was surprised at his reaction. He believes very strongly in the cathartic power of confession. I can only think his coming out with an explanation of what really happened, to set the record straight, was an act of power. Here’s somebody who had nothing to gain by admitting to all of this. It takes incredible bravery to do that.
Did he provide the tax return that corroborates her story?
Norma started a 501(c)(3) [a nonprofit exempt from federal income tax] to absorb all of the honorariums and speakers fees and “benevolence gifts,” as Rob called them. So those forms are from the organization that she established for which she was the only employee.
Did she really break up with Connie, or was that a lie too?
What was clear was that Operation Rescue told her there were going to have to be some lifestyle changes. She could not be a lesbian. All we know is what we see: that she made TV and other public appearances disavowing her sexuality. [It’s] incredibly sad and heartbreaking [because] she says in the film, “I loved her. I loved her with all my heart, and I wish I could see her.” It’s very hard for me to watch those scenes of Norma’s baptism [from the 1997 film Roe vs. Roe: Baptism by Fire]. I think my generation takes for granted the freedoms that we have to be ourselves and to be openly gay, or queer, or any sexuality — in some places, not everywhere, obviously. When I think about the impact that would have on my life to have those conditions put upon me. The most emotional moment is when we see the look on Connie’s face when Norma gets baptized. She looks shell-shocked. She is so heartbroken.
How did you keep Norma’s bombshell revelation under wraps for so long?
I didn’t intend to, to be honest. It took me an incredibly long time to make the film. Norma’s life was so complicated, and we had so many disparate elements that we had to get together. We also had the head-spinning twist and additional interviews that had to be cut into the film in a way the audience could digest. It just took an incredibly long amount of time.
What did Norma die of?
She had a number of comorbidities: diabetes and COPD, and then at the very end, I think it was heart failure. She lived a pretty hard life — a sad life that had a lot of traumatic events. She liked to drink and party and take drugs. She describes herself as not being a picture-perfect, white-gloved lady, which kind of represents the wild life that she led, and that takes its toll.
What do you hope the outcome of the film is?
That it will help people understand this enigmatic, mysterious woman, who lived a very perplexing life. Being at the center of these huge issues are real people. Norma was the plaintiff who fit the bill, and she was forever tethered to this huge issue. Behind the symbolic case and divisive debate [was] an actual person. The other thing is that people — younger people, in particular — maybe take for granted the history of all of this. Not just in terms of the case and the abortion debate, but also just what it was like to be a queer person. It was very brave of [her] to live openly and proudly when things were much more conservative and in a place where things were not easy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.