Interview: ‘CAPTIVE’ Author Ashley Smith Tells of Her Harrowing, Spiritual Journey and Kate Mara’s Portrayal


bgPreston Barta // Features Editor

Ashley Smith’s vivid account of her plight to save herself from alleged courthouse killer Brian Nichols is a remarkable story. In 2005, Smith walked away from the hands of Nichols by changing his heart through God. If God could turn her life around and bring her out of the depths of depression and drug addiction, she was sure it could change Nichols as well as others.

Her novel-turned-movie, CAPTIVE (previously published as UNLIKELY ANGEL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE ATLANTA HOSTAGE HERO), is a hopeful story of healing that should not be left to dust on shelves, and her upcoming film adaptation starring Kate Mara (HOUSE OF CARDS) and David Oyelowo (SELMA) is no different.

Fresh Fiction had the opportunity to sit down with Smith to discuss her gripping tale of redemption, Hollywood’s approach to faith-based films, Mara’s portrayal of her, and how her story has touched many.

UNLIKELY ANGEL / CAPTIVE author Ashley Smith.

UNLIKELY ANGEL / CAPTIVE author Ashley Smith.

One of the first things I took notice of when I first heard about this story was that it was being produced by Paramount, which many would consider to be a secular production studio. Was there anything about the film adaptation process that surprised or shocked you?

Ashley Smith: “I think it very much shocked me that we got Paramount. I talked to some of the Paramount people yesterday while I was in LA, and to just hear some of them say, ‘I’m not even a Christian and I absolutely loved this film,’ brought tears to my eyes. It’s pretty amazing to see people love it no matter where they come from. Yeah, shocked, for sure. I’m so glad we have Paramount on our side.”

I think it’s safe to say that faith-based films are not as widely regarded as mainstream cinema, unless it takes a more subtle approach. Do you feel like Paramount did that with your story?

Smith: “I honestly feel that even though this film does have a faith-based message it deals with real-life issues. I was a meth addict fighting a spiritual war, and this was a man who killed four people. This movie doesn’t shove Jesus down your throat, but it does show you that I had faith in God. With all my heart I believe God is the one who saved me from this tragic event. I think the film is done in a good way where people that aren’t so religious will still come see it and hear a message.”

Obviously you went through a change when you experienced the true story, but did you notice any kind of change in yourself when you put your story on paper?

Smith: “When I wrote the original book, UNLIKELY ANGEL, 10 years ago it was a healing process for me. I had a lot of emotions going on from the murder of my husband dying in my arms to losing custody of my daughter because of choices I made due to drugs. I covered a lot of those emotions up with drugs, so when I wrote the book with Stacy [Mattingly] it was like a long session with your psychologist [Laughs]. It was really freeing for me because here I was not on drugs and spilling my whole life out. It was brutal. This was like 10 hours a day, seven days a week– it was seven or nine days that we met. [Stacy] told me, ‘I want you to start as far back as you can remember.’

So yeah, I definitely began to feel myself changing and becoming more at peace with my situations from the past where I didn’t want to think or talk about them. I think I let myself heal as a result of rehashing it, knowing I was sober doing it.”

Do you think that it takes something as drastic as what happened in your life for people to have a change of heart?

Smith: “I think God is a huge factor in changing people’s lives. I don’t necessarily think it has to be a big, dramatic experience. I think He will meet us in a way where He knows we need Him. My family often jokes by saying God was very bold and loud to use several different times to tell me to change: through my husband who died in my arms, losing custody of my daughter, being in jail, being in mental institutions– you name it, I was there. Every dramatic thing that could have happened has pretty much happened to me. That being said, not everybody has to have something crazy happen to them; it just needs to reach down and touch their heart. I think that looks different in different people’s lives.”

Were you on the film’s set at all?

Smith: “I was on set for the courthouse scene. My children and I are actually in the courthouse scene.”

Oh really? Wow.

Smith: “It was very brief! You might even have to hit pause to see us in there [Laughs]. But we were there for four days. It was fun to be there and it was neat to see the passion that everyone had behind it.”

Did you notice any kind of spiritual change amongst the cast and crew?

Smith: “I don’t know if I necessarily saw a spiritual change but just to see that everybody– to me, to experience that, it didn’t appear that people were there to make money; it was to tell a story they all believed in. It wasn’t just a story they were told to tell; it was honestly something that everyone had a piece of their heart in. I think that touched me in itself, just knowing the story that God used my life to tell was getting other people excited to share with the world.”

Kate Mara as Ashley Smith and David Oyelowo as Brian Nichols in CAPTIVE. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Kate Mara as Ashley Smith and David Oyelowo as Brian Nichols in CAPTIVE. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

What about your talks with Kate Mara on portraying you?

Smith: “Kate came to my family’s house and met with us for several hours. We had some phenomenal conversations about family, who we are and where we come from. She really is sweet and almost like a southern girl herself, but she’s straight from New York all the way.

Watching the movie and seeing her and Elle [Graham] together, they got the relationship between my daughter and I 100%. It was almost creepily amazing to watch how well they got me and Paige on-screen, and the couple hours I did spend with [Kate] she obviously got me.”

Did you hit any kind of narrative struggles when watching the film?

Smith: “There were a couple added scenes. The first time I watched the film I was like, ‘but that didn’t happen.’ But, as I watched it a third and fourth time I was able to be constructive and sit back, and that’s when I began to understand the film process. While this scene was not particularly true, it was added to enhance the story and show how I was feeling emotionally. When I understood that and watched the scene again I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! It totally showed just how stressed and emotional I was feeling at that time.’ Everything in the movie is pretty dead-on in portraying how everything happened: the emotions I was feeling and the situations as they happened.”

Do you have any other favorite film adaptations?

Smith: “You know, I don’t really watch much television or movies. I think one of my favorite movies I watched recently was FLIGHT with Denzel Washington.”

Oyelowo and Mara in CAPTIVE. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Oyelowo and Mara in CAPTIVE. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

It’s funny that you bring up that particular film, because I noticed a lot of parallels between CAPTIVE and FLIGHT. I got a similar vibe from CAPTIVE because its faith-based aspect is very subtle and not over the head.

Smith: “And that’s very much what this film is. I mean, I do read THE PURPOSE DRIVEN LIFE in this film, but again, there’s scenes where I’m doing drugs and on drugs. So you can definitely see that it has the world in it, but it’s very quiet in the way that it presents faith.”

If you could watch a bio pic on someone’s life, living or dead, while sitting next to that person, who would it be?

Smith: “I think it would be Jesus. I know he knows he’s all-knowing and omnipotent, but I think I would like to see his human moments when he would cry. I think that would be interesting to see.”

Are you reading any books right now?

Smith: “I’m not reading anything right now other than my Bible. I’m not much of a reader. I’m too busy to read [Laughs]. With a full-time job, kids, and a book/movie tour, it’s hard to do anything. But, I would really love to get back into reading because I think it would be a great form of relaxation for me.”

What’s next for you?

Smith: “I think the next phase in my life I just might relax. I’ve been working hard lately. However, I think in the next 10 years I would like to be a public speaker and live my life for the Lord, doing whatever he has for me to do.”

UNLIKELY ANGEL (CAPTIVE) is available to purchase today at book stores. CAPTIVE will hit theaters on September 18.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction ( as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.