Ashley Judd: Steel Magnolia
So this is timely. Ashley Judd has been in the headlines recently for her part in bringing down the infamous Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Today’s interview was the cover story of the October 1997 issue of Movieline magazine right about the time when the events Judd described would have happened! Of course, the interview has nothing to do with Weinstein. But it does provide a look back at Judd when she was a rising actress looking to establish herself. You can tell from her answers that Judd was a fighter from way back.
Ashley Judd looms larger in the public imagination than her acting career would seem to justify. Since her breakthrough performance in the 1993 independent film Ruby in Paradise, she has tended to take interesting roles in smaller pictures, or smaller roles in interesting bigger pictures, rather than starring roles in mediocre studio fare. So, while she has been praised for her performances in films like A Time to Kill and Heat, and was certainly seen by a huge audience in Norma Jean and Marilyn on HBO, she is not as famous for being the gifted actress many in Hollywood believe her to be, as she is for being the daughter of Naomi Judd, the sister of Wynonna Judd, and the girlfriend of such celebrities as Matthew McConaughey and Michael Bolton. And being just plain beautiful.
But talk to Ashley, who is, alternately, the proverbial steel magnolia and a sensitive, serious actress, and you quickly come to understand that this 29-year-old woman is unlikely to remain famous strictly by association. Her first starring role in a big-budget studio picture, opposite Morgan Freeman in Kiss the Girls, may be the occasion for the change of status.
Just now, Judd is arriving late from her workout at the gym in the hotel she’s called home in L.A. since she moved to Tennessee after her Malibu house burned down in 1993. She orders mushroom soup, vegetarian dumplings and carrot juice from room service, grabs a bottle of water from the refrigerator in the room, and puts a band around the small clump of hair that barely covers her neck. “I drink a lot of water,” she says. “I happen to think that ponytails and water are the keys to happiness. It’s amazing to me how little people drink. My grandfather didn’t drink very much. The only time I remember him being sick was after my grandmother died and he got malnutrition. It happens a lot to men who’ve been cooked for all their lives. Isn’t that sad?”
Judd carries pictures of her grandparents wherever she goes. They were the ones who gave her a sense of stability in her life when her mother kept her and her older sister, Wynonna, on the move between Kentucky, California and Tennessee. Naomi Judd wrote all about this in her book Love Can Build a Bridge, which was made into a TV miniseries a few years ago, but Ashley’s memories don’t always coincide with her mother’s. Certain facts are indisputable: her parents divorced when she was very young, she attended 12 schools in 13 years, she spent time living with her father and her grandparents, and she didn’t sing. The singing Judds, Naomi and Wynonna, became famous when Ashley was 14. Ashley chose to go to college (the University of Kentucky), to spend time in France and to study acting. As you’ll see, she always had a sense of her own destiny.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: This may be a strange way to begin a conversation, but after seeing one of your new films, The Locusts, I have to note that this is the first time I’ve talked to an actress whose character was called a “cum-bucket” on-screen.
ASHLEY JUDD: All striving for distinction. It’s one of the most searing insults I’ve ever heard, but I don’t think it has anything to do with my character’s sexuality; it’s exclusively about the male character who says it.
Q: The first time you looked at the rough cut of The Locusts, what did you think?
A: There was an extremely compelling, very touching movie in there. It needed big-time cutting; the score was wrong; the dialogue editing needed improvement. What gratified me was that the director, J.P. Kelley, asked for my notes. He really esteemed me with his faith, because he let me participate a lot while we were actually shooting.
Q: You had no scenes with your costar Kate Capshaw, but did you get to know her at all?
A: A little bit. She and [her husband] Mr. Spielberg came down to visit a couple of times.
Q: You call him Mr. Spielberg?
A: Well, sure. Why not? He’s my elder. Until you achieve a certain level of friendliness and intimacy with people–a lot of times people do things because they can. That’s something that I do because I can’t. It’s like once you’ve kissed, you’ve kissed. So maybe don’t kiss for a couple extra weeks because it’s more interesting that way.
Q: You’ve lost me, Ms. Judd. But tell me, how old were you when you first kissed a boy?
A: First grade. I had a friend named Will Robbins, and my sister was best friends with his older sister and they liked to try and make us kiss all the time, which we did. I had a fantastic crush on Will–we were bonded because he and I were the only kids in our class sent up to a superior reading level.
Q: How did you deal with attending 12 schools in 13 years?
A: I enjoyed school. I knew that there was a promise in store every single day. In my home life, I was simply told that I was special.I’m a very classic nature vs. nurture, because I obviously I had certain predilections, I but I was encouraged in my propensities and that’s what really sealed my fate.
Q: Did you ever doubt that you had a destiny?
A: [Little girl’s voice] No. I wasn’t traipsing around saying, “I’m going to do this, I’m going to be that.” But I did have a sense of purposefulness. When I was in the 10th grade I made my vow to myself. That was more about letting the world put its veneer of ambition on me, giving it words, having that Scarlett O’Hara “I’ll never be hungry again” kind of pledge.
Q: What about the yearning to become an actor?
A: I started playing when I was really little in a way that I now define as acting.
Q: You’ve said it was embarrassing to want to be an actor. Why?
A: That’s when I didn’t know what constituted acting. The arts are not something that we advocate for our children in a forceful, articulated and revered way in America. So I didn’t know what it was all about. I didn’t want to be a celebrity. That’s what was embarrassing to me.
Q: Ruby in Paradise is the film that first woke up Hollywood to your possibilities. You said you were the happiest you’ve ever been making that film. Still true?
A: It will never be replaced in terms of its value and charm, but I have definitely been happier since.
Q: What’s the biggest rush you’ve gotten from acting?
A: There are two. One is the balcony scene in Heat. I enjoyed my collaboration with Michael Mann. The other is the almost-suicide scene in Normal Life.
Q: Did you have a lot of competition to get the part of Val Kilmer’s wife in Heat?
A: Michael Mann saw everybody in town. When I first went in I had just come back from working in Europe and taking an idyllic holiday in Portofino, Italy, by myself. So my consciousness was someplace else. I taped a scene for Michael and got myself hired based on that. I’d do anything for Michael Mann, anything. I would just pour myself out to him as an artist.
Q: Were you disappointed when your part was cut out of Natural Born Killers?
A: Not at all, because I learned what I learned. I did the work. That’s what counts. I got to work with Oliver [Stone].
Q: You played Harvey Keitel’s daughter in Smoke. Did you do much improvisation?
A: None. Paul Auster’s screenplay had the little turns of humanity, of rage, of self-loathing, of debilitating grief. It was all in the lines. Solid scenes, extremely well written. All I had to do was fill it up with behavior. It didn’t require any improvisation to get there.
Q: You’ve worked with legends like Pacino and De Niro, and with up-and-comers like Matthew McConaughey and Vince Vaughn. Can you compare the veterans with the newcomers?
A: It’s very interesting to work with someone like Matthew or Vince–they’re young to it and they’re good. What they’re doing is what the masters long ago perfected–they’re just being themselves. That’s why Matthew’s performance A Time to Kill was so well received, and why Vince was so great in Swingers. They’re on the right track. The guys who are evolved haven’t evolved out of being themselves–they work with their currency, and your own expression is the most powerful currency you have.
Q: You said you didn’t think your character in A Time to Kill was special.
A: It scared me for that reason. She didn’t have the emotional volatility of a lot of the other characters that I’ve played. She is kind of the normal kid that I have come to realize my parents were when they were the age I was five years ago. This wasn’t a person with a tremendous emotional dysfunction or any imperative mission. We make movies about extraordinary people, but she wasn’t.
Q: You wound up living with Matthew McConaughey during filming–was this part of method acting?
A: No, it was about fun. It’s not like we met, shook hands, and I moved in. We were seeing each other before we made A Time to Kill. The day I got there I went over to dinner with him and I never left until I had to go to L.A. to make Norma Jean and Marilyn.
Q: Are you still friends?
A: Oh yeah! Very good friends.
Q: How did it end between you?
A: It was two people who loved each other releasing each other. I realized that the woman Matthew ends up with forever is not going to be the woman with whom he went through this fantastic change. “Fantastic” meaning “related to fantasy.” He was getting offers for extraordinary amounts of money before the movie was halfway finished. He couldn’t help but know that there was going to be a very different landscape when he emerged from that movie.
Q: Last I heard you had split up with Michael Bolton. Can you talk about it or is it off limits because it’s still too raw?
A: Off, but thank you for asking. In a way it’s hard, because you love people and you think so much of them. I would love to go on, to talk about nothing but the men I love. But I’m not going to.
Q: Do you have a man you love now?
A: Yeah. Oh yeah. I’d say two. [Laughs]
Q: Your sister said she didn’t worry about you professionally, but did worry that you were going to fall in love with every guy you acted with. Unfair comment?
A: Not unfair. I’m sure that’s a valid concern to a lot of people on the outside.
Q: Why do you have this reputation for dating your costars?
A: Because people like you seem to put it out there. It’s like this guy that I let carry me to my car the other night when I got mobbed–I was carrying my shoes in my hands, and this good-looking security guy asked if I wanted him to carry me to my car. What is that going to mean? That I have the reputation for getting so drunk I can’t walk out of a bar? It’s definitely not who I am. If anything, I’m a very straight drunk. If I get drunk you can’t tell I’m drunk unless I decide to let you know I am.
Q: Do you ever get stoned?
A: I don’t smoke. Never.
Q: What about cocaine?
A: Never. Never.
Q: You’ve said you studied articles in sociological journals about why people are interested in celebrities. What did you find out?
A: I was interested in why we elevate these people, the psychology of this adulation. But I didn’t find out much. I experience it more firsthand. I choose to remain impervious. I feel a tug occasionally at trying to discourage people’s inordinate attachment to what movie stars do. But I don’t know that I can dismantle even one person’s excessive and inappropriate and really just fundamentally impolite interest in what people like me do.
Q: What magazines do you read?
Q: Do you remember the first time you saw Playboy magazine?
A: Why would you ask a question like that?
Q: Why not?
A: A stack of magazines under a bed rings a bell, but I couldn’t tell you where. It’s interesting because it’s a maverick question. It’s a curious thing to ask. And I’m very suspicious of Movieline magazine. They’re very cutting and very spiteful. It’s a very snitty, rumor-fueled magazine. I wonder what sorts of things they lead you to ask.
Q: They don’t lead me to ask anything. They just like to have fun.
A: Oh yeah, a lot of fun … at other people’s expense. Whoooo! That’s quality fun right there, friend!