Ashley Judd: Steel Magnolia
Q: Back to your work. You played the young, pre-stardom Marilyn Monroe in the HBO movie Norma jean and Marilyn. You said about her, “Her life would have been unspeakably more tragic if she hadn’t been famous.
A: And if she hadn’t been physically beautiful, because that is such a commodity in this time and place. Then again, who is to say? If she had been ugly, she may have been forced to find a spiritual peace that she managed to dodge because she was constantly living with the transaction of her body.
Q: Your mother disapproved of your playing a nude scene in Norma Jean and Marilyn–how often do you have to deal with her disapproval?
A: Disapproved, approved, whatever. It disturbed her a little bit, but we’re always going to upset our parents. That’s part of our job as the next generation.
Q: Did your mother once take you to the UCLA Medical Center to hear about the effects that playing certain intense characters can have on actors’ immune systems?
A: She’s so full of shit. I happened to go with her and it’s something I learned, so no big deal.
Q: And then you go on to play an extremely intense character in Kiss the Girls.
A: Actually, it was a moment of great vindication. On my birthday everyone was out here and Paramount let me screen Kiss the Girls. I had my friends, family, acting teacher. My mother asked him, “Do you think it’s all justified what she puts herself through?” And he said, “Absolutely. Whatever it takes.”
Q: Would you gain the weight De Niro did to play a part like Jake LaMotta?
A: Yeah, that part, that director, yes.
Q: You know what Olivier said about Dustin Hoffman after Hoffman ran for an hour to get his adrenaline pumping in Marathon Man? “Why doesn’t the dear boy just act?!”
A: My response to that story is, When you’re Olivier you have the right to say that to me, but you’re not Olivier, so you don’t have that right. Also, Olivier had his technique, God bless him, and Dustin Hoffman has his, and I have mine. And I’m with Dustin.
Q: What did you learn from Morgan Freeman?
A: It’s so rich as to be almost beyond description and so basic as to be stupid sounding. It’s also personal. Suffice to say, he is a hero. The gulf between how cool he is and the rest of the world is insurmountable. An abyss!
Q: In Kiss the Girls you play a psychologist who helps Morgan Freeman track down a man who kidnaps and kills women. What resonated for you in this character?
A: Her determination, power and deep emotional commitment. She is faith in action.
Q: Since Kiss the Girls is a suspense thriller with some frightening violence in it, what importance does this film have that mitigates the darker aspects of it?
A: I can’t answer that. People just have to see for themselves how the final scene is the inevitable culmination of my character’s story. After all the harrowing emotional crescendo, it is extremely gratifying.
Q: In Kiss the Girls you kickbox. How good are you?
A: Very good. My trainer used to have me stand under a tree and he’d tell me to kick a certain leaf.
Q: Would you like to have kicked the executives at Fine Line who sent Normal Life almost straight to video?
A: I had an incredible experience on that film. The woman who took over Fine Line [Ruth Vitale] didn’t want to send a bratty stepchild to Harvard, which was what Normal Life was. She came in ready to revamp a company: out with the old, in with the new. She hadn’t financed the movie, she hadn’t approved the script, she didn’t have anything to do with the casting of it, she didn’t look at the dailies or get preliminary cuts sent to her. She got this incredibly powerful, disturbing film given to her when she wanted to make storybook quasi-Merchant Ivory movies. Normal Life got caught in her ideological crossfire. The thing that was cruddy was that she lied about the movie. She said it was set up to go to video. Excuse me, I do not actively seek out movies that are set up to go to video! What horse manure! I have a very fond spot for Siskel and Ebert, because they saw the movie and gave it an incredible review.
Q: You have a will and confidence about your career choices that must go back to your childhood. Did you really feel, as you’ve said, that you practically grew up in the back of a U-Haul truck?
A: We were a tight family, but there was something about the inconsistency of it all, the vagueness that would often come up in my experiences with my mother because she wasn’t available to me due to financial hardship or emotional strain.
Q: Did you have any fears as a child?
A: No, [though] being powerless was a condition I endured quite a bit, so there may have been some fear accompanying that.
Q: You’ve said that Wynonna was born with clenched fists, whereas you were born with open hands. What does that mean?
A: She was at an age where she understood and felt the effects of divorce more than I did. I was so young I was basically immune to it. It shaped me, but not in the dramatic and angry ways that it would impact an eight-year-old.
Q: You were 14 when your mother and sister made their first album–what are your memories of that?
A: The music is a balm. Music is the greatest gift.
Q: And you didn’t feel you had that gift at all?
A: Didn’t have anything to do with whether or not I felt I had it, it had to do with where my interests were. I did my own thing. I read and was extremely independent. I liked to play by myself. Once I got active in school I had a comprehensive social network, so music wasn’t interesting to me. I think I played the washboard in the second grade for fun. Never got much noise out of it–I didn’t understand how it worked.
Q: Did your father ever tell you anything that stuck with you?
A: There were some things he only said once, and that’s what I’ll always remember him for. One was with regard to the power that women have with men. I was 17. He said, “Go easy on the boys, you’ve got something we don’t.” He was talking about the power to carry a life in your womb. Then there was something else he said when I was 17. He told me that at that age I was already smarter and more sophisticated than he would ever be.That’s not necessarily true, [but] I understand the esteem and regard that he had for me.
Q: What major revelations did you go through when you turned 16 and 18?
A: What I experienced about myself at 16 was that I’m very gritty. That I’m extremely ambitious and very hardworking. I don’t mind striving to attain the things about which I dreamed. At 18, I went to college and it was the perfect environment for me. It was someplace beautiful and consistent. I really flourished. To a certain extent I had always been afraid to work as hard as I knew I could, because I had always been told that I was gifted and special. If I had to work hard at something, it meant that I wasn’t already good at it. If I wasn’t good at it, I wasn’t special.
Q: After college, you went to L.A. and became a hostess at the Industry-heavy restaurant, the Ivy?
A: Yes, for about a year. I was also going to a fantastic acting school at Playhouse West. I had fun at the Ivy just being a kid. I enjoyed every minute of it.
Q: Did you make any Industry connections?
A: Yeah, I got to be friends with a lot of people because they were good customers. Every now and then we have a laugh about my escorting them to table five.
Q: You appeared in Picnic on Broadway. Did being on Broadway mean to you what it means to a lot of New York actors?
A: Yeah, but you’re still a bit of a foreigner. It’s like not being French and going to Paris to eat at a fancy restaurant. I speak the language, I’m a bit of a connoisseur, but it’s not going to blow my mind on a genetic level the way it would a French woman. So was I elated and esteemed? Yes. But I wasn’t raised in the theater.
Q: Weren’t you offered a larger role in the movie Kuffs than the one you ended up with, if you were willing to do nudity?
A: I wasn’t offered the part. It was my first audition. There were two other women and I thought they were boiling it down to a booby factor–choosing a pair of breasts. I was counseled by my agent not to do it.
Q: You’ve had the same agent since you came to Hollywood–how much do you trust her counsel?
A: She is my advocate. She doesn’t give a rat’s ass about anybody else. That feels good, especially where you’re the younger of two and you come from a family where there’s a tremendously charismatic dynamic constantly in motion. To have somebody who is just yours. Everybody needs a figure like that.
Q: Do you have scripts or books you want to do?
A: Absolutely We’ve been extremely conservative letting people use my name or go out to writers, directors, costars, but I’ve found stuff I feel very confident about. What I’m looking for is what my character has to say. Is there value in it? Do I respond to the woman? I just read Ang Lee’s new script–it’s gorgeous, but I didn’t respond to the woman. If he still would like to meet me, I would be insane with joy to meet him, but maybe we should wait until he’s done making this movie, because it’s a waste of our time right now because I’m not interested in embodying that girl.
Q: Would you also like to direct?
A: You bet. No doubt about it. I’d say next year. Definitely. For some of us it’s a very natural evolution. I like responsibility, I like being comprehensive. I have both diffused awareness and problem-solving capacities, and it’s just the vortex for a person like me. It’s such a great repository for all of one’s resources, energies, talents, abilities. I can’t wait.
Q: Would you like to follow the path of Jodie Foster?
A: I’ve never met Jodie Foster. She’s extremely admirable. [But] I don’t look at other people, because I have to go to bed and wake up with me.
Q: What makes Jennifer Jason Leigh the best actress of your generation, as you’ve described her?
A: She doesn’t fumble around wondering. She seems completely pledged to using herself.
Q: Who else do you admire?
A: I love Vanessa Redgrave. She is such an open vessel through which it passes. And I love Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange, Judy Davis, Joan Allen.
Q: What about men?
A: Bob, Al, Val.
Q: The Heat trio.
A: I’m not very oriented towards men. Growing up in a very feminine-centric family, my concept of art is much more easily touched by what women do. [But] I think Ed Harris is a very good actor. Nicolas Cage always makes me laugh. I think that Val and I should definitely work together again. I’m over the moon about Gene Hackman. I would love to do something with Mr. Duvall.
Q: So far with your career, any regrets?
A: Zero. No regrets. Proud of everything.
Q: What are your favorite books and writers?
A: Always Edith Wharton and Steinbeck. Then C.S. Lewis. I’m reading The Screwtape Letters. I’m reading Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, which is a very funny book. I’m reading Steve Martin’s plays. I just read two books by an Irish writer named Colum McCann, Songdogs, his novel, and Fishing the Sloe-Black River, his collection of stories. I’m also finishing a book called Mystic in the Theater: Eleonora Duse. [Gets up and goes from the patio to the living room and brings back Stephen Mitchell’s The Gospel According to Jesus.] This is the book. Stephen Mitchell is a scholar and a translator of the Tao Te Ching and the Book of Job. What he did here was resume Thomas Jefferson’s work in taking all the translations of the gospels and putting them side-by-side and using the spiritual sense of discernment to distill it all down to the essential teachings of Jesus. [This version of the gospel stresses] that forgiveness is not an action, it is a state of mind. You can’t galvanize yourself into forgiving someone because you extract it from your morality. You do it because you have a vision.
Q: Isn’t that giving a selfishness to the act of forgiving?
A: Oh, but that’s the continuation of the most beautiful, complicated, ambiguous–and yet right–yin and yang, the micro and the macro. If I am going to have a sense of nonattachment about what you do, then I don’t care what you do because you do have to be accountable to me and to other humans. At first Buddhism seems so easy, and then you get into stuff like that and you realize why it takes 40 years. If.
Q: Wow, we jumped from Christ to Buddha. Let’s stay Western. I gather you read the Bible.
A: I don’t go anywhere without it, but I can’t say I read it every day. I have little devotional books that I look at every day. The Psalms are a bit like haiku. It is clean, but it is very deep and very poetic. “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; there shall thy hand lead me.” Psalm 139. It’s fabulous.
Q: Let’s get back to you. How many times have you skydived and bungee-jumped?
A: Bungee-jumped once, skydived twice.
Q: When do you chew tobacco?
A: Whenever I want. Sometimes three times a day, sometimes not for a month.
Q: Isn’t that kind of disgusting? Where do you spit?
A: In a Cinderella cup from Disneyland.
Q: How long have you been chewing?
A: A year and a half.
Q: Do you smoke cigars?
A: Not so much anymore, since I started to chew.
Q: I understand that you often fast.
A: I did that twice last year and I won’t do it again for quite a while.
Q: What do you most dislike about your appearance?
A: Right now I have a freckle I’m bleaching.
Q: How do you make soap?
A: Lard and lye. Gets hot in a pot, stir it carefully making sure not to touch it because the lye hasn’t gone through the chemical change rendering it innocuous. Then you pour it into plastic Tupperware, cover it with a cheese cloth or a little calico, and put it on the floor in the corner. Eventually when it firms up, remove the cloth and cut it into bars.
Q: What question would make you want to stop doing this interview?
A: Some stupid question about the future which necessitates my being prescient.
Q: So where do you think you’ll be 10 years from now?
Lawrence Grobel interviewed Harrison Ford for the July ’97 issue of Movieline.