Ashley Judd looks just like a movie star should, even when everything’s falling down around her. There she is, glimmering in a corner amid the debris and dust, eating almonds and drinking nettle tea. We have arranged to meet in a small Notting Hill Gate restaurant—she has been in London shooting a film about the life of Cole Porter—and when I arrive, I find that the restaurant’s ceiling has caved in. She is wearing a turquoise silk shift over white pants and a pale-pink camisole, and she has a white rose pinned in her hair, not one strand of which is out of place. She is so pretty, so dewy, that without makeup she looks about 8 years old. She is actually 35 years old, with 26 film roles under her belt, having played Marilyn Monroe and held her own opposite Morgan Freeman in three movies. This September, she will be appearing on Broadway as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
“I’m the most excited about doing this play that I have been about anything,” says Judd. “It’s the greatest part in American theater for someone of my age range. I told Anthony Page, the director, that if I get any more excited, I’m going to hurt myself.” Getting the part is particularly meaningful for Judd because she turned it down when Page offered it to her for his London production four years ago. “Dario and I had just met,” Judd explains. “And I thought, That’s a nice way to handicap a relationship.”
Dario is the race-car driver Dario Franchitti; he and Judd had a somewhat secret engagement and married in December 2001. Now, she says, “I’m tired of movies. I’ve dubbed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ‘the actor’s revenge’ because there’s no cameramen, no lights, no breaking in the middle of the scene because it’s time for lunch.”
Weary of the movies as she may be, she certainly is good in every film she does. She is tiny and feminine, yet never flimsy as a performer. She often plays strong women—in those Morgan Freeman movies, for example, like Kiss the Girls—but even when she is playing a woman undone, you never see her completely dissolve. One of her most memorable performances was as the young Vivi in the otherwise unmemorable Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. “I walked away from that movie saying I might be able to do different, but I can’t do better,” she says of playing a young mother who suffers a messy mental breakdown and loudly and painfully rejects her daughter. It was startling to watch the character, someone so perfectly composed, unravel, and Judd did not hit a false note.
In the movie De-Lovely, she stars as Linda, the glamorous wife of Kevin Kline’s Cole Porter, who married the lyricist and composer after fleeing an abusive Social Register marriage. Despite Porter’s many gay affairs, the marriage was a great success. Like Judd, Linda Lee Thomas Porter was from the South, and for all her sophistication, intelligence, and style (she was one of the first people to have a minimalist all-white drawing room, in Paris in 1919, which Judd can describe every detail of, down to the kind of pencils), she never lost her identity. Judd is similar—at once erudite and homespun; stylish and earthy; glamorous but not done up.
An avid gardener, she is “studying roses” at the moment, and when she went to visit a famous English rose garden recently, she was spellbound: “I just left my shoes in one place, my tote bag in another, scarf here, hat somewhere else, and I was just peeing in the garden, not even bothering to go to the loo.”
City life “is always a kind of ‘Whoa, Bessie’ experience” for her and Franchitti, she says. “My husband and I are not particularly urban people.” The couple divide their time, when not working, between their farm in Tennessee and their house and garden in the Scottish countryside. Do they want children? “God to know, us to find out,” she says. “Never lusted after them.”
Whatever happens, Judd is rooted firmly in her family. Her sister and mother are Wynonna and Naomi Judd, the country singer-songwriters. “We are close,” says Judd, “though growing up with women means that I never shut the door when I go to the bathroom, even, sometimes, in restaurants.” (Possibly this explains the garden-peeing.) As for the pressures of growing up with a mother and sister famous for being a team, she says, “My sister is the mirror to my soul. I’m not motivated by bettering Jennifer Lopez, or catching up with Julianne Moore. But when I hear how powerfully my sister sings and how true she is, I know that I have a responsibility to my gift, to find out how deep my depth is.”
Judd will be doing just that when she comes to Broadway. “All I know is that doing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is going to change me. How can I do Tennessee Williams for six months and remain unchanged? Something wonderful is going to happen.
“Plus,” she says, “I’m coming to New York at the best time of year. I’m excited about it being autumn. I’m excited about the Yankees. And after being in London for three months, I’m excited about doing something so American. I saw some New York construction workers the other day, and I wanted to kiss them.”