Among actors who have achieved a certain degree of success,
There are two chief decisions to be concerned about. The first is the almost-always tragic assumption that acting talent transfers to singing and/or songwriting (we’ve seen too many desperate casualties of this affliction to list them all here), the other is the inclination to “take a break” from the business in order to collect one’s thoughts, start a family, or simply take shelter from constant scrutiny. The latter move is one that can be defended on a variety of fronts, but almost always is either a: not meant in sin- cerity or b: ultimately disastrous. Just this year, we have had declarations of “break” from Kate Hudson shortly after discovering that she was pregnant, Jennifer Aniston in the wake of rumors that she too, is expecting, and from Michelle Williams. Even more recent was the fantastically short-lived declara- tion from Adele that she was taking a multiple year break from singing, only to recant after…a week.
When Ashley Judd decided in 2006 that she was going to take a sabbatical from a resoundingly suc- cessful 13-year acting career in order to both write a book and get a masters degree, there was no shortage of Hollywood pundits who thought the decision something approaching career suicide. After roles in a sleeve of films, from A Time to Kill (1996), Kiss the Girls (1997), Where the Heart Is (2000), Someone Like You (2001), Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002), and Bug (2006), we had that fantastic rarity in Los Angeles: an actor who is consistently offered work. Still, Judd, 43, responded to a call for something deeper…better. She enrolled at the Kennedy School of International Studies at Harvard University for a masters degree, and sat down to write the memoir All That is Bitter and Sweet (Ballantine Books, 2012). She also reengaged with a variety of non-profits that help make the planet a slightly better place, most notable among them organizations that empower women, both in the United States and globally.
Fans of TV miniseries and action adventure genres in particular will be relieved to note, however, that Judd’s break from acting came to an end when she accepted the role of former CIA operative Rebecca Winstone in ABC’s new series Missing. In a frantic search for her son after his kidnapping, Judd por- trays Winstone as an amalgamation of steely-eyed determination and apoplectic vulnerability in a way that is simply arresting, and we were thrilled when she found time to sit down with our intrepid junket reporter during ABC’s rollout event for the series.
Fred Topel for Industry: You’ve been in some movies where you did action like this, but have you always wanted to play a full-on trained, operative-type charac- ter…an action hero?
Ashley Judd: Well, first of all, I’m Southern, so I need to say good afternoon [laughs] and thank you so much to ABC for having us and for all of you for turning out to help cele- brate the launch of our show. So, did I want to play a trained operative for the CIA? Well, it seems to have gone rather well. So I can confide in you that, when I was able to say that line without laughing, I knew I’d be okay. Kind of daunting, you know. It’s no small thing to be a trained operative for the CIA. I didn’t take it lightly.
Industry: How did you get com- fortable with all of the training and physicality?
AJ: I’d had a very sedentary life until I began filming Missing. I went to graduate school and I wrote a book. I’d say—and I mean it quite sincerely—that I sat down for two- and-a-half years. So I just got on my yoga mat with a few teachers I really like and trust. Fortunately, I’ve got good muscle memory, and it came back, and yoga was a way not only to be really in my body and flexible, but also to make sure I stayed safe and didn’t get hurt. And then it was just time to fight. I love to fight, and I find it easy and rewarding.
Industry: Were you looking for a show when this came to you? Why TV now?
AJ: Well, I was very fortunate in that they came looking for me, and that is something I found very hum- bling and flattering. I was aware, too, that this is a golden age in television, that incredible film producers are making TV, and that a once rather impermeable membrane between film actors and TV actors has com- pletely vanished. I remember turn- ing on The Big C, a show I enjoyed, and there was Liam Neeson doing a guest turn! While I was in school, people were sending me a lot of tele- vision material, but it was either try to get a A in Health and Human Rights or read a script. And I figured, you know, I’m in school. I might as well go for the grade. Once I graduated, my agent called me with that special lilt in her voice that all actors love to hear…”I think I found the one.”
Industry: Do you like the travel aspect of production? You’re shooting in so many different locations.
AJ: I love to travel, but it was difficult because I am, first and foremost, a home- body. It was about trying to make a home with these people who became my family of choice while very far away from rural middle Tennessee. I just want to add— when you were saying “Why this and why now?”—the other highly attractive element of doing this series was the caliber of talent it attracted. So working with Cliff Curtis, Adriano Giannini, Sean Bean, and Laura Donnelly for ten episodes was extraordi- nary, and then, of course, each episode also has phenomenal guest stars such as Joaquim de Almeida.
Industry: And the action sequences… how much of that was you? How much was a stunt double?
AJ: There was a fellow wandering around earlier who had on a T-shirt that read “I do all my own stunts,” and I said to him, “Hey, why are you wearing my T-shirt?” Obviously, we have to have stunt doubles for insurance purposes and because there are irreplaceable people who make a pow- erful contribution to the look of the show, but I do most of my own stunts. It’s inter- esting, because some of the things that seem more complicated or tricky can be quite easy, so when I am on the bridge in Paris and I am shot and fall into the Seine, I did that. Yet, when I first sense that there is someone who is about to harm me and dive for the balustrade, I had trouble doing that for some reason. I kept knocking my knee, and then said, “Suzanna, get in here and dive on the balustrade.” But then the rest of it I could do. By the grace of God and being protected by really talented peo- ple, I never got hurt.
Industry: Have you had a chance to have fun in the fabulous places you have worked in?
AJ: The best time I had was hiking the Ceské Svycarsko National Park. The Czechs call it Bohemian Switzerland. That was pretty extraordinary. They have rein- troduced the otter and the Peregrine Falcon and that was my favorite place.
Industry: What was the hardest part of production?
AJ: Well I was told—of course after the fact because they managed to reserve that choice piece of information [laughs]—that season one of a show is the single hardest thing to film. And we had additional chal- lenges being so far away from our studio. There’s really no way around it. It was just hard, but it wasn’t hard in the ways that you would expect. Filming in Istanbul, for example, was a total joy; we had to pause filming for the Call to Prayer every hour, and in Prague there is a guy who comes out and plays his bugle every night at six and we would have to pause for that. Or we would be filming in the very famous Old Town Square and the Astronomical Clock would go off and all of a sudden, right before the hour, 10,000 tourists would materialize because they all wanted to see this wonder of the world. So those things were easy to work around because they were all part of the awe and magic of being in Europe, but there were just other procedural things that were just tough. It is wonderful show and I think people will enjoy it and I am getting to the point where I am starting to forget the hardships and just being so pleased at how well it turned out.
Industry: Do you know any of those languages, or was that phonetic?
AJ: I do speak French. My Czech absolutely stinks [laughs]. In fact, I was practicing my Czech dialogue when my Czech assistant said, “Oh, are you working on your Russian?” [laughs]. My Czech dialogue was cut entirely, but please, get off my back! I was trying to fly a helicopter at the same time!
Industry: After all the places you have visited on the show and in your life, where is left to visit?
AJ: Well, I’d like to see more of Asia. I have been to five countries in the south Sahara now and that is nowhere near enough, so I’ve lots of traveling yet to do. I’d really like to explore more of the northern Rockies and Canada.
Industry: What do you like about being exposed to new cultures?
AJ: …Rediscovering that the heart beats the same under the skin.
Industry: You took a few years off to go back to grad school. What is your degree in?
AJ: A Masters in Public Administration.
Industry: What are you planning to do with it?
AJ: Wow…change the world.
Industry: You support many causes. How did they become near and dear to your heart?
AJ: For me gender inequality appears in all of the pressing issues of the day. When we empower girls and women, it is the building block to solving all the most pressing problems. So in any of the work I do, the core is helping girls. For example, for every year a girl stays in school, she marries later. For every year a girl stays in school, she delays the birth of her first child. For every year a girl stays in school, her income increases, her lifetime earnings increase by 50%. So let’s get girls in school.
Industry: Was there an epiphany that made you decide you wanted to do something beyond your acting career…to be a citizen of the world and effect change?
AJ: When I found out in 1988 that in the commonwealth of Kentucky at that time it was still legal for a husband to rape his wife—yeah, that was quite a moment. I am very proud to say that Dr. Carol Jordan, who is a professor at the Centre for Research on Violence Against Women at the University of Kentucky, was the driving force behind changing that law, and now she is a close colleague of mine and we work together on stopping gender violence. That was defi- nitely a turning point for me.
Industry: There is a philosophy these days that a consciousness shift is coming over the whole world. Do you believe that?
AJ: Well, I think that when I change my mind I change the world, and as long as indi- viduals are taking responsibility and doing their best to be a part of the solution, that consciousness shift is inevitable.
Industry: Are there other women out there at the moment who you are inspired by? Writers? Actors? Politicians?
AJ: One woman named Ambassador Swanee Hunt [Founding director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government]. She is a pretty stupendous individual. In terms of my sex slavery abo- lition work, I’m really focused on demand abolition by punishing the buyers. She started something called Demand Abolition on whose advisory counsel I serve and so she’s a great hero of mine. Ruchiro Gupta, founder of Apne Aap Worldwide, a great Indian abolitionist. And then my personal mentor, Tennie McCarty. She is a clinician.
Industry: Did you miss acting when you went to Harvard?
AJ: Not at all.
Industry: How did the other students react when you walked in to class?
AJ: No reaction, really. Everyone had an interesting background. It was a degree spe- cifically designed for those of us who had already been out in the world doing things, so I was just one of the many.
Industry: What would your 43-year- old self say to your younger self?
AJ: Oh, I suppose, “You are so beautiful…get off your own back.”