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Ashley Judd: tough but tender professional
- two incarnations of an actress

On the one hand, Ashley Judd is a “kind of repressed, half-assed anthropologist” never happier than when visiting foreign pharmacies and graveyards.

“What a culture does with its dead,” she tells me, her voice brisk and marginally bossy, “is extremely interesting”. It’s so interesting that she’ll send me a “really cool” paper an academic acquaintance wrote on “these people he was living with, and he was revolted because they... eat and drink the flesh and excrement as the corpse decays.”

On the other hand, she is a Hollywood actress whose time has come, a 33-year-old who has created a persona that is, in Variety’s phrase, boffo box office: the tough but tender professional, wronged in love or by the system, but more than capable of getting her own back. In that celluloid incarnation, she’s tended to look steelily super-attractive — the take-no-prisoners career woman with a personal shopper and an eye for minimalist chic. In the flesh, poised on a brown-gold sofa at the Dorchester, she’s something more — luminously beautiful.

The rosebud mouth and the extravagantly arched eyebrows are the same, but the hair’s artfully tousled instead of sternly sleek and the look (abalone magnolia petal at the neck, flared jeans, red sleeveless blouse) is hippy chic rather than severe and sexy — the screen style designed to excite the old boys at the courthouse as much as the young bloods in the cocktail lounge.

The “half-assed anthropologist” phrase is classic Ashley Judd. She’s undoubtedly clever and bookish, but she wears neither her learning nor her language lightly. She’ll toss a Pascal pensée into the conversation, or talk of “a book that won the Pulitzer Prize in, I think 1978, and it’s called Angle of Repose — it’s an engineering term and he [Wallace Stagner, the author] is applying it to the kind of detritus of life. And it didn’t really bloom for me until...” Family is almost certainly a factor in her over-ripe chatter. Her mother Naomi, from a modest, small-town background in Kentucky, met, got pregnant by and married Michael Ciminella, a local boy some notches up the social scale.

A daughter, Wynonna, was born in 1964, when Naomi was 18. Ashley followed four years later. Four years after that, Michael left. (He and Ashley have remained close, though: “He’s here! Right now! Galloping round Tate Modern!”) Times were hard: on occasion the three female Judds shared a bed, lived on food stamps and did without radio, television and telephone.

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