HOLLYWOOD -- Producer Leonard Goldberg had a few presumptions about his dinner guest. She was probably a typical Southern gal, whose knowledge of the world went not much further than the season daffodils bloom and the color of the Appalachian mountains in spring.
But actress Ashley Judd, he came to find out, was no country bumpkin. Familiar with, among others, Camille Pissarro, a French impressionist known for his landscape paintings, Miss Judd discussed art with Mr. Goldberg.
At the dinner table, Miss Judd carried on fluently en francais with two of Mr. Goldberg's French dinner guests. The label of the aged red wine Mr. Goldberg served did not escape her notice. When she bid adieu from his New York apartment, she firmly shook Mr. Goldberg's hand and thanked him, making direct eye contact.
This was not the first time strangers had underestimated Ashley Judd.
"You are struck immediately by her beauty and her directness," Mr. Goldberg said. "She seems so in control. I thought to myself, `Ashley Judd is a surprise."'
As the star of Paramount's big-budget action thriller Double Jeopardy, the 31-year-old actress might surprise others in Hollywood. She carries the film, holding her own against Oscar-winning co-star Tommy Lee Jones. Miss Judd, who even does most of her own stunts in the film, hounded Mr. Goldberg for a shot at playing the fierce and determined Libby Parsons, a role intended for Jodie Foster until her pregnancy forced her to drop out.
"This is (Miss Judd's) first lead role in a big mainstream film," said Mr. Goldberg, who produced the movie, scheduled for release Friday. "I think this is going to make Ashley what she was always destined to become -- a movie star." (Although Miss Judd was the leading female in Paramount's 1997 Kiss the Girls, Morgan Freeman carried that film.)
The thriller, filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, and New Orleans, begins when Libby is wrongly imprisoned for murdering her husband, played by Bruce Greenwood. While doing time, Libby accidentally discovers that her deceitful husband is still alive and living a happy new life with her son and her best friend.
Like a female Rocky, Libby begins her physical training in prison, anxiously awaiting her day of release so she can find her son and confront her scheming husband. She might even kill him, she contemplates, because she cannot be tried twice for the same crime -- hence the title Double Jeopardy.
"I am very ambitious and have extremely high aspirations for myself," Miss Judd said over jasmine tea and tea cakes at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. "A lot of those (goals) can only be met by having a certain altitude of fame."
Miss Judd's ability to fit into several worlds at once is vividly on display in the film. At times desperate, sweaty, wearing ragged prison garb, she is transformed into a stunningly beautiful, elegant wolf in chic clothing when the time comes to nail her arrogant prey.
Director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) said Miss Judd won him over in their first interview with her charisma and intelligence. "She is very forthright and made no secret of the fact that she really wanted the role. (And) she brought more to (the role) than I thought would be possible. One is always pleasantly surprised when an actor can embellish the role beyond your expectations."
Robert Mitchum, a friend of Miss Judd's mother, country music singer Naomi, once commented that Ashley's talent was so subtle he "never caught her acting" in films.
Despite her 5-foot-7 frame, she looks petite, not as athletic as she appears in some of her latest films. She learned to kick-box for Kiss the Girls. For Double Jeopardy she had to learn to sprint.
She has gotten so fast that her male co-stars in Double Jeopardy could not keep up with her in some of the chase scenes.
She appears younger than 31, especially on this sunny afternoon, wearing a purple sweater set and hot-pink genie pants. Throughout the interview, she sprinkles her conversation with references to her favorite authors and novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.
Dropping out of Kentucky State University before receiving a degree in French, Miss Judd decided to make her pilgrimage to Hollywood. Even though she had been accepted into the Peace Corps, Miss Judd -- an honors student -- opted to become an actress.
Soon enough, after working the required stint as a waitress and as a receptionist at an agency in Los Angeles, she broke into the business with supporting roles in television shows, including Sisters and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
But it was not until director Victor Nunez (Ulee's Gold) cast her in his 1993 critically acclaimed independent picture Ruby in Paradise that Miss Judd was able to demonstrate her talent.
Her performance earned her an Independent Spirit Award for best actress that year. From there she was cast as the supportive wife of Val Kilmer's character in the slick 1995 cops-and-robbers film Heat. She was again cast as the supportive, loyal wife to Matthew McConaughey in A Time to Kill. In 1996 she received an Emmy nomination for her role as Norma Jean in the HBO movie Norma Jean and Marilyn.
Her studio breakthrough role, however, came with Kiss the Girls opposite Mr. Freeman. Miss Judd was cast as a brainy beauty who escapes from the claws of a perverted kidnapper. Her character, a doctor, was seen by many as an example of the strong female leads so lacking in mainstream Hollywood fare.
As her career ascended, after filming Kiss the Girls, something curious began happening to Miss Judd. She would burst into tears and sob for hours at a time. She isolated herself, unwilling to socialize. What began as a mysterious bout of depression and fatigue opened up a floodgate of unresolved emotions about her past. Finally, a wall holding back some painful memories came tumbling down.
She confronted her mother and sister Wynonna about her dysfunctional childhood and how their fame caused her great loneliness. Coming to terms with her anger and resentment was a terrifying experience, she said.
"You walk to the edge and you stand there and you look down into the abyss and things come out of you," she said. "You make decisions, you turn around and re-emerge."
Although she, her mother and sister came away from the episode closer and united, Miss Judd says she is still struggling with forgiveness.
"You can strive for it, you can have a tremendous will, and it doesn't necessarily happen," she reflected. "There is a secret switch for it in some little corner of the universe. I think that forgiveness is probably the most elusive spiritual quest."
Her experience has given her perspective, according to Mr. Goldberg.
"She has this calmness about her," he said. "It's like she could walk through the raindrops without getting wet."
Who: Actress Ashley Judd
Education: Dropped out of Kentucky State University before receiving a degree in French
Film credits: Ruby in Paradise (1993), Heat (1995), A Time to Kill (1995), Norma Jean and Marilyn (1996), Kiss the Girls (1997), Simon Birch (1998)
New movie: Plays female lead in suspense film Double Jeopardy, which opens Friday.
Of note: Ashley Tyler Judd had a difficult, impoverished childhood. Her mother, country music star Naomi Judd, trotted her two girls around Kentucky and Tennessee on her long road to fame. Miss Judd once joked that she and her sister Wynonna grew up in the back of their mother's station wagon asking, "Where are we going now?"