Authors: Ashley Judd
My sense of fairness—or more accurately, unfairness—was being keenly developed, both in and outside the classroom, equipping and motivating me for the life of service I now love and that gives my every day such purpose. And it has, without ever having been my intention, helped heal the wounds of my own childhood.
As much as I loved college, I was a somewhat erratic student, and still given to spells of depression. More than once, I would petition to take advanced classes, even graduate level, and then drop them. I overloaded my schedule, racking up 143 hours in four years, taking four minors and a separate honors curriculum. After my initial experiment with communal living at the sorority house, I managed to convert a tiny janitor’s closet, complete with a deep sink for mops and pails, into a single bedroom. By my senior year I was isolating myself a lot in an off campus apartment I’d unwisely rented. I spent more and more time with a sorority sister I loved, who could be just as socially withdrawn. Once, we decided to throw a party. We decorated my apartment, stocked the bar, and waited. At about eight p.m., we realized that neither of us had invited anyone. We spent the evening playing cards and went to bed early.
In the spring of 1990, I attended my honor’s program graduation ceremony, which was held separately from the big class graduation on campus, at a beautiful club for the horsey crowd outside of Lexington. I drove out there alone under a full moon and never thought it was odd that I had no guests in attendance. I was surprised to see the other kids’ families at the ceremony. I accepted my honors certificate to the polite applause of a crowd of strangers. Then I packed up and drove home to Tennessee, restless and preoccupied with what to do next with my life.
For a time when I was in college I had briefly considered Christian missionary work, knowing I wanted to travel the world and be useful. But I was deeply uncomfortable with the idea that indigenous people were “doing it wrong” and that I would be there to help them “get it right.” The Peace Corps seemed like a better fit. I applied and was accepted during my senior year of college, in 1990, and dreamed of going to graduate school in anthropology afterward. But soon I was torn between spending the next two years of my life in Africa and finding the courage to honor the equally deep impulse I had to act.
It was a difficult decision for me. Theater was one of my minors, and I had been doing what I know today is acting—living truthfully under imaginary circumstances—since third grade. I vividly recall one day after school crossing a field of golden grass in Marin County and deciding I want to walk, think, and, most important, feel like the girl in the book I was reading at the time. I closed my eyes, set my intention, conjured her narrative, and opened my eyes again, fully expecting to perceive the world as truly different, for the air on my skin to seem strange! Well, it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but I was on to something. My imagination had found a dynamic expression that gave me years of solace and friendship. My books were my best friends; their characters peopled my interior world. Acting in my room or outdoors, where I spent hours and hours, gave me an essential, private, and sanctioned outlet for expressing my feelings, many of which were not welcome in the family. Through acting I could siphon off anger, soothe loneliness, cry out some of the pain, and hide from the shame and confusion that so often dominated my home. Rather than be rejected for feeling, I could create my own safe space and have a modicum of control in an often out-of-control world. Acting helped me survive, and it enriched my life.
The summer after college, I was increasingly conflicted about my commitment to the Peace Corps and the fear that if I didn’t pursue acting now, I never would. It didn’t help when my sister would tease me about the Peace Corps in front of her friends on the road and at home, commanding me to “pop a squat” to show them how I would be living in Africa. I started avoiding my Peace Corps recruiter’s calls. Without telling them—an immature move, to say the least—I decided I could postpone the life of service I hoped to lead. If I didn’t give acting a try at twenty-two, I suspected I feared I would carry a regret the rest of my life.
Never one to do things in a small way, I covered my terrific uncertainty with bravado and painted “Hollywood or Bust, Cecil B. DeMille, here I come!” and “I am ready for my close-up” on the BMW 325e my sister had given me for high school graduation. Then I attached a small U-Haul trailer to the back and headed west.
I’d thought I might be able to volunteer at Planned Parenthood and pursue other forms of activism while I took acting lessons and went to auditions in L.A. Before I left, my mother and sister’s manager, Ken Stilts, met with me about what kind of plan I had in place for myself upon my arrival in Hollywood. I began to tell him about the activism opportunities I had researched. He scoffed at me, saying, “Are you going out there to save the world, or to act?” Daddy Ken, as we all called him, was a condescending, hard drinking patriarchal figure who always had to be right. Once he shamed my sister for getting a tattoo—even though it was a heart and cross with a banner that said “Mom.” He humiliated her in front of her entire organization, refusing to speak with her for days. He bullied me, too, but in the absence of much healthy fathering, I thought that it was normal, and I was intimidated enough to listen to him. I internalized his message that I
to choose between a creative life and a life of service.
It is a message I still hear today from some people—many of them in the media—whose imaginations are so limited that they believe I can legitimately be only one or the other, a creative person or an advocate. It’s interesting to watch the cunning ways that artists, women in particular, are endlessly discredited, trivialized, and infantilized. The cynics contend that if I were to give up acting to focus exclusively on public service, well, my service would never be valid, because I had once had a career as an actor. (Forgetting, of course, the previous job description of that right-wing icon Ronald Reagan.) Or that when I opt out significantly from acting for a period, as I tend to, it’s because my movies are lousy and my career is failing. They can’t hold in their minds that perhaps I am both—a serious actor who chooses how much time to spend acting, which has been not a whole lot of time for several years, and a serious advocate who is profoundly committed to pursuing social justice and human rights at home and abroad.
Anyway, within three days of arriving in L.A., I was enrolled in the Playhouse West acting school and began studying under the amazing teacher Bob Carnegie. I began to audition and landed work almost immediately, most auspiciously a bit part in a union show that allowed me to join the Screen Actors Guild, solving a major conundrum for many actors struggling to break in. Next, I landed a recurring role on the NBC hit show
, with the theater great Swoosie Kurtz playing my mother, which paid bills while I continued to study faithfully at Playhouse West. My most special moment early in my career was being cast in
Ruby in Paradise
, written and directed by iconic independent filmmaker Victor Nuñez. I loved the script so intuitively that I cried for three days and through all my appointments with Victor. I just knew we were perfect for each other.
In the film my character, Ruby Lee Gissing, arrives in a Florida resort town looking for a fresh start in her young life. I decided to drive to the set in Panama City through East Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama to work on my accent and see where I was coming from as this character. I took one-lane country roads the whole way (with my pet rabbit, Stinkerbelle, along for company). The poverty I witnessed was shocking. I saw Appalachian folks that even I thought only breathed in books. I sat on a shack front porch with three generations of black women one Sunday afternoon in Alabama, just drinking in their culture and the music of their voices. Acting was giving me everything I loved to do: being alone and traveling and discovering closeness with strangers.
won the Sundance Film Festival in 1993, and acting awards poured in. Before I realized what had happened, being a working actor and movie star was my norm. By the time I arrived on the set of
in 2002, I had starred and costarred in nineteen movies and two Broadway plays, was one of the highest-paid women in Hollywood, and had lived the red carpet life as full-time as anyone could manage while residing in Tennessee and Scotland.
Although I loved the creative process and those fleeting, magical moments of acting, the righteous indignation, the furious need for social justice, still percolated under the surface. Once I had abandoned that part of myself at twenty-two, I didn’t seem know how to reconnect with it.
Then, suddenly, I was shown the way.
One dawn, after a grueling night of shooting
, instead of settling down for a day of sleeping it off, I sat at my desk and began sorting through mail. At the top of the pile was a letter from Kate Roberts, forwarded by one of my agents. As I read through her proposal to become the YouthAIDS ambassador for Population Services International (from here on lovingly referred to as “PSI”), I realized she was offering me a chance to help save lives and raise public awareness of the most devastating human crisis since the days of the bubonic plague. Could this be what I was looking for, the opportunity to reconnect with my latent passion? A chance to bring a voice to the voiceless, to address the injustices I had witnessed throughout my childhood?
I was well aware of the scourge of AIDS. The virus had already consumed the lives of many of my colleagues in the arts and was particularly cruel and out of control in the developing world. By the end of 2001, more than forty million people were living with HIV and AIDS, and there were twenty million AIDS orphans, creating inevitable future social crises, the vast majority in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Three million people were dying each year. Clearly this was a global emergency. But my first reaction to Kate’s request to help was that I would also need to investigate Population Services International to verify it wasn’t a fly-by-night outfit or, worse, some sort of front for a right-wing group that would use my social capital for a hidden agenda. I didn’t want to do harm accidentally or, my ego said, be embarrassed.
Instead of trying to get that elusive daytime rest in between scenes, I scoured the Internet for information, putting my academic hat back on for a bit of research. I liked what I found. I read that PSI was founded in 1970, when it began as an international family planning agency making condoms accessible in hard-to-reach areas. Since then it had grown into one of the most efficient and effective nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the world, focusing on maternal and reproductive health, child survival, malaria prevention and treatment, and HIV/AIDS. It had an obsession for measuring its impact, something that made it popular with donors such as the Gates Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Its online brochure said PSI worked with local businesses and citizens’ groups in more than sixty developing countries “to deliver lifesaving medical products and services to the most vulnerable populations.” For such an international nonprofit with an annual budget of $400 million, its overhead was extremely low—less than 5 percent—and it documented measurable results in lives saved. So far so good.