LOS ANGELES - The first thing you notice is the ring. It's about seven carats of diamond perfection plopped on a finger so thin it could belong to a third grader.
Ashley Judd waves her rock in the air catching the brilliant California sunlight. "I can't tell you the exact carat weight," she says, almost apologetically. It's not that she forgot to have the bauble insured and she's worried about jewel thieves. "You just don't flaunt your stuff. Mama says it wouldn't be polite," Judd says.
Even though she's a major movie star -- who now commands upwards of $10 million a picture because her last major movie Double JeopardY (1999) grossed over $100 million -- there is still a proper southern girl lurking in Judd.
It's not just the corn bread she bakes for fiancee, race car driver and jewel giver Dario Franchitti. It's not just the country home in the Tennessee holler she lives on next to her mama and sister Wynonna. It's just that Judd still believes in a certain decorum. "'You don't talk about your love life or how much money you make or personal things," she insists.
Someone like her might be dubbed old fashioned which is why she was perfect to star in Someone Like You (2001) opening April 30, a romantic comedy about a single New Yorker and talk show producer who can't get a date.
Judd does divulge that she's glad to be a taken women because she might be in the same predicament. Yes, she knows you're thinking, "Yeah right, she's Ashley Judd. Yes, I've had dating problems," she cries. "There was a time when I thought, 'I'll just have the most rewarding career in the universe. I'll have sex with my career!'" She sighs and adds, "That lasted about a minute."
It's her career and not her love life that's wearing her out today. At noon on a spring day at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, Judd almost wobbles into her hotel suite, yawning because she was just kicked out of bed. Actually, first you meet the major man in her life, Buttermilk, her two year old poodle given to her "as a present from mama when I wrapped Double Jeopardy (1999)"
As the journalist coos over the dog, the newly shorn Judd whose hair falls a scant inch below her ear and who wears not a hint of makeup and a skimpy blue dress she dubs "my housecoat," begs,"'I'm a little fragile, so please give me the same welcome."
Judd is fragile because she was up until 6 a.m. wrapping a new court room thriller called High Crimes (2001) which reunites her with her Kiss the Girls (1997) costar Morgan Freeman. She's a little out of it because besides being an A list actress, she's also trying to plan an upcoming wedding.
Her room upstairs is filled with Bride magazine, fabric swatches for her dress and her mother Naomi who is helping to run the show. Exhausted doesn't begin to cover it for Judd. But the willful southerner emerges to explain how she's managing. "I have these little talks with myself. I call it an attitude pep talk," she insists. "I say, 'Ashley, this is not one of those moments you pray God sends a thunderbolt to make it better.' Girl, you just endure.'"
One wonders if Sharon Stone has the same talks with herself or has ever called herself ''girl.'' She certainly doesn't spend time talking about her personal life. Judd flashes the ring again. "It's a cushion cut and Dario organized the entire proposal. He got the ring without asking," she coos."Loving cars the way he does he has a lot of opinions about design. He has a developed asthetic."
They met two years ago and have been inseparable ever since including Judd following him around to race tracks around the world. So far, she admits to only one glitch in the relationship. "He's a race car driver by profession, but the most nervous passenger in a car when we're just at home. In fact, I don't get to drive most of the time. And if I do, he's always telling me to slow down. I guess he likes to be in control."
But it's Judd who is in the driver's seat when it comes to her career. When Julia Roberts dropped out of the romantic comedy Someone Like You (2001) to film some little movie called Erin Brockovich (2000) the next call went to Judd who had never even done a romantic comedy.
Producer Linda Obst says, "Ashley is a girl's girl. She's smart and open and doesn't seem like the type of girl who would steal your boyfriend. Men like her because she's sexy and she's not remote. She's like Sandra Bullock and Meg Ryan because she wears her heart on her sleeve. Yet, she can be wounded and recover. She's resilient." - That's an understatement.
A few years ago, Judd read the best selling book 'Animal Husbandry' which became the basis for Someone Like You (2001) She identified with the lead character of Jane, a single, career woman who has been dumped one time too many. In her sorrow, Jane decides that men are just following the path of animals -- specifically cows. They meet, they mate and move on to the next cow. It's really no one's fault. It's just nature and biology. She even uses the theory to explain why her producing buddy (Greg Kinnear) dumped her and why her sexy roommate (Hugh Jackman) dates and mates with a new babe each night.
"Even if it's crackpot science, this script had some anthropology in it," Judd reasons. "And I'm someone who once or twice in college tried to have an original thought. I related to Jane because she tried to take an intellectual tactic to sort out her emotions and you don't usually get that in a romantic comedy."
"In this script, you had intellectual energy in the same vortex as emotional distress," Judd says. "The other romantic comedies I read were simply sweet and charming, but I didn't feel I could sink my teeth into them."
"Even if they had clever set ups, I couldn't see myself putting a costume on at five in the morning or doing a night shoot. That's the barometer for some of my movie choices," she says.
Obst says Judd actually fought for the role when she was filming a small part in the Natalie Portman film Where the Heart Is (2000) "Bill Mechanic who was then the CEO of Fox was on the set," Obst recalls. "Ashley is such a smart girl. She cornered him on the set, batted her eyelashes and let him know that she wanted to make this movie."
When Roberts eventually pulled out, Judd insisted on a meeting with Obst who didn't want to cast Judd at first. "I thought Ashley was too southern. And this character is a New York magazine editor. Would she pass as an urban girl? But in walked Ashley with her degree from the University of Kentucky. She's talking a mile a minute about world events. I just sat there staring at her. Ashley said, 'Did you think I'd come in here and start crocheting?'"
But for all her bravado, Judd admits that comedy wasn't easy. "No, God it was awful It was so hard. I was in the bathroom banging my head against the wall," she says. She has been doing the same thing about her career.
Ever since Double Jeopardy (1999) hit big, Hollywood has been banging on Judd's door to star in mostly thrillers. But she's turned most of them down, opting only to take a small role of an abused girlfriend in Where the Heart Is (2000)
Judd says that she's not interested in box office. "I had no idea Double Jeopardy (1999) would be so big. I thought the movie was well done and really entertaining. I never imagined it would be that big." She isn't swayed to pick cash projects. "Picking movies in an inexact science. I'll leave the money decisions to others. I need inspiration to do the material. It's also about working with people I'm simpatico with because it takes a long time to make a movie."
Judd doesn't make movie or any other decisions lightly. "Everyday you have a certain amount of feelings that come from an untouchable place. Your feelings are your responsibility and lead to your choices. It's like that line in a poem. I am the captain of my own soul. As my own captain, I feel like my life is unfolding the way it should," she says.
Some of the unfolding has been a bit scary. Judd says that the websites devoted to her every move and the fans who sometimes go too far -- including one who broke into her home last year -- can be a bit unsettling. "Most of the time, I don't find fame scary. I actually don't think about that. I just hope people love the movies. But the fallout which is fame can be a tricky thing. I do want to have a life"
But sometimes her life can be too much. While filming Someone Like You (2001) Judd was supposed to fly from New York City to Los Angeles to see Dario in a race. "I was just exhausted. I got in a limo on a Saturday night on the way to the airport and it hit me. I just couldn't do the flight. I was as bummed as a girl could be. But I couldn't do it."
Then something snapped. "I had the limo stop in Central Park. It was very late at night and the park was abandoned. It was just the dogs and me. And by this time it was pouring. I was soaking wet already, so the dogs and I just romped through the pond together. It was a great release from all the pressure."
Making a scene wasn't always her claim to fame. Judd grew up the quiet, bookwormish girl in a poor family that consisted of her mother and sister in rural Tennessee. Some of their homes lacked electricity, running water and a telephone. Ashley was the one who would return empty cans of peas to the supermarket in order to have a little spending money in her pocket. "We didn't have things. But we had hope which is what mattered," she says.
Judd stayed in the background when her mama and sister went on the road to becoming international country crooning superstars. She logged time at the University of Kentucky where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa
Her next project is her upcoming nuptials. "No one knows our plan," Judd insists. "t's all my personal business" Judd does admit she has a dress. "And I'm a sucker for Bride magazines. Not that you want to gloat at other's people misery, but the agony columns are funny."
When asked about her future husband's longevity in light of the death of of race car driver Dale Earnhardt, Judd doesn't flinch. "The fact of the matter is we're all mortal and we're all going to go. If I conceptually have to deal with that at a younger age, it's a bonus. It enhances the sweetness of the moments." she says.
Knowing that this sounds like a lot of false bravado, Judd quickly adds, "This might defy credibility to a lot of people, but racing is really safe. If you look at the stats, you've got a greater chance of dying on the freeway or in an plane."
She stops and shrugs. "Anyway, what can I do?" Judd says. "The universe unfolds the way it wants to unfold." Judd smiles and say, "It's another one of my attitude pep talks."