Gurney's Inn
June 06, 2007

Getting Bugged With Ashley Judd

"You might not want to go there . . ." warned Ashley Judd's agent. That offhanded comment immediately intrigued the slim, brunette actress.

Her rep was referring to a proposed screen adaptation of Tracy Letts' award-winning off-Broadway psychological thriller Bug. Upping the ante, almost the entire screenplay unfolds in an age-weary motel room. At the director's helm was William Friedkin of The Exorcist fame.

"I don't think she was intentionally using reverse psychology, but that's the effect it had. I think I became willing to take the part on before I had, in fact, read the script. Plus, there is a part of me that gets really competitive with my own creativity. Like, 'Oh! You think I can't do it? Really? Then, OK . . .'"

Portraying a free-basing, divorced cocktail waitress at a roadside bar, Judd's character Agnes fears she's a sitting duck for her abusive ex-boyfriend Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.), a recently paroled convict. Still vulnerable and damaged by the disappearance of her young son years earlier, Agnes longs for a romantic relationship to help fill the void.

Her lesbian friend/coworker R.C. (Lynn Collins) obviously has the "hots" for Agnes, but realizes her chances are nill. So R.C. introduces Agnes to Peter (Michael Shannon, who reprises his London and New York stage role). A self-professed Gulf War vet, his low self-esteem shines through in comments like, "I'm not good for much."

Despite Peter's disinterest in sex, the couple moves in together. It's a comforting arrangement for Agnes, especially after Jerry pays a particularly nasty visit.

The threat from Jerry, however, turns out to be mild compared to the madness that will ensue when Peter discovers "bugs" under his skin. "Bug" is a metaphor for government surveillance devices. Peter is convinced these robotic bugs were planted as part of a military experiment.

It isn't long before Agnes buys into this conspiracy theory. As the couple descends into a paranoid-fueled madness, moviegoers will feel their own skin crawl.

The 39-year-old actress seemed unfazed by the emotional investment it took to play Agnes. She recalled, "The process for me is simply about surrendering and being really willing. Before I did the film, I joked with my sister and gave a funny, off-handed summary of the film, because it is so bizarre. Wynonna asked, 'How are you going to do that?' And I said, 'I have no idea!'

"But I had every confidence at the same time that I could do it, because it is a magical process and all it takes is for me to surrender and then everything comes together."

She laughingly confessed, "I was always attracted to very intense stuff as a child. In fact, I think when I was little, I wanted to grow up and be intense. That was my mission in life.

"I thought that the characters in Bug were extremely real, very grounded, clearly wounded, very lonely people with a lot of dark secrets that they feel compelled to protect. All of the insanity and unmanageability comes out of what it takes to keep those secrets."

Judd protects her own secrets. In the winter of 2006, she spent 47 days in a Texas rehab facility to address a long-standing case of depression. Any further discussion is clearly off limits.

Judd's ongoing search for clarity and self-understanding is reflected in the intensity of projects like 1993's Ruby in Paradise, 1996's TV feature "Norma Jean & Marilyn," 1997's Kiss the Girls, 1999's Double Jeopardy, and 2004's De-Lovely. Last year's Come Early Morning saw her play a hard-drinking, promiscuous contractor.

In reality, Judd's personal life is far more stable and conventional. The Ashland, Kentucky native lives in a farmhouse outside Nashville with her race car driver hubby, Dario Franchitti, adjacent to big sister Wynonna's spread.

"I don't want to make a whole lot of movies because I enjoy a very balanced life. It's important to me to have time to do my human rights work. So I hope that I can just focus on really neat material that for personal reasons appeals to me," she said.

Since 2002, Judd has been a global ambassador for Population Services International's Youth AIDS initiative, having already traveled to 10 countries to speak about HIV and AIDS prevention. Most recently, she spent three weeks in India visiting slums and brothels during the day, and sweet-talking government officials and wealthy benefactors come sundown in hopes of raising program funds.

Her work with the international organization has also taken her to Mexico and Central America. Such exposure should prove invaluable for her next role as a Los Angeles attorney in director/writer Wayne Kramer's ensemble immigration drama Crossing Over. Harrison Ford, Sean Penn and Ray Liotta also star in the film.

The storyline revolves around people of different cultures and origins sharing a common goal – to gain legal status in the U.S.

Judd's character fights to arrange the adoption of a young girl. "That part is based on a true story. She was a Nigerian child who spent two years in juvenile detention here in the United States, which is an obscene miscarriage of justice and a human rights abuse," she noted.

The film begins shooting this month.

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