ASHLEY JUDD HAS HER MOTHER’S SMILE, her sister’s wild streak and her grandma’s recipe for Kentucky biscuits. But that’s where the family resemblance stops. While Ashley’s mom, Naomi, and older sis, Wynonna, parlayed their Kentucky roots and home-grown harmonies into Nashville stardom in the 1980s, Ashley parlayed français at art school in France. “Wynonna says that she and Mom went from Kentucky to Tennessee,” says Ashley, 24, “and that I went from Kentucky to Paris.”
These days the youngest Judd is spending her time in Hollywood, hitting high notes of her own as Swoosie Kurtz’s daughter in the NBC drama Sisters. “Ashley is poised beyond her years,” says Kurtz. “She’s doesn’t want to ride on any coattails or be known for anything except what she herself accomplishes.”
Indeed, earlier this year Ashley rejected Mom’s suggestion that she take a role in the upcoming CBS western Rio Diablo, in which Naomi will costar with Kenny Rogers. “Part of me was going ‘Come on, we could have so much fun,’ ” says Naomi, “but Ashley was adamant about making it on her own.” And Ashley is quick to insist that the producers of Sisters didn’t know about her famous family when they hired her last fall. “Judd to them was just another name,” she says.
Born in California’s San Fernando Valley, Ashley spent her childhood in Los Angeles, Northern California and her parents’ native Kentucky, while Naomi went to nursing school and then tried to launch a singing career after divorcing the girls’ father, who now produces television programming on thoroughbred racing, when Ashley was 4. “We grew up in the back of a car asking ‘Where are we going now?’ ” jokes Ashley, who remains close to her father. Although money was tight (the three shared a bed and did without radio, TV and telephone for several of those years), “We were always told we were special,” says Ashley. “We always felt saturated with love and encouragement.
What didn’t soak in were the musical ambitions shared by Naomi and Wynonna. Instead, Ashley immersed herself in books (Laura Ingalls Wilder and C.S. Lewis were favorite authors). “We were worshipping different gods,” she says. “With Wy it was music. I just always read.”
And as her mom and sister rose to fame in Nashville in the early 1980s, she occasionally indulged in some adolescent self-pity. “I couldn’t get a ride to cheerleading practice or student council meetings,” she says. But after graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1990 with a B.A. in French (she spent part of her junior year in France), Ashley hitched a U-Haul to the back of her bronze BMW and headed to L.A. She enrolled in acting classes at Playhouse West, worked as a restaurant hostess and wailed for her braces to come off so she could start acting.
Her first time out, she turned down an audition for the female lead in the 1992 Christian Slater film Kuffs rather than do a topless screen test. “My mother worked too hard for me to take off my clothes in my first movie,” she explains. She took a smaller part in the film, then won a recurring role as Ensign Mussler in the syndicated Star Trek: The Next Generation. It provided proud Naomi with the first glimpse of her daughter onscreen and was also “perhaps the first time in history someone has wept their way through Star Trek,” laughs Ashley.
Mom probably shed more tears when Ashley took up bungee jumping and skydiving. But happily for both Naomi and network insurance underwriters, Ashley hasn’t much time for play. She spent this summer filming the title role in the drama Ruby in Paradise, due to debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Admittedly obsessive—she’s a fastidious listmaker—she spends her days off reading scripts and literary classics and decorating the Malibu bungalow she shares with two kittens, Charlotte and Emily, and a rabbit, Stinkerbelle. A television she bought in college sits dusty on the floor of her garage. “How do people have time?” she says, confessing some embarrassment that she has yet to watch Sisters.
Nor is there much room for boyfriends. “Romance is splendid but very distracting,” she says. Keeping in touch with the family, though, is a priority. She phones Mom and Wy every day, visits their Tennessee farms six to eight times a year and this summer joined them both for a month at the start of Wynonna’s first solo tour. “We always think of ourselves, the three of us, as a team,” says Ashley. “Us against the world. It was that way when I was little, and I think it always will be.”