Ashley Judd can do a lot—few beauties are as buffed of body, brain and box office—but consider what she has chosen not to do at all. “I’ll tell you a secret that nobody knows about her,” offers pal Salma (Wild Wild West) Hayek. “She has a really pretty voice. Ashley can sing. So she could have gone in that direction, coming from where she comes from. But she knew what she wanted.”
She didn’t have to look far for inspiration. More than a decade after her single mom, Naomi, and big sister (by four years) Wynonna clawed their way to the top of the country music heap as the Judds, Ashley, 31, has her own rewards to savor: her revenge-mom thriller Double Jeopardy has now sat on the box office throne for three weeks running, a reign matched this year only by The Phantom Menace and The Sixth Sense. “She has this quality where she doesn’t seem like a wimp,” says box office analyst Paul Dergarabe-dian. “Every big actress or actor has that movie that is sort of a turning point, and this is her turning point.”
Hard won, to be sure. As a young acting student in the early ’90s, “it was obvious that Ashley was the other daughter,” says drama teacher Robert Carnegie of L.A.’s Playhouse West School and Repertory Theater. “She was trying so hard to catch up with the rest of the family. She was aware that she was the unsuccessful person in the family.”
Underline was. Judd won a part in her first movie audition, for 1992’s Kuffs, with Christian Slater. (She turned down a bigger part, she told Redbook, after being asked to doff her duds, snapping, “My mother worked too hard for me to take my clothes off in my first movie.”) Next came a regular role on NBC’s prime-time soap Sisters and parts in Heat (1995) and A Time to Kill (1996). In 1997, though, Kiss the Girls gave her the kind of role that’s fast becoming her trademark—strong-woman-makes-creepy-guy-wish-he’d-crept-up-on-somebody-else. Women who prefer vengeance to victimhood, this Judd’s for you. There’s a lot of Ashley, who loves to run, rock climb and go on mountain hikes, in her Girls and Jeopardy characters. “There was a major fight scene in the movie,” recalls Girls director Gary Fleder, “and she took a beating. She had the bruises to show for it.” Jeopardy producer Leonard Goldberg adds that, in one chase scene, Judd outran the actors playing cops, who begged her to slow down.
Judd even learned to kickbox for Girls, perhaps inspiring Goldberg to quip that a stalker who has repeatedly harassed her “is lucky Ashley didn’t take him apart.” In fact, the 32-year-old trespasser, who posed as a cop on Sept. 27 to sneak into Ashley’s 1829 farmhouse on the Tennessee spread where she lives near Wy and her mom, left when the actress asked him to. Her boyfriend, Scottish racecar driver Dario Franchitti, followed him off the property in a car until police caught up.
Mama Judd didn’t raise any whiners. Ashley learned to cook by the time she was in second grade, while Mom, studying to be a nurse, continually moved the girls around California, Kentucky and Tennessee as she tried to launch a singing career. (In 1972 Naomi split with Ashley’s father, Michael Ciminella, 55, who works in the horse-racing industry.) “If there was any money, it was very tight,” says her maternal grandmother, Polly Judd Rideout, 72. “They did a lot of yard-sale shopping.”
When the Judds started burning up the charts, Ashley was a 15-year-old country and western Cinderella, cleaning out her sister and mom’s tour bus for $10 a day. At one point, Wy didn’t speak to her little sister for six months because “I was in my own little world,” the singer told PEOPLE in 1995. But today the three women live down the road from one another. “Even when we’re clashing,” Naomi told PEOPLE in 1995, “we know there’s going to be a resolution.”
Judd is resolute about spending time with her main squeezes: Wy’s kids Elijah, 4, and Grace, 3, not to mention her own Jack Russell terrier Buttermilk and the equally cuddly Franchitti, 26, a celebrity in the racing-mad South whom she met at a party in June. “Dario’s the only person who asked me out this calendar year,” Judd told GQ, and he soon left his home in Florida to be with her near Nashville. Judd is still friends with exes Matthew McConaughey, with whom she had an on-set romance while filming A Time to Kill, and crooner Michael Bolton, who she says helped her through a serious depression after they met in 1996. “She’s a very old soul,” says Bolton, “but at the same time she has a childlike nature that allows her to appreciate the newness of everything.” Judd told Redbook that with Bolton, “I felt so completely and deeply loved that whatever I was and whatever I needed to feel was okay.” She has the same kind of passion for Fitzgerald—either F. Scott or Ella will do—and the basketball fortunes of the University of Kentucky (she studied French there) when she’s not devouring The New York Times between takes.
Judd’s loyalty to her family (“I think she has more of a relationship with [Naomi and Wy] now than she did when they were touring,” says a Jeopardy crew member) extends to friends also. Hayek recalls a night when she wore a white shirt to dinner with Judd, who was also wearing white. “I spilled wine on my [shirt],” says Hayek. “Red wine. And she took a napkin, put it inside her wine and drew the same spot on her white blouse. So we were twins. Nobody,” Hayek adds, “does that.”
Mark Dagostino, Michael Fleeman and Elizabeth Leonard in Los Angeles, Kelly Williams in Chicago and Natasha Stoynoff in New York City