Ashley Judd says the imbalance of power between her and the unnamed executive stopped her from speaking out sooner

By Kathy Ehrich Dowd
Updated October 06, 2015 04:05 PM
Andrew Toth/Getty

For the first time, Ashley Judd is opening up about sexual harassment she says she endured as a young actress by a prominent studio mogul.

“It was so disgusting,” Judd, 47, tells Variety about an experience she said happened while filming Kiss the Girls in the late ’90s involving an unnamed executive not connected to the film whom she describes as “one of our industry’s most famous, admired-slash-reviled bosses.”

Judd says that despite minoring in gender studies and feeling as though she was an empowered female, the imbalance of power between the two made her stay silent in public as she frantically tried to rebuff his efforts in a way that might not offend him.

“In my example, there was no casting involved. This was just twirling the lasso,” she explains. “He was so stealth and expert about it. He groomed me, which is a technical term – Oh, come meet at the hotel for something to eat. Fine, I show up. Oh, he’s actually in his room. I’m like, Are you kidding me? I just worked all night. I’m just going to order cereal. It went on in these stages.”

Judd, who has been outspoken about cyber-bullying and gender violence, says that in retrospect it can be easy to say she should have just walked away – but the power dynamic between them made it difficult.

“I have a feeling if this is online and people have the opportunity to post comments, a lot of the people will say, ‘Why didn’t you leave the room?’ which is victim-blaming. When I kept saying no to everything, there was a huge asymmetry of power and control in that room,” she says.

The star and activist says that “it took years before I could evaluate that incident and realize that there was something incredibly wrong and illegal about it.”

“I beat myself up for a while,” she says. “This is another part of the process. We internalize the shame. It really belongs to the person who is the aggressor.”

Eventually, she was shocked when she heard other actresses recount similar experiences with the same mogul.

“The ultimate thing when I was weaseling out of everything else was, ‘Will you watch me take a shower?’ And all the other women, sitting around this table with me, said, ‘Oh my god – that’s what he said to me too.’ ”

“In that moment, I told him something like, ‘When I win an Academy Award in one of your movies.’ He said, ‘No, when you get nominated.’ I said, ‘No, no, when I win an Academy Award.’ That was a small moment of power when I was able to contradict him and hold to my reality. And then I got out of there. And by the way, I’ve never been offered a movie by that studio. Ever,” she also says.

Judd says she’s speaking out about the incident now in hopes that shining a light on harassment like this could minimize it going forward.

“Part of the strategy that keeps girls and women constrained in their professional experiences is retaliation and ridicule,” she says. “We’re individually and collectively coming to a realization and acceptance that this is an entrenched part of the reality, and I think that talking about it is essential to the process of becoming aware.”