Ashley Judd is having a moment. In October, the Berlin Station star became the first person to publicly speak out against Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein and his alleged serial sexual abuse. The New York Times investigative report she participated in precipitated a flood of allegations with over 60 women coming forward as well as a steady stream of outings of other Hollywood identities.
Judd has fast become one of Hollywood’s most influential figures spearheading the #MeToo movement as the industry grapples with how to deal with sexual abuse and harassment in the industry.
With her high profile in combating that issue, it’s easy to forget that Judd is having a different kind of moment. She has made a major return to acting after spending much of her time in recent years with a busy schedule of humanitarian and activist work.
Joining SBS’ prestige spy thriller Berlin Station in season two was a major catalyst for her acting resurgence. She praises the show for it’s talented cast and “superb writing.”
“Berlin Station has whet my appetite for acting again,” Judd, 49, tells Collider. “I’m more open-minded now about scripts than I was, over the past couple of years, when I was really hunkered down pretty exclusively in the humanitarian work. Acting is very joyful for me. The process is draining and time consuming, but the acting itself is really joyful.”
Judd plays the formidable new Chief of Station B.B Yates who takes on the “the boy’s club” of CIA hierarchy and isn’t afraid to “piss people off”. Judd based the character on former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and says playing a character that’s the boss, not the ‘female boss’, was hugely appealing.
“I love that B.B is an unapologetic leader, just a leader through and through [and] very ready to suit up and show up and say this is how it is,” Judd tells Entertainment Tonight. “‘I don’t have to play any games in order to try to say, I’m the boss. I’m the woman, so I’m going to do this to make you feel more comfortable with the fact that I am your leader. I’m just your leader.’”
Judd has made a career out of playing formidable women. A purple patch in the late 90’s and early naughties saw Judd become something of an action star and a box office draw. In 1997’s Kiss The Girls, she starred opposite Morgan Freeman as Kate McTiernan a kick-boxing doctor who escapes the clutches of her abductor to join forces with the authorities to find his other victims.
In Double Jeopardy (1999) she played Libby, a woman on a mission to fight back after she is framed for her husband’s murder, opposite Tommy Lee Jones. Judd would team up again with Freeman in 2002 for legal thriller High Crimes, as legal powerhouse Claire Kubik who risks everything to discover the truth behind her husband’s murder charge.
And in 2012 the actress returned to the action genre in the Taken-esque miniseries Missing in an Emmy-nominated turn as an ex-CIA butt kicking mum on a desperate search to find her missing son.
Judd started out her career with a guest role in Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1991, followed by a starring role opposite a young Paul Rudd in acclaimed 90s drama Sisters. But the big screen was calling, Judd’s role was recast, and the actress made an auspicious debut in 1993 in the well-received Ruby in Paradise.
Her portrayal of Ruby Lee Gissing, who dreams of making it big in retail, received perhaps the best compliment an actor can get, and from a screen legend no less. "That girl, Ashley Judd, you can never catch her acting," said Robert Mitchum when he saw the film. Esteemed film critic Roger Ebert concurred. “She is so good in this movie that her character stops being a performance and becomes someone you feel like you know,” gushed Ebert.
More acclaim would follow with Normal Life (1996) opposite Luke Perry as Pam Anderson (no, not that one), a self-destructive “hysterical, manic-depressive” turned crim. It was a powerful performance that made the character, said Ebert at the time, “the kind of woman you would cross the room, or the state, to avoid.”
A decade later, Judd was receiving rave reviews playing downtrodden waitress Agnes in a warped loved triangle in the trippy psycho-thriller Bug from horror master William Friedkin (The Exorcist). Time critic Richard Schickel called it “a stunning performance.”
Other career highlights have included playing harried wife Carla Brigance to dogged lawyer Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) in the adaptation of John Grisham’s legal thriller A Time To Kill (1996), a Golden Globe nominated performance as Linda Porter, wife of Cole Porter (Kevin Klein) in biopic De-Lovely (2004), and as Charlene Shiherlis, conflicted wife of Val Kilmer’s crim Chris in Michael Mann’s acclaimed epic Heat (1995).
Judd also her flexed her rom-com muscles opposite Natalie Portman in Where The Heart Is (2000), and Hugh Jackman in Someone Like You (2001), played artist Frida Kahlo’s (Salma Hayek) lover in the acclaimed biopic Frida (2002) and the first lady in actioner Olympus Has Fallen (2013), and mother of heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley) in the dystopian The Divergent series (2014-16).
And her acting resurgence continued this year with a role in Twin Peaks as Beverly Paige, assistant to richest man in town and former Laura Palmer murder suspect Ben Horne (Richard Beymer), a role written especially for her by David Lynch.
But it’s Judd’s starring role in the #MeToo movement that will be a defining chapter of her career and life. She recently appeared on the cover of Time as a Time Person of the Year along with a group prominent of whistleblowers the magazine has coined “The Silence Breakers.”
In the New York Times expose, Judd detailed a disturbing encounter of alleged sexual harassment with Miramax boss Weinstein in a Beverly Hills hotel as a young actress in 1997. She told Time that she wasn’t about to be silenced by the ordeal.
"I started talking about Harvey the minute that it happened," Judd says. "Literally, I exited that hotel room at the Peninsula Hotel in 1997 and came straight downstairs to the lobby, where my dad was waiting for me, because he happened to be in Los Angeles from Kentucky, visiting me on the set. And he could tell by my face - to use his words - that something devastating had happened to me. I told him. I told everyone."
But the incident wasn’t just ugly in itself but harked back to Judd’s own painful history of a disturbing childhood marred by sexual abuse and neglect. She grew up in the shadow of her estranged mother Naomi and half-sister Wynonna and their famous country and western act The Judds.
Judd wrote in her 2011 memoir All That Is Bitter And Sweet: “My mother, while she was transforming herself into the country legend Naomi Judd, created an origin myth for The Judds that did not match my reality. There was too much trauma, abandonment, addiction and shame."
“She and my sister have been quoted as saying that our family put the fun in dysfunction,” she wrote. “I wondered, who, exactly was having all the fun? What was I missing?”
Perhaps it’s that traumatic upbringing that has led to the Harvard graduate’s tireless activism and humanitarian works which spans everything from youth AIDS awareness in developing countries, human trafficking, environmental issues and cyber bullying. (It was her TedTalk on the latter that piqued the Berlin Station producers’ interest in casting Judd as BB Yates.)
One of Judd’s passions is gender equality and in that, her involvement in Berlin Station has dovetailed. The show strives to achieve gender parity behind the scenes.
“When I spoke with the executives, they expressed to me that they wanted to hire female directors and their goal was gender parity across the board - in the crew and on camera,” she says.
And her starring role on the show continues to push forward the gender balance on screen.
“Now, we have generations of women represented exactly as we have generations of women in this very world.”
Ashley Judd joins the cast of Berlin Station Season two, with both seasons now streaming at SBS On Demand. Watch Berlin Station on Wednesdays at 10:30pm on SBS.