Actress Ashley Judd

Actress reflects on the risk in combining her occupation with her activism and comments on whether she remains hopeful, given all that she’s seen in her humanitarian work.

In addition to being a successful actress with multiple Golden Globe and Emmy nods, Ashley Judd is a passionate humanitarian and activist, who travels the world as a global ambassador. She's a grad of the University of Kentucky, where she's known for regularly attending basketball games, and holds an MFA from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The daughter and sister of country music stars, Judd recounts her odyssey in both overcoming childhood grief and discovering her calling as an advocate for social justice in her memoir All That Is Bitter and Sweet.


Tavis: Pleased and delighted to have Ashley Judd on this program. The awfully talented actress is, of course, a longtime human rights advocate whose work has taken her to more than a dozen troubled nations around the globe, including the Congo. This work serves as the basis for her new memoir, “All That Is Bitter and Sweet.” She is a board member on a world health organization called Population Services International. Ashley, an honor to have you on the set.
Ashley Judd: Thanks so much, Tavis. I’m pleased to be here.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you. I hope you appreciate the fact that even though I grew up just down the street from the racetrack in Indiana – Indianapolis, to be specific, something you know a little bit about – I grew up just down the street and went to Indiana University just to make you feel comfortable. Just to make you feel comfortable, I wore a tie of a certain color that I thought you might appreciate.
Judd: I did sense when I stepped onto the stage the big blue mist overcoming me and putting me significantly at ease. (Laughter) And by the way, I do think my team has a very strong chance of being the preseason number one favorite, (laughter) because it’s only the 19th – or it’s not the 19th of April, that’s my birthday that’s coming up – but it’s only April, but we care about these things. Oh, thanks, that’s great.
Tavis: There you go, yeah.
Judd: Thanks – I just appreciate that. (Laughter) Lovely.
Tavis: I was just about to say, for those who didn’t get the –
Judd: Oh, and the pit stains, I’m rocking the pit stains, yeah.
Tavis: For those who didn’t understand the reference, Ashley is a huge Kentucky fan.
Judd: Now, that’s my boy – that’s Scratch.
Tavis: I went to Indiana and we hate Kentucky, but I love Ashley, so anyway –
Judd: The good news is the feeling is mutual.
Tavis: Take those Kentucky photos – (laughter). This conversation’s off to a great start. Nice to see you, too. Anyway, this book has created a stir, as if you don’t already know, around two issues in particular that I want to address kind of like James Brown, hit it and quit it, and then get on to the stuff that really matters in the book.
One of the things that troubles me, when I got a chance to read the book – and part of this is about the world we live in – that you can have the best intentions, you can keep a diary, a journal of your work around the world trying to save women, trying to save children, and the media and others will find one or two lines in the book and turn the whole conversation into something different than you intended.
I want to get to what the book is really about after we hit these things right quick, and I wrote them down so I could quote them just right and get your thoughts, and we’ll move on.
In no particular order, I guess the first question is how it is that a book that, again, is about the good work you’ve been doing around the world for so many years ends up being eclipsed in some ways by a conversation about, for lack of a better phrase, a family feud that people want to act as if it exists.
Your mother and sister have come out and said, “We love Ashley, we support her,” and yet this thing continues. So tell me something about this so we can put it behind us.
Judd: Well, I became willing to share some of my personal story in the book in order to provide background for the reader that hopefully explains why I’m so interested in feminist social justice, human rights and public health work, and those chapters are very much my work and at the same time they’re kind of an afterthought.
I became willing to share them based on the robust encouragement of people who are not in the media, who thought that in addition to it helping contextualize my empathy that those chapters might carry a message of hope and recovery to other friends and families of alcoholics, others who’ve grown up in a family system that didn’t work very well.
The thing that none of us could have possibly anticipated was the freakish, uncanny timing of the Judds’ show premiering on the Oprah Winfrey Network the exact same week as my book was coming out, and we were literally doing a step and repeat in New York last week.
I would be on a show and they would be on a show. To again emphasize how uncanny the timing was, the great Tennie McCarty, who is the founder and director of Shades of Hope Treatment Center, where I received help, her show also premiered on the Oprah Winfrey Network last week. So clearly, this is some kind of –
Tavis: It’s all Oprah’s fault?
Judd: You know what? That’s what I was going to say. (Laughter) I understand the media’s morbid fascination. I found it exasperating at first, but God doesn’t make mistakes and timing unfolds as it should, and I have a lot of confidence that as more readers have this book in their hands, they, like you, will absolutely discover what it’s really about and the content will emerge.
Tavis: Fair enough. Second issue that’s caused some controversy. You were researching an organization that had asked you to do some work. You found that prior to their asking you, their interest in you, they had used some artists – namely, artists like Snoop Dogg and P Diddy to help spread their message.
You write in the text, “Those names were red flags. My feminist instincts flared. As far as I am concerned, most rap and hip-hop music, with its rape culture and insanely abusive lyrics and depictions of girls and women as ‘hos’ is the contemporary soundtrack of misogyny,” close quote.
I understand what – now that I’ve gone through the book – I understand the point you were trying to make about the abuse of women and misogyny and gender indifference, et cetera, et cetera, but what you, could you, have said differently, you think, to avoid that controversy?
Judd: Well, I definitely could have used the word “some.” I also could have done a better job of anticipating that those who live hip-hop as a way of life, for whom it’s a cultural identity, would take a very personal umbrage. I just would have done a more clear job of individuating that which is in hip-hop and rap, which are distinct art forms, misogynistic and expresses extraordinary objectification and hypersexualization of girls and women, and the part that obviously does not.
It’s been interesting. It’s been interesting. I think it’s an important conversation. It’s really not a conversation I ever dreamed that I would be such an integral part of. But now that I’m having it with the likes of Questlove in a way that is profound and intimate, vulnerable and deep, that’s about poverty and institutional expressions of racism through authority like police and whatnot, it’s fascinating, and I do very much regret that I offended and hurt people who are not misogynistic.
As for the ones who are, they make my argument far more compellingly than I ever could. The stuff that was happening initially on my Twitter account, for example, is a far more eloquent condemnation of sexism than any statement I could ever issue.
Tavis: This raises a fascinating question for me. When you commit yourself, as you have in your life, to doing the kind of work that you do, there are all kinds of social and political and ethical and spiritual, shall we say, landmines that you have to navigate your way through consistently if you’re going to do that work with purpose.
Talk to me about that journey, about trying to navigate all of these challenges as you do the work that you do.
Judd: Well, I think that that’s a great question, and the word that came to mind was “risky.” When you were saying landmines, that’s the word that came to me. I don’t know that I am particularly in touch or aware of how risky much of the work I do is, because I come at it pretty exclusively from a spiritual angle and I think it’s my responsibility to stand autonomously with the god of my understanding, to stay as consciously connected to a power greater than myself as I possibly can, do the next good, right, honest thing, and actually, what comes of it is none of my business. The outcome is really none of my business.
As a result, I throw myself hard and head and heart-long into the work and then sometimes things like what have happened over the past week happen. I wouldn’t say I’m a shy person, because I’m quite an extrovert in many ways, but in terms of media, I am really shy. We live on a farm in rural Tennessee and in Scotland. We’re private people. So no one has been more surprised by this than I.
Tavis: Since you’ve referenced it a couple of times now, your faith obviously is terribly important to you. How does one get motivated to do the work that you do as a result of your faith, but not proselytize in the process?
Judd: Right. I have a very ecumenical faith. I have a very inclusive faith. There’s a quote I love from recovery literature that says, “The realm of the spirit is roomy and broad. It is open to all.” I’ve absolutely staked my life on that. Yeah.
Tavis: Since you used the word “risk,” let me pick up on your word. Have you discovered whether or not there are risks to wanting to be more than just an actor? There’s nothing wrong with being just an actor; I don’t want to cast aspersion on actors, but you’ve decided to be an actor and to pursue your calling, your vocation, your purpose, outside of the field. Is there a risk to trying to do both at the same time, in the business sense?
Judd: Well, my financial planner would say, “Absolutely.” (Laughter) There’s a lot of risks. I spoke at a TED event in Nashville recently and the theme was a sense of wonder, and I thought, I bet a lot of people have been wondering where Ashley Judd has been for the past six or eight years, and my financial planner was wondering the same thing.
There’s a quote in the book from the great Robert Keegan, who is a professional of adult development at Harvard graduate school of education, and he writes that when we take the risk of really witnessing another human being, when we validate their human experience, we risk becoming recruited to their welfare. That’s really all I’ve done, is allow my empathy to be engaged.
Once it is, because my feelings helped teach me what my values are, I’m on the path of which there is no return. I am inexorably an advocate when I allow my empathy to be engaged.
Tavis: You mentioned Harvard. You decided to go back there long after your career was already burgeoning to get credentialed. Why did you feel the need to do that?
Judd: I always wanted to go to graduate school. I had a very exciting and dynamic experience as an undergraduate at UK. Of course, as was obviously clear at the top of the show, I’m well known for being an avid fan of the men’s basketball program. I’m also an avid fan of the academics at that school.
I had my major, I had four minors, I did a whole honors program curriculum, and received an absolutely outstanding education. I wanted to go to graduate school but I was afraid that if I didn’t try the acting thing, if I didn’t honor this somewhat disturbing impulse that I had inside of me, that it might be a regret I carried the rest of my life.
I thought, if I don’t go to Hollywood as a younger woman I don’t know that I would at 42. But going to graduate school in my forties seemed plausible, and I went to Vanderbilt assuming that I would find a graduate degree there. It’s fairly close to home, and to no one’s greater astonishment than my own I ended up at Harvard.
Tavis: So you have Southern roots, I have Southern roots; I grew up in Indiana but I was born in Mississippi. I’m just curious as to whether or not this is just fate or you just really like Morgan Freeman, speaking of actors, since y’all seem to do a dance together every now and again.
Judd: I really like Morgan Freeman. Sometimes when I see him my eyes just spontaneously well with tears. I adore the man, and we had a wonderful time working together again recently on “Dolphin Tale,” which comes out in September. He is just – he is everything you would hope he is.
Tavis: Yeah, he’s a great guy. To the book now, again, specifically now to what the book is about. I’m empowered by the choice you’ve made to spend your life the way you’re using it.
Judd: That’s my favorite word, by the way.
Tavis: What?
Judd: “Empowerment.”
Tavis: Yeah, that’s a good word. I appreciate that part. What I am curious about is how and why you’ve chosen to light up in these places around the globe that you’ve gone to, because there’s a case to be made for every one of them, and it is a courageous choice to go where you have gone. So why these kinds of places?
Judd: Well, it’s not by some mastermindish design on my part. When I first received the letter from Youth Aids in 2002 it was simply, if you want to say it that way, direct mail solicitation. We did have a mutual friend through whom – Kate Roberts, who was the person who wrote me, had contacted me.
I that very same week was receiving bothersome phone calls from two dear friends who are great men, Bobby Shriver and Bono, asking me to do the same thing that Youth Aids was asking me to do, and I regarded that as more than a coincidence and decided to surrender to this vortex of fate and reconnected with my passionate, rabblerousing self of the undergraduate years.
The next thing I knew I had been to 13 countries, Rwanda and the Congo multiple times, and had written all of these diaries as a way to both capture and commemorate the sacred narratives with vulnerable people with which I had been entrusted, but I also wanted to write about the simple and cost-effective grassroots programs that disrupt cycles of poverty and violence.
It is abusive to point out a problem without also highlighting the solution, and putting the solution in there was to carry a message of hope around the world and for my own sanity. Because there has to be hope, because so much of what’s happening is senseless.
Tavis: When you say there has to be hope, there has to be hope for us, or there has to be hope for them?
Judd: Well, there’s no difference between us, so yeah, it is hope for all of us. I have to fight on a daily basis the delusion that there is some other, because we are all one. I love the saying from the Talmud that when we save one, we save the world.
Tavis: On two occasions in my own life I’ve had to go back to my own journals, which I write in every day, for purposes of putting out a text, putting out a book. In both instances I’ve found myself being surprised in retrospect – you know where I’m going with this – I find myself being surprised in retrospect about what I had said or what I thought or what I had endured or whatever the case might have been.
I’m curious as to whether or not, going back through your diaries, going back through your journal, you surprised yourself about anything or anythings.
Judd: The grief. The level of grief, absolutely, and that it is so visceral and overwhelming with each exploited person’s story that I tell. I never seem to take it lightly, and I have, through recovery, thank goodness, learned to laugh at myself, because as long as I can laugh at myself I never run out of material.
Because there is so much of my consciousness that is, I hope, appropriately grave, reverent and is constantly looking to hold the space inside of myself for the sanctity of all human life.
Tavis: For those who don’t quite get how it is that a person who has been as blessed as you are, as known as you are, as fortunate as you are can connect with people who are on the other end of that line of hope or opportunity, what is that thing that, to your earlier point, connects you, Ashley Judd, to them, to him, to her, the person?
Judd: I don’t really know that I can say it any differently than I breathe the air of humanity, and I, too was once a neglected, abandoned, lost child and my family system is a lot smaller than the global community. But the identification, the feelings, I think, are the same, and when I walked into that first brothel, when I visited my first genocide museum, when I had spent my first week in slums and forcibly displaced persons camps, I just saw life.
I saw brothers and sisters, I saw people whose feelings were real and important, and the assaults on their dignity. The human rights atrocities with which they live on a daily basis just simply weren’t okay with me. Their willingness to be vulnerable and to share their stories with me was really touching and it became a pact.
It’s like every time someone tells me their story we are creating a pact. You are giving it to me, and I will carry it to the world. I take that very literally and very seriously.
Tavis: I ask this, Ashley, because to my mind, at least, and to my read it’s impossible to ignore it. That is that many of these places that you have chosen to spend your time and do the work that you do, these persons who are disenfranchised economically, politically, socially, culturally oftentimes tend to be people of color. So I ask in a very forthright way, what’s race got to do with it?
Judd: I think it has everything to do with it. I think it has everything to do with it. If there were 15 million white orphans in North America we would be doing absolutely everything we could to nurture, love, cherish, empower the health of and educate those children.
But because those roughly 15 million HIV/AIDS orphans are living primarily in sub-Saharan Africa – and community-based organizations do good work and churches donate to orphanages and people travel to give of their time and do so sincerely, but we don’t have the large-scale, galvanized political response that I absolutely believe we would if they were not people of color. I think that it’s a very good point you make.
Tavis: Whether they are people of color – that is to say Africans – in the Diaspora, people like me, or white Americans like yourself, how is it, particularly at this propitious moment, we get people to focus on these issues, to pay attention to these issues, to get traction on these issues when so many Americans are concerned about their own condition that we may say a prayer for the people in Congo or Rwanda, et cetera. But how do you connect the dots, so to speak?
Judd: Well, I do think prayer is powerful and it is not to be diminished. Some of us in this country who are struggling to put food on the table and are wondering where the next paycheck is coming from or have dangerous health situations and they don’t have access to appropriate care do pray – do pray for yourselves and for others. I understand those kinds of constraints.
As for the rest of us who aren’t necessarily concerned with our daily survival I think that there are a variety of ways to – it’s enlightened self-interest, and there are a variety of ways to unpack that. One is, I think, globally healthy societies are better able to economically empower themselves. There’s a real connection and growth of GDP with the health status of a population, and in particular the ability of girls and women to access education and income generation.
Technology, with connecting poor communities with technology, there are connections to increase in that nation’s productivity. Those stable societies are what, as a global community, we’re looking for, and I think that all the money that we spend militarily, for example, some of it could be diverted to the soft diplomacy and we would accomplish our aims probably faster.
Bare minimum, these soft diplomacies should be a fully integrated and complementary approach. My godmother is a neat woman, and she has a pig for a pet, and she’s in Pacific Heights, a kind of fancy community in San Francisco, and I think initially people were like, “Wow, you have a pig. That’s kind of weird,” and she would say, “It’s my pig. No, it’s my pig.” (Laughter)
So it’s become an expression for me to represent that we each have our little thing. We each have our little precious thing, and what I encourage people to do is find their pig. What is your area of extreme sensitivity? For me, it’s gender discrimination, it’s sexual exploitation, it’s kicking a disempowered person when they’re already down.
Like, I can’t stand that stuff, so I’m going to leverage my core competencies from my soul very effectively, or more effectively, if I am connected with my values and principles on an issue. So for those around the country who are concerned with their own hand-to-mouth living, what is your pig, and make a difference in that area and broaden your horizons.
I just did that whole thing, because this is, like, taped, right? That was just so clumsy and bad and weird.
Tavis: Nothing’s taped, nothing’s edited, it’s all real, and you explained it well. I followed it, and if I can follow it, anybody can follow it.
This is the first time we’ve met and I’ve read so much about you over the years and been a fan of your work. I now get you. I understand you, sitting here talking to you.
Judd: Will you please tweet that? (Laughter)
Tavis: Sure I will. I now get you and I understand it, and you are what I thought – who I thought you would be. What I still don’t know, though, which I want you to explain to me in 45 seconds, is why, given all that you have seen, you still remain – and I assume that you are, because you wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t have written this book – how, why are you still so hopeful?
Judd: I’ve been restored to sanity, to wholeness and soundness of mind through a really simple and effective process of recovery, and I don’t think I’m terminally unique. If that can happen to me, then I believe that those kind of hope-infusing and hope-giving processes can work for other people, too.
I have a lot of love to give, and when I give that love and others are able to receive it and show me their vulnerability, I believe that God inhabits that space, which means I basically hang out with God a lot, and that’s why I feel hopeful.
Tavis: I was always an Ashley Judd fan. Now I’m just a fanatic. (Laughter) Maybe “fan” is short for “fanatic,” I don’t know. I have so enjoyed this; I could do this for hours. The new book from Ashley Judd is called “All That Is Bitter and Sweet,” and I have just delighted in the opportunity to get inside your head and inside your heart. Thank you for sharing it.
Judd: Thank you so much, Tavis, for having me.
Tavis: My pleasure to have you here. Wow.
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Last modified: August 16, 2014 at 12:13 am