She cheerfully calls herself a “hillbilly” from Kentucky who grew up in one of America’s first families of country music. But Ashley Judd doesn’t want you getting the wrong idea about any of that. “I’m definitely rural, but I’m far from ignorant,” she says, her perfectly tended eyebrows forming an indignant circumflex.

In “De-Lovely,” Judd plays Linda Lee, a woman whose soigne sophistication often was tested by her marriage to composer Cole Porter. The film, which opens Friday, takes a long look at Porter’s many homosexual liaisons, but also faithfully re-creates the intense intimacy of his marriage of more than three decades. “And Linda is as native to who I am,” says Judd, as anything “that people would consider country.”

Porter (played in the film by Kevin Kline) was responsible for such classics of the American songbook as “Night and Day,” “Let’s Misbehave” and “You’re the Top.” That was not exactly the music Ashley listened to as she was growing up among the Judds – the popular country duo featuring her mother Naomi and sister Wynonna. In fact, Ashley had never sung in public before “De-Lovely,” but bursts into song twice during the movie.

“I have a healthy enough ego to think I have a fairly passable singing voice,” she says. “I wasn’t smart enough to be apprehensive when I was hired. But then when it came time to do it, it wasn’t all that much fun.” Not only would her debut take place amid solos by such singers as Diana Krall, Elvis Costello and Natalie Cole, but her songs had to be performed live during the movie’s production numbers, something she discovered only after she had agreed to take the part.

During production, Kline announced that he didn’t want to prerecord the songs, because he wanted them to sound more naturalistic. “That was a bit of a change of plans at the very last minute that really threw me for a loop,” Judd recalls. “But I just had to get on with it.”

She had resisted getting on with it her entire life, never eager to be compared to her big sister. Why she never joined the act is another subject about which Judd bristles, when pressed. “I didn’t want to,” she says, as if she might have heard this question before. “My sister’s good enough at it. Why did I have to?”

Growing up as the only non-singing member of a musical family helped prepare her to play Linda, who was Porter’s helpmeet and inspiration but not a musician herself. “I think that’s what I really loved about the part,” she says. “I had the privilege to rub elbows with some of the great musical talents of our time.”

And Judd’s marriage to race-car driver Dario Franchitti in 2001 helped deepen her understanding of what it was like for Linda to be married to Cole. “I married someone who has an extremely unusual and very elite gift,” she says. “I love the privilege of being close to people who allow me to be a part of their extraordinary talent.”

Making “De-Lovely,” much of which was filmed in England, was not such a privilege, although Judd says she got along fine with Kline and director Irwin Winkler. “It really sucked in a lot of ways,” she says. “A lot of the locations were old stately homes, and some of them were appropriately accommodating. But some of these people were just … “And here she uses a word that the English spell one way and Americans spell another, but either way, cannot be repeated here.

“They were really precious about where we could go and where we could not, and that made it really, really hard. I mean, I’m wearing white palazzo pants and I had to schlep across a muddy lawn to get to a toilet. I peed behind a bush for four days. That’s fine, I do that at home” – evidently you can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl – “but to do it in costumes is really irritating.”

She followed that with six months on Broadway playing Maggie in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” opposite Ned Beatty and Jason Patric. Beatty told a reporter from the New York Times that Judd was “a sweetie, and yet she doesn’t have a whole lot of tools.”

(Times critic Ben Brantley seemed to concur, describing Judd’s work as “the performance of a self-conscious pupil in an elocution class.”)

“Poor Ned,” Judd says. “He was a little tie-tie one day, and for someone with his age and experience, made a pretty ridiculous mistake. But that’s his prerogative, so whatever.”

Judd received much better treatment in San Francisco, where she made a pair of thrillers over the past two years – “High Crimes” in 2002 and “Twisted” this year.

“We consider San Francisco our American city home,” she says, though she and her husband actually live in the hills and hollows of rural Tennessee, where she is far from the world of Cole and Linda Porter. And far from ignorant.

(c) 2004, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

Visit, the World Wide Web site of the Mercury News, at

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

AP-NY-07-01-04 0625EDT

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