Ashley Judd is best known for that string of pulp thrillers that always seemed to costar Morgan Freeman (there were, in fact, only two—Kiss the Girls and High Crimes). And while her career has cooled down commercially, the 42-year-old actress is keeping busy these days as a political activist and survivor of and spokesperson against clinical depression. But Judd still makes films. Her latest is Helen, an independent picture from Sandra Nettlebeck in theaters today. In it, she plays the title role, a pale-faced woman who spirals into severe, numbing depression. It’s never easy to watch but compelling throughout. Here is the actress on the challenges of this role, her own struggle with depression, and the importance of activism.
How did you get involved with this film? I was sent the script by my agent and I was making one of my exceedingly rare trips to California. I read the script on the flight and I kept having to get up to go the bathroom to cry. As soon as I landed and I could turn my phone on, I sent my agent’s office an e-mail and requested to send a copy of the script to two of my mentors, both of whom are exceedingly gifted people as well as very gifted clinicians. I wanted them to read the script because my immediate question was, “Can I play the disease without being in the disease?” Neither of them had ever read a screenplay before, but they got in it in the mail very quickly and read it straight away, and both called me back and said, “Ashley, How dare you not?” I thought, “Well, there’s the green light for me. As far as I’m concerned, I have to do this.” I composed an e-mail that was sent to Sandra Nettlebeck. Then, when I got back to Tennessee I heard from her. I was in my husband’s office and we said, “Oh great! It’s from her!” And, I opened the e-mail and she said, “Why did you read the script? I gave that part to someone years ago!”
So, what happened? Well, I first stopped and said the serenity prayer because there are things I am powerless over. My first thought was, “I’m being protected. This is something I was supposed to read and not supposed to do. Things happen for a reason and work out for my highest good. Obviously, I’m going to have some feelings of disappointment, but it is what it is.” Then, we just became e-mail friends and visited back and forth. I believe it was in the Spring. That summer, I guess Sandra just got really tired of trying to make the movie with the other actor. The producer Christine Haebler was on her summer holidays sailing in British Colombia and got a phone call that I was interested. We pulled the movie together literally within weeks.
How did you approach the role? It is such a good script. I approached it as a powerfully written and vividly detailed screenplay with all the information I needed in order to successfully portray the character. I didn’t approach it any differently from any of my other roles.
What do you hope that people will take from this picture? It definitely doesn’t give any easy solutions. I hope that they’re so interested in the movie that someday Sandra has the opportunity to present her real cut of the film. I am telling you: what is in the film you just watched is literally a fraction of what I did in that film.
So what else would we be looking at? There was just so much that was cut! It was a powerful script and there were just more periods of depression and more suicide attempts and some really big relationship stuff. There was some arguing where I’m actually really trying to leave him to protect him from me spewing my disease all over him and he refuses to let me leave. There’s a solid three-hour movie!
So, there’s a good hour more. Oh yeah. I think it’s abusive to talk about a problem without actually talking about a solution. It’s not necessary in this day and age to live isolated in the disease of depression. Mental illness no longer needs to be treated with a sense of secrecy or stigma. There’s a lot effective help that’s available, whether it’s on a short-term basis in a stabilizing ward with appropriate medication prescribed by qualified pharmacologists with really close supervision and then there are different cognitive and behavioral modalities that are increasingly effective. There’s a lot of hope for people with depression.
What other issues are close to your heart now? Well, I’m getting ready to go back to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Doing something about gender violence is a major priority of mine. I continue to do international public health work on all fronts– maternal health, child survival, family planning, STD and HIV prevention, malaria prevention and treatment, all the work I’ve been doing with Population Services International for the past seven years. I’m still deeply invested in that.
Do you feel it is your responsibility as a person in a certain position of power and visibility to use that? I don’t pay attention to it. I just do the next good, right thing and try to be of maximum service to the God of my understanding. You know? I don’t do it because I’m an actor. I do it because I’m a human being.