With ''Bug,'' the activist actress bites into her darkest role yet

Ashley Judd — not her publicist or assistant — is calling to apologize for running late. She explains that packing for a weekend trip to see her husband, race-car driver Dario Franchitti, compete in the Kansas Lottery Indy 300 in Kansas City has put her behind schedule. The consummate Southerner, she follows with a friendly inquiry: ”So, how is Nashville treating you?”

When the apple-cheeked brunette, her hair highlighted with a few gray strands, arrives at her EW interview a mere 15 minutes late — which in New York or L.A. would practically be considered early — she’s still apologizing. This time it’s for the room’s bland decor. Examining the empty studio space, Judd, 39, saunters over to the window and pulls open the blinds, letting in the warm Tennessee morning light.

Her latest film, though, is anything but light. Bug, a psychological thriller as difficult to watch as Saw, is set almost entirely in a single motel room. The film lets Judd unleash a painfully raw performance as a divorced cocktail waitress, Agnes, who falls for a disturbed Gulf War veteran, Peter (Michael Shannon). As the pair spirals into paranoia, both believe their bodies are riddled with breeding bugs. Adapted from the award-winning 2004 Off Broadway play by Tracy Letts, Bug involves self-mutilation and includes a terrifying sequence in which Peter rips his teeth out. ”Once I went into that consciousness, I never got out of it,” says Judd, who required no makeup for the shoot. ”I felt it in my sleep. I felt it right when I woke up in the morning. And I had this music: I could lie down on the floor and hear one or two bars and — boom — drop in…. It’s very sick, but it is an extreme love story.”

This is a far cry from the kind of work that made Judd a household name — chick flicks like 2000’s Where the Heart Is and 2001’s Someone Like You. ”I am generally associated with the glossier films,” she admits. ”But, to me, Bug is not out of character with everything I’ve done.” Indeed, her star-making debut came in 1993’s gritty Ruby in Paradise, and the Ashland, Ky., native played gutsy heroines in box office hits like 1997’s Kiss the Girls and 1999’s Double Jeopardy. Recently, she’s peppered her résumé with even edgier roles, like a hard-drinking contractor who sleeps around in the 2006 indie Come Early Morning. Director William Friedkin, perhaps best known for The Exorcist, says Judd was his only choice for Bug‘s Agnes. ”Ashley lives inside this character and inhabits her because of that compassion she has — real compassion.”

These tougher roles seem appropriate for an actress whose personal life is characterized by a rigorous search for balance. For example, since 2002, Judd has served as a global ambassador for Population Services International’s YouthAIDS initiative. She’s been traveling the world (10 countries so far) lecturing on HIV and AIDS prevention, all the while realizing her ”childhood dream” of filling her passport pages with stamps. Recently, she returned from a three-week trip to India. ”Days are spent in the field: slums, brothels, truck stops,” she says. ”At night, we visit with government officials and the wealthy, reaching out to raise consciousness, lower stigma and taboo, and generate funding.” All of this has made Judd reevaluate her career: ”It’s like, if I have the pie [chart] — the movie slice went down as my service work grew.”

These days, Judd describes herself as ”spiritually fit,” in part because of the distance she’s put between herself and Hollywood. In February 2006, she began a 47-day stint in a Texas rehab facility for treatment of longtime depression. ”I had to hit a bottom,” she says, carefully avoiding much detail. ”It’s like when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing.” She now spends much of her time with Franchitti and their two dogs and five cats at their renovated farmhouse outside Nashville, a gift from big sister/neighbor Wynonna. For her birthday on April 19, ”I invited my best friends to Tennessee, and we went on a retreat in the woods.” She has also sworn off the celebrity tabloids that have been a menace to her and her famous family. ”It’s freed up so much of my mental energy,” she explains. ”I have a really firm slogan that it’s none of my business what people think of me.”

This month, Judd will film the drama Crossing Over alongside Harrison Ford, Sean Penn, and Ray Liotta. She plays an immigration lawyer, perfect casting for the ex — sorority girl who once considered the Peace Corps. ”When I was first going to California in 1990, I was speaking with a friend about all the social-justice work I was going to do,” Judd recalls. ”This man said to me, ‘Are you going to be an actor or an activist?”’ Based on her success at juggling both, it’s a choice Judd will likely never have to make.

Ashley Judd’s Must List

The Illusionist (2006)
”Edward [Norton] made fun of me: ‘Thank you for liking my silly little magic film.’ I said, ‘I didn’t think it was silly. I loved it.”’

Enduring Grace, Carol Lee Flinders (1993)
”It’s a spiritual examination of seven female [mystics].

”I listen to her a lot. In Kenya, she went to see Global Fund programs [which aim to end the spread of diseases such as AIDs].”

Facing Codependence, Pia Mellody (1989)
”A great book,” says Judd of the self-help tome about dysfunctional families. ”It’s very clear.”

Flyboys (2006)
”We loved that film. [Dario] is a big WWII and aviation-history buff, because he’s a helicopter pilot.”