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Judd casts her lot for social causes

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NEW YORK -- Want to get Ashley Judd fired up? Just let her talk about organic farming, mountaintop removal coal-mining in Kentucky and sex education in the developing world.

"I love talking about that stuff. I could talk about it all day long," Judd sighs, munching on salmon and asparagus in a warm hotel suite overlooking Central Park.

And then there's AIDS prevention, a cause she has been pushing since she became a YouthAIDS global ambassador in 2002. As part of what she dubs her "service work," Judd, 38, calls donors to ask for money, happily meets with foreign leaders and goes into rural areas in developing countries to talk to prostitutes and young girls about safe sex. She is especially interested in women's rights, "the sexual exploitation of women and women's reproductive health."

Ashley Judd and YouthAIDS: Confronting the Pandemic -- airing on TLC tonight (8 ET/PT), World AIDs Day -- explores the spread of the disease in Central America.

Judd and pal Salma Hayek travel Central America and meet with at-risk young people. "We see women who became HIV-positive within their marriages," Judd says. "A woman named Maria found out she was HIV-positive when one of her children died from AIDS. It's profoundly disturbing."

Ask people about Judd, who was an honor student in French at the University of Kentucky, and the word you hear consistently is "smart."

Says YouthAIDS founder Kate Roberts, who has known Judd for five years: "She's extraordinarily well educated. She knows everything about everything. But she's also fun. We spend a lot of time together on these trips, and sometimes we let our hair down. She loves to go to restaurants and sample the local cuisine. We practice yoga together. She's very spiritual."

Echoes Joey Lauren Adams, who just directed Judd as a drunken Southern belle gone wrong in the small drama Come Early Morning, now in theaters: "She's so freaky-smart, so the conversations you have with her are always extremely stimulating. She's also emotionally intelligent, which is almost more important."

Part of that is a result of Judd's stint in a Texas treatment center in February to deal with emotional problems including depression and codependence. She calls that time the "hardest 47 days of my life, but I would do it again in a heartbeat if I needed to."

She went public about her treatment because she's not ashamed of it. "I've been given a solution. Everything has changed but my name. Seriously. I can take a lot more responsibility for myself. My validation comes from within, which previously was an intellectual and abstract concept. Like if I read that on a book cover, I would think: 'I don't need to buy that book. I know that.' But now I really know it in the seed of my soul."

She has learned to cope with everyday hassles such as missing baggage. "Previously, I might be impatient or annoyed or somehow feel robbed of those 15 minutes to fill out the form to say that you people lost my luggage," says Judd, who quotes Maya Angelou and recites the prayer of St. Francis mid-conversation. "But I'm powerless over that stuff. All my needs will be met, in this moment and the next moment, and I don't have to worry about it. It is a nice way to live."

Her real life, in fact, revolves around her menagerie of dogs and cats, which she and her husband of five years, race-car driver Dario Franchitti, keep at their farm in Tennessee. "She leads a very simple life," Roberts says. "She really just likes spending time with her husband and animals. She's the queen of pies: blueberry and apple."

George Clooney said "never," but Judd isn't averse to running for office someday. "I see my service work taking an increasingly important place in my life -- whatever that looks like for me," she says. "The one thing that empowers me to be better is to know that I am part of a solution on a daily basis."

Though movies have taken something of a back seat for the actress best known for her turns in a series of similar thrillers (1997's Kiss the Girls and 1999's Double Jeopardy, for example), she still loves being in front of the camera. "I'd like to make a great movie in 2007. I'm definitely craving the creative process, telling a story. But the only thing I have planned for 2007 is a month-long trip to India" in March.

But Judd, who cheers on her beloved college basketball Wildcats at games, might go courtside instead. "It's a little tricky, because I'm always hoping that my team will be playing in the Final Four. So I'll see if I can plan my trip around that."

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© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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