Ashley Judd comes across as too good to be true. Almost.

Her country-gal persona is as thick as fleas on a hound. Can she really be this unpretentious, down-home woman who just happens to be the current hot actress? Or is she simply slick at doing the country shtick that cynical city types love to believe in?Judd, the nonsinging younger sister of country music's Wynonna, was all sweet grins and country charm when she visited Houston to talk about her new film, "Ruby in Paradise."

If it's an act, it's consistent. For her interview, she asked if it was OK to go outside in the fresh air, even though that meant sitting on a back-street curb. While there, she gushed affectionately over a stray dog. ("You're awful pretty, aren't you?")

For lunch, she enthusiastically ordered chicken-fried steak and cobbler. When a new acquaintance quietly left without saying goodbye, she chased after him to shout a fond farewell.

But Judd doesn't pretend she's right off the farm, although she'll tell you she's never far from the one her mom, Naomi, has outside of Nashville. Though she declares country people the smartest people she knows, she also points out she's a constant reader of literature and that she went to the University of Kentucky, where she studied French and had four minors: anthropology, art history, theater and women's studies. "And did the honors program."

Judd has been pursuing an acting career for several years. She played a bit part in the film "Kuffs" and had a prominent guest role on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" as the girlfriend of Wesley Crusher. She was a semi-regular as Swoosie Kurtz's daughter in TV's "Sisters."

Her slow rise turned into a rocket when "Ruby in Paradise," her first starring film, was the surprise hit at January's Sundance Film Festival and shared the Grand Jury Prize. Critics gushed over her and the film, a quiet, low-budget work that could have easily gone unnoticed except for Judd's performance and Victor Nunez's sensitive writing and direction.

Judd would have gotten some attention because of her family. But Ruby, a young woman trying to escape her poor, empty Appalachian destiny, was a perfect role for the actress, and Judd gave a convincing performance.

When it hit the festival circuit, she started getting offers. Oliver Stone quickly grabbed her, and she's already completed a role in his "Natural Born Killers," which will be released next year.

As Ruby, Judd portrays a woman who runs away from her home. She arrives in a Florida tourist city with no job, no prospects and little life experience. But Ruby is no rube. She observes. She absorbs. By film's end, she's ready to blossom.

The actress could identify with Ruby. Though her family has been prosperous since The Judds hit it big a decade ago, Ashley, 25, still remembers the struggles.

"Mom was a single parent, she received no child support and was at times estranged from her family. She worked three jobs to put herself through nursing school. So it was never easy," Judd said. "Every stitch of clothes we ever had came from our grandparents in eastern Kentucky, where we spent all our summers."

After her mom finished nursing school in Marin County, Calif., they moved to the Nashville area. In 13 years, Judd attended 12 schools. But she insists life with her sister and mother had a lot of stability.

"I never really felt that scared by our poverty, because I was so young and I always loved whatever I was doing and wherever we happened to be living," she says.

Judd says she's still surprised at how fast things have happened for her, but she doesn't pretend she didn't expect success some day, just like her sister and mother.

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"We always had a sense that we were different. It wasn't at the expense of somebody else. We simply knew we were different, and it was never a matter of if Wynonna becomes a professional singer, it was a matter of when. And the same thing is true with me in acting."

Judd's nonstop promotion of "Ruby in Paradise" has helped her understand something about sister Wynonna that was a mystery to her before: Wynonna's desire to sleep late when not on the road.

"Wynonna lies in the bed with the drapes shut and says, `I'm an entertainer; nobody understands.' It's always driven me batty. "So the other day, what am I doing? The exact same thing.

I called Mom, and, of course, she did her little baby-talk routine, which I love even though I'm supposed to be an adult, and I said, `I'm lying in bed with the drapes shut because I'm an entertainer, and nobody understands.' Mom laughed so hard."

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