ASHLEY JUDD throws a pink ball across her hotel room. One of her two cockapoos -- either Buttermilk or Shug -- runs for it. In town recently to promote "De-Lovely," a film about Cole Porter's complicated relationship with his wife, Linda (played by Judd), she exudes physical busy-ness. She confesses she can be "manic" when it comes to certain things, like traveling, or following her husband, race-car driver Dario Franchitti, around the world for his races.

But preparing for a movie role, she says, is an easier task. "It's just reading," she says. She did a lot of reading for "De-Lovely" (see review on Page 39). Linda Porter, a hearty supporter of her husband's music and the inspiration for many of his songs, had to live with a man who was far more physically attracted to men. The movie is about, among other things, how she keeps up her love for her husband, despite a nonphysical relationship.

Playing Linda appealed to Judd, she says, because "she was really rich. I thought it would be fun to play someone so rich. And stylish and smart. And independent. An emancipated woman in the Jazz Age, unconventional and with her own convictions. Very impressive lady."

In terms of Cole Porter's homosexuality, "I think Linda knew everything. Maybe it's not on a higher plane. A love about two people who authentically knew each other for who and what they were. . . . They had a love and understanding that did not have a sexual basis. She was an incredible, kinda high-class enabler of his music."

Linda's real concern, Judd continues, was when Cole's behavior in Hollywood "became outrageous and was a threat to his well-being. That was a time when homosexuality was not only viewed as terrifically aberrant but it was illegal. . . . There was no telling what could have happened to [Cole], this cherished American who really reigned in this country for several decades. . . . I don't think the public knew."

The interview is going amicably until there's mention of a certain tabloid TV special ("The Judds: E! True Hollywood Story") that recently aired tacky implications about Judd's family, which includes the singing mother-daughter duo, Naomi and Wynonna. According to the special, when Ashley Judd first joined, she was voted the most likely to quit her acting class at Playhouse West Repertory Theater, under acting teacher Robert Carnegie.

"I think I share that distinction with Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman, who received similar lack of confidence from their fellow students. Good company."

She says it with the kind of tone that could cause frostbite.

"The thing about that network [E!] is, you lie down with dogs and you get up with fleas," Judd says. "I disapproved of the entire thing. The train had left the station, and they were going to do it regardless of what we felt about it. I know some people chose to participate to direct them in an honest way. But I haven't seen it; I won't see it. It's as much a tabloid as the National Enquirer. I have no respect for it and what they do. And I'd like to pinch people who watch it to get them to wake up."

Quick, back to the movie. Or life. Yeah, life's a good subject.

"I want more than anything else in this life to be happy," she says. "I had an unhappy enough childhood; I don't want to be unhappy anymore."

Watching her sister and mother, the successful country music duo, made her realize "money doesn't buy you happiness."

What does give Ashley Judd happiness?

"Work is a part of that, the extent to which I can be both creatively challenged and fulfilled. Like operating on a few levels simultaneously, maybe it's the right brain and left brain, being able to contribute to my work that's stimulating. I'm generally a very feeling person in terms of social injustice and that's important to me, and, you know, a fine spring day."

-- Desson Thomson

Work -- not tabloid TV specials -- makes Ashley Judd happy. Judd plays Cole Porter's wife in "De-Lovely."