Ashley Judd Ashley Judd

Ashley Judd wasn't particularly looking to take on a television series. She's pledged her life recently to human rights/social justice work in impoverished countries, so she'd turned down several very generous TV offers, even those that met her desire to shoot near her home in rural Tennessee. But ABC's Missing provided something unique: challenging material taking place over just 10 episodes, rather than a network's typical order of 22.

"I'd been waiting for that right balance between character, plot and number of episodes," says the star of such big-screen thrillers as Double Jeopardy and Kiss the Girls.

With Missing, Judd got nearly everything she'd hoped for. Nearly. The action-adventure drama was filmed entirely on location in Europe. "Not quite Tennessee," she says with a laugh. "But I did get to kick a lot of boxes."

And then some. Rarely relying on a stunt double, Judd, 43, kicks, punches and races her way through such cities as Rome, Paris and Prague as her character, ex-CIA agent Rebecca Winstone, goes on a hunt for her kidnapped college-age son, Michael (Nick Eversman). Flashbacks reveal that she was married to another agent (played by Sean Bean) and in each episode, she grapples with other contacts from her past — both enemies and allies, including a former mentor, played by Keith Carradine.

For one episode shot in Portofino, Italy, Judd got behind the wheel of a speedboat for a high-octane chase. In another, she's racing through the streets of Rome on a Vespa. "It was like combining a world-class vacation with a little work," says Judd, who sought the counsel of her husband, IndyCar racer Dario Franchitti, for driving tips. "We pushed that poor woman to the edge," says creator Gregory Poirier. "She's obviously a very strong person who wanted to embrace that aspect of the character."

Besides the physical challenges, the role of a frantic mother presented taxing emotional demands. Rebecca believes, says Judd, "It is incumbent upon [her] to do everything within her power to rescue [Michael]." Adds Poirier, "By the time we were shooting in Turkey, [Ashley] was exhausted and I was a little bit worried about her. She didn't shy away from allowing herself to go to really dark emotional depths. It was a very difficult thing for her to do, and it took a toll."

Although Judd is not a mother herself, she says she feels "a sacred responsibility to the children who are already here and need love, care and resources." And she knows how it feels when something you love goes missing: One of her favorite cats, Percy, disappeared in 2010, while Judd was pursuing a degree in public administration at Harvard. Only later did she make the gruesome discovery that he'd been fatally mauled by a fox. "When I found his remains, it was the night before my quantitative methods final exam. I asked Perce to help me get through the exam," she says, tearing up. "And my husband said a similar prayer to win a race. Percy was there for both of us." Judd says she went through a long grieving process. "That grief is unlike any we have ever known. It was excruciating."

Her personal experiences are not something Judd necessarily wants to keep separate from her work life. As a coexecutive producer of Missing, the actress — a survivor of sexual abuse who is "in recovery" after battling severe anxiety and depression (topics discussed in her memoir, All That Is Bitter and Sweet) — pushed for the story line to incorporate the horrors of human sex-slave trafficking. "It was something I fought for," says Judd. "The producers and writers were very open to reading materials I suggested, and I appreciated that ABC was willing to go there with me."

Missing wrapped filming last October, and Judd will venture this spring into a remote area of the Congo in an effort to reduce child mortality. "It will take us days to get there," says Judd, who last visited this African Republic during a two-week break in Missing's production.

"If there is to be a Season 2," Judd says, "we intend to incorporate my humanitarian and social-justice issues into our story." In other words, expect someone to go missing in Africa. "That's what we're talking about — I would love it." And we wouldn't miss it!

Missing premieres Thursday at 8/7c on ABC. Check out this video interview with Judd and costar Cliff Curtis:

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!