“I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to be in a conversation that has to do with something other than trite, silly, you know, ‘Are you pregnant?’ ‘When are you this?’ ‘What’s your hair doing?’ You know, or, ‘You’re just a rom-com person!’ Anything just to have a discussion about the work!”
So said the actress Jennifer Aniston when I met up with her on Saturday at the Bel Air home that she shares with her fiancée, the actor Justin Theroux, to talk about her life and career and the turning point in both that has come in the form of Daniel Barnz‘s indie drama Cake, for which she is currently in the thick of the best actress Oscar, Golden Globe and SAG Award conversations.
The 45-year-old, who has been among America’s most popular actresses since her debut on TV’s Friends 20 years ago, greeted me in her open-air living room, which offers a breathtaking view of the skyline from Century City all the way to Santa Monica, and houses a Christmas tree that would feature in a holiday gathering of friends later in the evening.
We made our way past her pool to Theroux’s home office, where she settled onto a couch across from me, wearing reading glasses, with her legs tucked beneath her, and began reflecting on the journey that has taken her from Sherman Oaks, where she was born, to New York City, where she was raised, to the Emmys, where she was honored in 2002, to the tabloids, in which her personal life has been a fixture for over a decade, sometimes overshadowing her professional accomplishments.
Her work in films such as Office Space (1999) and The Good Girl (2002), which she made while still starring in Friends, impressed many people. But then Friends ended and she wasn’t sure what to do. “It was a weird moment — like you’ve been on a train for 10 years, and then they just dump you in a field and then you’re like, ‘What do I do? Where do I go? Where do I report to work?”
When she subsequently appeared in a long string of glossy big studio comedies of consistent profitability but varying quality — among them 2004’s Along Came Polly, 2005’s Rumor Has It, 2006’s The Break-Up, 2008’s Marley & Me, 20011’s Horrible Bosses and last year’s We’re the Millers — it seemed to many as if she was choosing to coast in her comfort zone. “People think it’s so easy,” she remarks.
As Aniston tells it, though, she has long harbored aspirations of breaking outside of that sort of a box, in which she feels she’s been “stereotyped” since Friends. She trained as an actress, takes the craft seriously and craved different opportunities than she’s been offered since her rise to fame. “It’s been a frustrating thing,” she confesses. She didn’t want to be thought of as “only the girl next door, only the funny gal”; rather, she says, “I wanted to explore human beings and human experiences.” When she concluded that she wouldn’t be getting those opportunities, she formed a production company with others and began seeking them out for herself. And when she learned about Cake, she knew that she had found a perfect match.
Was she worried about people’s response to seeing her in a different light — namely, makeup-free, portraying a mostly unpleasant woman living with chronic pain after a horrific but otherwise mysterious car accident? “It was a terrifying, risky thing,” she acknowledges, “but I just said, ‘You’ve got to try. At this point, who cares? If you fall flat on your face, fine, you fall flat on your face.’ That’s what people are probably expecting anyway, because everybody loves to sit there with their little swords and get ready to go, ‘A-ha, see? You suck!'”
Only… she didn’t. The film premiered at September’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation. The one problem was that it could not find a major distributor — after all, it’s not the easiest sell, even with Aniston’s involvement — but like Aniston, who was a producer on the film (as was Barnz’s brother Ben Barnz), Mark Canton and Courtney Solomon, two of its other producers, felt strongly that it deserved a proper release and formed Cinelou Films, a distribution arm, to qualify it for 2014 awards consideration and release it more widely in 2015.
For Aniston, the film, more than an awards vehicle, represents an increased chance of being seen in a different light by others and be given additional chances to do similarly challenging work in the future. “I want to make great films,” she emphasizes. “I just want to be working with great directors, doing great stories, not just sitting in that one little category. I understand having to earn your way. I also understand earning people’s trust that you are able to do it. It’s a catch-22. It’s like, well, you have to let me do it to show you, but you won’t let me do it because I’m in that category.”
Now that she’s had a chance to show that she can do it — and she can — perhaps that dynamic will change.
* * *
When — and why, do you think — you first got into acting? Was it because of your parents being actors? Something you saw on TV?
Well, it was a combination of all of that. My dad is an actor — my dad is still on a soap opera that he’s been on since 1984, Days of Our Lives. My godfather [Telly Savalas] was an actor. And they were in this theater group called Theater East or Theater West with Marlo Thomas and all those guys. So I was raised amongst entertainers. And yeah, I just loved doing it. At school, we’d put on little plays and I’d write skits to do at recess and it was really fun. I went to the Rudolf Steiner School [in New York, where Aniston was born and raised], so it was very creative. I wasn’t heading in an academic kind of a career; I was going towards a more artistic, sort of Aquarian route. [laughs]
Your dad didn’t even know that acting was a desire of yours until—
That’s so funny. Yeah, I was visiting him at work, and I heard that there was a part available for like, a 12-year-old — I think I was 12 — and I called his agent, Bobby Barry and asked him to get me an audition. And he walked in and he was like, “Who were you talking to?” I said, “I just spoke to Bobby. There’s a part of this girl, T.R. [on the TV show Search for Tomorrow].” Jane Krakowski [now best known for 30 Rock] got the part, I didn’t get the part—
But that was the first clue…
That was my first. He said, “Wow, you really just took the bull by the horns there.”
Before moving to LA, you really began to take the study of acting seriously. I gather that your high school teacher had a pretty profound influence on you?
Anthony Abeson, yeah. He was such a passionate human being and loved actors so much. He actually left performing arts to start his own acting school and so, the minute we graduated, I went and studied with him. I was waitressing and studying, because I wanted to just start doing it, you know? So I tried and I tried — I mean, I was taking acting class, I was doing a little off-Broadway, off-off-off Broadway, maybe like, in someone’s house. We were like, “It’s off-Broadway.” “How off?” “Well, it’s like, in Brooklyn.” But yeah, and then I would waitress. I was waitressing for like, two-and-a-half years. I couldn’t get a job [acting]. I think the first paying job I got — how I got my SAG card — was a Bob’s Big Boy commercial.
But, in terms of your technique or a specific approach, it sounded to me like Abeson shaped what you still use to this day?
He did. It’s just the commitment to who the character is. He also believes in the wardrobe. I mean, the wardrobe, starting with your shoes. He always used to say, “It starts with the shoes. You walk differently in a pair of stilettos than you do in a pair of Keds.” With any character, when you put the clothes on — because we all have our own personal style, it really does help with just the physicality of who the character is, as well as doing the emotional study work. And also physicality, vocals, all that stuff, you know?
So what was it that made you decide, at 25, “Alright, I’m moving to LA”? And also, at that point, what was your dream? What was the ideal way things were going to go?
Oh, I didn’t have a dream. Honestly, I moved to LA— I actually was just on a summer vacation and I went to stay with my dad, and then I just extended the vacation and extended the vacation. There was some sort of this, “I’m not moving to LA,” kind of a thing, of, “I’m a New Yorker and that’s cool.” I felt there was something “less than” in doing that. And then I got a job. I got a sitcom after three months. I was telemarketing to try to make money, and then, after two-and-a-half weeks of that hell, I got a job. My friend lent me $100 to get headshots — who I saw last night, which is so fun.
Was that person also an actor?
My girlfriend, yeah, Meredith. Ironically enough, we went to high school together, me and Mer and Dre, who’s my best friend, we were all there last night [at a Bar Marmont celebration of Aniston’s work in Cake] — and Kristin, who’s my producing partner, we’ve all been friends for 25 years. Kristin, I knew when I met when I moved here. Meredith and Drea and I had been friends from New York City high school. Mer was the one who lent me $100 for my headshots, so last night, when I saw her last night — and, you know, we’ve stayed close ever since — it’s really fun to see her. And everybody’s so creative and does such wonderful things. And, ironically enough, Meredith is now on Days of Our Lives with my dad, which is sort of a fun, crazy, weird full circle.
For some actors, the frustration, when they start, is that they can’t get work. It sounds like the frustration, for you, was not that you weren’t getting work, but that the work that you were getting was not being allowed to go on beyond pilots or a few episodes. Is that right?
Yeah. Molloy, with Mayim Bialik, was the first one, and that lasted six episodes. Then the next one was The Edge – no, the next one was Ferris Bueller? Whichever one. Those each lasted one full season. Then there was Muddling Through. Then there was a pilot that didn’t go. And I was like, “Oh, okay.” So I’d kind of thought you just did pilots, they went for six to 13 to maybe 22 episodes, and then I’d never understood anything past that.
And it wasn’t sort of demoralizing, or was it?
I was thrilled to work! I was working more than any of my friends, and I was working way more than I did in New York City. I was like, “Great, I’ve got a great job. Come to it, go.” So when you don’t have any kind of awareness of that, there’s no barometer. I was just happy to be working.
How is it that, about five years into your time in LA, you first heard about what became Friends? I believe that it wasn’t called Friends and you weren’t called in for the part of Rachel, right?
No, Monica. They wanted me to read for Monica, and I read the script and I said, “Can I please read for Rachel?” And Court [Courtney Cox] did the same thing. She wanted to read for Monica.
Do you know why you felt that way?
I don’t know. I just found her to be more fun. I connected to her a little bit more through the universal princess — being in New York and being broke, watching those girls on the Upper East Side, I sort of felt like I had witnessed a good, fair amount of those sort of gals. And yeah, so I was on second position because I was on a show called Muddling Through, that we shot, again, 12 episodes of, and they were going to see if they were going to pick it up. They didn’t think CBS was going to pick it up. And [legendary TV director] Jim Burrows — Jimmy — said, “Oh, yeah, they’ll pick that up, just to spite this show.” And they did, two episodes, three episodes.
Having already been on a few other shows, did Friends seem any different at the start? Was it instantly clear that it was going to be special?
Something was in our heart. We knew there was a vibration amongst the group. It wasdifferent. It was just different and something felt right. I had never worked with all contemporaries, you know; I was always the daughter to the whacky parents and the little bratty sister on the sketch comedy show, which was also really fun, but it wasn’t sort of — there wasn’t a narrative to that, you know? It was more sketch.
You were 25 when that happened. That, I would imagine, was a lot to suddenly have thrust on you. Do you remember how you handled that initially?
It was such a slow burn, though. It wasn’t even, “Whoa!” We were so excited. The noise of what was happening outside wasn’t penetrating. You’re working and you go home and you live a normal life like you’d been doing for the last five years since you moved to LA. And it wasn’t until the first summer of Friends being on reruns after the first season that it kind of really soared. And then, yeah, slowly but surely, all of a sudden, people would be recognizing you, and that was weird. That was just strange, having people approach you and you don’t think they’re going to mug you, you know? [laughs] In New York, I was mugged three times, so I was like, “Why are you walking towards me with that look of like, terror?” [laughs]
This is, in some ways, jumping ahead, but knowing now what the price, in some ways, is for getting to do what you like to do, does any part of you say—?
“I wouldn’t have done it?” No. No, because that’s a relatively new thing, the harassment part of the paparazzi and the social media. It wasn’t until that became really kind of explosive — I mean, when I started Friends, I didn’t even know what a Google was. You know what I mean? Or a Mac computer, you know?
So it was really post-Friends?
It was post-Friends, yeah. All of a sudden, it was like, “Whoa, this is a crazy new.” But it doesn’t really – nothing can take away what you creatively get. I mean, it’s not like I’m going to say, “I’m hanging this up and I’m going to go to med school.”
I once asked another actress, who I think was in a somewhat similar situation, and she said, “I would’ve wanted to remain involved creatively, but I would’ve been a director instead, because then you’re not the face that they’re after.”
Yeah, interesting. Well, I mean, I don’t know. No, because I wouldn’t have wanted to be a director; I wanted to be an actor. [laughs] It wasn’t until 20 years of acting did I want to start directing.
Talk about that moment when Friends was over and you had to decide, “What do I want to do next.” What was your mindset at that point? Was it exciting? Was it nerve-wracking?
It was a weird moment — like you’ve been on a train for 10 years, and then they just dump you in a field and then you’re like, “What do I do? Where do I go? Where do I report to work every morning at 10 a.m.?” I think we all took for granted the luxury of that job, the consistency and the family of it all — not that that meant we should’ve stayed any longer than we did. But it was quite humbling to know that — oh, God, that family was a really nice place to go every day. But I had started doing some movies — you know, Office Space — and so I kinda knew I was going to head in that direction. And it was exciting. It was just sort of like standing in front of an empty pool and going, “I’m just going to dive in chest first.”
It sounds like when you started moving into film — initially, at least — you were encountering what I think a lot of people who made their name first in TV have to deal with which is, “But you’re a TV person…”
Oh, that transition? The taboo had been lessening. That crossover was becoming easier, thanks to people like Tom Hanks, Robin Williams—
Clooney. You know, all of those people were — it was not sort of like, “Oh, you’re a TV person!” If anything, now it’s all so different. People are going, “My God, I want to get into television because it’s so good,” you know? Yeah, but there’s always been, for me — I mean, when you’re on anything for 10 years and you’re shoved into someone’s living room every week, and now every day, it’s hard to sort of go, “I can break out of that character!” You know what I mean?
Did you find that viewers interacted with you differently after you started making films?
Well, some and some not, you know? I mean, some people – I think because it was baby steps. You know, you kind of started taking on roles that were not too far out of the box, you know? And I remember, I think it was Tom saying that after he was on Bosom Buddies, he didn’t go right into, say, Philadelphia, you know? You sort of let the audience ease slowly with you and trust that they will stay with you. And some people kind of will always see you as Rachel Green, and that’s fine by me.
Was The Good Girl the first film where you started to really get great feedback?
Yeah, totally, 100 percent. And I mean, and it’s been a frustrating thing, because — Look, I love what I do. I love every job I’ve had, whether they’ve bombed or been successes — and thankfully, we’ve had more successes than we’ve had failures. But it’s like I was saying: I feel like every actor, or at least the ones that are maybe stereotyped, maybe like myself, or put into a category of “They’re this or they’re not, we’ll keep it that” — you know, there’s always this actor wanting to get out. We’re all closeted actors like, wanting to do that other part, because we have access to that ability because that’s what we do. We’re actors. So you have to kind of bang your drum a little louder or go get it yourself or go make it yourself, because there is a little bit of a, “No, we don’t see you in that light, and I don’t trust you.” That’s why it’s so fabulous, these young filmmakers actually find it exciting to go, “Let me put this person, not the expected choice, in that.”
So when you were first trying to be more involved with film, how did “they” see you? What were you looking to convince them that you were not?
Well, just only the girl next door, only the funny gal — that I wanted to explore human beings and human experiences and tell stories about people like Claire [her character inCake]. And that was the greatest thing that ever happened.
You mentioned Kristin Hahn, your producing partner, and I wanted to ask you: what was the root of this idea, “Let’s have our own production company?” And also to talk about the value that that has when you’re looking to tell stories that are harder to get other people to agree to tell? How did that come about?
Well, it started a long time ago. It was started out as Block, this little company, that next sort of morphed its way into Plan B [which she ran with her ex-husband Brad Pitt, who now operates it with other partners], and then we kind of decided just to go off and do our own thing [they formed Echo films in 2008]. We always knew we wanted a group of people trying to gather together to tell stories that had a common cause, because we wanted to do that since we were 20 years old. At that time, we wanted to make a movie-of-the-week about the hill that we lived on — we lived on this hill in Laurel Canyon — kinda like Friends. We were all in these houses together. We just wanted to do it. And it’s hard. It’s not financially rewarding for years, sometimes, and you have to work super hard, but we just love doing it. We’ve had so much fun, I mean, especially with our Lifetime things that we did.
What was the first Echo project?
It was either The Management or The Switch — The Management.
Was Marley & Me pre or post Echo?
Pre. I mean, Echo had been around, but—
Well then this is going backwards, but I just got the sense that Marley & Mewas special to you, in the sense that you’d never previously played a character over such a long period of time in a character’s life.
Yes, yeah, that was the first sort of like, exploring a real character. But also The Break-Up.The Break-Up was really quite – I loved that story. I loved it.
Obviously, people knew from Friends that you could be very funny, but a number of these movies really reinforced that — The Break Up, Along Came Polly, Horrible Bosses. Where does your sense of humor come from? Even in a darker film like Cake, there are moments where you play it in a way that’s very funny…
Well, it was also written that she was funny. That’s one of the things I loved about it, because it’s a heart wrenching woman going through this experience, and yet she’s got this wit to her. And I mean, for me, it was my survival technique as a kid, you know? The unhappy family, breaking up, divorce, all that crap. And then I’d be the one trying to make everybody laugh. And my dad is really funny. And my mom. They’re funny. I just kind I think, look, drama and comedy, they coexist, you know? That’s the thing. It’s funny, the categories.
“You have to be grouped somewhere”…
“You have to be put into a category!” And I don’t know why. Also, comedy? People think it’s so easy. It’s an interesting—
Well, having done both, I mean, can you compare and contrast them? Do you find that one comes more easily or naturally to you?
I think, honestly, I approach every character the same, which is from the truth. And that’s just the way it is. I also have to connect somehow to what they’re going through, you know? Like Dr. Julia [in the Horrible Bosses films], even though I don’t connect to any of it, I found her so absolutely absurd and hysterical, that she was just unapologetically this human being. It was not something out of the ordinary. She thought it was very normal, everything that she felt. And that’s what ended up being funny, was everything that was being said was so outrageous but yet, to her, she’s just like, talking about the meal we’re going to make.
When was the first time you heard about Cake? And was it something that you immediately knew you could do and wanted to do, or were there any reservations about it?
Not a look of a reservation. I mean, honestly, it was out to someone else, so I had to just say, “Please! Please!” I just kept checking in, checking in and finding if there was a moment where there would be a window. Of course, people were dying to play that part. And then Daniel heard that I was really interested, and took a meeting with me and we were just — it was sort of love at first sight and I just said to him, “I so promise you that I’m up for this and I’m dying to walk this with you, to the moon and back, and no shortcuts.” Everybody’s always like, “But are you prepared—?” And I’m like, “Dude, yes.”
“Prepared” to go there?
Yeah, that’s what I do.
Now what, for you, was the specific appeal of this character? You yourself have talked about the fact that it was not going to be easy to make this person somebody that people would want to spend time with…
Yeah. Well, I think it was a challenge, you know? But I think there was an inherent likability to her because she did have a sense of humor. You see the relationship with Silvana [Claire’s housekeeper, played by Oscar nominee Adriana Barraza], that there is a reason that that woman is staying around. You know, she’s in pain, and even though she’s kind of a wicked little bitch in the beginning, you have to get to the end ’til you go, “Oh, so this is what we were dealing with.” There’s a woman that I based a little bit of Claire on, who I’ve known for a lot of my life, who went through extraordinary trauma and grief and just turned into a nasty, nasty human, still with a little bit of a wit, but I was able to have empathy for her because I knew what she’d gone through. But if I just met her? A lot of people do, and they’re just like, “Uh-uh, not dealing with that animal.” [laughs]
As the actress and an executive producer, what sort of work did you have to do before it even went into production? Was there a rehearsal period?
Well, there was a rehearsal — oh, we had a beautiful rehearsal. That was the luxury of shooting in Los Angeles. I got to be with Daniel a lot. And, really, I mean, I started prepping this since I got it. I was just all over it with doctors, with people, my friend who went through a severe accident and was addicted, in fact, to painkillers, and learned so much about chronic pain and how many people are living with it and how many people are abusing their meds and how afraid they are to talk about it.
Why, when so many people can connect with living with pain, has there not really been, until this point—
A story about it? Well, what’s interesting is in the Q&A last night — I did a Q&A and this woman said something to the effect of, “I live with chronic pain, and a lot of people think we’re faking it, and we’re not. We are in severe pain. It took everything in my body, my power to get here tonight, because I wanted to see this movie.” I’ve been getting so much of that, of people saying, “Thank you for portraying it so beautifully,” which couldn’t be a higher compliment to me, because I didn’t want a false note in any of it. I was trying to do something I had no connection, — realistic connection — to, basing it on knowing people and feeling their pain. But also, chronic pain isn’t something that you can diagnose because it’s really a patient to patient sort of declaration of, “I have pain.” You can’t sort of, you know, give the test and say, “You, in fact, do have chronic pain.” There are people out there who are kinda just playing it up because they want the drugs.
What were you physically doing to your body in the film? It was definitely not natural movement, so can you describe how you got into that character’s skin?
I honestly just started with what the accident was [spoiler alert]: T-boned; boy killed instantly; shattered right leg; broken spine; windshield, you know, just an explosion of metal. And then honestly, just knowing that if this leg is screwed up, that you can’t co-op fully on that leg. I wore a back brace, as a reminder never to be able to do this. And everything is just slow, and everything has to be helped and aided. And your breathing is, you know, labored. And once you started doing that every day, and not letting a moment pass? And you’ve heard this a thousand times, but I wasn’t working out, I wasn’t doing anything, and God, that really does make you feel like shit. When you don’t take care of yourself, it really plays a trick on your emotions and your chi, you know? You realize how much physical activity is just for our soul. It’s our spirit, you know?
She wasn’t mixing with other people either, really…
No, she just basically alienated herself from humanity, except for this wonderful woman who obviously does not abandon her because she has her loss, too, in this boy.
A lot of people have noted that it’s an unusual and kind of “brave” thing to not wear makeup in a movie. And I just wonder—
That’s so funny, how that’s so “brave.” I understand it, though. It’s Hollywood.
Well, that’s where I’m going with it. I mean, knowing how just mean-spirited a lot of the media can be, does that give you pause when you have to make a creative decision like that, knowing that people can be assholes?
I didn’t even think about that. That was honestly, just, who she is. This woman would never wear a stitch of makeup.
And it’s not like you look bad without makeup—
Well, there’s women who wear makeup and who go without makeup. That’s not ever been my thing, like, “a beauty icon,” you know? So, I kind of feel that’s—
Overblown a little bit?
A little bit, yeah. And I have an easier time, probably, dressing down and playing that than others. So I kinda have the option to go either way. [laughs]
What has it been like seeing how people are responding to the movie — audiences, critics, everybody — on the festival circuit and at screenings?
When you hear some of the discussion that’s already brewing, some of the awards stuff, I mean, how does that make you feel, especially in a medium that was, in some ways, initially, not fully embracing of you? And what direction would you like to see your career go over the next, say, 10 years?
I want to make great films. I just want to be working with great directors, doing great stories, not just sitting in that one little category. I understand having to earn your way. I also understand earning people’s trust that you are able to do it. It’s a catch-22. It’s like, well, you have to let me do it to show you, but you won’t let me do it because I’m in that category. So it’s tough, but we figure it out. Where there’s a will, there is a way. And I also just, honestly, did it for myself to see if I even could do it, you know? It was a terrifying, risky thing, but I just said, “You’ve got to try.” At this point, who cares? If you fall flat on your face, fine, you fall flat on your face. That’s what people are probably expecting,anyway, because everybody loves to sit there with their little swords and get ready to go, “A-ha, see? You suck!”
So does that make it all the more gratifying to have received a positive response?
Well, yes. The response has just been amazing. But, it was the experience for me, with this crew and this little box of creative beauty and love. When I finished it, I felt like I did my job and felt that I gave myself a huge gift, of pulling out the actor toolbox and getting to play with all of my tools. And now that there’s been a reaction to it, we look at each other and we pinch ourselves and we’re just so happy and so grateful and so excited. I mean, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to be in a conversation that has to do with something other than trite, silly, you know, “Are you pregnant?” “When are you this?” “What’s your hair doing?” You know, or, “You’re just a rom-com person!” Anything just to have a discussion about the work!
And it probably is self-perpetuating, in the sense that now that you’ve done it, it will be easier to do more of it…
I hope so. I can only hope. I also love the producing end of it. I love directing. And you know, there’s all sorts of wonderful things I want to explore. You don’t want to ever get lazy and get comfortable. It’s always good to keep challenging yourself and surprising yourself and taking those risks because, at this point, people will hopefully forgive you — or they won’t, and then you’ll figure it out. Then I’ll go to med school. [laughs]