Thursday, June 23, 2005

Vanity Fair May 01 - Jennifer Aniston

Jennifer Aniston has become Hollywood royalty with her friends TV stardom, her marriage to Brad Pitt, and a flourishing movie career—she’ll play mark Wahlberg’s girlfriend in the upcoming Rock Star. Now she hopes to demystify that fame for the millions of girls who want to be just like her, with a new on-line chat site. In the cozy hideaway where Aniston and Pitt’s romance bloomed, Leslie Bennetts gets the full story on their relationship, Aniston’s painful break with her mother, and why even an icon has bad-hair days.

Up and up and up the road winds, in a vertiginous climb around hairpin turns to the very top, where there is no sign of a famous star—or even her house. Completely hidden behind an anonymous metal gate, surrounded by rustling lemon trees, orange trees, and palms that shield her from the prying eyes of the world (except for the tabloid paparazzo who once climbed over a neighbor’s roof to snap a stolen picture of her sunbathing topless), this hideaway in the hills is where Jennifer Aniston has lived for the last six years, ever since she became famous as a television star on the sitcom Friends. Although it boasts a breathtaking view of Los Angeles that sweeps all the way down to the pacific Ocean, with Catalina Island glimmering in the blue distance, the two-bedroom house is relatively modest—certainly far less grand than you would expect for one of Hollywood’s most glamorous (and highly paid) couples.

But Brad Pitt, who can command $20 million per picture, and Aniston, who pulls down $750,000 for every episode of Friends, have been ensconded here since long before their wedding last summer. “It was a little love nest.” Aniston says. “From the second date, we just huddled into this little house. We wound up sitting on the couch and ordering in, having steak and mashed potatoes. That’s how it all began. It was one of those weird things where you just kind of know. You feel like you’re hanging out with your buddy. There was something familiar about it. This was just very much meant to be.”

Although Pitt had only recently broken off his engagement to Gwyneth Paltrow, and Aniston had just emerged from a two-year relationship with actor Tate Donovan, they made up their minds quickly. “Gwyneth is a lovely person, but I didn’t worry about their past relationship; it was never something that was an interference,” says Aniston. “Once this began, those previous relationships were done.” Within five months she and Pitt had gotten engaged, but they didn’t tell anyone. “That was so fun, just to have that be our own secret.” Aniston says with satisfaction. Pitt spent seven months designing her ring, a diamond spiral that curls inward and continues outward. “It’s infinity.” She explains with a tender smile.

When they finally married at the end of July, they took considerable pains to keep their wedding from turning into a media circus-although a party on Malibu bluff with 200 guests (ranging from Lisa Kudrow, Courteny Cox Arquette, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer to Cameron Diaz and Edward Norton). 50,000 flowers, four bands (including a Greek bouzouki band), and a 40 member gospel choir, climaxing with fireworks exploding over the Pacific, can’t exactly be called low-profile. So now Cinderella is married to Prince Charming, and what is left to do besides live happily ever after?

It hasn’t been quite that simple. “This has been the hardest year of my life, as well as the best year of my life. The period after the wedding was extremely intense, for a lot of reasons,” Aniston says, her face somber. “This was the year where I took the deepest look inward that I ever had, and asked a lot of questions for the first time. There’s been a real internal overhaul—about family, work, everything. Marriage brings up all the things I pushed to the back burner—the fears, the mistrust, the doubts, the insecurities. It’s like opening Pandora’s box. Every question comes out—it’s like, here’s the key, have at it!”

Still getting used to it all, both she and Pitt were stunned the other day at the dentist’s office when Jennifer was addressed as “Mrs. Pitt.” The child of divorced parents, Aniston has found wedlock to be foreign terrain. “I didn’t have a fantasy of what marriage would be like,” she muses. “I had no idea. I didn’t grow up surrounded by any form of marriage.”

Having watched her mother struggle after giving up her career and then being dumped by her husband, leaving her in perilous financial straits. Jennifer was sure of only one thing; “I just knew I wanted it to be based in love—not money, not security.” She says firmly. “Just finding somebody who was your best friend, who you could grow with and enjoy the passage of time and that’s what I found. We said, ‘This is going to be a grand experiment. We expose ourselves completely’—and that’s what we did. I felt, in the first five months, that we knew each other better than either of us had ever been known before. We said to each other, ‘We’ll just do the best we can, and be as kind as we can, and be as honest with each other as we can.’ And that can be so painful, but we have to be. The only reason people should be together is to grow and to learn and to keep discovering and become better humans. And then—God forbid you fall short of those dreams, and you’re a failure.”

Rather a dark thought for Cinderella—but there’s nothing like that journey from the ashes to the castle on the hill to send a girl into culture shock. Before landing the role of Rachel on Friends, Aniston was just another penniless young actress who had headed for Hollywood as much to escape her troubled past as to follow her dreams. Her father, veteran soap actor John Aniston, had left her mother when Jennifer was nine, and for years thereafter she saw very little of him. More recently, Jennifer became estranged from her mother; she was devastated when Nancy Aniston tried to cash in on her daughter’s fame with an appallingly self-serving book called From Mother to Daughter to Friends. Although Jennifer did not invite her mother to her wedding, she feels enormous grief about the gulf between them.

All of which is only one element of the soul-searching she has been doing lately. Aniston was so agitated after the wedding that she even chopped off her famous hair, which had launched a national craze when Friends became a hit. “I hate it!” she says fiercely. “I did it mainly to relieve me of the bondage of self. It was the right time to do it—shed the skin—but I couldn’t hate it more. It’s just not me. I hide behind my hair; it’s my shield. I’m taking every horse vitamin there is to make it grow faster—blue-green algae, you name it.”

Her post-wedding crisis was aggravated by the groom’s absence while Pitt spent three months on location in Budapest and morocco. “I think I’m just starting to feel I can stop apologizing—to myself, to my family, to my friends, to the world—and live in my body and be O.K. with that.” Aniston says in a low voice. Her next movie is an indie film called The Good Girl, and the phrase is much on her mind. “Not to have to be ‘the good girl’—it’s been a real battle to get there. If I’m so concerned with eliminating shame and low self-esteem and apologies in my own life, there’s also the thing about privacy: What do we have to hide? What do we have to be ashamed of? The bottom line is. I don’t want to live that way. It takes too much energy. Who cares? There are certain things that are ours, that are private, and there are certain things that—why not share? Getting married, taking that huge leap, asking yourself all those huge questions you do before you get married—it was one of the most challenging periods, in terms of the questions coming up in your own mind. But out of that—even more committed, more in love, more sure of the decision you made. It’s a trip, a real trip, especially when you make the choice with your partner to live completely honestly together. That’s the challenge.”

She pauses, looking momentarily exhausted, and lights a Merit cigarette. We are sitting in her cozy living room, with incense burning and wind chimes tinkling gently outside the large windows framing her awe-inspiring view of the kingdom she has conquered. Aniston is sipping a Diet Mountain Dew, which appears to be the house drink. Wearing a skimpy yellow T-shirt and camouflage pants that ride low on her hips, baring her flat, tanned tummy, she has her honey-colored hair scrunched back in a ponytail. Slender and fit, she seems a mere slip of a girl, although she recently turned 32.

In the last week heavy rains have caused flooding that buckled the hardwood floors of her house, and now she and Pitt (and Jennifer’s dog, a corgi mix named Norman) must move to his place while repairs are made on hers. “It’s a sign,” Aniston says resignedly. “This is only a two-bedroom house, and now we’re spilling out of it. It’s time to downscale and get the lives in one place. We’ve been looking for a home, but we just can’t find it. Do we buy land and build something, or do we move into something right now?”

Pitt’s one-bedroom house, which is nestled into a hillside a half-hour’s drive away, is even less suitable for their combined households than hers. He gutted and redesigned a former greenhouse in rough-hewn stone and glass and wood, adding sleek high-tech toilets. “This is my husband’s genius,” she had said the previous day as she showed me around. “He doesn’t have architectural training or anything, but this is his vision. He could go on and on and on. He keeps getting ideas, so he changes something.” Sparsely furnished and stripped to the bones, it is certainly striking, although one would hardly call it cozy; lit up in the jasmine-scented twilight, it glows like an illuminated post-modern sculpture. “I think we’ll keep this as offices and an art studio,” added Aniston who paints and sculpts.

One way Aniston is dealing with all this upheaval is to reach out to others. Long the subject of adulation as well as sharp criticism about her physical attributes, she feels a particular responsibility to young girls, for whom she is producing and hosting a new Internet chat session called JenXX on When she was starting out as an actress, her agent told her she wasn’t being cast because she needed to lose weight. She dropped 30 pounds, landed Friends, and became a star—only to find herself publicly chastised for being too skinny. Well aware that she is an icon, she is abashed by the unwanted power that conveys.

“I don’t feel like a role model—god, no, I’m a mess! She exclaims. “I mean, I’m not a mess, but we’re all just trying to figure it out, to do the best we can.” Communicating with her on-line audience, Aniston feels intense empathy; so many of their issues are the ones she herself has grappled with for so long. “I feel, half the time, like I am one of those these teenage girls,” she says sheepishly. “Feeling stupid, feeling good enough, feeling adequate, asking, ‘What am I doing?’—it doesn’t go away. Coming from a divorced family, being pissed off, being overweight…”

He rolls her eyes, which are a luminous cobalt blue. “There are young people who really hang on your words; they’re trying to live up to those ideals of you that are unreal, and there’s something so unfair about that. So when my friend said, ‘We’re doing this networking thing for young girls,’ I thought, Wouldn’t it be great if we could just sit around with these girls and just talk about it-to be honest, to tell the truth, and to empower them. I wasn’t empowered as a kid; I wasn’t encouraged. I was somehow filled with fear and doubt and insecurities. Being a celebrity now, if you can talk to one person and let them know it’s all bullshit, just be happy with who you are—“

She pauses, the rueful look on her face hinting at what a long journey she herself has taken to achieve that perspective. Both Aniston and her husband make a real effort to demystify their celebrity, according to friends. “A lot of people who are that famous use it as a weapon to intimidate you, so you’re never at ease,” says Jason Flemyng, who appeared in the Snatch with Pitt and will be seen in the upcoming Rock Star with Aniston. “Brad and Jen know the effect they have, and they negate it as quickly as they can. They couldn’t be more generous; there’s no status hierarchy at all. Lots of big American actors pretend to be nice, but at some point you’re firmly reminded of who they are and you go, Oh, fuck, here we go. With Jen, it’s not like that. She’s very proletarian.”

“They both are committed to retaining who they are as individuals, and to doing everything they can to fight against the current of what everyone wants them to do,” says Kristin Hahn, a writer and documentary filmmaker who has been a close friend of Jennifer’s since she arrived in Los Angeles a dozen years ago. “I think every celebrity is asked to be larger than life—beyond human. You have to be perfect in all sorts of ways. What we ask is mythic. We need people to admire, and we don’t have a king and queen; we have royal couples, and Brad and Jen are a royal couple. But they are very graceful about it.”

With the impressionable young, Aniston—particularly since marrying a superstar who has repeatedly been named “the sexiest man alive”—cannot shed her ironic status so easily. “They want to know; ‘How do you feel about the media?’” she says. “We’re victims of the media, too. It’s a double-edged sword. You’ve got to promote and sell your work, and yet the media are so harmful. The beauty magazines particularly are there to feed on women’s low self-esteem. The truth is we’re all the same; there’s nothing greater about celebrities. It’s just a sob. The media create this wonderful illusion—but the amount of airbrushing that goes into these beauty magazines, the hours of hair and makeup! It’s impossible to live up to, because it’s not real. But it’s a big job, extinguishing the shame we all have.”

And Aniston knows how unforgiving the scrunity can be. “They’ll make fun of you if you’re too fat and then tear you down if you’re too thin,” she says. “You just can’t win. I am so thankful for this life, and—not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I don’t feel beautiful all the time. The majority of the time I don’t. My mom was a model and an actress, and she knew what was beautiful; she would say, ‘Put your face on,’ and I would believe her. That’s where the seed gets planted.”

Bitterness creeps into her voice as she mimics her mother’s unwittingly devastating coaching: “Your mother is going, ‘Your eyes are too close together, so when you put your eyeliner on you have to draw the lines up here, like this, because your eyes are already too small, and your face is too wide, and see, honey, you have your father’s mouth, so you’re going to have draw the lines around it…’ I don’t know if I would have known how beautiful she was if she wasn’t always pointing out how unbeautiful I was.” Aniston got the message in spades. For yeas she was unable to show her face to anyone without slathering makeup on it beforehand. Today she isn’t wearing any at all, a freedom from artifice that represents a significant personal victory.

“Meeting my husband—oddly enough, we’ve had this healing process with each other, of deconstructing these ideals of ourselves, to get rid of that piece-of-shit feeling we carry in ourselves,” she says. “Getting the success—you feel. Why me? I went through a period of guilt about my family: ‘Why are they struggling, and why did it work for me? I don’t deserve this! When are they going to find me out and call me on my bluff?’ And yet all that kid stuff has given me a career. I’ve channelled it into something positive—being able to make people laugh.”

A deft comedienne, Aniston has already discovered that talent by the time she reached high school. By then her older half-brother had moved out, and she was living alone with her mother on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Aniston (whose family name was originally Anastassakis, reflecting her father’s Greek heritage) attended LaGuardia high school, which achieved renown as the setting for Fame. But her father, who played the villainous Victor on Days of Our Lives, advised her against going into show business. She suspects that this was a major reason she did so. “Because he said no,” she says wryly. “Part of me felt that he didn’t believe in me, so there was a little bit ‘I’ll prove it to you!’ He also didn’t know how much I loved it.”

Despite the years when she scarcely saw her father, they are now on reasonably good terms. “He held himself accountable and said, ‘I apologize,’” Jennifer reports. “As an adult, how do you not forgive somebody who says he’s sorry?” But the scars remain. Recently her father, who lived not far off in Topanga Canyon, complained that he doesn’t see enough of her. “Now all of a sudden you want to show up?” Jennifer says humorously. “This was your doing; you made your bed—you should lay in it!”

The deeper source of grief these days is her mother. Although their estrangement began five years ago when Nancy Aniston gossiped about her on a tabloid television show, the merest mention of their relationship still makes Jennifer’s eyes well up. “I can’t believe I got married and my mother has never met this person I married,” she says tearfully. “I never would have believed it, when I was 17, if you had told me that would happen.” Afraid that their unfinished business would cast a pall over her wedding, she finally chose not to invite her mother. But she says. “It was torturous decision.”

Trying to get some perspective on her childhood, she adds, “I really do think my mother was doing the best she could. Knowing the childhood she had, knowing the family she wanted to have—it just breaks my heart. But my mother didn’t know where she ended and I began. This separation needed to happen for both of us to find out. To feel that someone is so trying to live through me—“

A sob catches her throat. “It’s a tough one. That’s the irony—my father and I are friends, and my mother and I don’t speak. It’s a bummer. I miss her. You want to just share it. But I think this is just a necessary break we need to take. Let it heal.” She wipes her eyes, looking vulnerable as a child. “This is my last chunk of disease—dis-ease-in my life—my mom,” she adds. I’m still trying to understand those years of my life, and figure out what’s real. As an adult, I can’t blame my parents anymore. At this point we are accountable for our actions. We can change things.”

And besides, there are other questions to ponder. “Success has changed her for the better,” says Mandy Ingber, an actress and indoor-cycling instructor who has been a close friend for a dozen years. “I think she has become more connected to her internal self. All the hype that’s put out there has forced her to go inward, to look at herself and say, ‘What do I want?’—not just, ‘What do all these other people think I am?’ It always comes down to ‘Who am I?’—without this career, without this man. Once you get everything you’ve dreamed of having, you’re once again left with yourself, and it’s like an identity thing. Having what you want is almost as much of a question-raiser as not getting what you want. Jennifer’s journey is bigger than just being an actress.”

“I can’t imagine not acting, but I’ve been asking these crazy questions,” Aniston admits. “I’ve had dreams of owning a restaurant. I fell into acting because it was all I thought I could do. You’re funny as a kid, you’re the goofball, the class clown—but now you’ve kind of done it, and you realize, Was this what I really wanted to do? Part of me would love to be on the more creative side. I love dissecting a script, figuring out how to make it better, and even—dare I say it-directing. I think next year I might take a crack at it on Friends. David Schwimmer has done a bunch of them, and it was really inspiring. There’s no reason I couldn’t try that.”
Not that she’s about to stop performing: “Acting is so much fun I don’t think I could ever give it up completely. There are so many things that I haven’t explored yet as an actor, thing that scare me, that I have to tackle.”

And there’s also her movie career to consider. Next up is Rock Star, in which Aniston co-star with Mark Wahlberg as a rock star’s girlfriend. “What I wanted for this character was somebody who, no matter what the outside influences would be, they’d end up doing the right thing,” says Stephen Herek, the director. “With Jennifer, you feel like you know her.”

“She is the girl next door—the idealized version,” says Laurence Mark, the producer of The Object of my Affection. “She’s really pretty, but somehow you can believe she might live next door, if you were lucky. With Jen you feel this immediate connection.” Aniston and her television colleagues already know that their forays into the movie world are fraught with risk. “People are just sharpening their knifes, waiting to see how the ‘friends’ do,” she says dryly.

“There was this backlash after our second year on the show,” explains Lisa Kudrow. “We were overexposed. We weren’t used to being actors who had choices. We did a diet Coke commercial, as a group, because the studio wanted us to do it, and Jennifer was the lone voice saying, ‘I don’t think we should do that,’ She has good instincts, because after that there was nothing but negative press, pitting us against each other, in terms of who was getting what movies and so on. We all got slammed, but we talk about everything, especially us girls, and we work through those things.”

Directors seem to love working with Aniston. “Her first instinct may be to put a very skilled, polished, funny twist on a line—and believe me, she can make anything funny,” says Nicholas Hytner, who directed her as a social worker who wants to raise her child with her gay roommate in The Object of My Affection. “But she can equally, after a moment’s thought, find a much more interesting, more truthful, much more touching way of playing a scene. She has access to those basic large emotional subcurrents that people are looking for when they watch a movie. She really reveals herself.”

Her colleagues foresee a bright future for Aniston when Friends comes to an end, as it probably will when the cast’s current contracts expire in 2002. “On the show, week after week, her job is to keep funny material constantly airborne. But when she spends more of her time with material that requires her to exercise other muscles, her really considerable gift as an actress will be more widely recognized,” predicts Hytner, who also directed The madness of King George.

“It’s just a matter of how hungry she is,” adds Herek, who directed Mr. Holland’s Opus and 101 Dalmatians, among other films. “I think she’ll go as far as she wants to go. She could be the female romantic lead in just about anything.”

At the moment, however, Aniston is more interested in playing the female romantic lead in her own life. “I’ve come to the realization that I want to work to live; I don’t want to live to work,” she says. “I feel like there’s so much to do in life, but I don’t know what it is. You can dream as big as you want. I guess you don’t know how far you can go until you try. But no job is as important to me as my love. There will always be another job and if there’s not, there will be something else.”

Also on the horizon is having a baby, although Aniston is on no hurry. She and Pitt still have to negotiate the size of their prospective family. “I always thought two or three children, but Brad’s definitely seven,” she says with a grin. “He loves the idea of having a huge family. But you just never know. Whatever will be, will be.”

In the meantime, they are enjoying being newlyweds. After spending the afternoon with Aniston on Valentine’s Day, I asked what she and Brad were doing that night, “Ordering in a pizza—he’s a Taco-Bell, Domino’s Pizza type of guy, that’s why I love him,” she said. “Tonight I’m getting pizza, and we’re going to watch a great movie.”

She laughs. “It’s funny, people have this idea of a life that’s so glamorous, but it couldn’t be more boring and normal—sitting at home, ordering take-out. It’s fun to be home. I’m such a nester, and we’re ridiculous homebodies.”

In many ways Aniston’s life has been altered remarkably little by fame and fortune. “My first impression of her were the ones I have now,” says Kathy Najimy, a good friend. “She’s always been very supportive of me and my activism. Whether it’s AIDS things or choice issues, you name it, she’s done it. Now she’s Queen of the World, but there’s no big change.”

Aniston has long considered the cast of Friends among her intimates. “We’ve been through a lot together—marriages, babies, fame, losing parents, drug addiction—it’s been an intense experience,” she says. Only a few days later, Matthew Perry—who was first treated for prescription-drug dependency in 1997—entered rehab again. Their other co-stars have no doubt that Aniston will always be supportive, whatever the problems at hand. “She’s one of the most loving, caring people I know,” says Courteny Cox Arquette. “No matter what’s going on with me, I know I can talk to her, and she would never judge.”

Aside from Aniston’s co-stars, adds Kristin Hahn, “she doesn’t have famous friends. She pals around with people she’s known forever, because they love her for who she is. It really is like a family. We have stuck together, and there’s a continuity that is very comforting. We’re not the same characters as the ones on Friends, but there is that intense fraternity, and a deep love.”
When Aniston first introduced her gang to Pitt, they knew immediately that he was the one. “You go through a lot of different relationships with friends, but never was I absolutely positive like I was with Brad,” says Najimy. “I saw how much he loved her. I went home and I was weepy about it. She was 100 percent herself with him, and that’s all I really wish for my friends.”

Pitt’s friends felt the same way. “They just made each other really happy, and it was completely obvious,” says Catherine Keener, who—along with her husband, Dermot Mulroney—has been a close friend of Pitt’s for the last decade. Aniston and Pitt spend a lot of time with their friends, but it is resolutely unpretentious. “We don’t even really go out,” says Keener. “We like to stay home. We just switch houses and order out. We hang out and play silly games—dominoes, running charades, Ping-Pong. And we don’t take these games lightly. It gets pretty competitive!”

Pitt may prefer pizza and Ping-Pong to foie gras and black-tie, but never underestimate Prince Charming’s ability to make his lady swoon. When Jennifer arrived at her dressing room at the Warner studios on Valentine’s Day, she found it filled to bursting with roses. There were petal strewn an inch deep all over the floor, even floating in the toilet; there were so many long-stemmed roses piled so high on every surface that there was no place to put down a coffee cup, let alone to sit. On the wall, in huge letters, Pitt had spelled out I LOVE MY WIFE, in rose petals.

So far Aniston isn’t taking any of her good fortune for granted. “She finds joy and beauty in small things,” says Kristin Hahn. “She gets excited by a flower in her backyard. Most people let the gardener take care of that stuff. She is so grateful for what she’s experiencing; that’s why none of her friends resents her success. It’s so easy to get lazy when you have everything at your fingertips, but I think that’s why she and Brad hooked up. Each will make sure the other doesn’t get lazy when it comes to the important things that matter when you’re 80 and no one gives a crap. They challenge each other to have real intimacy, as opposed to getting away with what the world allows them to get away with.”

The world certainly allows such golden couples to get away with a lot, but Aniston is determined to discourage people’s illusions. “What they’re seeing is the fairy tale, and that’s what leads people to believe things that are not true,” she says. “Not that it’s not a fairy tale; this is an amazingly beautiful life. But I look at life like rock climbing. You get through the first tier, you rest for a minute, you look at how far you’ve come—and then you look up, and you’ve got another tier to climb.”