Friday, June 24, 2005

Vogue August 02 - Jennifer Aniston

Some Kind Of Wonderful: Jennifer Aniston is slowly but thoughtfully making her move from television to the big screen. Jonathan Van Meter catches up with the actress as she breaks out of the box.

Seven years ago Jennifer Aniston bought a little house way, way up in the Hollywood Hills, gutted it, and filled it with things that made her feel grown-up: good furniture, real art, framed family pictures. She had a dining-room table and chairs custom-made, bought her- self some nice rugs, hired the requisite gardener, and settled into her new life as a successful sitcom actress with a steady paycheck. Since then, nearly everything in Aniston’s life has changed: She is married to Brad Pitt, she has become impossibly famous, and that steady paycheck is now a cool million per episode. Whether she likes it or not, she has become a symbol: the relatively average girl who triumphs over humble beginnings to become a glamorous American icon. Maybe that’s why so many writers can’t resist calling her Cinderella.

Throughout this transformation, one of the things in her life that have remained constant is the little house in the Hills. But now that’s about to change, too. She and Pitt have bought a great big pile in Beverly Hills, and soon she will leave this home behind. At one point during my visit there, Aniston—who from certain angles reminds me of Barbra Streisand during her super- sexy seventies Malibu phase—takes me outside to her patio to show me her cherished rosebushes and the spectacular view. It’s a clear day. You can almost see forever. I can tell by the wistful look on Aniston’s face that she has already begun to miss this place. There is a grassy patch of yard beyond the patio, a small, square swimming pool, and a strategically planted hedge that nearly surrounds the property, all of which creates the feeling of a private, mini-oasis. It’s teeny, teeny, tiny,” she says. But it’s my favorite place in the world, up here. When the sun’s setting, I have five bunny rabbits that sit out on the lawn, and there are quail and hummingbirds. It’s a really special spot.”

As we sat in her living room and talked earlier, the gardener’s machines buzzed outside, while a handsome fellow in the couple’s employ ("one of our elves”) went in and out of the house. Pitt was not around, but his work was spread out all over the dining-room table. In other words, you get what she means when she says two people.” That is one of the reasons that, last summer, she and Pitt bought the 12,000-square-foot, six-bedroom thirties French Normandy mansion. As a result, Aniston has spent a lot of time lately meeting with decorators, having “fun with swatches,” and buying all those big-ticket items that a serious house demands. It is a process that appears to have unnerved her—not simply because renovation is stressful but because she does not seem entirely committed to the idea of living life on such a grand scale.

As she hovers between enjoying a somewhat normal Hollywood life and getting the keys to the castle, Aniston also, at this particular juncture, stands with one foot planted firmly in her eight-year triumph on television and the other stepping ten- tatively into her not-yet-fully-viable film career. Friends, which begins shooting its ninth and final season this month, fixed Aniston in the minds of television viewers everywhere as Rachel Green, the beautiful but hapless New York apartment dweller and coffee-shop habituée. Her Urban Girl Next Door was perfectly suited to the nineties—flawed, self-centered, a bit of a slacker, and possessed of a lovely, ironic sense of humor. It may not be called The Rachel Green Shop.; but on some level Aniston has always felt like the pole around which the other Friends turn. tf there is a precedent for the kind of appeal Aniston has as Rachel, it would probably have to be Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards. Like Rachel. Mary was witty, emotional, and chic—and she spent a lot of time hanging around with her pals in her apartment.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show; which aired from 1970 to 1977, spanned the "Me Decade” and owed some of its popularity to the fact that it also coincided with the depressingly gruesome wind-down to the Vietnam War. (“Who can turn the world on with her smile?” asked the theme song.) Friends took off as the grungy but earnest early nineties morphed into the weedy hut earnest late nineties. As the boom began to wane, so, too, did the show’s popularity. But then came September 11 —and the subsequent war—and Friends became more vital than ever as people stayed home, craving gentle comic relief ( I’ll be there for you,” the theme song promises.) More than 34 million people tuned in to watch the cliffhanger eighth-season finale this May, in which Rachel gave birth—garnering the show’s second-highest ratings.

Right after September 11, says Aniston. “They canceled the show one week, and then we went back, and it just felt so wrong. So trite. And then, the show night came and we stood in our huddle like we do before each show and went out there, and for six hours we forgot. And that was healing. And then the show came on the air and. . . the ratings! People love Friends! And we were like, Wow, people need that. That’s our job.’ To give people a moment. And that’s a beautiful thing.”

If Aniston is the Mary Tyler Moore of her generation, then her latest film, The Good Girl, which will be released on August 7, is her Ordinary People—a chance to prove that she can do more than play Rachel and women like her.Like Ordinary People, The Good Girl is a small, quiet film that is essentially about the insidiousness of depression and its craftier cousin, repressionr It’s a very real and very sad comedy,” says Tim Blake Nelson , one of Aniston’s costars. And it is Aniston’s film. Right from the opening scene, looking and sounding nothing like Rachel Green, she telegraphs a heartbreaking sadness and yet remains essentially likable and funny. It’s a neat trick.

Directed by Miguel Arteta (Star Map, Chuck & Buck) and written by Mike White (Chuck & Buck, Freaks and Geeks), the film takes place in a small, nondescript Texas town (it was actually shot in Simi Valley, California). Aniston plays Justine, a frumpy, forlorn young woman with bags under her eyes who has a dead-end job at a pathetically empty department store, the Retail Rodeo. She’s married to Phil, an affable loser and housepainter (John C. Reilly) who spends most of his time smoking pot with his best friend and co-loser. Bubba (Nelson). When the young, "dark” Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) shows up to work at the Rodeo, Justine thinks she’s found, at long last, a soul mate—and a way out of her joylessness. They are turned on by each other’s misery and begin a furtive affair, lending the film a creepy sexual charge. By the time Justine has manipulated and deceived nearly everyone in her life, the story careens toward certain disaster.

Arteta tells me that it was Mike White’s idea to cast Aniston, which he immediately thought was a "Brilliant” idea. “Here’s somebody who’s come to represent America’s Sweetheart,” he says. ‘To have her play someone who’s making all these morally ambiguous choices just seemed mischievous and fun.” Arteta sent Aniston the script, and the next day she called and asked him to come to her house to discuss it. “I was very straightforward,” says Arteta. “I told her, I love your work on Friends”, but the film Office Space is the reason I think you can do it.’” In it, Aniston, playing an unhappy waitress, never goes for the easy laugh.

When I ask Arteta what it was like to direct Aniston, he says, “She’s very physical. She adopted this walk—it was almost Charlie Chaplin—esque, with her shoulders hunched down and her feet just barely making little steps. Not over- done, though. I remember the first day she walked like that and then sat behind the counter [at Retail Rodeo], I went to the producer and said, “She’s the character. We’ve got a movie here.’ “ He pauses. “She reminds me of Mary Pickford, who, even though she was glamorous, played sort of regular people, seemed very approachable, and had an uncanny knack for physical comedy and for drama.”

Gyllenhaal, Aniston’s 21-year-old costar, seems almost smitten with her. “The most complicated thing about this movie is that the woman has the power, not the men. You follow this character through this maze, and you should hate her. But because of the charisma that Jennifer brings to it, you love her somehow.” Plus, he says, ‘she’s funny. But it’s a humble humor. Some humor is full of arrogance, but hers is done with an interesting compassion. She’s just so... kind.” He ponders for a moment. But there’s this stuff bubbling underneath, this nice, dark stuff.”

One of the reasons Aniston brings a certain pathos to even the lightest of comic roles is that she herseWhas surprising emotional depth. She may describe herself as “pretty much a happy-go-lucky kind of gal,” but she is not un- complicated. While she was technically born into show business, Aniston actually lived a fairly typical American childhood, with all the attendant challenges of divorce. financial struggle, and a thorny relationship with her mother—whom she has since famously shut out of her life. Indeed, she has spent a lot of time in therapy and seems a bit haunted by her family’s disintegration.

Aniston was born in 1969 in the San Fernando Valley. Her parents were both struggling actors; John worked as a door-to-door salesman between auditions, while Nancy—who started out at Universal Studios signing Rock Hudson’s autograph modeled a bit, appeared on the Red Skelton Show; and ended up with a part on the Beverly Hillbillies before giving up show business altogether to raise a family. When Jennifer was five, she moved with her parents and half-brother, John, who is nine years older, to Greece, where her father was born (the original family name is Anastassakis). A year later, John Aniston was called back to the States by his agent for a part on a soap opera called Love of Life in New York. In 1976, the family moved to the Up- per West Side. John eventually landed the role of Victor on Days’Of Our Lives. When Aniston was nine, her father left Nancy for another woman and her eighteen-year-old brother moved back to L.A, where he still lives, working as an assistant director. Suddenly, Jennifer and her mother were left to fend for themselves in a high-rise on Ninety- second and Columbus.

Jennifer attended the progressive Rudolf Steiner School and then the High School for the Performing Arts—of Fame fame— where one of her teachers told her that she had “a talent for comedy,” to which she said, “What do you mean? I’m not a comedienne. I’m a serious actress.” He replied, "You’re funny, so you’ve got to be careful. Don’t let it be an escape, an easy place to go to avoid going deep.” After high school she waited tables at a burger joint on the Upper West Side. ‘I liked waiting tables,” she says. “I even liked filling the damn ketchup bottles.”

In 1989. she moved to L.A., where she got work relatively quickly, landing in a series of failed sitcoms and sketch- comedy shows (as well as the preposterous comedy slasher Leprechaun). 1 was the sitcom-graveyard queen,” she says with a roll of the eyes.But a few years later, she auditioned for a show about six people who live in Greenwich Village and hang out in a coffee shop. From the very beginning the actors clicked. “I felt something,” she says. “I don’t know what it was, but something just felt different.”

Shortly after she arrived in L.A., her one and only friend from New York took her to a house party in Laurel Canyon. It consisted of about fourteen people,” she says. “One’s an editor. one’s a photographer, one’s a writer, one’s a teacher. It’s all different walks. But we were all actors in ‘89. Those people are still my friends—I just spent the weekend with them all.”

That Aniston is loyal to her old Laurel Canyon crowd seems to be a genuine outgrowth of her desire to keep herself grounded. Perhaps that’s why she’s so worried about moving into the Big House—it will take her too far from her roots.

When I first meet Aniston, we wind up on Beverly Boulevard, at an unassuming Italian restaurant where she has been before. The waiter brings some strange-looking crunchy bread. “This bread makes me nervous,” she says, laughing. “Does it make you nervous? It’s a little frail. I feel like I’m going to hurt it.” In person, Aniston is hilarious. She asks the waiter for a plate of olive oil and some Parmesan cheese and then proceeds to whip up her own special concoction. “Would you like some Parmesan dip?” she says to me. “This is trailer-trash dip. Courteney Cox taught me how to do this little mixture.” She slips into a hick accent. “Errl, little Parmesan, shitload-a-salt. Mmmm.”

“Today,” she says, ‘l woke up and I was in a crappy mood and! thought, This poor guy. And then I get here and we’re both people.” She laughs. “Totally human.” The bad mood, she explains, was partly to do with the very drunken girl who stumbled up to Aniston in a restaurant the night before, got up in her face, and slurred, “I don’t undershtand your life.”

“I don’t either,” Aniston shot back, ‘but why would you want to understand my life’? I don’t under- stand your life.”

“Whasch the big deal?” the drunken girl said, pushing her luck. “You’re jusch kinda nothin’, arenchya?”

“Yeah! See!” said Jennifer, gesturing toward her tiny, tanned five-foot-five frame. “What did you think? That I was something?”

The drunken girl has stuck in Aniston’s craw because she is, perhaps, one of her worst fears sprung to life. ‘It’s like in vino veritas,” she says. “Is that it? That Shakespearean ... I probably have that wrong, but it basically means that when you’re drunk you tell the truth.” Even though Aniston should, she can’t brush off the unpleasant encounter, because she feels, in some strange way, responsible. “I think it’s a real disservice to perpetuate this myth of what Hollywood is,” she says. “It can be so destructive. And I go through periods where I am really in conflict about it. I think, Do I even want to be a part of this anymore? I go in and out of that all the time.”

She takes a deep breath. “I’d love to just disappear some time. Not in a dramatic kind of way. But.., move to a quiet little town and open up a restaurant. That’s always been what I’d really love to do. But then I think if I did that I’d go crazy because I love what I do so much.”

I ask Aniston if she feels caught between wanting to be just a regular gal and being a big star, and she says, “There’s always going to be a threat of that, I think. But I’ve gotten more comfortable with both. I figured out a way to take the real with the unreal. And I realized it’s my job. I think some people do get wrapped up and believe everything that’s written and thought about them—and l just don’t buy it. It’s too easy to be the flash in the pan and be loved one minute and then not be loved the next minute. So, if you’re relying on that to be your esteem booster, it’s just really risky. It’s not real. But they are in conflict. Because it’s like, I don’t want to treated special! And then, What do you mean we couldn’t get in’?”

Part of Aniston’s plan for keeping it real is to make smaller films, a trick that seems to have worked for her husband, who has successfully diffused some of the hysteria that follows him like a pack of wild animals by playing characters in less commercial films that do not trade on his looks. When I ask Aniston about The Good Girl, she reveals another layer of vulnerability: ‘I really like this movie, but I’m terrified for it to come out because it’s different. I always feel that way after I finish a movie: Oh, it was such a great experience. Can’t it just end right here before we have to go rake ourselves over the coals and be put on trial by all the critics?

To stave off her preproduction anxiety, Aniston worked extra-hard to prepare for the role. Her acting coach had her sit on her hands and tied weights to her wrists and ankles to discourage her comic gesticulating and Rachelisms. You can very easily become a product up on a shelf” she says, "and just kind of sit there pretty comfortably and wait till someone needs the Fruity Pebbles—as opposed to the granola.” Ultimately, though, she says she had less to prove to the world than to herself— to see if she could pull it off, have a break- through. “That’s the big thing,” she says. “I’m waiting to see how it will do and if people will say, Stick with your day job.’”

The next day, I am sitting in her living room, which has, like the people who live in it. a deeply casual vibe— a strange, successful mix of shabby chic and almost medieval touches, with big, dark, rough-hewn wooden chairs that look as if they were meant for pulling up to a feast of ginger beer and leg of mutton.

When I walked in, she was munching on an apple, and now she is smoking a cigarette. Here, in her own surroundings, she seems much more at ease. She’s wearing a pale-peach silk camisole that shows off her flat stomach, a pair of the same color drawstring cotton pants, and tan J.Crew sandals, of which she admits she has a closetful. “J.Crew makes the best sandaIs,” she says. Her hair is pulled up in a sort of modified chignon, and her perfectly even tan nicely sets off those swimming-pool-blue eyes. When I use the phrase fashion icon to describe her, she cringes.

Do you see the hair on the back of my neck standing up?” She laughs. 1 almost resent the fashion thing. That’s not the right word. I don’t get it. I do it because I have to do it; it’s part of the deal in terms of looking fabulous and—good God—never wearing the same thing twice and all of those things. It’s a pain in the ass to have to worry about stuff like that.”

I ask her about a wedding photo on the mantel, and she gets up and disappears into a hallway and comes back with an- other framed black-and-white picture from their big day two years ago. In this one, you can see only Aniston’s crossed legs and high-heeled feet in the foreground. She is sitting on the counter in a bathroom. Pitt is in the background, sitting, fully dressed, on a toilet, smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer, wearing a black suit and tie and a white shirt, looking like his usual scruffy but shockingly handsome self. “This is our Mrs. Robinson photograph,” she says, with obvious pride and delight. It occurs to me that the one thing Aniston seems to be unconflicted about is her marriage.

“It’s a nice feeling to have somebody that you just like so much,” she says. ‘Everything else is OK when you have that intact, It’s the most wonderful feeling. I think it’s made me more comfortable in who I am to have someone who loves me and accepts me with all of my crap and dysfunction and insecurities and struggles. And he kind of sees it all through these beautiful rose-colored glasses. All of a sudden, your priorities shift a little bit. I think my ambition has always been family on some level, as opposed to fame.” She says the word with disdain. ‘Fame’s great, though.., well, not fame but the ability to hold ajob as long as I have and work doing what I like to do. It’s fantastic. But if the love wasn’t there, if I didn’t have this relationship.., that would be a bummer.”

The vexing riddle of Aniston’s life, it seems to me, is that the source of her greatest and most personal happiness— her marriage to Pitt—is the very thing that has ratcheted up the public’s and paparazzi’s fixation on her. As a couple, they have become—to use that grotesque phrase--Hollywood royalty and therefore, in the eyes of many, not like the rest of us. As Gyllenhaal says, “They’re both real people, but the funny thing is, no one expects it. Everyone’s like, They’re so nice, the two of them. They’re so perfect together.’ But who is the person who established that two very famous people who are a couple have to be jerks?”

A few days after I meet with Aniston, I talk to Courteney Cox Arquette on the phone. “Fame is hard,” she says. “People jump over walls to take pictures of her. Both of them. They have such a public life together that they need to keep things pri- vate.” I say that I didn’t expect Aniston to be so “conflicted and tortured and...”

“Deep?” she says. ‘She’s a very deep person. She’s had a very complex life, and it’s not just been easy, which makes her extremely compassionate. She’s been through so many things. with relationships and family, things that have made her stronger, but she also has tremendous feelings. That’s what makes her so interesting.”

Toward the end of my meeting with Aniston, I ask her what she worries about, and her answer is full of surprises. “1 can think of five things,” she says. “I worry about everybody getting along. This is probably just from childhood. I worry about not having enough time for people.”

Long pause.

“But then there’s global worries. It just seems like this has been a year filled with some very intense events. I need to spend more time reading the newspaper and educating myself. That’s what I worry about: I feel that I’m not educated enough and that it’s too much to learn. I worry about embarrassing myself. I worry about being a laughingstock.” She sighs with slight exasperation, then laughs. “I worry about worrying too much.”