Sunday, October 30, 2005

Jennifer Aniston; Vanity Fair Sept 05

When Jennifer Aniston opens the door to the Malibu bungalow she’s been holed up in lately, she gives me a radiant smile and an effusive hello.

Then she bursts into tears.

We have scarcely sat down in the living room, a serene little haven simply furnished with cushy white sofas and white flowers and white candles, when her face crumbles. She is instantly aghast. “I haven’t been feeling emotionally lately, really I haven’t,” she wails, fluttering her hands like Rachel Green in distress, except that this time it isn’t funny.

Other than the 24-hour security detail guarding her safety, Aniston is all alone in the modest rental where she has camped out while dealing with the end of her marriage to Brad Pitt – and its devastating aftermath, which has been far worse than the actual split. The last few months have brought an endless nightmare of hurtful headlines about her soon-to-be-ex-husband, along with the blatantly fraudulent stories about herself, in the tabloids and supermarket gossip magazines. Pursued around the clock by the rapid paparazzi she refers to as “ratzies”, she is ambushed even on her own deck by photographers who lurk on the beach outside her door, spying on her every move.

As she squeezes her eyes shut in an effort to stop crying, the scene provides a painful contrast with the last time we met. Little more than a year ago, I interviewed Pitt at the Beverly Hills mansion that he and Aniston had just spent two years renovating. A testament to both his passion for architecture and the couple’s hopeful vision of their shared future, the beautiful old house awaiting only a baby in a bassinet to complete a picture-perfect existence.

When I left, they both walked me out to my car. Their home, its windows lit and welcoming, glowed in the twilight. As we said our good-byes, Pitt and Aniston leaned together in the drive-way, arms twined around each other. Her head rested trustingly on his buff chest, still pumped up from his rigorous training to play the warrior Achilles in Troy.

They seemed the most fortunate couple imaginable – two beautiful superstars who had hit the jackpot, earning not only fame and riches but also an enduring love. Their fans had long been captivated by the romance of America’s Sweetheart and the Sexiest Man in the World, and now they were ready to begin a thrilling new chapter. Aniston’s 10-year run on Friends was ending, and she and Pitt had vowed to start a family when her stupendously successful television series was finished.

Pitt’s final words to me reinforced the impression of connubial bliss: “I’m happier than I’ve ever been.” But the ensuing months brought an onslaught of rumors that he had gotten involved with Angelina Jolie while filming Mr. And Mrs. Smith. Instead of the joyful announcement many had anticipated from the Pitts, there was only silence. The New Year began with photographs of the beautiful couple strolling hand in hand along the beach on Anguilla, looking relaxed and happy. Immediately the buzz shifted into rhapsodic re-appraisals of the state of their union.

And then came the oh-so-civilized announcement, on January 7, that Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt were separating – that their parting was “the result of much thoughtful consideration,” that it was not caused by “any of the speculation reported by the tabloid media,” and that they would remain “committed and caring friends with great love and admiration for one another.”

If Pitt had kept a low profile in the months to come, that might have even turned out to be true. Instead, the ominous drumroll of gossip began to crescendo as he and Jolie rendezvoused in exotic locales, still denying that they were an item. With the paparazzi snapping away, Pitt stepped into what looked suspiciously like a paternal role with Jolie’s adopted Cambodian son, Maddox.

“It was extremely hurtful to Jen that he was seen with another woman so quickly after they were separated,” says Andrea Bendewald, an actress who has been one of Aniston’s closest friends since they were teenagers.

Instead of being reviled as The Other Woman, Jolie posed for pictures on an energetic round of appearances as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations – and then trumped even that public-relations bonanza by adopting another orphan, an African girl whose parents had died of AIDS. In the blink of an eye, the twice-divorced Jolie – previously known as a tattooed vixen with a taste of bisexuality, heroin, brotherly incest, mental institutions, and wearing her husband’s blood – had morphed into a globe-trotting humanitarian who seemed to be channelling Audrey Hepburn.

For the 36-year-old Aniston, who had expected to spend the last year being pregnant, the pain of watching this spectacle unfold was compounded by vicious rumors about herself. As misogynist as they were false, sensationalistic stories claimed the real reason the marriage ended was that Aniston refused to have Pitt’s baby because she was so ambitious she cared only about her career.

Even now, that sexist slur makes her face darken. “A man divorcing would never be accused of choosing career over children,” she says. “That really pissed me off. I’ve never in my life said I don’t want to have children. I did and I do and I will! The women who inspire me are the ones who have careers and children; why would I want to limit myself? I’ve always wanted to have children, and I would never give up that experience for a career. I want to have it all.”

Aniston’s intimate note acidly that Pitt could have done more to refute the mean-spirited rumor that his wife wouldn’t bear his children, which reinforced the impression that he had good cause to leave her for Earth Mother Jolie. To some, this looks like sheer hypocrisy.

“When Brad and Jen were in the marriage, having a baby was not his priority – ever,” says one mutual friend. “It was an abstract desire for him, whereas for Jen it was much more immediate. So is there a part of Brad that’s diabolical? Did he think, I want to get out of this marriage, but I want to come out smelling like a rose, so I’m going to let Jen be cast as the ultra-feminist and I’m going to be cast as the poor husband who couldn’t get a baby and so had to move on?”

As the image wars raged in the gossip media, a heartbroken Aniston retreated to her Malibu hideaway to lick her wounds in private, accompanied by only her elderly corgi-terrier mix, Norman, who spends most of his time snoring on his dog bed. Public sympathy seemed to be on her side; the Hollywood boutique Kitson reported that its “Team Aniston” T-shirts were outselling “Team Jolie” T-shirts by a margin of 25 to 1. But that was cold comfort as Aniston was assaulted by one provocation after another.

When the Pitts broke up, Brad insisted he hadn’t slept with Jolie, and Aniston accepted his denial. “She wasn’t naïve,” says Kristin Hahn, an executive at Pitts’ production company, Plan B. “She’s not suggesting she didn’t know there was an enchantment, and a friendship. But Brad was saying, ‘This is not about another woman.’”

The moment he and Aniston separated, however, he re-emerged in what looked like a full-blown affair with Jolie. Struggling to accept a separation she never wanted, Aniston found that the “facts” she had been told kept shifting like quicksand beneath her feet. When I ask about that gracious, no-one-is-to-blame announcement of their separation, she takes a deep breath. “What we said was true – “

As I raise my eyebrows, she pauses for a moment, and then adds carefully, “as far as I knew. We wrote it together, very consciously, and felt very good about it. We exited this relationship beautifully as we entered it.”

All Aniston wanted then was to figure out what happened; how did the happy life they’d planned drift so far off course? But everything changed on April 29, when photographs broke of Brad and Angelina, frolicking on the beach with Maddox at a romantic resort in Africa. “The world was shocked, and I was shocked,” she says, still bending over backward to not excoriate her ex.

But to say that this news was like pouring salt in the wound would understate the its impact considerably; how about pouring molten lava into the hole where somebody ripped your heart out? And then things got worse.

The skies over Los Angeles are uncharacteristically grey today, and the Pacific shimmers with an opalescent sheen. Although the weather is gloomy, the ocean is calm; waves lap gently at the shoreline, making a soft shushing sound that Aniston has found very soothing lately.
“That’s quite a backyard, in my opinion,” she says as we stand on her deck, watching the hypnotic rhythm of the waves. “Just being able to go to the water’s edge and scream – “

She grins. “Not too loudly. You don’t want people to think that you’re crazy. But it can be very cathartic.”

She is wearing a white tank top and white drawstring linen pants, with a vivid lavender cashmere cardiwrap around her to ward off the unseasonable chill. Formidably toned by yoga, her body is in superb shape, but despite her tanned skin and megawatt smile she looks fragile and wan.

She remains resolutely upbeat nonetheless, casting her current situation in the most positive light possible. “It’s beautiful here; I love it,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to have a little Malibu beach house, and it feels good. I’m enjoying simplifying things.”

Although the bungalow was dark and depressing when she first saw it, a quickie makeover has transformed it into a cozy sanctuary that’s far more representative of Aniston’s taste than the show-place she and Pitt shared, where the décor seemed all hard edges and unforgiving materials. “Brad and I used to joke that every piece of furniture was either a museum piece or just uncomfortable,” Aniston says. “He definitely had his sense of style, and I definitely have my sense of style, and sometimes they clashed. I wasn’t so much into modern.”

I mention Nicole Kidman’s quip after splitting up with Tom Cruise, when she asked what she looked forward to in her new life without the diminutive husband who had abruptly ended their marriage. “Wearing high heels again,” Kidman retorted.

So I ask Aniston – who filed for divorce May 25 and expects it to become final this fall – what she’s enjoying about being on her own. “I can have a comfortable couch again,” she says with a wry smile.

In the tabloids and celebrity gossip magazines, the soap-opera version of her life continues to hurtle along like a runway express train, rushing Aniston through major life stages with ludicrous speed: Jen Is Devastated! Jen Is Furious! Jen Gets Revenge! Jen Has a New Man! Jen Is Over Brad! Most of the stories are wrong. (No, Oprah didn’t try to get Brad and Jen back together; no, Jen is not romantically involved with Vince Vaughn, her co-star in The Break Up, a comedy about a separating couple who continue to live together, which they shot in Chicago over the summer.)

Other reports are just idiotically simple- minded, breathlessly advancing a plot that bears little resemblance to the long, complex, painful experience of getting over a divorce. While the tabloids insist on dividing Aniston’s emotions into neat, distinct chapters, the reality is that pain and denial and anger and resignation all blur together, sometimes at the same moment – and the lengthy process of mourning is nowhere near over.

“There are many stages of grief,” she says. “It’s sad, something coming to an end. It cracks you open, in a way – cracks you open to feeling. When you try to avoid the pain, it creates greater pain. I’m a human being, having a human experience in front of the world. I wish it weren’t in front of the world. I try really hard to rise above it.”

Aniston is struggling to find a deeper meaning in the debacle. “I have to think there’s some reason I have called this into my life,” she says. “I have to believe that – otherwise it’s just cruel.”

Her friends are filled with admiration for the way she’s handled the whole mess. “This woman is basically having a root canal without anesthesia, but she’s really trying not to numb the pain or to shove it under the rug,” says Hahn. “She’s grown so much, and she continues to grow on a daily basis, because every time you think, ‘Well, I’ve dealt with this,’ there’s another hurdle to get over. It’s a bit Job-like at the moment.”

Aniston’s response has been to retreat into her cocoon, “in an effort to take care of myself and my heart,” she says. “I feel like I’m nestling. I love being home. I have friends that come over. My girlfriends I’ve had for 20 years. When things happen, the tribe gathers around and lifts you up. I’ve had lonely moments, sure, but I’m also enjoying being alone. There’s no question it takes getting used to; I’m a partnership person, and if something happens you instinct is to share it – but you’re no longer part of a couple. I definitely miss that. It’s sort of like Bambi – like you’re trying to learn how to walk. You’re a little awkward; you stumble a little bit. The things you would do with your partner, you don’t do. It’s uncharted territory, but I think it’s good for me to be a solo person right now. You’re forced to re-discover yourself and take it to another level. If you can find a way to see the glass half full, these are the moments you earn the most. I’ve had to re-introduce myself to myself in a way that’s different.”

She doesn’t downplay the difficulties. “Am I lonely? Yes. Am I upset? Yes. Am I confused? Yes. Do I have my days when I’ve thrown a little pity party for myself? Absolutely. But I’m also doing really well,” she says. “I’ve got an unbelievable support team, and I’m a tough cookie… I believe in therapy; I think it’s an incredible tool to educate the self on the self. I feel very strong. I’m really proud of how I conducted myself.”

A crucial part of Aniston’s strategy has been to ignore the putrid strew of rumor, speculation, and outright falsehood in the tabloid media. “It’s been very important to me not to read anything, not to see anything,” she says. “It’s been my saving grace. That stuff is just toxic for me right now. I probably avoided a lot of suffering by not engaging in it, not reading, not watching.”

She gestures toward Norman, who has roused himself for a moment to check on his mistress’s whereabouts. “It’s like those dog cones,” she says, encircling her neck as if putting on one of the plastic cones prescribed by vets to prevent dogs from scratching their ears. “I have my imaginary dog cone on, so I don’t see anything. It just allows for a much more peaceful life.”

Nevertheless, as Pitt publicly flaunted the instant family he created with Jolie, the tableaux of their newfound togetherness were humiliating. “I would be a robot if I said I didn’t feel moments of anger, of hurt, of embarrassment,” Aniston acknowledges.

But she tries to keep the lurid details to herself. “She is grieving, but she’s taken the high road,” says Bendewald. “She’s mourning the death of a marriage, and she’s done it very privately. She can have her moments of rage, but she doesn’t want to out him. She doesn’t want to make him the villain and her the victim.”

Indeed, Aniston vehemently rejects the interpretation that she was left for another woman. “I don’t feel like a victim,“ she says. “I’ve worked with this therapist for a long time, and her major focus is that you get one day of being a victim – and that’s it. Then we take responsibility for our own input. To live in a victim place is pointing a finger at someone else, as if you have no control. Relationships are two people; everyone is accountable. A lot goes into a relationship coming together, and a lot goes into a relationship falling apart. She’d say, ‘Even if it’s 98 percent the other person’s fault, it’s 2 percent yours, and that’s what we’re going to focus on.’ You can only clean up your side of the street.”

These days, one index of recovery is the fact that Aniston’s sardonic humor is resurfacing. When I tell her that my 13-year-old son is a big fan of hers, she doesn’t miss a beat. “Is he single?” she asks, deadpan.

She’ll toss off a crack about Pitt’s startling transformation into a punky bleached blond. “Billy Idol called – he wants his look back,” she murmurs with a sly smile.

By now she can even talk about those gut-wrenching photos of Jolie and Pitt in Kenya with mordant resignation rather than tears. “I can’t say it was one of the highlights of my year,” she says. “Who would deal with that and say, ‘Isn’t that sweet! That looks like fun!’? But shit happens. You joke and say, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’”

She sighs. “I feel like I’ve earned a superpower shield,” she says. Then, afraid of sounding grandiose, she adds, “I’m not comparing my suffering to other people’s suffering. Everybody has their own.”

Aniston’s friends were particularly horrified by W magazine’s 60-page photo spread featuring Pitt and Jolie as an early 1960s-style married couple with a brood of miniature blond Brads. “you want to shake the shit out of him and say, ‘Your timing sucks!’” says one. “He’s made some choices that have been tremendously insensitive.”

The W feature, which was entitled “Domestic Bliss,” couldn’t be blamed on the paparazzi; not only did Pitt conceptualise it, but he retained the international rights, so he actually profited from it. Aniston’s eyes widen in surprise when I mention that last fact, and she grimaces. “I didn’t know that,” she says. But she refuses to indulge herself I an angry reaction. “Is it odd timing? Yeah. But it’s not my life,” she says. “He makes his choices. He can do – whatever. We’re divorced, and you can see why.”

She shakes her head in exasperation. “I can also imagine Brad having absolutely no clue why people would be appalled by it,” she adds. “Brad is not mean-spirited; he would never intentionally try to rub something in my face. In hindsight, I can see him going, ‘Oh – I can see that was inconsiderate.’ But I know Brad. Brad would say, ‘That’s art!’”

She rolls her eyes, pretending to screw something into her forehead. “There’s a sensitivity chip that’s missing,” she says.

Aniston’s friends are amazed at her willingness to give Pitt the benefit of the doubt, but they basically agree with her assessment. “I don’t think he was trying to hurt Jen,” says Courteney Cox, Aniston’s dear friend and former co-star on Friends. “I don’t think that Brad is malicious, or a liar. The W thing was his idea, but I don’t think he thought that one through, about what it would look like to anyone else.”

Although Aniston remains determined not to bash out, she sometimes questions her own restraint. “Why am I protecting him?” she exclaimed to one friend, only to continue with what she sees as the signified course of action.

“I’m not interested in taking public potshots,” she explains. “It’s not my concern anymore. What happened to him after the separation – it’s his life now. I’ve made a conscious effort not to add to the toxicity of this situation. I haven’t retaliated. I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t have a halo that I’m polishing here; everyone has their personal thoughts. But I would much rather everyone move on. I am not defined by this relationship. I am not defined by the part they’re making me play in the triangle. It’s maddening to me. But I had a mom who was angry about her divorce, and made shots, and I don’t want to play that out. If people are frustrated that I don’t want to do that, I’m sorry. I’m figuring this out as I go along. This is my first time at this particular picnic.”

As befits a storybook tale, the Pitts’ marriage was the first for both of them, and some of Aniston’s fondest memories are from the time they shared before the world discovered their romance. “We had so much fun falling in love,” she says wistfully. “It was so private; we kept it to ourselves for so long. It was something we were really proud of.” But after the relationship became public, it was always difficult to reconcile their mythic image with the quotidian reality of their private life, which was more likely to involve watching television, ordering takeout, and having close friends over than swanning around on red carpets.

“We were put on a pedestal, but we were just a couple like anybody else,” Aniston says. “When we were home, we’d watch the shows we loved, and one time there was this program called It’s Good to Be Brad and Jen. It was all about us going to Scotland and Greece and having our matching S.U.V.’s, and it wasn’t my life – I’d never even been to some of these places, but even I got sucked in. We’re sitting there saying, ‘Yeah, boy, it sure must be good to be Brad and Jen!’ So is it our responsibility to demystify this, to say, ‘This is not what it’s like – it’s not that fabulous, not that great’? There’s no doubt our life is fortunate, but…”

But even golden couples struggle with the formidable challenges of marriage. “It’s like the ebb and flow of every relationship,” Aniston says, “It’s hard; it gets easy; it gets fun again. What’s hard to sustain is some ideal that it’s perfect. That’s ridiculous. What’s fantastic about marriage is getting through those ebbs and flows with the same person, and looking across the room and saying, ‘I’m still here. And I still love you.’ You re-meet, reconnect. You have marriages within marriages within marriages. That’s what I love about marriage. That’s what I want in marriage. It’s unfortunate, but we live in a very disposable society. Those moments where it looks like ‘Uh-oh, this isn’t working!’ –those are the most important, transformative moments. Most couples draw up divorce papers when they’re missing out on an amazing moment of deepening and enlightenment and connection.”

She sighs heavily and turns away to light a Merit cigarette. “That’s not Brad’s view of it,” she says, glum again. “We believe in different things, I guess. You can’t force a relationship, even if it’s your view of how you would like it to be conducted. Obviously two people leave a relationship because there’s a different thought pattern happening. My goal is to try and achieve a very deep, committed relationship. That’s what I’m interested in, but it’s someone’s prerogative to be or not to be in or out of a relationship.”

“I think Jen wanted to work it out, and I don’t think he wanted to work it out,” Andrea Bendewald observes. “I don’t think he knew what he wanted.”

Nevertheless, Aniston has only kind words about her marriage. “I still feel so lucky to have experienced it. I wouldn’t know what I know now if I hadn’t been married to Brad,” she says. “I love Brad; I really love him. I will love him for the rest of my life. He’s a fantastic man. I don’t regret any of it, and I’m not going to beat myself up about it. We spent seven very intense years together; we taught each other a lot – about healing, and about fun. We helped each other through a lot, and I really value that. It was a beautiful, complicated relationship. The sad thing, for me, is the way it’s been reduced to a Hollywood cliché – or maybe it’s just a human cliché. I have a lot of compassion for everyone going through this.”

As for what went wrong, Aniston rejects any simplistic explanation. “It’s just complicated,” she says. “Relationships are complicated, whether they’re friendships or business relationships or parent relationships. I don’t think anybody in a marriage gets to a point where they feel like ‘We’ve got it!’ You’re two people continually evolving, and there will be times when those changes clash. There are all these levels of growth – and when you stop growing together, that’s when the problems happen.”

Friends say that it was always difficult for Aniston and Pitt to maintain the intimacy they craved while juggling their demanding work schedules, which often required long separations. Those tensions notwithstanding, Aniston believed her marriage was the real thing. “We both did,” she says.

So what happened? “I think – it changed,” she says haltingly. “We both changed.”

She sighs again. “You do the best you can, and I think we did. We did the best we could.”

Both of them? She looks me straight in the eye. “Both parties,” she says.

But nagging questions remain about Pitt’s conduct during the months leading up to their separation. “She was committed to the marriage,” says Bendewald. “He wanted to figure out who he was and what he wanted, but he seemed to want to do it without being married. She wanted him to figure out what he wanted and stay married. He didn’t think he could do that, so at that point she was like, ‘O.K., go figure it out.’”

Throughout that period, Pitt insisted that his relationship was not the cause of his marital discontent, but his actions since the separation have suggested otherwise.

“I just don’t know what happened,” Aniston admits. “There’s a lot I don’t understand, a lot I don’t know, and probably never will know, really. So I choose to take with me as much integrity and dignity and respect for what that relationship was as I can. I feel as I’m trying to scrounge around and pick up the pieces in the midst o this media-circus.”

Does she buy Brad’s claim that he didn’t cheat on her before they were separated? “I choose to believe my husband,” Aniston says. “At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised by anything but I would much rather choose to believe him.”

Their friends are still trying to parse what happened with Jolie. “I don’t think he started an affair physically, but I think he was attracted to her,” says Courteney Cox, who vacationed with her husband, David Arquette, and the Pitts on Anguilla just before they announced their separation. “There was a connection, and he was honest about that with Jen. Most of the time, when people are attracted to other people, they don’t tell. At least he was honest about it. It was an attraction he fought for a period of time.”

He may have been fighting it, but Pitt virtually checked out of his marriage as soon as he started working with Jolie, according to Aniston’s intimates. “He was gone,” says one.

Aniston met Jolie only once, when she took a passing opportunity to say hello. “It was on the lot of Friends – I pulled over and introduced myself,” Aniston recalls. “I said, ‘Brad is so excited about working with you. I hope you guys have a really good time.”

But he soon became emotionally unavailable for his wife, at a time when she needed him desperately. Pitt’s withdrawal coincided with the end of Friends, which Aniston experienced as a huge loss. “That was really painful. It was a family, and I don’t do great with families splitting up,” says Aniston, who was deeply wounded by her parents’ bitter divorce, which happened when she was 9.

“It was hard to have such a wonderful constant in your life, a place to go every day, and then all of the sudden it’s not there.” When she reached out for her husband’s support, she didn’t get it. “He just wasn’t there for me,” she says. To the amazement of Aniston’s friends, Pitt didn’t even show up for the final taping of Friends. “He was working,” she says, still defending him, even though movie stars have been known to request changes in a shooting schedule to accommodate events that are important to them. Although she isn’t talking to Pitt these days, Aniston remains in regular contact with his mother, whom she loves dearly, and she doesn’t rule out a better relationship with Pitt in the future. “I really do hope that someday we can be friends again,” she says.

She certainly doesn’t regret her four-and-a-half-year marriage – not even the million-dollar wedding with 50,000 flowers, a 40-member gospel choir, a Greek bouzouki band, and fireworks exploding over the Pacific. (“It was fantastic!” she says.) But she does have other regrets.

“There’s a lot I would probably do differently,” she says. “I’d take more vacations – getting away from work, enjoying each other in different environments. But there was always something preventing it; either he was working, or I was.”

She made more profound mistakes as well. “I wouldn’t give over so much of myself, which I did at times,” she admits. “It was that thing about being a nurturer; I love taking care of people, and I definitely put his needs before mine sometimes. It’s seamless; somewhere along the way, you sort of lose yourself. You just don’t know when it happens. It’s such an insidious thing, you don’t really see where it started – and where you ended. There’s no one to blame but yourself. I’ve always been that way in relationships, even with my mom. It’s not the healthiest. I feel like I’ve broken the pattern now. I’ll never let myself down like that again. I feel like my sense of self is being strengthened because of it.”

Aniston’s unhappy family history colored her experience of marriage from the outset. “I come from a fighting family, and I had a tough time arguing,” she says. “Fighting scared me. I wouldn’t speak up for myself. That’s something I’ve learned. I will always speak my mind.”

In recent months, the process of healing from the breakup with Brad has also created a new openness to healing relations with her mother. Their estrangement began nearly a decade ago, when Nancy Aniston gossiped about Jennifer on a television show, and worsened when she tried to cash in on Jennifer’s fame by writing an appalling book called ‘From Mother and Daughter to Friends’. Jennifer severed all contact, but she is now re-assessing their relationship. “We’ve exchanged messages,” she says. “Our doors are open. We’re taking baby steps. It’s a good thing.”

Although Aniston incurred criticism for distancing herself from her mother, who did not attend her wedding, she offers no apologies. “I feel pretty good about the choices I’ve made. The choice of not speaking to Mom for a while – that’s ours. Nobody else has to understand it. The same thing with Brad and myself,” she says. “I wouldn’t change my childhood, I wouldn’t change my heartaches, I wouldn’t change my successes. I wouldn’t change any of it, because I really love who I am, and am continuing to become.

“Besides, it’s all in the past,” she adds. “This doesn’t kill you. You move on. You can’t let the devastation of a divorce take over and win – let it make you this bitter, closed-off, angry, sceptical person. Then you’re just falling victim to it. You don’t want to shut your heart down. You don’t want to feel that when a marriage ends, your life is over. You can survive anything. Compared to what other people are surviving out there in the world, this is not so bad, in the grand scheme of things. Human endurance is unbelievable. Think of mothers of soldiers have to rise above! Everything’s relative.”

She looks down at her firm, fit body. “Nothing’s broke,” she says. Catching the quizzical look on my face, she concedes. “Maybe a little bruised.”

A few weeks later, on a stiflingly hot day in Chicago, Aniston and I are sitting in her hotel suite looking out on Late Michigan, which is studded with little white boats. I’ve just told her about the gossip magazine that says she’s registered here as “Mrs. Smith”. The report claims Aniston is taking perverse pleasure in making hotel staffers address her as Mrs. Smith, even though they know perfectly well who she is.

The only problem with this amusing tidbit is that it’s not true. “I wish I’d thought of it,” says Aniston, who is registered under an entirely different, although equally humorous, name.
Despite her vow of abstinence, she succumbed to a celebrity magazine the other evening – and immediately regretted it. “I feel like I’ve fallen off the wagon,” she moans. Unfortunately, the first publication she picked up featured an insult from Kimberly Stewart, Rod’s party-girl daughter. “She said I’m homely,” Aniston says. “It literally ruined my night. I got my feelings very hurt, actually. That was my instant Karma.”

She has always fretted about her appearance, although that is often hard for others to believe. Posing for her Vanity Fair cover shoot, Aniston was equally fetching in French-dance-hall-girl black stockings and in a half-open oversize shirt that evoked every man’s favorite just-rolled-out-of-bed look. With her tousled hair, cobalt-blue eyes, and dazzling smile, she seemed the ultimate adorable sexpot. Far from pining away in seclusion, she appeared to be sending a far more spirited message like “Eat your heart out, Brad!”

But Aniston has never been able to reconcile the glamorous Jen on page or screen with the self-doubting woman she sees in the mirror, and the current tabloid coverage has exacerbated that gap. “It’s literally two different people – the real me, and the ‘Jen’ they write about. ‘fighting back’, ‘getting revenge’ everything I couldn’t be farther from wanting to do,” she says. “So I’m back on the wagon.”

When she arrived in Chicago to film ‘The Break-Up’, the gossip media, frantic for a new development, immediately plunged her into a torrid romance with her co-star, Vince Vaughn. This affair apparently does not exist. “I adore Vince Vaughn, but I’m not going out with Vince Vaughn,” she says. “I barely know the guy. We’ve exchanged a wine-and-cheese basket for the start of the movie, and we’ve gone out to dinner with the director and other people. We’ve got to get to know each other.”

But is Aniston seeing him – or anyone else? “Nobody,” she says firmly. “I like a lot of people but I am sooo not ‘in like’ with anybody. I am really enjoying being by myself. I’m excited that I know there’s somebody out there for me, but I am absolutely in no rush. This is all very new, very fresh. This was a seven-year relationship that was very dear, very complicated, very special. I need to honor it.”

Aside from her initial flurry of tears, Aniston remains calm and thoughtful through hours of conversation with me over the course of several weeks. But there is one final topic to be addressed, and it’s the most hurtful of all. The rumor that Jolie is pregnant with Pitt’s child has swept around the world; some reports even have her finishing her first trimester. When I ask Aniston about that, she looks as if I’ve stabbed her in the heart. Her eyes well up and spill over. Several long minutes go by as the tears keep rolling down her cheeks; she bites her lip, seemingly unable to speak. Finally she shakes her head; this subject is simply too excruciating to discuss. “My worst fear is that Jen will have to face them having a baby together soon, because that would be beyond beyond painful,” says Kristin Hahn.

Fortunately, there are many other things to keep Aniston occupied these days. Although she took some time off after Friends ended, she has since shot several movies, and the coming months will bring a series of premieres. First up is Derailed, a thriller starring Aniston and Clive Owen as two married strangers who meet on a train and arrange a hotel room tryst – only to have an armed man burst in, rape the woman, and beat the man and blackmail him, setting off a horrific chain of events. The film will make adultery look about as appealing as Fatal Attraction did, according to Aniston. “It will be one of those movies you leave and say, ‘The affair thing? Maybe not!’”

Then there’s Rumor Has it, whose plot revolves around a young reporter’s conviction that The Graduate was based on her family, and that she herself is adopted. Mark Ruffalo plays her fiancé, and Shirley MacLaine is the Mrs. Robinson character, with Kevin Costner as the Benjamin Braddock who may or may not be Aniston’s father. Yet another upcoming film is Friends with Money, in which Aniston portrays a pothead maid whose friends – played by Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack, and Frances McDormand – are all married and far more successful in life.

Aniston is also re-evaluating her future role at Plan B, the production company she formed with Pitt and Brad Grey, who has since become chairman of Paramount. Pitt is now assuming the lead role at Plan B, but Aniston says she will still produce movies through the company.
“I’m excited about what the future holds,” she says. “I’m not a fortune-teller; I have no idea how it will play out. People says, ‘What are you going to do?’ I don’t know. I kind of love that not knowing.”

She is trying to outgrow some youthful illusions. Prince Charming let her down, and Aniston no longer believes in one true love. “I think there are many people, many soul mates,” she says.

But she still has faith in the redeeming power of love itself. “It’s out there,” she says. “It will happen. There’s an amazing man that’s wandering the streets right now who’s the father of my children. In five years, I would hope to be married and have a kid. I still believe in marriage 100 percent. When I hear people say that they would never do it again, it’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Why would you ever close your heart down?”

She gives me a sheepish smile. “Maybe it’s a fairy tale, but I believe in happily ever after.”

Jennifer Aniston; Elle Nov 05

As with every beginning, Jennifer Aniston's began with an ending. An ending that's impossible to give away because, unlike with the classics of high-society romantic devastation—Madame Bovary, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Anna Karenina—there isn't anyone who hasn't read and deconstructed the story of Brad and Jennifer. Or the sequel, Brad and Angelina. Or the companion guide, Angelina Goes to Africa.

While still recovering from having her heart ripped out and Hacky Sacked about, Aniston, in an effort to separate fact from fiction, gave a raw-nerved, teary-eyed, and delicately choreographed interview to Vanity Fair, the ruling-class glossy where a star can, with dignity, safely tell her sad story, pose in her underpants, and be done with it.

Months have passed. Seasons have changed. Eight-pound dumbbells rest on the floor. A bottle of pinot grigio chills on ice. A fabulous hair day is being had. “All that shit's old news,” Aniston says, really smiling, waving it off. “Past: done. Present: now. Future: none of our business.”

Or, as her friend Courteney Cox-Arquette says, “There's definitely been a shift. And that chapter…well, she seems really happy now.”

Aniston gets up to find her Merit cigarettes in what has been her home away from home, a luxe suite in Chicago's Peninsula hotel. It is, she swears, bigger than her new house. The actress is so thin she warrants a scolding. “I know, I know,” she says. “I lose weight when I work. I'll gain it back.” Seeing me wrestle with the wine opener, she takes over. “Let me open it, I was a waitress.… This is a terrible cork.…” Struggling herself, she says in a polite tone, “Oh, motherf--ker!” Cork removed, she triumphantly holds up the bottle. “Would you like some wine?”

In flip-flops, snug Generra jeans, and a black T-shirt stamped with a skull sticking a red tongue out at the world, Aniston, 36, doesn't look old enough to drink. She has smooth, tawny skin, and thick, caramel-color hair pin-streaked with blond frames her small face. Her pool-blue eyes are etched with dark blue starbursts emanating from her pupils. She sees through everything.

It is Aniston's last weekend in Chicago, where she's been shooting The Break-up, opposite Vince Vaughn. They play a couple who buy an apartment, split up, and have to live together until it's sold. “This movie was fate,” she says. “To be able to walk through a movie called The Break-up, about a person going through a breakup, while I'm actually going through a breakup?! How did that happen?! It's been cathartic. It's turned something into a fantastic experience—” Aniston catches herself. “Not that divorce is fantastic, but I've never had more fun in a creative process.”

Since wrapping Friends, Aniston has been frenzied with filmmaking. In Rob Reiner's Rumor Has It, costarring Mark Ruffalo and Kevin Costner, she plays an obit writer certain that she's the offspring of the lovers who inspired The Graduate. In the upcoming Friends With Money, she joins Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand, and Joan Cusack as a ganja-loving maid whose friends are all married and moving up in the world. The actress didn't have to go far to research the role. “I have a bunch of friends who are potheads who are genius and wonderful, but they just can't motivate. They'll spend days trying to figure out how to make a birthday card!” She lights a cigarette. “Trust me, I have no judgment on the casual user. I've lived. But I'm talking about the true potheads—the wake-and-bakers who have arrested development because they've gone to the THC well one too many times.”

But it's her performance in this month's Derailed that allays any doubt as to whether Aniston can shed the skin of Rachel Green. Directed by Swedish filmmaker Mikael Håfström (2003's Oscar-nominated Evil), the psychological thriller is a cross between Fatal Attraction and The Grifters. “It took me so long to say yes because I was terrified of it,” says Aniston, who acts her way through adultery, rape, and blackmail. “Not terrified—I don't want to say that. But I'd gotten comfortable, and I knew it was going to be a challenge.”

Then she heard a voice of reason.

“I was in Italy at the time, with my ex. And they were filming Ocean's Twelve—all the Lake Como stuff. So they were all staying there together. So basically, we were all having lunch at George Clooney's house and I had just gotten the script FedExed to me. I open up the envelope and it says Derailed, starring Clive Owen. And I was like, Wow, Clive Owen. I love Clive Owen! I can't wait to read this. We go down to lunch and we're all talking, and out of the blue Julia [Roberts] goes, 'Has anybody worked with Clive Owen?' She'd just finished Closer. And I said to myself, That's an omen. And I told her about the script. And she said, 'Well, honey, if you can, you have got to work with him, because he is dreamy.'”

Reading the script, Aniston became unnerved. “I'm thinking, Good God, Jesus. It's like watching a car wreck—you're riveted and then disturbed. I thought, Why would I want to make someone feel this way?” She smiles, arching a perfect brow.

Like her critically acclaimed portrayal of Justine, the depressed Retail Rodeo clerk in Miguel Arteta's 2002 The Good Girl, Aniston in Derailed draws on the deeper, darker, often repressed facets of her talent. “You're not going to be able to type her easily,” Reiner says. “She has the same range as, say, Meg Ryan, who can do light, deft comedy and then turn around and do In the Cut.”

“No one has seen her do this kind of part before, and it was a very smart choice to book Jennifer in. The bottom line is, she's a really classy actress—incredibly smart and sensitive,” says Owen, in his deep and dreamy British accent. He adds that she was “just hugely refreshing, completely unstarry, completely uncomplicated. There was no fuss. With big stars you never know quite what to expect. But for somebody who's lived under the spotlight for so long, she's incredibly sorted out and grounded. That was inspiring—that you can be a real human being. It takes an enormous amount of intelligence to keep rooted amidst that glare.”

Tell Aniston the ghost of Rachel Green did not appear once while watching Derailed and she squeezes her eyes shut, opens them, reaches her hand across the table, and says, “That is one of my greatest compliments.”

Arteta recalls the day he gave Aniston the Good Girl role. “She said, 'This is good timing.' After years of using comedy as a tool to make everybody happy…from her parents who got divorced [when she was nine] through the years of being on the show, she was ready to connect with the pain of being in her life,” he says. “Comedy had been a shield for her, and she played it out as far as she could take it.”

The director cast Aniston without an audition, understanding immediately the paradox that makes her perfect for the part. She is as sad as she is happy. “She connected with this universal feeling of 'I'm trapped in my life, I'm never going to get out.' Who would have thought that America's sweetheart could capture that? I will never forget the moment she walked onto the set,” he says. “She transformed her whole body; she had this sad, Chaplin-esque walk, as if Charlie Chaplin forgot to take his meds. And I turned to my cameraman and said, 'We have a movie.' ”

What The Good Girl promised, Derailed confirmed: that Aniston is gifted at conveying complex emotions. Consequently, you hate to see her out there treading in shallow water; she deserves better than getting-the-guy flicks. Aniston can tell you all about getting the guy. She deserved better than that, too. And after what she's been through, it would be disheartening to have her sell a character that buys into the fairy tale in 120 minutes, anyway.

Unless, of course, the prince is six feet five inches, hilarious, and named Vince Vaughn.

They say the only cure for love is to love more. “I agree,” Aniston says. “But I'm good right now. I have so much love. I have love. My women friends—they're all my mothers, they're all my sisters, they're all my partners, they're all my wives, my everything. It's hard to find a man who can live up to any of them.”

Vince Vaughn! He could live up to that. He could kick Brad's ass with one hand tied behind his back and the other cradling a beer.

Aniston wags a finger. “Vince is my friend,” she says, trying to be stern. “I adore him. He's delicious and funny. He's got all the colors of the rainbow. But I don't want to be a rebound girl. I feel like it will happen when it happens.”

(Asked later about the two of them looking very cozy at the Break-up wrap party, Aniston says, “No comment! Next question, please.”)

Nevertheless, Vaughn has been just what she needed. “He's one of the funniest guys I've been around,” says Arrested Development star Jason Bateman, who plays Vaughn's friend in the film. “She couldn't have picked a better person to spend a few months with while she's going through all this. Vince really looks out for her.”

“The thing with Jen is, she's so easy to feel drawn to,” Vaughn says, his affection obvious. “She's so genuine and warm, and she has a lightness, a classy ease about it all. You can see why people are so enamored. It's like she's stuffed with Elvis dust. Little kids see her and they don't know she's famous, and they just gravitate to her, they hang on her.”

More than any of the other Friends friends, Aniston has been adopted by the world as its own, in a Princess Diana “There were three of us in this marriage” sort of way. “I'm in the makeup trailer this morning,” says Paul Rudd, her costar in 1998's The Object of My Affection, calling from a London set. “And all the women were talking about how much they love Jennifer Aniston. They don't know her! But they do love her.” What Rudd finds amazing is Aniston's grace in the face of her fans' surreal familiarity with her. “People have the nerve to walk up and ask the most personal questions. The biggest testament to Jen is that she doesn't make them feel stupid for asking. She graciously responds.”

While in Chicago, Aniston is accompanied by Cyril, a sexy French bodyguard who belongs in a Luc Besson film but in the meantime is here to shield her from the crazies. “It's nice to have someone run interference,” Aniston says. “Mostly to protect you from those evil paparazzi vultures—they charge you so that they can get this look of absolute horror—because you're being charged! Then they write some wonderful caption like, 'Jen, furious!' Whatever happened to, like, hiding in a bush?”

Ben Stiller, her costar in 2004's Along Came Polly, remembers being in Paris for the film's press junket. “With Jen, you can't go anywhere without 20 guys on motorcycles following,” he says. One day she cleverly rented a boat to take Stiller and friends up the Seine to a secret pier, “and these insane photographers are off their bikes, running to catch the boat, and are left screaming on the dock like something out of Les Misérables.”

The sound of a tiny bell comes from another room. “Do you hear Norm's jingle?” Aniston asks, cupping a hand to her ear. “Come here, Norman. Come say hello.” Her big Welsh corgi-terrier mix trots into the room, his eyes the same blue as his mistress's. Aniston gets on her knees and gives him a huge hug. She grabs some grapes from the cheese platter, accidentally dropping a few on the floor. Bending to pick them up she says, “I'd swear you'd think I was pregnant.” She gives her head a little shake. “I don't know why I said that. Maybe because my friend's pregnant and she knocks into things, drops things all the time.”

No babies for Aniston—whom Stiller calls “the great catch of all time”—yet. But she's not quite ready to be caught.

“I'm enjoying this little solitude, this not needing anything,” she says. “I don't know what's going to happen next. Isn't that exciting? I can't wait to go to my sexy little house”—in Malibu, not far from the spread now occupied by her “ex”—“and sit on the beach.”

So if she were to run into someone she'd truly loved before, would she be open to loving that person again? “I don't know. I've never had that happen,” she says, her face suddenly expressionless. But then her features soften. “Look,” she says, “if you still love the person, you'll know it when you meet him again. And if you don't—you don't. If you do, you do. It didn't happen to me though, not yet, where I loved somebody and I met them 10 years later and 'I still love you.'” She reaches down to scratch Norman under his chin. “Maybe I would go back and do things differently. But those opportunities will come now. In the future. What's ahead. I've learned you can't change somebody. You be what you want to attract to you. You try to live by example and then hopefully it will come to you. But oh, projects are exhausting.” Aren't all actors projects? Maybe she should date someone not in the business.…

“I'm not saying I don't like a little fixer-upper,” she adds quickly. “But it's gotta go both ways.”

Listen to the hum, the whir, the ding, the ringing; you can hear Aniston's mind at work as she stares out the window at Lake Michigan. “I think I think too much,” she says. “And then I think too much about thinking too much. I'm an overthinker. I think a lot.” She taps her head. “The committee. Sometimes I have to say, 'Okay, guys, chill out.'”

It's the burden of having “her extreme emotional intelligence,” Vaughn says. “People could abuse that. But she chooses to use her gifts to make people feel good. She chooses to be kind.” Which is, given her situation, really saying something. But then again, she did once consider becoming a therapist.

“I love the human mind, the human emotion, the human being,” Aniston says. “We're fascinating creatures. I love the shadow parts of ourselves and the good parts of ourselves. And only recently have I gotten to that place of learning to embrace all of them—no apologies.” She looks out the window again. “My friend and I the other day were like, 'We're gonna rename ourselves the F--kits!' You know, 'F--k it! Just live.'”

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Orlando Bloom; GQ Nov 05

Don't be fooled by his bohemian dress and freethinking ways (or by the fact that he's very, very good in a very unperiod new movie): Orlando Bloom is the Errol Flynn of our time.

Orlando Bloom sits chewing banana and peanut butter on toast, having his morning tea on what could be the patio of a modest little house anywhere in the world - watching his coal black mutt ramble around on the grass, chew twigs, and relieve himself. But little things everywhere hint that this is a partly fictional realm. Bloom is swathed in one of the long scarves he favors, covered in trinkets, and wearing combat - weight black boots, but because he has become so extraordinarily well-known for playing epic roles, the overall effect is of a man who is not quite modern but in modern dress. And this is no man's house but a lavish bungalow at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. It's not even one of the A-list bungalows down on the main level, where John Belushi breathed his last. This one is far more grand - seemingly floating above the hotel, insulated from the world by heavy gray wooden doors. It even has a private exit so that Bloom can come and go without fear of paparazzi.

The moment he speaks - despite outward appearances - it's clear that the only thing that isn't tinged with unreality is Bloom himself, who comes across as impossibly levelheaded. He is finishing his first role as a contemporary American man, a character in the fictional real world, in Cameron Crowe's new romantic comedy, Elizabethtown. "Being a Brit, I've spent most of my time here either in New York or L.A.," Bloom says, unselfconsciously smacking peanut butter as he speaks. "But during the Elizabethtown shoot, we were staying in the Brown Hotel, a classic, old-school place in Louisville. Going to Kentucky was a whole different side of America I never knew about. It was America. The hats, the suits - they're not letting go of their traditions. Which is great. I love traditions. I mean, cultural ones."

In contrast to his sensible demeanor, Bloom is abnormally good-looking. And it's often hard to bear in mind how young he is - how much work and fame he has gathered up in a scant four years. He is routinely on all the lists: People's Most Beautiful, the Internet's Most Downloaded, you name it. But some fairly grim experience has made him play against type in real life. Laconically staring out over the fronds and high hibiscus of the Chateau and eating unripe blueberries, he doesn't hint at being aware of his Old Hollywood appeal and he certainly doesn't come off as ethereal.

There's nothing otherworldly about the inside of the house, either. It's a mess, scattered with health food, research, and mementos, much of which is still in boxes, since Bloom has been living here a month during one of his downtimes with Kate Bosworth. In the bedroom is residue from old work: There's a DVD about the Crusades, ancient homework for Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. Bloom grins and admits that while it's ideal to read entire books, DVDs have the appeal of being condensed and visual. "Knowledge is power," he says "but having too much can actually get in the way. You simply want to know what world you're in, and immerse yourself." He's taken time to hang a Cool Hand Luke poster, since he reveres Paul Newman. The kitchen is an aftermath of some kind of organic-food explosion. Everywhere you turn, there are protein shakes, containers of carrot and mango juice, oranges, tomatoes, and Lord-knows-what made out of tofu. "I haven't gone back to being vegetarian," Bloom says, surveying the chaos. "I've gone back to the process of seeing what foods give me energy. When you're working and you're required to switch it on, you need to know what fuels you."

Even Sidi, the wild black dog, has a prized possession or two in the wilderness of boxes and CDs and photos. Cameron Crowe has awarded the pup with a small framed Elizabethtown poster and signed it, "Try to eat smaller portions."

Walking out the door, one sees the least artful object in the house: a sign, in fierce block lettering, that reads DO NOT LET THE DOG INSIDE! Sidi is explicitly banished from the house, given his taste for apocalypse. "When I'm not here, he really tears up the place," Bloom says, as the lone crease in his forehead deepens slightly. "He can be pretty devastating."

It was the same during the Elizabethtown shoots. Kirsten Dunst marveled at what a tearaway that dog could be, and says Orlando's trailer had to be "Sidi-proofed."

"They had to put a sheet of plastic on the floor!" she says, laughing. "That dog just doesn't care. And Orlando's way of unstressing between takes is to jump around like a 5-year-old or ride on a pint-size scooter, whereas I'm more self-critical. He was always playing with Sidi between takes, and Sidi is still in many ways a street dog." Then again, in many ways, so is Orlando.

Elizabethtown is vintage Cameron Crowe: dead center in the crosshatch between comedy and drama. It opens with Bloom's character experiencing a professional failure - more accurately, as his character narrates, a fiasco of staggering proportions. A shoe he has designed for an Oregon-based company (clearly modeled after Nike) is such a disaster that it's being recalled, losing the company $972 million, all of it Bloom's fault. To magnify Bloom's self-loathing, the head of the company (played to the hilt by Alec Baldwin) leads him on a daunting walk through the corporate complex, explaining the sheer magnitude of this disaster. At one point, the two gaze onto a vast, NASA-scale ecological laboratory; Baldwin's character pauses and ruefully observes, "We could have saved the planet." At another point, laughing out his grief, Baldwin remarks that he has read that Bloom's shoe "may actually cause an entire generation to return to bare feet."

Bloom's character responds by creating an elaborate suicide machine and is on the brink of using it when he learns that his father has died: He must travel to Kentucky to retrieve the body. So begins a chain of events that, as is so often untrue in Hollywood movies, is impossible to predict. Crowe doesn't deal in cinematic formulas. The film is strangely both intimate and sprawling, hitting a lot of giant themes - fathers and sons, life and death, hope and regret - through small, subtle encounters.

It's striking how easily Bloom fits into regular clothing and the twenty-first century after having spent most of his career in chain mail, on horseback, or shouting things like "The Ring must be destroyed!" No film actor in memory has been so furiously attached to the epic and fantasy genres as Orlando Bloom. After making his debut as a rent boy in a 1997 film about Oscar Wilde, he spent three years at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama - then, right out of the gate, landed the Legolas role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Since then, he has rarely been seen without a sword or an arrow in reach: in Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven; in Wolfgang Petersen's Troy; in the gritty Australian legend Ned Kelly; and, of course, in the still blossoming Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. (If he were a few years older, he'd have been in Braveheart. That's a guarantee.) The only exception was a very small role in Black Hawk Down, in which his character breaks his back - but Bloom was cast partly because in real life he actually has broken his back.

Liam Neeson, who starred as Bloom's father in the somewhat controversial Kingdom, is well attuned to the notion that an epic quality is not a card that every film actor has in his deck. "Some actors suit period costumes," Neeson says, "and others don't. I always think of Errol Flynn. He looked uncomfortable in a suit - but put him in a ridiculous pair of tights, and he looked to the manor born! John Wayne playing Genghis Khan was quite the other thing. Clint Eastwood in a kilt would look ludicrous. I don't know what it is. Orlando simply looks the part."

From their experience in Kingdom, Neeson and Bloom know that this particular talent can double as a curse, for Ridley Scott is an especially meticulous director. "Even our underwear was period," Neeson recalls, laughing. "It was the full bollocks, you know?"

And the epic quality is sufficiently rare that, once you've proved yourself in the genre, you are sought out again and again?another impulse well understood (and, for that matter, experienced) by Liam Neeson. "If I were Jack Warner, I'd get a team of writers, get 'em writing period pieces, and sign him," Neeson says. "Orlando is like a classic '40s movie star."

None of this is to say that Neeson confines himself to speaking of Bloom's costumes; he seems a little amazed by how sharply focused the man is, especially for a young actor. "When I was that age? Jesus!? it was the Dark Ages of my emotional growth," Neeson says. "I knew fuck-all about anythin'! Orlando is with it, but not in a hip way. He knows what it takes to make a film, so he treats every department equally: the key grip, the gaffer, everyone. He's right to. Without them, we're nothing."

The fact that Orlando Bloom is unusually grounded for a man of 28, sadly, has a lot to do with the actual ground. His career (and inextricably linked with that, his ability to take the long view) was entirely transformed by a potentially fatal fall he took in 1998. Late one night, messing around, he leapt onto a drainpipe while trying to get onto a roof terrace; the pipe gave way, and Bloom fell three stories, shattering his vertebrae. "Until then, I didn't have a healthy appreciation for life and death, that we're not invincible," he says. "And for four days, I faced the idea of living in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. I went to some dark places in my mind. I realized, I'm either going to walk again or I'm not.

"The doctor said he wasn't sure how severe the spinal-cord damage was," he says, as an oddly unattractive look of distaste, even horror, crosses his features. "I remember him telling me that, and staring at the ceiling, thinking, I never stared at ceilings before! And I wonder if I'm going to be looking at ceilings for the rest of my life.

"But there's something interesting," he adds very quickly. "I knew I wouldn't. I knew I wouldn't, I knew?" He repeats the sentence five times - quick like a stammer, as though he's still trying to convince himself against hope that this will not be his fate.

The upshot of the accident was nothing short of miraculous. He was in the hospital only a few weeks and walked out on his own power. And the minute he escaped, still constrained by a back brace, he reverted to testing the limits of body and soul. When the time came to remove the titanium pins from his spine, to the doctors' alarm, they were all fractured. They came out in shards. One of the pins had been driven too deep to remove, by dint of Orlando's physical overexertion. "I'd been doing stuff right away," he recalls, shaking his head. "I went straight back into it, man."

The calming of Orlando Bloom, in the paradoxical underage dotage he now conveys, wasn't instantaneous. "When I came out of the hospital, I started partying straight away - with the back brace on. It took me a couple of months to realize this was my life, and I didn't want to mess it up.

"But that accident has informed everything in my life," he says. "Until you're close to losing it, you don't realize. I used to ride motorbikes and drive cars like everything was a racetrack; it was ridiculous. It wasn't because I thought it was cool; it was just because I loved living on the edge. But I've chilled."

Cameron Crowe, too, sees all of this as key to Bloom's swift maturation as an actor. "That broken back - that's his Rosebud," Crowe says. "It's the key to him. He's got pain going on in there. That's why his silent mode is so interesting. Where other actors feel they have to constantly do something, Orlando doesn't. Which is great. He's a real guy with real stuff. Under that puppy-dog energy, there's darkness."

Perhaps it was Bloom's upbringing that made him capable of eventually slowing off of the racetrack. Growing up in Canterbury, and beyond that, the county Kent, exposes you to one of the world's cradles of sanity - a meadowed realm of constancy - even though some of its denizens look wild when viewed from afar.

"My generation in England was exposed to a huge antidrug campaign," Bloom recalls. "I was one of the kids in school saying, 'That shit's not good.' I've still gotten kicks; don't get me wrong."
At this point in the conversation, without a single word of transition, Bloom moves from the romance of drugs to the intoxication of women. "I remember asking my biology teacher, 'How is HIV and AIDS gonna come to an end?' " he says, still popping the sour blueberries. "And the guy said, 'When people stop having sex.' I replied, 'Dude, that's harsh. That ain't gonna happen anytime soon.' I had plenty of vices growing up. But when you're 21, you wake up and realize that your body is not something you want to fuck with."

To this end, Bloom has even surrendered caffeine, which, for many Englishmen, would be as bitter a defeat as Gallipoli or Yorktown. "I was doing night shoots for Elizabethtown," he says, "and drinking green tea, which has caffeine. Not an awful lot. Just enough to get me through the shoot. By the end of the night, my back was killing me. It dehydrates your spine. And my back?that's still my alarm. That's my canary in the mine shaft."

Bloom talks endlessly about how lucky he is; after seven years, the worst of his many reckless accidents hasn't faded from memory. "When you experience the sort of physical pain I went through, you realize you're not a god," he says "that there are limits to what you can do. It keeps you real. I mean, I can walk. I can enjoy a swim in the ocean and a beautiful day. And I was very close to not having that.

"I'm trying now to maintain a sense of balance. I was very extreme in my youth - everything in extremes, man! I'm at a very interesting time right now: a lot of change, growth - a lot of pennies dropping. I've a lot to be grateful for."

This is all odd talk from an actor who, since that accident and many others, has buckled so much swash in the movies. (To say nothing of the fact that, for The Lord of the Rings, he spent vast amounts of time in New Zealand, the adrenaline-sport capital of the world, resisting most of those temptations.) Yet when it comes to doing stunts, he doesn't hesitate. "I have one of those doctors who tell me, 'Go for it, man!' " he says. "Does he encourage me? No. But I've tried to put myself in a physical condition where I'm able to do that stuff."

"And, of course, for sex," I toss out, just to lighten things up.

"Yeah, all those mercy lays I got," he says, mock-wistfully. "Because I was the kid with the broken back!"

"Oh? you need mercy fucks," I repeat, nearly spitting up my tea. "That's the funniest thing I've heard in my life. You probably had to beg for it."

Bloom won't let go of the joke: "I was the kid with the broken back!"

By all evidence, Orlando Bloom has chilled. But the adrenaline chip in his brain is still switched on. He seems to have transferred its capacity from bone-breaking feats to potentially soul-crushing risks on a more emotional plane. "I like to feel alive, man," he says. "Part of it is danger, part of it is love. Although I'm trying not to have those two realms cross too much. I've had a few dangerous women. My cousin once told me, 'You're tall, you're handsome and you're gonna have to apologize for it the rest of your life.' He imparted that information to me."
"So - you're still looking for mercy fucks."

"That's right!" he says, clinging to modesty with both hands. "I still am. Exactly!"

If, as he claims, Bloom is a bit accident-prone, he is among the most graceful clods ever born. He moves slowly but always seems to be out ahead of you; he gestures rarely, but when he does, every joint of every finger seems to be underscoring a different, subtle part of his idea.
Despite all the old injuries (broken bones all over his body - here from a motorbike spill, there from something strange that happened with a rope), his athletic prowess is not lost on those with whom he's worked. Liam Neeson marveled at Bloom's fight scenes in Kingdom of Heaven. "Some actors are utterly lost if you put a sword in their hands," he says. "Orlando is all physical grace - and there's Errol Flynn again!"

Cameron Crowe, for his part, actually directed Bloom in the only television ad Crowe has ever shot, a quasi parody of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, shot in black and white, for Gap clothing. All we saw was Orlando Bloom and Kate Beckinsale running through shadowy streets. "He has this Hard Day's Night physicality," Crowe says. "Watching what we'd shot in the Gap commercial, there was Kate Beckinsale? who's hot!? and we couldn't stop looking at him. He's exploding with life."

The whole blend of modesty and the movie-star looks can only have contributed to Orlando Bloom's celebrity. In an average week, even with no film release in sight, he's in a hundred articles worldwide - the more so when anything kindles (or is stanched) with the dazzling Kate Bosworth.

That said, he's not entirely allergic to Hollywood tricks. For instance, when celebrities stay at hotels, as most people know, they check in under false names, like Fred Flintstone or Jay Gatsby. Billy Bob Thornton, for instance, sometimes uses the name of a certain writer. For her part, Kirsten Dunst uses a musical reference.

"I'm not exactly sure what name Orlando goes by," Dunst says, "but I bet it's something sexual. He's very flirty. And that's easy to understand. You should have seen them in Kentucky: Girls lined up holding signs with his name on them. He was very gracious."

Typically, Bloom regards most attention as a fleeting thing. And he's not interested in spending precious time on fleeting things. Especially tabloid attention.

"That stuff is not a part of my daily life," he says. "Most of it is bullshit. It even becomes hard to have a casual friendship, because suddenly you're 'linked to' that person. I guess there's got to be a cost. You can't live the spoils without having the flip side of that coin. So you learn to live with it."

Curiously, Bloom is so famous in costume that until recently he was able to blend in when he moved around in public. Cameron Crowe recalls that when the cast of Elizabethtown was shooting and living in Kentucky, girls were lining the streets just to catch a glimpse of Orly Bloom. (Though no one except the tabloids actually calls him Orly.)

"He was incredibly famous, but no one really knew what he looked like," Crowe says, still amazed. "In Lexington, there was a girls' national soccer championship team in the hotel. These girls were actually walking the halls - they were roaming in packs - looking for him. I heard them saying things like, 'He's on the seventh floor!' And he was standing right there. Right there. He just disappeared into the culture."

That air of mystery is attractive to film directors. Crowe recalls reading something Warren Beatty once said - that 75 percent of what people bring to a movie is their perception of the actor. "In that sense, it's great to have a fresh guy to put in the center of a movie," Crowe says. "We don't really know who he is. Orlando is a clean slate. Since Tom Cruise in Risky Business, very few guys that age have been able to do a comedy or drama and be that interesting to look at - and to really hold the center of a movie."

These days, Bloom's mother more than compensates for his aversion to his tabloid press. (And of course, when it comes to propriety and accuracy, British tabloids make their American cousins look like Huxley's Illustrated History of Gardening.) She clips it all, keeps track of his status as "the most downloaded human on earth," and shuffles through the bags of fan letters he receives. Bloom recoils. "I keep saying, 'Mom, I don't want to know,' " he says. "I don't want to see whether I'm on some chart. There will be a time when I won't be. That doesn't mean I'm not grateful. But I keep telling her, 'They keep building me up, so they're going to tear me down!'
"I keep getting asked what it's like to be a heartthrob," he adds, much amused by the unspoken joke: Tempus fugit. "There's that next kid, believe me, who's right there on my tail and if he's not right now, he's gonna be!"

Bloom is convincing when he says things like this: offhand remarks a modest person would say so as not to seem like a preening, self-absorbed ass in a magazine article. And when he says he has too much self-doubt to believe the hype, there's not a trace of posturing. A casting agent once told him that a little self-doubt will get you a long way: It makes you work harder, keeps you sharp. "If you think you can do it all," Bloom says, suddenly showing some heat, "you're just gonna sit back. Whereas I'm constantly working at it: doing more sword training for Pirates, getting coached on dialect to make sure it's as good as it can be for Elizabethtown. I'm always working, because the one time I don't, I guarantee, is when I'll end up saying 'D'oh!' "

He looks at his enormous wristwatch somewhat worriedly, for he actually has a dialect session in an hour or so, and more than once he has registered that it's a real concern for him. (It was also the sole doubt Cameron Crowe had in casting him, though that one doubt was quickly put to rest, Crowe says.)

"Look, I just want to stay normal," Bloom says, very normally. "That's the biggest challenge: being able to sit in a cafe nd watch the world go by."

Granted, wide is the road to temptation and at least until that next kid catches Orlando J. B. C. Bloom - his world is a sea of temptations. But he prides himself on learning lessons, even other people's life lessons. "My dad once told me that one of his dreams was coming to Los Angeles, getting a Mustang, and driving it down Sunset Boulevard," he says, beaming at the memory. "One day, it came true. And he got pulled over by the police. Know why they stopped him? Know why? He was driving too slowly! That's a great story for me. He was soaking up the environment and he got done! 'Sir, you got done!' "

In more than one sense, Bloom isn't finished. Even at the outset of his career, he's ever flickering with a Buddhist tendency here or there. He chokes at the fact that he's in an industry where it's a virtue to label its products (including actors). Yet he has no idea what his label should read. "I'm still trying to formulate the idea of who I am - and part of the problem of having these ideas and images projected on you is that it's hard enough really figuring that shit out!" Even in the Shangri-la confines of Bloom's temporary home, time does not stop, and the hour is running late. At a dialogue coach's office across town, there's a new identity to burnish: some "R" sounds to harden, a few "A" sounds to flatten out. Orlando Bloom shakes his head and eats one last bad blueberry. "There's only a story in success so far," he says, refusing to descend from the philosophical level before he flees the hotel out his private exit. "That's why Cameron made a movie about failure - about fiasco. Because we all meet in the dirt. That's where we meet."