Friday, March 24, 2006

Jennifer Anison; Vogue Apr 06

The Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel is just about as old as old Hollywood gets. Though it is still a place where power breakfasts are played out and celebrities meet their agents for lunch, it is also undeniably anachronistic and tourist-trappy, especially during the dinner hour. The pink-and-green color scheme, the perfumed ladies with facelifts and set hair, the meticulously elaborate settings of crystal and silver—it all screams bygone era. It is not hard to imagine that Debbie Reynolds came to this very room to nurse her wounds while projecting chin-up determination after that minx Elizabeth Taylor stole Eddie Fisher away. So I am not a little perplexed when Jennifer Aniston decides that this is where we are to meet one Thursday afternoon for lunch in early February.

When I arrive at the maître'd station at the appointed time and announce that I'm here to see Aniston, I am whisked away to table 46—the table—a large, round corner booth all the way in the farthest corner of the room. So this is J.A.'s secret hideout. Ingenious! Who would ever think to look for her here? Still, I am puzzled. It is a beautiful, sunny day, and sitting in the dark swank of a hotel bar is not exactly Aniston's style. The first time I met her, in May 2002, she showed up in cutoffs and a tank top, flip-flops, and toe rings. Despite the lurky presence of paparazzi, we window-shopped on Beverly and ate pizza at some random little Italian joint. The next time we met, in the fall of 2003, we sat out on the patio of Il Sole, a supercasual hipster spot on Sunset, smoking cigarettes and drinking too much wine while, again, photographers lay in wait for her. Has the woman who famously loves cheap Mexican food and margaritas grown up and gone fancy? Or perhaps she's taken her new role as divorcée a step too far. I half expect her to make an entrance in a fur coat and Laura Biagiotti sunglasses.

Just then, I see Aniston breeze past the window as she is being led through a ripple of whispers and head-turns to a table… outside. She's wearing tight, low-cut jeans, black boots, and a long black sweater over a dark-green T-shirt. I gather my things and head out to look for her, and as I'm walking across the patio toward her table she lights up with a big smile and waves. Phew. Despite the fact that she is just getting over a four-week-long bout with the flu, she looks fantastic—tanned and fit and youthful—and is in an ebullient, expansive mood. I, too, am in an inexplicably good mood, and she notices it right away. "Why are you so chipper?" she says with mock suspicion. "How long has this mood lasted, and what are you taking?" She laughs. "I'm teasing." She orders an iced tea-lemonade concoction. "I am in a good mood today," she says, "but I have not been in a good mood lately." It is right here, at this comment, that we begin our little dance, talking in ever-smaller circles around the elephant in the room. Not once during our two-and-a-half-hour lunch are Their names ever mentioned. Which is not to say that we don't, in some strange way, talk about Them. Or that thing that happened to all three of them last year.

Aniston is resolute about not getting specific. She will not give those weekly gossip rags another sound bite or plot line in the never-ending saga that plays out like some kind of tacky telenovela, week in and week out, on their covers. Not a single scrap will go to the vultures! I mention to Aniston that my mother happened to call me on my cell phone just before I came to meet her and asked what I was doing in L.A. I'm interviewing Jennifer Aniston, I said. "Oh, that poor girl," she said, and then, regretting having said that: "It's just awful to be the person that everyone is feeling sorry for." When I tell Aniston this, she shoots me a withering look. "I agree with your mother," she says. "There's nothing worse. I hate it. It makes my skin crawl." Here she slips into the simpering tone of fake sympathy. "How's Jen doing? Please! Don't feel sorry for me. Don't make me your victim. I don't want it. I'm so tired of being part of this sick, twisted Bermuda Triangle. As long as it's scandalous, it's a story. And that's kind of what it's been. It's just stupid. It's ridiculous. There's nothing to do about it. All I can do is go on and live my life. But like I've said before, these are human beings. And it's not a show and it's not an article and it's not a headline. It's real and it sucks."

One of the things that have troubled Aniston most about this whole episode is that it has robbed her of her ability to just be herself. The quality she projects on the screen and in real life that has always mitigated the envy that her previous, seemingly perfect life—complete with wealth, fame, great hair, and the sexiest husband alive—inspired is her ability to remain, relatively speaking, just a regular gal. Despite the intense, bizarre amount of attention that has been focused on her over the years, she has always remained pretty much the same: plucky, frank, a little neurotic, and very, very funny. Largely because Friends ran for ten long years, millions of people projected all manner of desire and wish fulfillment onto her. She is pretty and sexy—but not scary or mean. Good company.

Though the media have always taken a particular interest in Aniston, her somewhat tortured relationship to the paparazzi really began as she and Brad Pitt were planning their wedding in the early part of 2000. Because she was one-half of the so-called Hollywood golden couple, any picture of her or, better yet, the two of them doing something couple-y seemed to hold endless fascination for the public. By the time Friends was nearing its end, just as Aniston and Pitt had moved into what amounted to a castle, a French Normandy mansion in Beverly Hills, the media interest in her was stoked again when the couple began to talk publicly of wanting to start a family. There was constant speculation about whether Aniston was pregnant, even as she was embarking on a movie career that promised to breathe new life into the romantic comedy. Again, any photographic proof of her existence, no matter how mundane, held strange value.

But as soon as the rumors started piling up in late 2004 about Brad and Angelina having an affair during the filming of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the media's and the public's interest in Aniston morphed into something entirely different, and ultimately suffocating for Aniston. By the time she and Pitt announced their separation in January 2005 and then filed for divorce two months later, the die was cast: Aniston would be forced to play the part of wronged woman, the heartbroken girl crying in her Malibu hideaway, as Brad and Angelina flew around the world to troubled hot spots, saving the children or respectfully listening to world leaders. When Aniston famously said last August that "there's a sensitivity chip that's missing" after a 60-page spread of Brad and Angelina ran in W depicting them as a married couple with a brood of children, it only served to ratchet up the public sympathy for her as the most humiliated woman in America.

Only once before in my 20 years as a magazine journalist have I ever received so many phone calls about the breakup of a famous couple: Donald and Ivana Trump. I had written a lengthy profile of Ivana for Spy magazine, and when her marriage hit the skids because Donald was caught cheating with Marla Maples, my phone rang off the hook. It was as if every television producer of every crappy TV show had that copy of Spy tucked in a desk drawer. When the news broke, they all needed someone to fill up airtime, and I was just young and stupid enough to think it was a good idea to go on TV and pontificate about the couple's demise.

When Aniston and Pitt split up, a very similar thing happened. This time, I couldn't get off the phone fast enough. But something else peculiar happened in this instance, something that did not with Donald and Ivana. Nearly all of my friends, family members, people at parties, everywhere I went, everybody wanted to talk to me about Jennifer and Brad and Angelina. Otherwise thoughtful, intelligent people, folks who would never normally gossip about celebrities, had all suddenly turned into Jann Carl from Entertainment Tonight.

Not surprisingly, Aniston is nonplussed when I bring this up. But in her attempt to figure it out, she does not exempt herself from her indictment of the American public. "This is what I think the problem is: We have such an obsession with reality TV. That's the majority of television. What happened to a great half-hour sitcom? It's all Dancing with the Stars! Knitting with the Stars! Building a Home with the Stars! Living in the Homes of the Stars! And then ripping people to shreds. Humiliation. Degradation. What is going on? It's so much instant gratification, and we want it real. It's bizarre. I don't watch TV anymore. Nothing. I have no interest in that Idol shit." She takes a deep breath and then acknowledges that her personal life has become just one more distracting reality show. "Unfortunately," she says, "the world is in such a state with this war and everything else, and it's easier to go and look at the triteness of a celebrity breakup. It's like, Ahhh, relief. It's an escape, like a daytime soap opera."

One of the unintended effects of all the media scrutiny—and Aniston's heart-wrenching interview in Vanity Fair, about which she says she has no regrets—was that it made Aniston seem as if she were wallowing in self-pity. Meanwhile, Brad and Angelina began to seem faintly ridiculous as photographs were published of the couple sitting on a couch with Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan. This aspect of the whole sordid affair comes up accidentally at one point during our lunch. Just as Aniston is telling me that she was a little worried about doing this interview because "there's nothing left to talk about and I'm sick of everything about myself," an older woman approaches our table. She has a Zsa Zsa Gabor accent. "Excuse me, Jennifer?" she says while walking toward us, still several feet from the table.

"Hiii," Aniston says, sounding both friendly and suspicious. The woman explains that the two were "supposed to meet" regarding Aniston's becoming the chairperson of an organization to do with abused and fostered children. "Your PR people were going to set up a meeting because they said you were interested in being the spokesperson or something."

"Oh?" says Aniston.

"You don't know anything about it," says the woman.

"No," says Aniston. "I'm mortified. That's terrible."

"Oh, it's OK," says the woman, and then she goes on to detail the work they do around the world, including one particular event held in Israel that brought together 5,000 Palestinian children and 5,000 Israeli children. "After that was in the newspaper," she says, "your PR people called and said you were interested. And then nobody ever followed up."

"Oh, great," says Aniston, who at this point clearly does not believe this story. The woman presses a card into Aniston's hand and says, "All right, well, thank you very much. Nice to meet you." As soon as the woman is out of earshot, Aniston turns to me and sends the entire awkward moment up:

"Well. You said you wanted to save the dying children?"

"Mmmm. No. I don't recall that."

"Yeah. They said so. They called and said you were interested and then you just decided never to call again. But the children are dead now, so it's OK. The window has passed. But it's good to meet you in person!"

Laughing, she puts her head in her hands and says, "Oh, God. It's just too much." She pauses for a moment, still shaking her head in amazement. When we finally stop laughing, I ask her how she feels about being asked to do those sorts of things.

"You know there's stuff I've done in my career.…" She trails off and then says, "This is such a delicate subject." Here, for the first time in any conversation we've had, she starts to say something that sounds canned, a bit rehearsed. "I think it's an amazing thing for people to do, and we as actors have the platform to go out there and bring awareness and bring people together and make things happen. It's one of the great perks of what we do." Long pause as she realizes she's beginning to wade into Brad-and-Angelina territory. "And everybody participates in their own way, whether it's political or economic. I think we all do our part. I'm more … I like to be … I get really nervous about public anything when it's making a declaration. I should probably become more opinionated about certain things. But you know, I just don't like … I see a lot of.… See, this is where I don't want to get too into this, because, you know, I want to be very delicate about … actors going out there and … being … politicians. Or representatives of this or that. Which I find.… It's just not my thing. It's not what interests me. I commend anybody who goes out there and does it. And when the moment happens and it's authentic for me, I'm sure I will."

Before meeting me for lunch today, Aniston went to a yoga class with her friend Mandy Ingber. "After feeling sick and not really doing anything," she says, "going back into yoga, your muscles come back and you feel strong. Inner strength. I love it." She started doing yoga religiously in the past year or so because "it came out of a time of necessity, and it was very healing." After her yoga class, two women came to her house to give her an acupuncture treatment, also to aid in her recovery from the flu.

Aniston is not immune to what many think of as the flaky-spiritual aspect of life in California. For example, at one point she says to me, "They say there's certain times of the night or the morning when you're more open to receiving information—if there is information to be received—if you're one of those New Agers who believe that stuff, which I've been known to do. I love that stuff."

It is a bit of a contradiction because Aniston doesn't need the crutch of New Age foolishness. She is actually very smart and articulate about herself and her emotional life, perhaps in part because she saw the same shrink for many years. When I ask about her therapist, she says, "My shrink died." At first I think she's kidding, but then I quickly realize she's not. How terrible, I say. "Yeah, she actually died a year ago this past December." As I do the math, it slowly dawns on me that her therapist died the month before she and Pitt separated. "And here's the thing," she says. "I will cherish this woman forever. It was very sad because I thought she was a very smart, wise woman and unbelievably helpful to me. So it was devastating." But then she starts to laugh. "When your shrink dies, you just go, 'Really? Is this some kind of cosmic joke?' I will never forget that moment. I was like, 'Wow. Well. OK. Let's put your money where your mouth is and walk through this.' Because that December, I knew that everything was sort of … coming. And then I was like, 'Oh, right. You did retain it. It does work.' And you do build strength if you're really committed to the work." She pauses for a moment and then says, "Is it weird to say that my shrink died? One part of me is thinking that that's something I should keep to myself. But another part of me thinks it is, in an odd way, funny." She starts to laugh again. "Just as I arrived at the threshold of this grand door. So, are you in therapy? No, she died. It's very funny. I mean, this is the thing: Isn't it all funny? Thank God we can have a sense of humor. Good God!"

Though Aniston said at the beginning of our lunch that she did not want to talk too much about her personal life, it is obvious that she just can't help herself. She is so exquisitely calibrated for emotional openness that it would be a near impossibility for her to keep a lid on it. When I ask her point-blank about how she is doing re: the breakup, she says, "Here's the one thing I can say without divulging anything or going into the boring headlines of 2005: Ain't nothing broke! Life goes on. There's nothing to see here, folks. Just move along. The beauty of human resilience is that you do bounce back. And comparatively speaking to what people walk through, this is nothing. I haven't lost my home to some freak natural disaster. My son or my daughter is not in another country getting bombed. People just need to redirect their focus. It's like a little dark cloud that I'm just waiting to get out from under." Her leg is pumping up and down, shaking the banquette we're sitting on. "What more does one person have to do or say?"

She takes a deep breath and leans back. "But it's also a positive thing. There are really powerful things that happen out of this sort of loss. That's the stuff that life is made of. If you don't have appreciation for it—if you haven't sat in the dark depths of sadness and pain—you can't appreciate feeling good. It's like when you're really sick and all of a sudden you have that day when you wake up and finally feel great. You're like a kid in candy store. I can't believe how great I feel! At the end of the day, it's just yourself, your own work, your own resilience, and your faith in yourself. I really believe that everything is meant to be. You can't ask, 'Why is this happening to me?' It's happening to you! Life's tough. Get a helmet."

Unfortunately for Aniston, her personal life has, at least for now, eclipsed her films. There's a perception out there that her movie career is somehow in trouble, when in fact she has made one terrible film (Rumor Has It) and one not-so-great but, I think, underrated thriller (Derailed). There's not a single actor working in Hollywood today who hasn't made a couple of non-starters nearly back-to-back (can you say The Stepford Wives followed by Bewitched?). When I ask her how she's feeling about her film career these days, she says, without any defensiveness, "I feel like I'm doing OK. I'm happy with where it is. Derailed didn't shine. It kind of … derailed. Thrillers are tough. I'm glad I did it, but I don't need to do those kinds of movies. It's kind of like caviar. I don't need to have it again."

When I bring up Rumor Has It, she looks at me with an exaggerated pained expression and says, "Oh, we don't need to talk about that, do we? The worst experience of my life. The worst experience, the worst film. It sounded like a great idea, an interesting backdrop for a romantic comedy. But it was never fleshed out, never fully realized. And for me, personally, I was going through a horrible time. I wasn't at my best as an actor. I was unmotivated by it." She pauses for a second. "Oh, why talk about it? We can let that little train go by."

Fortunately for Aniston, she was a busy girl last year and made two more films that have the potential to wipe the slate clean. First there is Friends with Money, a talky little movie directed by Nicole Holofcener that opened the Sundance Film Festival. The film, which debuts in theaters on April 7, stars a great cast of women—Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener, and, of course, Aniston—and is essentially about the marriages, love lives, and money issues of a circle of friends who live in Los Angeles as they reach middle age and deal with their own mortality.

Aniston plays a character who has quit her job as a teacher to become a cleaning lady. She is perpetually broke, a depressed pothead, and the only person in the story who is not in a relationship. Though her character here is not as finely drawn, there are echoes of her brilliant performance in The Good Girl, in which she played another depressed loser. Aniston, who is not afraid to strip away her comic shtick and cuteness, seems to have a special talent for playing forlorn women. In Friends with Money, all of the other characters are either upper-middle-class or just plain rich. "I think she related to her in some ways," says Holofcener. "I imagine that she has friends like the character that she plays. Jennifer is so wealthy. What friend could ever have as much money as she has, and what's that like? It must be really hard. And of course she knows what it's like to be depressed, even if her personality is generally cheerful."

The shoot, which lasted only three weeks, started just a few days after Aniston and Pitt announced their separation last January. As Aniston says, "This was not a vanity piece by any means. And it was a bizarre time when the vultures were descending. The paparazzi were getting pictures that were less than flattering to support the miserable person that they wanted to paint me as at the time." Holofcener remembers one day when they were filming at the Farmer's Market when Aniston "had to blow her nose or something and the makeup woman said, 'Here's a tissue,' and she said, 'No, if I hold a tissue they're going to take a picture of me and print that I'm crying.' And she wasn't crying. She was fine. She was completely composed and professional and seemed OK. She might not have been a barrel of monkeys because of what was happening, but she still had a really good vibe." Says Aniston, "It was great. A great group of women. I've never worked with all women. It was like camp. Actor camp. I felt very supported."

Later this year, in June, Aniston's other film, The Break-Up, comes out. It is likely to be a much bigger movie than any of her previous three, partly because it returns her to comic form but also because there is the curiosity factor of watching the chemistry between her and Vince Vaughn, her costar and the man she started dating not long after the film finished shooting. Interestingly enough, the movie was Vaughn's idea, and he spent the better part of a year working on the script with two writers. Aniston, whom Vaughn had in mind all along, signed on to The Break-Up last February, just after she and Pitt… broke up.

The director, Peyton Reed (Bring It On, Down with Love), describes the film as "a comedy that we tried really hard to ground in reality, so that a lot of the arguments this couple has as they are breaking up are very real. Working opposite Vince, Jen gets to flex her comedic muscles, which are formidable, but she also gets to do a lot of dramatic work in the movie. She just knocked it out of the park."

During filming in Chicago last summer, Aniston's personal-life drama had reached a crescendo. "Had I not gone to the newsstand and seen the tabloids," says Reed, "I would never have known something of that magnitude was going on. She was able to come to work and dig in and just make it a joy every day. Only Jen can speak about her process, but her performance in the movie, when it hits those notes of the pain at the end of a relationship, has an immediacy that I was just blown away by."

Aniston is genuinely thrilled with how the film turned out. "I love this movie," she says. "I have a good feeling about it. It's beautifully balanced and surprisingly emotional. I don't think anyone has really seen anything quite like it." When I ask Aniston about Vaughn, she says, "He's very funny. He's brilliantly funny. He's hilarious. He's unbelievably ferociously talented and has a work ethic that is inspiring. It was pure fun." I had been told by more than one person that the two have amazing comic chemistry together, and Aniston agrees. "It's great when you can have that thing where you can have a good volley with someone." When I push her a little further to talk about their relationship, she demurs. "He's a good friend," she says, with a big smile. "First and foremost he's a really good, loyal friend. Fiercely loyal."

When I first met Aniston, she and Pitt were living together in a little house way up at the top of one of the Hollywood hills. It was a house that she bought years earlier, when she got that first big Friends paycheck. I met her there one beautiful afternoon in May four years ago, and she was very obviously proud of the home and its contents—her things, her taste. At the time, she gamely showed me a framed black-and-white shot from her wedding day, which she referred to as their "Mrs. Robinson photograph" because it evoked the movie poster from The Graduate. As she gave me the tour, we went outside to look at the view from her small, grassy backyard and said, "It's teeny, teeny, tiny, but it's my favorite place in the world, up here. When the sun is setting, I have five little bunny rabbits that sit out on the lawn, and there are quail and hummingbirds. It's a really special spot." When I interviewed her again a year and a half later, the couple had moved into their mansion in Beverly Hills, and Aniston was pained about the idea of having to sell her beloved bungalow.

Just before we meet up at the Beverly Hills Hotel, I read somewhere that she and Vaughn were now living together—in a little house in the Hollywood Hills. At one point during our lunch I ask, Did you never sell that house?

"Where we met?" she says.

Yes, I say.

"No, I'm living there now," she says. "I never sold it. I couldn't let it go."

You must be glad now, I say.

"Yeah!" she says, laughing. "Phew! Thank God for the sweet little things."

How are the bunny rabbits? I ask.

"Those fucking rabbits," she says, laughing but not kidding. "They were cute at first. Look at the bunnies! And now there are 500 of them and you walk onto the grass and it's just crunch, crunch, crunch. There's rabbit shit everywhere. Those bunnies are the bane of my existence. I don't know what they do, how they have the strength to gnaw through the wire we put up to cover the holes. It was like a National Geographic out there: the quail, the bunnies, my dog, Norman, killing all the birds."

When I ask Aniston what her plans for the future are, she answers me in a way that makes me realize she cannot think too far ahead. "I'm going on a ski trip with some friends in a couple of weeks. And then I'm going to do a little traveling, not sure where. Then I come back and I start promoting Friends with Money and The Break-Up. And then hopefully I will have a greater idea of what I want to do work-wise."

When I push her to talk about her bigger future she says flatly, "I'm not going to talk about grand dreams, because those are mine, and if I don't fulfill them then I'll be really disappointed that I didn't and that I stood on a soapbox and was like, I'm going to direct! And I'm going to produce! That's why I don't make New Year's resolutions. I have a lot that I want to do, though." She pauses and then levels me with a look. "I do more than shop." More seriously, she says, "I have to find a house. I have to find a home. I'm really looking forward to whatever that is. If I'm not settled, if I don't have my home base, I can't ground myself. It's a good springboard, having a solid home. It's one of my most important things—more important even than doing another movie is creating my home. Whatever that means. Whether it's my family, my friends. Home."

Aniston has recently been making noises about the fact that she might have to get the hell out of Dodge—leave L.A.—if she is ever to rise above the circus that her life has become. "There is no Raid that has been invented to get rid of the paparazzi," she says. "But I think it's going to hit a peak and then it will start to equalize. It just has to. Isn't that sort of the laws of something? Physics? What goes up must come down?" But even as she says this, she knows that it might be wise for her to move away for a while. "I want to get out of here because I walk around and I feel like I should just have the word chum written on my shirt. There's something weird about the energy of this town. Don't you just feel a little film of some kind that coats everything?"

Where would you go, I say?

"I don't know," she says and then grows quiet. "I don't know. But it also makes sense for me to leave. I can. I don't have a day job. I don't have Friends to go to. So I could live outside Los Angeles and fly in for work. That's the freedom of what we do. It's kind of exciting. There's a menu of options."

As our lunch comes to an end, our waitress, whom Aniston knows from coming here and whom she seems to delight in, comes by to tell us that someone paid for our meal. Some two-bit talk-show host whom Aniston was interviewed by once years ago on a press junket. "Is he still here?" says Aniston. No, says the waitress, he left about a half-hour ago. "How odd," says Aniston. "It's very odd. I don't know how to take that. I don't know what to do with something like that. I don't know him."

Maybe you do need to leave L.A., I say.

"When you have virtual strangers buying your lunch," she says, "yes, I think it's time."