Jennifer Aniston: Cherry Poppin' Mama

Life's never been better as she turns 30 with a little help with her friends and new love Brad Pitt

Jennifer Aniston during the 'Meet Joe Black' premiere at the Zeigfeld Theatre in New York City November 2nd, 1998. Credit: Diane Freed/Getty

When I drive through the front gates of her house, high in the Hollywood Hills, Jennifer Aniston is already standing on her porch, smiling. And with good reason. Having reached thirty on February 11th, Aniston is in full sail. She's the star of America's most popular sitcom — Friends, in its fifth season, is drawing better ratings and reviews than it did when it debuted. She's in love with Brad Pitt, America's Number Seven favorite star of all time, according to a Harris poll. Her film career is flourishing — catch her this month in Office Space, the live-action directing debut of hip TV animator Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-head, King of the Hill). And as the photos on these pages attest, she's never been in better shape. "I got over my laziness," she says. "I got off my butt, off my couch and fell in love with being physical." She could be the poster girl for the right way to turn thirty.

Aniston, wearing no makeup, is dressed in Levi's 501s and a tomato-colored T-shirt. But there's no hiding her spectacular figure. She may have a mind for comedy, but she's also got a bod for sin. "Jennifer is the girl next door — or the girl you'd like to have next door," says Laurence Mark, who produced her last film, The Object of My Affection. "And she's a better actress than her TV work lets you see." Aniston's extra radiance these days has been credited to Pitt, 35. Their friendship blossomed into something stronger last spring, when Aniston started dating the star. The buzz had them sneaking off to get married, everywhere from the slopes of Aspen to the Chapel of the Quick I Dos, in Vegas. The truth is: They aren't married — not yet. In the words of Jennifer's actor-father, John Aniston, "I haven't received a wedding invitation." He adds, "Brad is a very nice young man, and whatever makes Jennifer happy makes me happy." But is Brad Pitt worthy of his daughter? "Of course not," he says, laughing.

Aniston's dad starred for twelve years as the villainous Victor Kiriakis on the daytime soap Days of Our Lives, but a soap is just what Aniston doesn't want to see her life become. Highly publicized breakups — Aniston with Tate Donovan and Pitt with Gwyneth Paltrow — have made the couple wary of media glare. Aniston and Pitt even make separate entrances at rock concerts (Hole at the Viper Room, in Los Angeles) and parties (an engagement fete for Friends co-star Matt LeBlanc) to avoid being photographed together and sparking more wedding talk.

Others close to Aniston, whose parents divorced when she was nine years old, insist that she won't rush into her first marriage — and that when she does walk down the aisle, it will be in a Vera Wang gown, surrounded by family and a cast of — what else? — friends. Friend Lisa Kudrow, whose infant son Aniston dotes on, says Pitt has changed Aniston. "Jennifer's a lot more peaceful now, like a woman who's in a good relationship," says Kudrow. "There's not a lot to say about them because there's no problems. They're both light-years ahead of themselves. You know how your grandparents have a certain perspective about life? They've got that now."

At this moment, Aniston is proudly showing off her antiques-filled house, with its walls of windows that afford a sweeping view of Los Angeles. She rummages through a kitchen drawer, producing before-and-after pictures of the stark Fifties-era home she has so deftly transformed. In her office, sitting next to her computer in a silver frame, is a photo of Pitt in silhouette. The only other visual confirmation of their relationship sits on a large gate door that Aniston has turned into a glass-topped coffee table. There, amid a cluster of family photographs — the knowing face of her Greek grandmother, the loving gaze of her brunet mother, her handsome father holding baby Jennifer — is a more contemporary shot. It's a relaxed Pitt sitting on the patio, laughing at an unidentifiable dark-haired man who seems to have leapt up and surprised him.

Aniston laughs a lot, too. Beneath that mop of the decade's most famous hair is a woman of mind and heart and staying power. Still, it's clear that Aniston approaches this conversation with the caution of an actress who has endured five years of scrutiny on everything from her follicles to her sex life. Finally, her smile ready, her cigarettes close at hand, Aniston perches, one leg tucked under her, on a sofa cushion, ready to talk about her life.

Are you feeling any qualms or misgivings about your thirtieth birthday?
I'm excited to be thirty. It feels like an accomplishment, for some reason. I don't know, like, no more excuses [laughs].

Frankly, life keeps getting better for a woman, if she's laid good groundwork, which you clearly have successful career, good friends, a little romance.
I have, I guess. Thank you.

Especially when you consider that, technically, you're first-generation American. Your father was born in Crete and was brought to America when he was ten by his parents, who opened a diner in Eddytown, Pennsylvania. Do you still have family there?
My grandmother lived there in the same house until she passed away at ninety-four. She was the godmother, the center of the family, amazingly strong. She had the most beautiful skin, softest thing you ever felt, which I always attribute to her rubbing olive oil on it. Greek mothers really take care of their men, and my father was her only son. I probably shouldn't say this, but they say, "Never marry a Greek man, because he'll always expect you to wait on him" [laughs].

Was your father close to his mother?
Yes. He could do no wrong in her eyes.

Your father is also an actor, mainly soap operas. You were born in Los Angeles, where, I gather, he was working.
At that point, my father was struggling, doing things like being a door-to-door salesman while my mom modeled and did some acting. Finally, he decided to forget acting and go to medical school; but he was too old to get into universities here, so we moved to Greece for a year when I was five. One day his agent called and said, "There's an audition you have to come back for." So he did and got a job on Love of Life. From there he went to Search for Tomorrow and then Days. Anyway, we all moved to New York in 1976. My brother — who's nine years older than me — wanted to be in sunny California, so he moved to L.A. when he was eighteen.

Describe your father for me.
Tall, six feet two inches; a gentle giant, really. One of the nicest men you'll ever meet. Unbelievably shy and funny. One thing I remember about my parents, when they were together, is how fun they were.

And your mother, Nancy, what's her background?
She's from upstate New York, family of five sisters. My mom's mother left the family when my mother was about twelve, which was an odd thing at that time.

What a blow that must have been.
She doesn't talk about it a lot. The family then moved to California, where my mom got a job at Universal, signing Rock Hudson's autograph [laughs]. My mom is gorgeous, a pretty thing, so men hired her. She was on The Red Skelton Show and had a part on The Beverly Hillbillies. But she didn't think she was a good actress and quit. What she wanted was to have a family.

What's your mother like?
My mom is very warm, loving, nurturing, wise. Funny and old-fashioned. She expects respect: "I'm the mother, I'm the elder." It's good she's got her rules, but you also want to go, "Mom, lighten up, just hang out."

Were you close?
We had a really good relationship. I wasn't the easiest kid. I was a smartass [laughs]. I'm sure there was a lot of strain on her, since it was just she and I. Your parents' marriage broke up when you were nine.

Were you surprised?
Oh, I was shocked.

How did you find out?
My mom told me. I went to a birthday party, and when I came back, she said, "Your father's not going to be around here for a little while." She didn't say he was gone forever. I don't know if I blocked it, but I just remember sitting there, crying, not understanding that he was gone. I don't know what I did later that night or the next day. I don't remember anything other than it being odd that all of a sudden my father wasn't there. And he was gone for a while.

How long?
About a year.

You never heard from him once during that period?
No. And it was your father who left the marriage? Oh, yeah. He left her. There was another woman. That was in November of 1979. Then, in the summer of 1980, there was the other conversation that my mom and I had in the car, which was, "Your father's with someone else; he's not coming back."

How long after that did you finally see your dad again?
About a year. He just called one day and said, "Let's go see The Fantastickes." So we had a little dinner and saw the show. After that, I started seeing him on weekends, and this new way of life just unfolded.

Were you angry or trying to please him so he wouldn't leave again?
Pleasing, pleasing, pleasing, everything to please.

Did you eventually ask him why he left?
Sure I did.

Does he explain it well?
He does. Though not at first. Like I said, he's not a good communicator. Maybe if my parents had talked more. There were signs, but also, knowing my father, he probably didn't say anything. But, as best he could, my dad explained and apologized, and it's enough. We've made up. There's still parts that are hard for me, but I'm an adult. I can't blame my parents anymore.

What has been the most painful time of your life?
When my dad left. That was very painful.

Did your father eventually marry this woman?
Yes. They're still married.

And your mother? Did she remarry?
No. I don't know why. It's a question I always ask her. And what does she say? "I don't like any of them." She's too picky, too fickle.

That's a tough situation for an only child, which you were since your brother was living in California. In a sense you had to be both daughter and husband to your mom.
Yeah. The only resentment I have — and I'm letting go of this one, too — is that I felt, well . . . it's a big responsibility to think you're responsible for your parent's happiness. And, lots of times, I felt like a middleman taking care of two children.

What did your mother teach you about mothering?
Love, love, love. Support. Love, love, love.

And your dad, about fatherhood?
He wasn't around to do that. Maybe [laughs] — don't marry a Greek man, and just stick around. That'll do it.

Was your mom ever bitter?
She definitely had moments of bitterness, because she had nowhere to go. And that's hard to watch. I feel like, "God, Mom, you were robbed of so much opportunity. If you could've had a voice in your ear saying, 'Do what you want to do.' " But my mom liked the security of a traditional marriage, didn't mind being the wife with the husband bringing home the bacon.

Your brother wasn't as affected by the breakup?
No. He felt badly that I was left with the situation while he had the freedom to live his adult life. But he's got his own bag of issues. You can have a crappy childhood and grow up to let it completely overwhelm you, or you can choose to be a fighter and say, "I'm not going to let that happen."

Which is what you did.
Which is what I did.

Did your father financially support you and your mom?
Yeah.

But money was an issue?
Definitely. When you go to dinner, you order just what you need and, "Yes, water will be fine." We saw theater, but I wasn't allowed to watch TV or see a lot of movies. Since we didn't have a lot of cash, it was more, "Here's some dolls and crayons to play with."

How did you feel about money in general?
I couldn't wait to finally go out and make my own. The idea of never relying on someone else always thrilled me. That way, what's going on between two people is strictly what each is bringing to the other: love, whatever. When you hear people say, "I can't leave because of money," I mean, dear God. I don't want any relationship to be about money. It's too corrupt.

Where did you and your mother live?
We lived on Ninety-second Street and Columbus Avenue, which at the time was pretty seedy. But for me it was amazing [laughs]. We were on the twenty-first floor with a balcony — you could see the Empire State Building. It was in, like, a project, but it was beautiful. [Laughs] I wouldn't change anything. As much as I curse my parents at times, I also thank them for all of it.

In New York, you attended the progressive Rudolf Steiner School. Were you a good student?
I was rowdy, spent a lot of time in the principal's office. Actually, I have regrets about my education. I cut off my nose to spite my face, because I was trying to get attention. I didn't take in as much as I could have.

Later, you went to the High School for the Performing Arts, the one celebrated in the movie Fame.
I'd seen Fame I don't know how many times. I got the idea that I could go to a school for acting and get started. My dad was against it, but my mom was great in encouraging me: "Keep going, keep going." The school was a lot of fun. I couldn't wait to put on my tights and go in there. Any teacher there will tell you that I was the worst. But I didn't care. I didn't get the parts in big plays, but I definitely enjoyed myself. One time a teacher sat me down after endless takes of this scene and said, "You have a talent for comedy."

I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "You're funny, so you've got to be careful. Don't let it be an escape, an easy place to go to avoid going deep." And he was right. Of course, I said, "Don't worry. I'm not a comedienne. I'm a serious sixteen-year-old actress" [laughs].

Did you always want to act?
Yes. In retrospect, maybe, it was all I thought I could do. Maybe, because of my childhood, I was escaping, wanted to be a clown, be happy.

After graduating from the High School for the Performing Arts, you skipped college for the basic training of any dedicated actress: waitressing. Did you also audition?
Basically I was a waitress who auditioned on the side [laughs]. And I was very happy. I'd get a job in a play, think it was great, then go right back to waitressing. Somehow, anything else seemed unattainable. I always said, "God, I wonder if I'll get there."

And where was . . . there?
The movies, TV, California. Something other than waitressing. But I also thought, "Maybe I'll just meet somebody and get married. Who knows?"

It doesn't sound like you were driven.
I was driven, but maybe I didn't have a complete-enough belief in myself to give me that animal drive.

You were still living with your mother?
Yeah. In the summer of '89, I came to visit my dad in California and started auditioning here, which was the scariest thing, meeting people who asked, "What have you done? Theater in New York?" I hadn't done much, so everything on my résumé was made up. Then I got a sitcom pilot and kept extending my stay.

What part did romance play in all this? When, for instance, did you first realize you were attractive to men?
I don't know if I do [laughs].

Well, did you date in high school?
I did. Guys liked to hang out with me. I thought because I had a quirky personality and was cute.

When did you have your first serious boyfriend?
I've had serious boyfriends all my life. My first? I was fourteen. We dated for a year and a half. Then, my high school sweetheart lasted two years. After him, there were three years when I was alone.

Were you lonely?
I always found ways of entertaining myself. Men shouldn't be your whole life. That's what I took from my childhood — that I will never depend on a man as much as my mom depended on my father. I have a full life, he has a life of his own, and if we can merge, terrific. But a relationship isn't going to make me survive. It's the cherry on top. It wasn't until I moved to California that I had my first real, mature relationship.

Who was he?
Daniel McDonald, who was nominated for a Tony for Steel Pier. When we broke up, he moved to New York and started doing great. Just before Friends, we broke up.

What was his reaction to your subsequent megastardom?
Oh, he's just wonderful. A dear friend. Oh, we're not going into relationship talk, are we? [A look of consternation crosses Aniston's face.]

What advice did your mother give you about men?
To be loved, happy, not to ever settle for something less than you deserve. Don't rely on men, but don't shun them, either. They're not your enemies. Of course, she was speaking from her own regrets about marriage. Discouraged and disappointed about the way her own worked out, but positive about it.

So what do you look for in a man?
A friend, someone who's equal, with whom you're comfortable. The ultimate is finding a place where you have no inhibitions, nothing to hide, where you can learn with one another. Of course, I'm not above going, "And he did that!" Every man I've been with, I have to say, "Thank you for this lesson." I am not, by the way, a spokeswoman on relationships. I'm learning myself. Generally they've been great, but some suck.

Last spring you broke up with actor Tate Donovan, with whom you'd lived for two years. Prior to you, Donovan lived with Sandra Bullock, a relationship that, reportedly, soured when her career soared and his didn't. It was said that your relationship with Donovan suffered the same end.
That wasn't actually why we broke up. But because we didn't give the press anything, they made it up. Tate's and my breakup had nothing to do with ego battles, wanting babies, not wanting marriage — all that stuff. None of it was accurate.

Tate did say once that you two wanted to get married.
He did? Well, when you're older and in relationships, everyone is a possible life partner. Your intention is not, "Let's hang out for a couple of years and then break up" [laughs]. Everybody wants to be happy, but it's not the relationship's responsibility to make you so.

But you do want to get married someday?
Sure. Marriage is wonderful. But I'm not desperate, I'm not itching for it. It's something that, hopefully, at one time in my life, I'll be able to do.

It's not something that you and Brad did over the recent holidays, is it? Rumors have been rampant.
No! No! And that's what's so amusing — all these detailed stories claiming, "Two sources said" or "I have sources," yet nothing ever comes from the horse's mouth. I just watch and laugh.

Well, may I ask what attracts you to this man, at this time? Frankly, you and Brad seem very well-suited.
Oh, I hate this! I can't talk about it. I'm sorry. I'm not withholding, just preserving something that's mine.

Your critics say you're trying to attract publicity by denying the relationship.
No. No. It's not that at all. How funny. They figure, "People know you're together, so why not give the press their picture and be done with it?" Because we chose not to. My responsibility to the public is my work — not what goes on in my private life. To talk about a relationship trivializes something that's nobody's business. When it comes to privacy issues, it's a tough one, because I'm a talker [laughs].

Is there anything you feel comfortable saying about your relationship with Brad — besides that you're not married?
[Aniston buries her face in her hands for a full minute before speaking haltingly.] I'll just tell you that this is the happiest time of my life — that I'm happier than I've ever been. I'm not saying why, it's for a lot of reasons: work, love, family, just life — all of it.

Assuming that Brad is a big part of that equation, what else makes you happier than you've ever been?
What I'm discovering about myself as an actor. Friends opened up a world of opportunities. So now it's, "OK, what's next?" I'm excited to see if I can exercise different muscles. It's not that I don't enjoy romantic comedies. But give me a shot at something different.

Aren't you more confident as an actor than before?
I am, but I'm not sitting back saying, "I'm set for the rest of my life." They'll take it away as quickly as they give it to you in this business. There's going to be times, I'm sure, when I'll try something and it'll be awful and people will rip me apart, but I'll try not to listen so it doesn't intimidate me from taking the next leap. And the same with relationships. If one doesn't work out, it can't make me lose faith in taking the next leap. I'm always going to be open for it.

What a wonderful way to feel at thirty.
It's a very exciting time. It's been happening for the last two years — me saying, "I'm going to try this, regardless of what critics think." You can't help but feel bad when someone says, "Aw, she's nothing but a hairstyle" [laughs]. People say unbelievably mean things, but it can't distract me from what I want for my own self. And if that means creeping along, not becoming big box office, like Julia Roberts, then that's OK.

Do you think you can be a big-time movie star?
I don't know. Maybe.

Do you consider yourself a movie star now?
Not at the moment.

What is a movie star to you?
Someone successful in film, making millions. She or he also has to have that inexplicable star appeal. I'd like to think I have that in me. I certainly have the desire. I don't want to be there because my press is more powerful than my work. I want to have a body of work where I feel proud to say, "Now I feel like I've earned this label of movie star." And, eventually, I will.

How long will you stay with Friends?
We're all with Friends until Friends dies. If one of us goes, we all go. One of us wouldn't leave. It wouldn't be the show it is without each of us.

Give me a thumbnail sketch of your relationship with each member of the cast, starting with the boys.
The boys are like brothers, especially Matt LeBlanc. He's the guy who says, "Hey, they mess with you, tell me about it and I'll take care of them." When I first met him, I was scared of him, but he's the biggest teddy bear on the planet, like your goombah.

David Schwimmer is the most committed, talented person. We watch out for each other in our scenes, and David's got that director's eye. He can fix scenes. Matthew Perry and I have been friends since I moved to Los Angeles. I've gotten so mad at Matthew — we've all gotten so mad at each other — but we can do that because we love each other that much. We have this wonderful bond where I feel protected, loved and cared about — and it's not bullshit. It's fun to watch people grow. When you watch the show in reruns . . . it's so funny to be flipping channels and see an old episode and think, "God, we were awful . . . [laughs]. Such babies."

And the female Friends?
The girls are very close and always will be. Try getting us out of our dressing rooms when one of us is needing to talk — it's impossible. Our poor [assistant directors] are saying, "We need you downstairs." And we're like, "This is priority. Friend in need!" [Laughs] Courteney Cox is the doer, the organizer; I'm the emotional one [laughs]; and Lisa's the intellectual, very cerebral.

Are you happy with your salary on Friends? Even with each of you getting $100,000 an episode, NBC gets a bargain, considering the "Seinfeld" cast made $600,000 each.
They do get a bargain, but when you look back, Friends will, hopefully, be part of television history. As for now, we just keep going to work, doing our jobs. I go to work nine to five, come home, make dinner, order in, watch movies, read scripts, see my friends. It feels like I'm calm while that circus is happening outside.

You seem inordinately grounded.
This, I know, comes from having a divorced family, watching emotions run rampant and trying to understand them. But I credit my friends. I never got with a bad crowd. When I moved to L.A., I didn't go through the wrong people to find the right ones. I have the same group around me that I've had since I landed here ten years ago. The most important thing is to stay focused.

Being one of the most watched, most liked women on TV, how do you explain your appeal? What is it about you?
Oh, I have no idea [laughs]. What do you think?

A girl's first mirror is her mother. What did she tell you?
My mom is very focused on beauty. I didn't care about it as much. Now it's funny — and pathetic — but her advice was always about making my features more than they were: "Always outline your lips, dear. They're so tiny. Make your lips bigger." Or, "You have no cheekbones; you've got to contour in your cheekbones." You got to the point where you felt like you were the ugliest duckling on the planet. She definitely wasn't great when it came to that kind of honesty. That's why it's so ironic that . . .

You're now considered a babe?
Well, I know I'm not awful looking, but . . .

Still, that comment from a parent is a thing you never forget.
Ever. I still remember them. Verbatim.

And did you follow her advice?
Yes. The makeup I'd wear was unbelievable. Then one of my first boyfriends in California said, "You are so much more beautiful to me without makeup," and I couldn't believe it. Finally, I stopped wearing it.

How did you feel about your face then?
Liberated. I didn't care. This is me, who I am. I don't know what I was trying to prove, what I was hiding, with all that stuff on my face.

You were trying to please Mom.
Yeah. Your mom isn't going to lie. I didn't want my looks to be my only ticket, because I didn't feel I had that one to ride on. I don't want to paint a shallow picture of my mother, but how you looked was so important.

And didn't you also once drop thirty pounds?
I was not thirty pounds overweight, I was ten, maybe twenty. I'm 110, I've been 130, and I'm five feet five.

Why did you decide to diet?
Because my agent told me to — and I curse that day, because from then on, I became body conscious. I'd auditioned and, yet again, made the final call back but didn't get the job. Right before the call back, they told me I had to show up in a leotard and tights. And I joked to my agent, "This'll blow it for me." To which he said, "I've been meaning to tell you" — and it was a guy saying this — "you should drop a couple of pounds." I said, "What?" And then I just did it.

So as a teenager, you didn't buy into skinny syndrome.
I didn't. Of course, I never wore jeans, only huge sweaters and big skirts because I was hip-y. I was just as happy before I was thinner, by the way. My life wasn't different, except people, mostly men, changed. I didn't get asked out more, but I definitely got more . . .

Looks?
[Laughs] Looks. Yeah. I also started getting hired, which made me realize, "So that's what this is about."

Do you consider yourself a confident person?
No, but more so than before. It's getting rid of that history: "You're not good enough, talented enough, pretty enough."

Do you think you're sexy?
I have moments when I do.

Are you a compulsive dieter?
Have you heard about the Zone?

The diet?
Yes, but it's not a diet, it's a way of life. It got to the point where I was so sick of gimmicks: "Oh, this week, I'll have oil on the side, no butter — no fun." Like most women, I was fed up with having to look like something I wasn't. It was too painful, not to mention a pain in the ass. Now I work out about three times a week for an hour and call it a day. Unfortunately, celebrities don't help. 'Cause we're put in this light of . . .

Perfection?
But it's just part of our job. And it's so unrealistic. For instance [laughs], I just found out that I'm cross-eyed. I always thought I just had astigmatism. Finally, I went to see a real ophthalmologist — I never had an expensive checkup like that. And she tells me, "You have conjunctive excess."

Sounds like a sex crime.
Right. She said, "It means you're cross-eyed." I said, "What?" But then I recalled the sheet I filled out that asked, "Did you have problems playing sports as a child? Fall asleep when you were reading? Get bored? Eyes wander? Reread paragraphs?" To all of which I said, "Yes." As a child, I thought they were just my weaknesses. But it was all because the muscle is weak. I have this thing I do that freaks people out [crosses only her right eye]. They always ask, "How do you cross only one eye?" My mother always said, "Don't do it, it'll stay that way."

Your eye doesn't look that crossed.
[Aniston turns her head, crosses her one eye again, then laughs, staring straight at me.] It all depends on the angle.

Just like life.