Jennifer Aniston: The Girl Friend
When she was 12, Jennifer Aniston was sent to her room for not being interesting enough. “My father told me I had nothing to say,” says the 27-year-old actress. “He made me leave the table.” From there, she went into her teens, her mouth shut but her eyes open, fixed on screens big and small, where actors, even those with nothing to say, are furnished lines and emotions. “I decided I wanted to be an actress. I remember dreaming about it, about being on TV.”
As she grew up in New York, Aniston passed through grades and jobs, hairstyles and attitudes. Now she was bookish and smart, now flirty and impulsive. After graduating from high school, she went West, and she appeared in a handful of television series, getting canceled and dumped but keeping on until, two years ago, she found her way to Friends, an NBC sitcom that became a monster hit and did for Aniston just what she always knew such a hit would do — make her the most fascinating person at the table.
During the last week of 1995, Aniston finds herself in Aspen, Colo., that Mecca of celebrity, hounded by fans and photographers. Interesting is a word that seems to cling to her like a sweater. Her face is on the cover of several national magazines, including People, which is calling her one of the year’s 25 Most Intriguing People. She has come full circle: Fifteen years ago, confined to her room, Aniston was trying to figure out what went wrong. Today, dragging her skis toward the day’s first lift, she’s trying to figure out what went right. “I’m baffled,” she says. “I mean, you think you’re just the most uninteresting person in the world, and then all this happens, and you have to wonder, ‘Is any of it real?'”
Like so many of her friends, Aniston was shaped by divorce. At first, all was placid in her childhood home, an apartment in Manhattan. She lived there with her older half brother, Johnny Melick, her mother, Nancy Aniston, who had some small success as an actress and fashion model, and her father, John Aniston, an actor who for years has portrayed Victor Kiriakis, a tight-lipped villain on Days of Our Lives. (“He’s a strikingly handsome man,” says Jennifer. “He’s got a mustache.”) Jennifer’s godfather was her father’s friend Telly Savalas. “I was close to Telly when I was younger,” she says. “He was one of the nicest people.” Back then, Jennifer could answer the question “Who loves ya, baby?” without thinking twice: everyone.
When Jennifer was about 9, though, this world began to unravel. Her father moved out, her parents split, and that was that. “It was awful,” she says. “I felt so totally responsible. It’s so cliché, but I really felt it was because I wasn’t a good enough kid. And then on top of that, my dad wasn’t great with kids. He loves kids, he loves me, but, you know, I’ve seen guys that are great with their daughters.”
“I knew the divorce was hard on her,” says John Aniston. “And I’m sure I could have done a lot of things to make it easier, but it was very difficult.”
From the beginning, though, Jennifer may have found shelter in her imagination. “From the minute she popped out, she was the queen of make-believe,” says Melick. “She was always walking her Barbies through scenes. And later, when she started watching TV, she was the Bionic Woman.”
Jennifer’s desire to become an actress was confirmed by a trip to the theater. “I went to see Children of a Lesser God on Broadway,” she says. “I was sitting in the second or third row, and I was just so blown away, and I walked out saying, ‘That’s what I want to do.'”
Maybe this love for acting had something to do with a desire to beat her father at his own game. Or maybe she wanted to please him. Or maybe Jennifer, dividing her time between her parents, wanted to pretend she was someone else, somewhere else. “My father did not want me to be in this business,” she says. “It’s so full of rejection.”
“Well, I wasn’t terribly thrilled,” says John Aniston. “I don’t think a father who knows anything about this business would be thrilled to have a daughter who is in it.”
“Growing up, we saw our parents struggle,” says Melick. “My father didn’t really lock himself into a steady income until Jennifer was 5. And we were all worried about her going through that.”
When she was 15, Jennifer was accepted by New York’s High School of Performing Arts, the school where kids danced on tables in Fame. Her first stage was the back row of the classroom, where she blossomed as a wise guy. “I did it for attention,” she says. “As sick as it sounds, it was the only way to get my father and my mother in the same room.”
Still, some faculty members saw promise in her antics. “When Jennifer was in high school, I sat her down and told her she would be in a sitcom,” Anthony Abeson, a former acting teacher at the school, tells me over the phone. “Even then she had a gift for comedy, an energy that’s not easy to legislate. Some funny people are exhalers. Funny all the time; always on. They crowd people out. Jennifer was good as an inhaler as well as an exhaler. Like the tide, she always had the ability to go in and out.” He pauses. “If you could see me, I’m making a sort of in-and-out motion with my hand.”
After graduating from high school in 1987, Aniston spent about a year living at her mom’s. College was as ill-suited to her plans as the Army or clown school. “I wanted her to go to college, and she just didn’t want to,” says John Aniston. “She was anxious to get on with it. Once she decided what she wanted to do, she was very driven.”
“I guess I missed the personal things about college, like that whole coming-of-age thing,” Aniston now says. Instead, she spent her days auditioning, her nights waitressing. Whereas her character on Friends fills orders at Central Perk, a fictitious downtown cafe, Aniston worked at Jackson Hole, a pseudo-down-home burger joint on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.