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Interview: Jennifer Aniston

How a class clown became Hollywood’s hottest chick

Jennifer Aniston, Emily Poule

Medium shot of Jennifer Aniston as Emily Poule, circa 2001.

Warner Bros./Getty

Jennifer Aniston pulls into the Tower on Sunset in her silver Jag. She is running late. To make amends, she waves, comic-frantically, as she parks. That’s the Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard. As in, ground zero for West Hollywood: next door to Spago’s, and just down the street from the Viper Room, the Whiskey and Larry Flynt’s Hustler store.

Aniston parks beneath a Neil Diamond billboard. (Later, she will confide that her earliest musical memories involve singing along to her mom’s Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow records.) The poster facing the Neil Diamond billboard reads like a rebuke: SNOOP DOGG PRESENTS: BAD AZZ. Aniston is wearing a black ribbed tank top, gray shorts, sandals and brown-tinted sunglasses. She is tan and slender. Her jean jacket is tied around her waist.

Aniston is running late because it’s her second day back at work on Friends after summer hiatus. It’s the eighth and final season for the NBC sitcom that put Aniston on the star map. “We’re shooting a wedding banquet, and banquet scenes are always a debacle,” she says over her shoulder as we enter the store. (On the door: a splashy poster of Aniston’s husband and Julia Roberts in The Mexican.)

Inside, Aniston pulls a crumpled piece of paper from her purse. “I have a list of shit I need to buy,” she says. It is a handwritten list, scrawled erratically on the back of a fax page. For a famous person, Aniston seems wholly unconcerned by the fact that she is in public, in a relatively small store with narrow aisles, sans big floppy hat, false mustache or any other form of disguise.

“Brad said get this band Ours,” Aniston says. “Do you know them? I guess they’re one of those junior-Radiohead bands. I haven’t heard them. I imagine there must be a lot of bands like that now, because everyone wants to be Radiohead.” Shrug. “I’d like to be Radiohead. It’s not a bad thing.”

Aniston confesses that music plays a major role in her life with Brad Pitt: “We do have similar tastes — very eclectic in that we’ll listen to pretty much anything. We also go through phases together, like that band Bran Van 3000, their first album. When we started dating, we were listening to a lot of Radiohead. They just sounded so good at that point in our relationship.”

We walk down a Rock/Pop/Soul aisle. “All right, Aniston, focus,” she says. We stop by the H’s. “Which Hendrix did he want?” she mutters to herself. A big guy with tats and a rockabilly pompadour walks by. Aniston has shifted her sunglasses to her head. “I haven’t been here in, like, 10 years,” she adds. “The last two times I came, people totally freaked out right next to me.”

Aniston is not alluding to freakouts of the fan variety. A decade ago, she was not famous — so not famous, it would be two more years before she uttered the words, “I got Leprechaun — fuckin’ A!” — after being cast in the mercifully forgotten 1993 horror film that marked her screen debut. No, Aniston is referring to freakouts of the street-lunatic variety. “I attract that,” she says. “Once in New York, I must have been in 11th grade, and there was this homeless guy on the street who looked just like Santa. Beard. Huge guy. Big gut.” Aniston puffs her cheeks and mimes a big gut with her hands. “So everyone’s walking by him, finding him all cute and charming. Then I come by, and he slugs me across the face! And everyone else just kept walking. Because, you know, nobody wants to get hit by Santa.”

A few moments later, a suspicious-looking guy beelines past three other customers and tries to sell Aniston a $25 Tower gift card. He’ll let her have it for 20. She grins faintly, not enough so the guy would even notice, and says, “No thanks, dude, I’m all set.”

That would be an understatement. Never mind that Aniston, 32, and Pitt, 37, have just celebrated their first anniversary and reportedly are about to move into a $15 million Beverly Hills mansion. With Friends earning each Friend $750,000 an episode, Aniston is among the highest-paid actresses on the tube. She will also be attending the Emmys on September 16th, having been nominated for her role as Rachel. For Aniston, whose film work has been spotty (Remember Picture Perfect? No. That’s the point), the TV nomination is a validation. Rachel began the show as a spoiled rich girl trying to cope with the working world, but by this late date, the Friends have all sort of morphed into a UniFriend, and so now Rachel’s most distinguishing trait is also Aniston’s: They’re very funny. Aniston isn’t always “on” in an annoying, actorly way. But she is a deft physical comedian, in that she uses her body to wrap, stamp and deliver jokes. On the show and in life, Aniston does this by flashing you a big-eye, or theatrically steeling her jaw or furrowing her brow. When she sits, she hunches forward, elbows on knees, letting you know she’s about to tell a tale. Her tales often involve swooping hand gestures.

Aniston mentions how musicians in the Eighties had something to be pissed off about, with Reagan in the White House. I ask her what she thinks of Bush. She vents about him in detail, eloquently, but off the record. She says she doesn’t want to come off like another actor blathering about politics. On the record, she’ll only say, “Bush is a fucking idiot,” and flip him a double-bird, and that Jenna Bush — the Bush daughter whose underage drinking has proved embarrassing for the administration — had a summer internship at Brillstein-Grey, the management firm where she and Pitt are represented. “We’d pass her in the hall,” Aniston says, “and Brad would say, ‘Heyyyy, Jenna, wanna beer? I got one in the truck!'”

Aniston’s comedic talents become all the more interesting when you consider she’s also pulling double duty as a sex symbol. Quite a switch for someone who insists she was once an ugly duckling. As a chubby, not particularly popular kid growing up on New York’s Upper West Side in the Seventies, she got through school hazings by developing a thick skin and a sense of humor. (She can laugh today about her “Carrie moment,” where a group of girls rigged a bucket of paint to spill on her head and Easter dress as she entered a classroom.) “It’s a bit of a cliché, you know,” Aniston says with a sigh. “Comedians are always tortured souls trying to make people like them, and all that silly stuff.” Still, spend time with Aniston — who famously shed 30 pounds (at the behest of her agent) before she was cast in Friends — and you notice most of her jokes and amusing anecdotes are self-deprecating. “I was a big old fat wuss who liked Aerosmith,” Aniston confesses. “What are you gonna do?”

So, yes, even though Aniston has famously shed those 30 pounds and transformed herself into the Hot Chick, she continues to carry herself as the Class Clown, which is a pretty endearing combination. The homeless and the insane sense this fact, and they do not fear her. She is, in her funny and affable way, the opposite of untouchable.

Jennifer Aniston is record shopping because a) she lost her copy of Nevermind, but more important because b) we want her to talk about music. After all, she is now starring in Rock Star as the girlfriend-slash-manager of a Judas Priest-like metal god played by Mark Wahlberg. “I’m totally musically ignorant,” Aniston notes. “I’m going to humiliate myself.” Be that as it may, here is a selection of entirely random comments from Aniston on contemporary music, prompted by CDs she notices while shopping.

Brad, Interiors: “Great album. And not just because I’m that corny. ‘The Day Brings’ is one of the happiest songs you’ll ever hear.”

Blur, 13: “Oh, for our wedding march, we had this amazing full gospel choir play this song. [Points to song title on back of CD] Actually, could you not say the song? It’s just such a private thing and so beautiful. I just want to keep it.” (I don’t think I’m revealing too much by saying, No, funny guy, it was not the “Woo-hoo” song.)

Duran, Rio: “I slept out in front of their hotel when they were on Saturday Night Live. I was 12. The day before, we’d waited on line in Times Square to meet them. I had a rose. They were signing their CD. Well, LP. Album. The line was around the block, but they cut it off before we got to the front, so I was standing there with a wilted rose. Simon Le Bon was my favorite. Actually, it was funny. Brad and I ran into him at a store in Santa Monica a couple of months ago. I’m looking at something and I see Brad going, ‘Dude! You gotta come here!’ I’m like, ‘What?’ and I walk over and Simon was literally standing right there. I was like, ‘Oh, my God!’ Then I went up to him and said, ‘I waited outside a hotel for you!’ I think he thought we were nuts. He was putting his receipt into his wallet and slowly backing away, going, ‘Uh, great story. You should bust that one out on Leno.'”

Aniston leaves Tower with $184 worth of CDs, mostly by women (Eva Cassidy, Beth Hart, Lucinda Williams, Jill Scott). She also commented favorably upon CDs by Journey; Earth, Wind and Fire; Styx; Chris Cornell; Fleetwood Mac; and her friend Melissa Etheridge. (OK, to be fair: As far as Styx goes, she only commented favorably upon their song “Jennifer.”)

We walk to a bookstore coffee shop across the street, but it’s closed, so we end up sitting on a low brick wall in front of a Ticketmaster office building. Aniston lights a Merit. The sun, behind her, dapples her hair, which is streaked and shoulder-length, and not even a third-cousin-twice-removed of the capital-H do that was such a part of her look early on, and that in retrospect, compared to this more casual cut, looked kind of evilly shellacked, like an alien parasite that could attach itself to unsuspecting heads. She glances around, excited to be on the street, people-watching, giving someone directions to the bus stop, complimenting a random guy’s jeans, the cars whizzing across Sunset reflected in her sunglasses. Crouching on the edge of the wall, Aniston somehow manages to look both entirely relaxed and ready to pounce. We talk about the drugs/orgies/career-burnout thing as portrayed in Rock Star. When she asked Pitt how she might play the role, he offered two words of Zen advice: Be Sting. “You know, the way Sting’s so sexy, so cool, and he’s just there, he’s just it, he doesn’t have to try,” Aniston says, stretching a lock of her hair and slowly wrapping it around her finger. “I remember thinking, ‘Be Sting, huh? All right. Yeah. I’ll try it.'”

What was your first concert?
It was … What’s her name? Oh, my God. Not Patti Smith. “The Warrior.”

Oh — Patty Smyth?
But what was her band?

Scandal
Scandal! [Pause] Unfortunately. [Pause] I didn’t want to admit that. I didn’t go to concerts much. I get freaked out in crowds. I caught the drumstick at that one. But, yeah, I have this weird thing about crowds, waiting on line. I have this thing where I think I’m going to get murdered or something. I start getting almost anxiety attacks.

So no mosh pit?
No! I’m a wimp.

Did you go through a rebellious period?
My version of a rebellious period, yeah.

What was that like? Playing “Hungry Like a Wolf,” only really loud?
“Hungry Like a Wolf” playing so fucking loud my mom kicked the door in. Yeah. That. I also listened to the Sex Pistols for a while, but I don’t think I ever really liked them. That’s one of those guilty confessions. I don’t know if I ever want to admit this out loud, because so many people worship them. But I can’t understand their music. I can’t make anything out. But I thought it would help me be accepted. You know, being the uncool fat girl. Well, not fat. But …

There’s a drug-and-sex orgy in “Rock Star.” Did you have any Babylon moments like that when you first came to Hollywood?
I have to say, I never had anything exciting or fun like that happen to me. I never woke up in someone’s bedroom, wearing someone’s boxer shorts, having no idea how I got there. I think the craziest I got in those days was at my friend’s bachelorette party, when they tried to drag me into a gay bar.

So your “Behind the Music” would be more like the Huey Lewis episode than the Mötley Crüe episode?
Oh, that’s sad! [Covers face with hands in shame] Huey Lewis? Awww, how pathetic. [Pause] Well, maybe. I prefer Pat Benatar. She hasn’t done a Behind the Music yet, has she?

If she hasn’t, she should.
[Brightening] Pat rocks!

The next day, I head over to Stage 24 on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, where Friends is taped. It fits your standard image of a studio lot: palm trees, anonymous stucco soundstages, men in golf carts. Before being allowed onto the set, I have to put away my notebook and promise not to write about anything potentially embarrassing to the show, “like,” the publicist jokes nervously, “if there’s a fire or something.” Management is touchy about reporters on the set since Matthew Perry’s latest rehab stint.

Inside, there are, alas, no fires. The actors are all wearing street clothes and flipping through their scripts, as part of a run-through of the season premiere, part two of the wedding of Chandler (Perry) and Monica (Courteney Cox). Extras sit in the studio-audience bleachers, working crossword puzzles and eating catered ziti. Above the banquet-hall set, the slatted wood guts of the warehouse are visible like a hive. My secrecy pact forbids me from revealing much more, other than the fact that there is a running gag involving David Schwimmer and the line, “I wasn’t farting!”

About an hour later, Aniston’s assistant, Ozzie, a friendly guy in a Hawaiian shirt, summons me to her dressing room, which faces the blank wooden backdrop of the set. The dressing-room area itself looks like a cheap plywood motel set left over from Psycho IV, though it’s been jazzed up with white Christmas lights.

Aniston is sitting on a white L-shaped couch. There’s a half-eaten bowl of soup on her desk, a row of tiny shoes beneath the desk, four separate remote controls on the coffee table and an African theme happening — hanging Moroccan lamp, wooden wall carvings, tribal drum as end table. Today, Aniston is wearing jeans, a white tank top and no makeup.

Aniston does not enjoy interviews. She has learned to be guarded without immediately coming off as guarded. Sensitive areas include her childhood after the divorce of her parents. Jennifer was nine. Her mother, Nancy, moved Jennifer and her half-brother John from Sherman Oaks, California, to Manhattan. Jennifer had little contact with her father, the actor John Aniston, who plays the villain on the daytime drama Days of Our Lives. Today they are reconciled. John Aniston marvels at how his daughter deals with success. “The pressure on her is unbelievable, but she handles it with aplomb,” he says. “She and Brad go out all the time. We’ll all go to dinner, just walk in someplace, and it’s not a big deal.” It’s Nancy who no longer figures in Jennifer’s life. Statements Nancy made to the press in 1996 and in a book, From Mother and Daughter to Friends, constituted a betrayal to Jennifer. Any resultant emotional wounds are something Jennifer declines to reopen. “There’s nothing different about this troubled-parent relationship and any other one,” says Aniston. “So there’s no need to glorify it by talking about it anymore.”

Matthew Perry, who knew Aniston before Friends (“Jen and I met in a room where all actors who have nine failed TV series meet”), has watched her mature during the past decade. “We both kind of shot into the public eye together,” says Perry. “It’s been a little bit harder for me, but Jenny deals with that really, really well. I saw her change and do some hard work on herself, and she’s really a deeper soul.”

Much of this is a tribute to her husband. Aniston met Pitt in 1994, casually. Their managers were friends. “He was just this sweet guy from Missouri, you know?” she says. “A normal guy.” Later, having broken up with their significant others — Aniston with actor Tate Donovan, Pitt with Gwyneth Paltrow — around the same time, the managers set up a date. They kept it on the QT for some time, but five months later they were engaged, and they married on July 29th of last year. “I had those typical jitters the day before my wedding,” Aniston recalls, “but the day of, I was just excited in a good way. The nice thing about weddings now is it’s not just a chick thing. It’s a team effort. The stereotype used to be men grumbling, like, ‘Why are you making me do this?’ There’s nothing more moving than seeing a man cry at his own wedding.

“My friends were all supportive,” Aniston says, “especially when they found out what a loving human being Brad is. At first they’re like, ‘I hope he’s not an asshole, some conceited fuck or whatever.’ But you get past that in five minutes. Which is a real tribute to who he is. He just disarms you immediately. But, I mean, nobody went, ‘Dude. Brad Pitt!’ and gave me a thumbs up and a wink. They were just happy for me.”

As a bride of one year, Aniston exudes contentment: “You know if there’s ever an argument, it’s not like you can go, ‘Screw you, I’m outta here!’ You’re there for the long haul. It’s a beautiful thing to actually realize that for the first time, to have that knowing. It takes the heat and the weight out of things.”

Aniston sighs, squirms on the couch and looks away, her reflected face now in profile in the mirror behind her. “He gets it tough, probably, more than anyone, in terms of people having a preconceived notion of who he is,” she continues. “That idea of, well, you look that way, then you must be a certain way.”

Aniston’s reticence is understandable. Since marrying Pitt, she’s been high-profile enough to be the target of tabloid rumors, many of which are so uncreative they simply seem to derive from plotlines of her work. Rachel gets pregnant — so Aniston must be pregnant! Rachel kisses Winona Ryder during sweeps month — so Aniston must be gay!

Three different friends, when I mentioned I was doing this story, were like, “Oh, yeah, I heard they’re total potheads.”
That’s a funny one, too. Because you see something like that — me and my husband, hooked on drugs. Then you read the story, and it says you smoke pot. It’s not even cocaine or shooting heroin. Pot! Which I’m not about to confirm whether that’s true or not. [Pause] I mean, I enjoy it once in a while. There’s nothing wrong with that. Everything in moderation. [Pause] Geez, Louise. I’m drowning and I can’t get out. [Pause] I wouldn’t call myself a pothead. [Pause] Let’s pick a new topic, please? My mother and father will be reading.

How about when you were a kid?
Square, square, square.

Aniston auditioned for a musical in her junior year at High School of Performing Arts (audition song: Journey, “Open Arms”). She got the part, but at the last minute, terrified by the notion of performing in front of an audience, she made up an excuse about an afterschool job and bailed. She made her stage debut the following year, in a school production of Turandot. She played one of the princess’ maids. “I always got shitty parts,” Aniston says. One of her teachers, a mean old Russian guy, told her she was a disgrace and that she should never be allowed to act in front of people. “I wanted to make people cry, man; to move people,” she says. “But I was making them laugh.”

Aniston will soon get a chance to stretch onscreen in The Good Girl, from director Miguel Arteta and actor-screenwriter Mike White, the team behind last year’s indie hit Chuck and Buck. Aniston plays a down-and-out Texas housewife who has an affair with a teenage bag boy. “We originally considered more typical indie actresses,” says White, “but it’s cooler seeing someone you don’t expect in this part, someone who you’re used to seeing in these beautiful apartments, with these beautiful friends, and now here she is in this Target in the middle of hell. There’s a scene where she’s blackmailed into sex by one of her husband’s friends. And when you think she’s also Rachel on Friends, it’s no small feat that she can pull this off.”

After all her success, Aniston remains humble in a way that seems unaffected. “When I got offered The Good Girl, I remember thinking, ‘Are they sure? Did they make a mistake?’ I mean, I don’t expect anyone, just because I have name value, to give me a part in their movie. People who refuse to audition, that’s arrogant to me. Let me show you I can do it.” She smiles and adds, “Unfortunately, I’m not a good auditioner, so most of the time, I will fuck it up.” She shrugs. “And then, you know …” She laughs. “I’m Rachel on Friends.”

Just before the first episode of Friends aired, director James Burrows took the cast on a trip to Vegas. He told them how it would be the last time they’d be able to go out without being hassled, how their lives were about to change forever. Recalls Aniston, “We were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah … Five hundred dollars! Really? For me?'”

Does she recall anything else about those early days? “It’s hard to remember. It feels like forever. It is forever. Eight years, man. That’s way too long. Way too long. It’s longer than anything, isn’t it? Longer than high school, longer than most relationships you ever have. I mean, I can say I can’t wait for this fucking thing to be over. But next fall? We will be a mess. A rotten mess. The first day back, we always end up in one of our dressing rooms, all of us. And this time, it was just different. We were all just a little bit more excited to see each other. Schwimmer was going, ‘I don’t think we quite understand what’s happening here. This is it. This is it. It’s sad.'”

An assistant pops her head into the dressing room. Aniston must return to the set. Before she goes, one wonders if she has any ideas of how Friends should wrap up. She looks startled. “I’ve never given it any thought. Never.” This seems to invite suggestion, so one is proffered. Aniston immediately grins. “Yes!” she exclaims. “We could all be wearing the same Nike shoes, covered in blankets with just the Nikes showing. All in a big bed in Monica and Chandler’s bedroom.” Now Aniston openly laughs. A sitcom era ending seemed so sad only a moment ago. But how about a sitcom era ending in group suicide? “We’re all dead!” Aniston howls. “That would be funny, right?”

In This Article: Coverwall, Jennifer Aniston

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