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Jennifer Aniston: The Girl Friend

She’s not just America’s First Hairdo. She’s interesting

Jennifer Aniston, Friends

'Friends' star Jennifer Aniston, circa 1995.

NBC Television/Getty Images

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.

When she turned 20, Aniston went West, where she fell in with that lost breed of actors who live in the hills surrounding Los Angeles, working as messengers, receptionists, whatever. (Aniston took a telemarketing job, “selling my soul,” she says.) After a year, she found her way to Laurel Canyon, a hamlet of actors and writers, where she met many of the people who are her friends today. In the low-roofed houses that line the canyon, they shared wine, griping about jobs lost, opportunities missed. “Everybody just kept moving up there,” she says. “In all these houses were all our friends. And everybody watched out for everybody. We never left the hill. We were the hill people.”

“That was a great time for her,” says Melick. “You could tell something was happening, that she was spreading her wings.”

It was during these years that Aniston met future costar Matthew Perry. When asked what time has taught him about the actress, Perry narrows his eyes and says: “That she’s the worst driver in the history of drivers. If I know she’s going somewhere, I stay home.”

Now and then, the female hill people would head off into the woods and form a circle, which they filled with candles and personal mementos, hold hands and talk. “Women have to become nicer to each other,” Aniston says. “There’s such catty bullshit that goes on, and my girlfriends and I just started this circle. I remember the first time we did it, this one girl was silent through the whole thing, and then at the end she was just weeping. She just had this huge sort of enlightening kind of experience being with these women, and it was, like, women are awesome, especially together as a group, so kind and warm and wonderful.”

All the while, Aniston was pushing on, getting cast as a regular on a handful of sketch shows and sitcoms –— Molloy, Ferris Bueller, The Edge, Muddling Through —– on which she often played the annoying sister. All these shows fizzled. “She spent five years working on shows that weren’t great, but she learned how to stay in there,” says actress Andrea Bendewald, a friend since high school. “It made her a veteran.”

Looking back at those days, when she lived in anonymity among the anonymous, Aniston talks of failure as almost romantic, as something to be endured – like a hangover. “You always miss parts of your past,” she says now. “Back then it was familiar and safe, and now you have no idea what’s around the corner.”

As the months rolled by, Aniston transformed herself. She used to be poor; now she’s different. She used to be the same; now she’s different. She used to be fat; now she’s famous. She got fat the way everyone gets fat: going nowhere, watching TV, eating from the fridge, spooning from the jar, drinking from the carton. “I ate too many mayonnaise sandwiches,” Aniston says, sighing. “Mayonnaise on white bread –— the most delicious thing in the world.”

One day for a call-back, Aniston was told to show up in a leotard and tights. Before the audition, she met with her agent. Moving a hand along her chunky frame, Aniston joked, ” ‘Well, this should blow it for me.’

“And my agent said, ‘Actually, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.'” For the next several minutes, Aniston heard her own body discussed in the abstract way people discuss cars. “My agent gave it to me straight,” she says. “Nicest thing he ever did…. The disgusting thing of Hollywood —– I wasn’t getting lots of jobs ’cause I was too heavy.”

Over the coming months, Aniston gave up mayonnaise, pre-meal snacking, white bread, post-meal snacking and butter. After going through Nutri/System, she delivered a testimonial for the program on The Howard Stern Show. She eventually lost 30 pounds. Now she almost never appears on TV without at least some part of her stomach showing. “It was amazing to see this thing emerge,” she says, looking at her chest. “I never knew I had this body in me.”

One thing offered the thin Aniston that the fat Aniston would probably never have gotten was a shot on a new NBC sitcom: In the fresh-scrubbed, datable world of Friends, there’s little room for a fat one. “It happened so fast,” says Aniston. “I went in, read the script, laughed out loud, got home and an hour later had the part.”

“She was the part,” says Kevin Bright, an executive producer of Friends. “She was funny. She was pretty. It all came through in one big stroke.”

And Aniston knew the show would be special. “It’s all about relationships,” she says. “And people really need to see something that they can relate to – real-life situations.” What’s more, Friends offers someone for everyone: a tall, dorky, insecure guy (David Schwimmer); a ditzy, guitar-strumming blonde (Lisa Kudrow); a handsome, jean-clad palooka (Matt LeBlanc); a sarcastic, 9-to-5-ing funnyman (Perry); a dark-haired, blue-eyed Veronica (Courteney Cox); and a spoiled suburban princess just finding her legs (Aniston). Aniston also became the friend with the hairdo, a wispy shag that falls around her face in an oval, a style imitated by every identity-seeking woman in America. “It’s a great haircut,” says Kudrow. “But most women just don’t wear it as well as Jennifer. They can cut it however they want, but they still won’t be her.”

While masquerading as a kind of urban realism, Friends, with its sprawling apartments and surplus of leisure time, is as far-fetched as Star Trek. The show reflects average lives without blemishes. And it works. So far in the 1995-96 season, Friends is No. 3 in the ratings. In bookstores, Friends trivia and recipe books are stacked in pyramids. More than a hit, Friends has become something for people to emulate, a model for working stiffs getting tanked at happy hours. Across the land, those of us who are loners, who stand in corners, who won’t dance, are now faced with the spectacle of strangers exchanging witticisms and high-fives with their pals, thumping each other hard on the back, being supportive and doing just about everything else to let us know that, yes, they are friends.

In the middle of its second season, the sitcom may well become that rare vehicle, a TV show with the ability to launch movie stars. On the show, Aniston displays a gift for comic timing – and an ability to sound natural in a three-sided living room – that should serve her well on the big screen. “What you see on TV is only part of what Jennifer has to offer,” says Abeson, her high school acting coach. “She can go much deeper.”

Already, Aniston has completed ‘Til There Was You, a film with Jeanne Tripplehorn and Dylan McDermott that will be released this April, and Dream for an Insomniac, which also stars Ione Skye. In late summer, Aniston will be seen in She’s the One, a film by Ed Burns, who directed The Brothers McMullen. “Everyone who’s seen the film so far has been blown away by her performance,” says Burns. “It’s nothing like her character in Friends. The girl can act!”

More recently, Aniston signed a $2 million contract to star in Picture Perfect, the story of a single woman and her desire for an engaged man, which will be shot this summer. In addition, Fox has purchased specifically for Aniston a Washingtonian magazine story, “How to Date a Congressman,” which is just now undergoing that mysterious process whereby all stories, large and small, eventually become screenplays. “It’s amazing what a good show will do for your career,” says Aniston, smiling. “It’s a whirlwind. And you have to stop and focus.” That’s why she wanted to come up to Aspen, she says. “To stop and ask myself, ‘What’s up? What’s real? What’s going on?'”

Aniston has traveled to Aspen with a whole contingent of friends. These are not the friends from the TV show, but they might as well be. They are pretty and nice and often want to know how you feel. There are 12 of them, actors and writers, staying in beds and sleeping bags in a rambling house on the edge of town. “For years, we’ve been trying to get together, and the winter comes and goes, and we never do it,” says Aniston, who found the house. “And this year, with Friends and everything, I was like ‘You know what? I’m going to do this for us. Somebody’s got to go ahead and make the plan.’ And that’s what I did. And it’s perfect. It’s nice having the money to do it.”

“This is something she was dying to do,” says Bendewald, who is along for the trip. “I think she really needed a break; she worked so frickin’ hard all year.”

Aniston and her friends are what you and your friends might like to be. In a situation where you and your friends drink beer, they drink wine; where you drive cars, they drive all-terrain vehicles. And the very lives they lead –— the auditions, the read throughs, the screenings –— seem to emit a kind of blue brilliance, like a globe with a light inside. As you listen to their casual talk, the wood in their fireplace seeming to burn more brilliantly than wood has ever burned before, it’s hard not to imagine that you are on the set of a TV show, one of the many knockoffs of Friends, say, where there are no problems that cannot be solved in 30 minutes. “We have a problem,” a friend of Aniston’s tells me. “The wine is warm. But don’t worry. We’re chilling it. It will be ready in about 30 minutes.”

While in Aspen, the friends meet each afternoon at Bonnie’s, a midmountain restaurant. They eat lunch, joke, discuss their lives. Just now, Aniston, who briefly dated Adam Duritz of Counting Crows earlier in 1995, is concerned about a new love interest. “I don’t know whether I’d call him a boyfriend,” she says. “Especially when it’s so new and I’m so scared and skeptical and have been on this solo thing. Isn’t that weird? I’m dating, and I like him very much. But when do I start to call him a boyfriend? Do you decide to go steady? You don’t anymore. Although Daniel, my old boyfriend, was funny. Three months into dating he said, ‘Will you be my girlfriend?’ Got down on his knees.”

After lunch, Aniston and her friends retrieve their skis and step outside. They huddle up and choose a route. Then they’re off – a dozen people skiing in formation. They ski down cat trails and off through the trees, which are bent with snow. Wearing a ski coat, black stretch pants, a furry hat and goggles, Aniston flies by in a tangle of poles and arms. She skis behind Jason Bateman, following his tracks through the snow. Bateman is a bright-eyed, high-spirited, 27-year-old actor who starred in The Hogan Family and is currently in Simon, a WB sitcom. He’s a very nice guy. He tells Aniston to keep her shoulders back and her eyes forward.

Making her way down the hill, Aniston’s extremely pleasant to look at. Her eyes, warm and alert, seem forever on the verge of recognizing an old acquaintance. She is not quite so friendly as her eyes, though; they do her a great favor. Her hair is a shade of reddish brown you see in the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. And although she’s not very tall, she has the haughty, long-legged grace of a would-be Miss America.

“I’m a cautious skier,” Aniston says. “And then when I feel good, I get a little crazy.” And that’s like her in life, too, she adds. “Very cautious to a point, and then I let it go –— like dieting. If you’re too strict with yourself, you sort of go off, go crazy, eat a pizza, whatever.”

In many ways the trip to Aspen is Aniston’s celebrity coming-out –— her first vacation as a bona fide pop-culture star. She feels fame is an experience few people can understand; this explains the unique connection that has formed between Aniston and the cast of Friends.

“There’s nothing like the group of us on the show,” says Kudrow. “There is a bond between us, maybe like between people who have been in war. We’ve been through so much together that no one else can understand.” She pauses. “I mean war in a good way.”

In Aspen, as Aniston skis into lift lines, she is followed by whispers and smiles. Although new to celebrity, she already displays the self-satisfied grouchiness of a paparazzi-punching veteran. “There’s people with fucking cameras at the bottom of the hill or when you walk out of a restaurant,” she says. “Unbelievable. The other day I was Christmas shopping, and at the end of a long, hard day, I stopped at a coffee-bean place to get a frappé.

“So I get my drink,” she says, “and I’m ready to run into my car, and I stop, and I said, ‘OK, look, just fucking talk to them.’ So I slowly walked around the car, and they, of course, shied away, and I said, ‘What are you doing?’

“He said, ‘It’s my job.’

“I said, ‘What do you mean it’s your job?'” Aniston continues. “‘I understand it’s your job, but you have no idea how invasive this is in my life. It actually makes me not want to do what I do. I mean, we go to work, we love what we do, and we do it for you, and we do it for people to enjoy. But if these are the repercussions – on my day off to see you with a camera in my face? I know it’s your job, but you really need to think about how it’s affecting people, ’cause it’s just so disheartening.'”

Late in the day, Aniston and her friends ski over a rise, the streets of Aspen arranging themselves below: brick facades, snow drifts and smoke rising from chimneys. Everywhere you look in town —– lift lines and slopes, hot tubs and saunas, barrooms and restaurants –— you see the haircut Aniston has made famous. And as the star makes her way down the mountain, as she steps out of her skis and walks through the skiers crowding the plaza at the base of the hill, you want to dance up to the look-alikes and ask how it makes them feel seeing the real Jennifer, if her presence somehow threatens their own Jenniferness.

As Aniston continues through the crowd, hobbling along in ski boots, she’s followed by an eddy of excitement, a wave of interest. Friends nudge friends; children halt parents; couples stop arguing. For a long moment, all these people in fuchsia jackets and fleece hats seem to stand at attention —– America’s First Hairdo is going by.

After the last skiers have made their way down the hill, Aniston and her friends retire to their house for drinks. Some of the friends are married and have brought their kids. One little boy has a pet ferret, which he waves around. “Get that fucking rat away from me,” someone says.

“It’s not a rat,” says the kid. “It’s in the skunk family.”

Emerging from her bedroom, Aniston has changed into something more comfortable. She wears a tight white shirt, her nipples sticking out like peaks on a relief map. Just above her chest is a winking Mickey Mouse —– a sort of cartoon tease. She wears tight gray sweats that ride low on her hips, offering a glimpse of a high black waistband, below which her hips are bare. What is it? A thong bikini? A G-string?

Aniston pours herself a glass of wine, leads me back to the bedroom, sits on the edge of her bed and starts talking. She tells me about people and how they don’t really know how to deal with celebrities. “They’re untouchable,” she says, sipping her wine. “They’re onscreen, in print, on billboards, and it’s just a fantasy —– not real. It’s created —– I mean, even this interview, it’s all media hype. For a while, I was in the tabloids all the time, dating this person or that. If my romantic life was as exciting as they were saying, I would have been happy.”

Aniston pauses to reach for a cigarette. From the living room you can hear the sound of clinking glasses. She strikes a match, the flame lighting her face. “You know what I got my brother for Christmas?” she asks, exhaling. “A Bronco. He just cried. He was just like ‘No way, no way, no way!’ And he held me and wouldn’t let go, and I felt his body trembling. For the first time, I saw this boy, this man, just lose it.”

At one point, something strikes me about our conversation. It seems as if it has already happened, as if it were following a fixed course. Maybe Aniston has already learned that celebrity trick of making all questions the same question, all interviewers the same interviewer, of slipping into that place where answers are handed over like disarmed bombs, pieces of nostalgia designed to do the least possible damage.

“I have this sensation that this conversation has happened before,” I tell Aniston. “I’m asking the questions, and you’re giving the answers, but it could be any writer and any actress.”

“That’s what’s so fascinating,” Aniston says, stubbing out her cigarette. “It’s hallucinogenic almost — you’re going to hypnotize people with images, with celebrity status, with the fascination people have with celebrities.”

She stands up, downs the last of her wine and walks to the window. The mountains are fading into the darkness, like a light on a dimmer. Aniston is looking at the mountains but is maybe afraid of seeing something farther off –— maybe a glimpse of her own form coming down the hill, at last proving that her suspicion is right, that somewhere out there, among the bean shops and beaneries, is the person she once feared herself to be —– the girl with nothing to say.

A month has passed. Aniston has returned to her old life: California sunsets, traffic, pre-show jitters. Ski parkas have given way to half-shirts; the midriff is again the order of the day. The streets around the Warner Bros. soundstage where Friends is filmed dribble off into alleys. A turn brings you from the center of Paris to small-town America. Inside, a hall has been made to resemble a New York street complete with a curb and a taxi; approaching the stage, you have the not unpleasant sensation of entering a theme restaurant that you called ahead to reserve a table in the cab.

On the set in the fake Manhattan living room made famous on Friends, Aniston, David Schwimmer and Courteney Cox are walking through a scene that involves a little dialogue and a lot of rolling around. Reading from scripts, the actors move tentatively through the room, as if learning the steps of a new dance. After a while, a director steps forward and shouts, “Second team!” The actors are then replaced by stand-ins, middle-aged people who walk silently through the scene so that the director can decide where to place the cameras.

On the other side of the living-room wall, on the set of Central Perk, NBC’s Matt Lauer is interviewing cast members for future episodes of the Today show. Aniston wanders over, joining colleagues waiting their turn with Lauer.

When not rehearsing, the cast members are all over one another. Aniston runs her fingers through Matt LeBlanc’s hair as Matthew Perry hugs her from behind; then she sits on Perry’s lap as LeBlanc rubs her shoulders; then hugged from both sides, she’s sandwiched between Perry and LeBlanc. “If you worked on a show with girls like this,” a crew member says, “wouldn’t you do lots of touching, too?”

“Hey,” I ask Aniston, “what’s with all the touching?”

“What can I say?” Aniston says. “We just love each other.”

“In another profession,” I say, “you might all be brought up on charges.”

“Well,” she says, joking, “it’s almost come to that with Matthew Perry.”

As Aniston waits to be interviewed, the set is a flurry of activity. All around, people move like water. The show’s hairdresser is in from Manhattan, so everyone, even gofers and production assistants, looks fantastic. People approach Aniston with questions. She answers wonderfully, as if more interested in their needs than her own. On such occasions the interest a star shows in an assistant seems less a human kindness than a more sophisticated type of acting, a convincing demonstration of humility, a gift of attention. “I just love it here,” says Aniston, looking around. “This is something better than work.”

A few minutes later, when Aniston takes her turn with Lauer, he asks right away about the famous ‘do. She frowns and says, “Why are you asking me about my hair?”

Dealing with all these things —– rehearsal, P.A.’s, Lauer –— Aniston seems cool and relaxed, more on vacation at work than she was in Aspen. Up there she seemed strained, as if working for fun. Down here she seems almost exalted, as if being on TV were really the most fun of all. And that’s why it’s so hard to judge her acting ability. On Friends, a lot of what you’re seeing is not an actor’s concoction, a collection of motivations and techniques, but Aniston on vacation before the camera.

On the other side of the wall, the stand-ins are still running through the scene, miming the actions of Aniston, Cox and Schwimmer. From the empty studio-audience bleachers, where I am sitting, I can see both sets at once, like a diorama in a museum, a cross section of some strange world. The doubles resemble the actors in only the most rudimentary ways: sex, height, weight, hair color. One of the women has reddish-brown hair; her face is tired and sad, her features fallen. Around her neck hangs a sign that reads Jennifer.

Aniston, meanwhile, has finished up with Lauer. “What’s this?” she asks, finding Perry’s hand on her shoulder. She smiles, puts his hand back on her shoulder and strokes his knee. He bugs out his eyes and laughs.

Then she stands up and walks off and looks terrific going away.

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