Were Jennifer Aniston’s life a movie, she’d be on the verge of some very big trouble. After all, as every filmgoer knows, it’s always just at that glowing, warm-fuzzy moment when the heroine seems to have found success, true love and a generally soft-focus, montage-like existence that you can be sure all hell is about to break loose.
To recap: The actress recently agreed to a 10th season of “Friends,” thereby making the show’s 26 million fans very happy and some NBC executives positively ecstatic; she’s contentedly married to Hollywood’s number-one golden-streaked princeling, Brad Pitt; she’s banished her wicked (or at least, very ill-mannered) memoir-writing mother from the proverbial kingdom until further notice; she’s won over the fire-breathing critics with her turn as a windbreaker-clad Madame Bovary in The Good Girl, and she’s bought herself an enormous manse in Beverly Hills, where she and Mr. Pitt plan to raise somewhere between two and seven children, depending on whom you ask. In movieland, storm clouds would be gathering fast.
Of course, Jennifer Aniston’s life is not a movie, and instead of heading for a third-act reversal, she just keeps leaping from mountaintop to mountaintop. While many small-screen stars move on to roles in KFC commercials, watered-down spin-offs and straight-to-video flops, she’s nabbed coveted starring parts opposite two of Hollywood’s biggest box-office deities, Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller, thereby finding herself in the tiny golden circle of first-name-only stars like Cameron and Julia and Reese.
“Jennifer just has ‘it,’” says Tom Shadyac, who’s currently directing her in the Carrey film Bruce Almighty. “If you look at the handful of A-list actors that exist in Hollywood, you realize that the thing they all share, in addition to being beautiful and talented, is this amazing relatability. When you watch Jennifer, she manages to amaze you and make you feel like she might be your next-door neighbor at the same time, which, when you consider how much money she makes and who she’s married to, is pretty incredible.”
All of which helps to explain why, despite letting herself be dragged back to Central Perk for another round of lattes next season, Aniston is just about ready for life after Rachel. “I mean, I’m completely terrified about ‘Friends’ coming to an end, but I’m also dying for it to end, you know?” she says cheerfully, sitting on the terrace of the modest Hollywood Hills “love nest,” as it’s invariably described, that she and Pitt will soon surrender in favor of the $13.5 million six-bedroom French Normandy number they recently purchased. It’s a crisp, clear December afternoon, and the actress—who’s dressed in faded Levi’s and a tight charcoal-gray turtleneck sweater—looks terrific, her fabled honey-toned hair tumbling casually around her shoulders.
“The weird thing about The Good Girl was that suddenly all these people were like, ‘Wow, look what you can do!’” adds the 33-year-old actress, who had previously earned raves for her roles in Office Space and Wendy Wasserstein’s The Object of My Affection. “Like I’ve been doing sh—y work for the last nine years or something. Suddenly they’re like, ‘Hey, she’s really an actress,’ as if I were just some bulls— comedienne before.”
“People who do comedy are always underrated because they make it look so easy,” says Aniston’s agent, Kevin Huvane. “So it was exciting to see Jen challenge herself with a film like The Good Girl—which is pretty much the antithesis of ‘Friends’—and get the sort of recognition she deserves. I don’t think there’s any limit to what she can do.”
The film has opened up a “whole new horizon” for her she says. “It feels like this new set of opportunities.” For instance, she’s been thinking about doing a Broadway musical. “Singing scares me, so I think that might be fun.”
Which is not to say that she’s about to forgo her comedic roots. Despite the Oscar buzz swirling around her dramatic turn in The Good Girl, she’ll return to comedy in both Bruce Almighty and a new project by Meet the Parents writer John Hamburg. “It’s a pretty big departure for her,” Hamburg notes. “She plays this wild woman who draws Ben Stiller out of his shell—someone who’s very loose, which is not the way Rachel is at all.” Hamburg chuckles. “I mean, I’m not asking Jennifer to wear a prosthetic nose or anything, but it’s very different, and she’s very conscious of that. I remember when she first came on the set, she said, ‘If you feel like I start doing a Rachel thing, just tell me, okay?’”
As is true of many comic performers, Aniston developed her breezy charm to cope with a difficult childhood. Born in the San Fernando Valley to struggling actors John and Nancy, she spent her kindergarten year in Greece before the family relocated to New York’s Upper West Side, where her father found work playing the sexy devil Victor on Days of Our Lives. But as the marriage disintegrated, Aniston found herself trying desperately to ease the tension. “I was always the mediator,” she says. “I was always trying to smooth things over and get everybody to laugh.” Despite her best efforts, her parents divorced when she was nine, and she spent the rest of her childhood living with her mother and unwittingly honing her comedic timing with a steady after-school diet of sitcoms. “God, I loved ‘Joanie Loves Chachi,’” she says with a grin. “We didn’t have a VCR, so I used to sit by the TV with a tape recorder when it was on, and then go to sleep singing along with the theme song.”
Her goal, in those days, was to be a soap star. “‘General Hospital’ was my favorite,” she says, “because their makeup was always perfect, and the hair, and the clothes—I loved that.” Aniston takes a drag off her Merit cigarette. “Looking back, of course, I realize it wasn’t a good thing. I was always reading those beauty magazines and wanting to become this unattainable thing. Then one day, you’re in it—you’re the girl in the pictures, and suddenly you realize it’s all smoke and mirrors, airbrushing, lighting, stretching. No wonder people are killing themselves. Starving themselves. Popping pills. They’re all trying to achieve something impossible.”
That may seem easy for her to say—especially if you believe the press reports about how Aniston lost 30 pounds to become Rachel. “It was actually 10,” she says with a laugh. “I mean, I was huge, apparently.” She rolls her eyes. “The idea that I got ‘Friends’ because I got thin isn’t true at all.”
Almost as soon as the word “thin” comes out of her mouth, Aniston checks herself. “I got healthy,” she says. “I don’t think I got thin. I think I got healthy. I eat food now.” She pauses, and it’s clear that food has not always been a simple issue in her past. “Like a year before I met Brad, I started getting to a place where I was sick a lot, and my energy was low and I wasn’t happy,” she continues, “so then I started taking vitamins and exercising like a fiend, and maybe went too far on that, because you get in that Zone Diet thing and you get kind of addicted to that. But now I am kind of in a happy medium where I just do what I do. If I can work out, I do, but I don’t go crazy. I’m just healthy.” The past few years, she adds, have brought a sense of self-acceptance with regard to her body, which leaves room for indulgences like a “killer” homemade Thanksgiving sandwich with plenty of mayo and stuffing.
Aniston glances out toward the Pacific sunset and shakes her head. “But I mean, I just don’t get why anyone still cares about this stuff,” she says. “Who starts the intrigue, you know? Who starts the fascination? Let me tell you, it’s not the actors. Never is there an actor who says, ‘I want to be everywhere! I want to be so disgustingly everywhere that people are saying, Okay, that’s enough. We’ve seen enough of her.’”
In Aniston’s case, despite the fact that her life has been pondered and repondered from every conceivable angle, the public thirst for her remains unquenched. “It’ll be interesting to see if it dies down at all once ‘Friends’ is over,” says the actress, who was once approached in the sauna at L.A.’s Burke Williams Spa by fans requesting a group photo and who recently had to have a police escort shuttle her home after being swarmed by paparazzi while out shopping. “At the moment, there are those days when you drive out of your driveway and there’s a car parked at the bottom of the hill, just waiting for you, and you look at them and think, ‘This is what your life has come to? You’re going to follow someone to the market and to the doctor and to get their hair colored? This is how you’ve chosen to spend your day?’”
Paparazzi aren’t the only ones who’ve sought to profit from Aniston’s personal life. In 1999, her mother published her memories of Jennifer’s childhood—including the gory details of the divorce—in a stomach-turning tell-all called From Mother and Daughter to Friends. “I don’t think my mother understood how it would make me feel to have all that stuff broadcast,” says Aniston, who is clearly still emotionally bruised by the experience. “But then, of course, when I told her, she still didn’t get it,” she continues, her tone twisting slightly in anger, “or she just didn’t care how I felt.”
Still, Aniston seems certain that the two will reconcile eventually. “It’s just a matter of time,” says the actress, who credits “years of therapy” with helping her understand the situation. “I don’t need an apology because I already know the truth, and if I approach her with an expectation of an apology it could just lead to disappointment,” she says. “I just, at some point I’ll just have to let go and decide to forgive her, which I can’t do yet.”
She shakes her head sadly. “The bummer is that we were so dirt poor when I was growing up, and now there’s plenty of money, and I feel like we should be able to enjoy it together.”
Indeed, Aniston says she’s still routinely floored by the paycheck she takes home every week for “Friends.” “That’s not something I’ll ever get used to,” she says.
Not that she and Pitt aren’t having an awfully good time trying. In addition to the Beverly Hills house—complete with waterfall pool—the couple also purchased a sprawling oceanfront estate in Santa Barbara that Aniston refers to as Brad’s Baby.
“Brad’s a land man,” she explains. “He wants land, land, land.” And land isn’t Pitt’s only domestic interest either. He and Aniston have been renovating the Beverly Hills house since they purchased it in June 2001 and are still “not quite there yet,” she admits. “We were just going to do the floors,” she says drily. “But Brad has such an incredible eye, and he gets in there and sort of says, ‘Well, how high can this ceiling go?’ and ‘What’s behind that wall?’
“He definitely has strong opinions about aesthetics, and I admire that so much,” she goes on. “It’s hard, though, because the one thing I thought I could do well was put homes together, but it’s something that really matters to him, so we’ve learned to make decisions that we both feel good about. And I actually think our marriage is even better now because we’ve been through this stuff. We’ve settled in; we’ve survived the whole house-construction aspect, and that’s a big thing. It’s not always easy. It takes work.”
And yes, even the occasional dustup. “We do fight,” admits Aniston, a self-confessed “conflict avoider.” Then she clarifies, “Well, we have discussions. I am not a fan of fighting when it is screaming. I like accomplishing something. But I don’t trust a couple that says they don’t fight.” Nevertheless, she remains in awe of what she refers to as her husband’s general kindness. “He’ll hate me for saying that,” she chuckles, “but when you grow up in a family where people are not always very kind to each other, you realize how important that is.”
Asked how it feels to have found the love of her life, Aniston offers a rather cryptic answer: “Is he the love of my life? I think you’re always sort of wondering, ‘Are you the love of my life?’ I mean, I don’t know, I’ve never been someone who says, ‘He’s the love of my life.’ He’s certainly a big love in my life.” She pauses. “And I know that we have something special, especially in all this chaos. In this nutty, brilliant, wonderful, hard business that we have, it’s nice to have somebody who’s anchored and knows you, really knows all of you.”
That sort of unconditional acceptance, Aniston adds, seems gradually to be helping her to come to terms with herself as well. “If there’s one thing I’m proud of, it’s that I’ve finally gotten over not liking myself,” she says. “It’s took me 10 years to really notice, Wow, you’re not really nice to yourself, are you? You really don’t like yourself very much. And then it took a long time to get to the point where I do like myself, but I actually do now. I’m a pretty happy person these days.” She smiles that sad, beautiful smile. “I think too much, but otherwise, I’m happy.”