Consider the following: Jennifer Aniston got up this morning, took a bath in her new, 12,000-square-foot, not-quite-fully decorated house, kissed Brad goodbye, and went to work on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, where she has been cracking wise as Rachel for the past ten years. She changed into a chic black pantsuit, sat for an hour of hair and makeup, and then, along with the rest of the cast, poured her heart out to Oprah—who had come to L.A. to do her show about the inevitable breakup of America's favorite sixsome. Aniston, to her great embarrassment, blubbered like a baby. When the taping of Oprah was over, "the world's most popular celebrity" (according to Forbes) went head-to-head with "the most powerful woman in television" (according to everyone) for an upcoming O magazine feature. Aniston then got back into her Range Rover and, followed by an ever-present wolf pack of paparazzi, drove to West Hollywood to meet up with a bunch of her Friends (including her best Friend, Courteney Cox Arquette) at one of her favorite joints, a busy little Italian restaurant on Sunset in West Hollywood, one of the last places in L.A. where you can still smoke a lousy cigarette.
The restaurant is kind of like Cheers to a certain 30-something Hollywood crowd, who come here because they know they will be treated with the same comforting strain of friendly indifference by the staff. Here, Aniston is not a Big Star with Special Needs; she is just a girl in need of a cocktail. Tonight, however, when she pulls up in front of the place, Aniston is being so aggressively stalked by three or four "suspicious" vehicles that she jumps out of her car and ducks inside, forgetting her cigarettes and cell phone and leaving her lights on.
Aniston—who seems to live in a constant and acute state of embarrassment about her cumbersome fame—is suddenly forced to become the very thing she dreads most: a high-maintenance celebrity. Sheepish but firm, she calls a waiter over and asks if he would do her a favor. In order to avoid stirring up the vultures, would he mind taking her keys, turning out her lights, and grabbing her cell phone and cigarettes off the console? And while he's at it, could he also please see what those men with the walkie-talkies are doing in those creepy vans? And if they're paparazzi, could he call the police and report them for loitering? "Or I'll do it," she says finally. "L.A. has laws about this now. They have to stay a certain distance away from private property."
The fact that Aniston has decided to toss her three-hour Vogue interview into the midst of what would appear to be her regular, harried routine—with all of its highs and lows and petty annoyances—says a lot about how she deals with the overwhelming strangeness of her life. Instead of separating the mythmaking aspect of her Hollywood job from her "real" life, she treats them as one and the same. "The funny thing is," she says, "if somebody ever wished to be me for a day, all I can think is that they would be the most pissed-off person once they got here. They would be like, 'What in the hell . . . ? I got sold such a bill of bullshit. This is not the greatest thing to be her.' There is a machine that creates these unbelievable illusions, based on, I'm sure, some of what the person gives. But it's an important thing for me to demystify the illusion."
And so, here we sit, drinking wine, getting tipsy, smoking cigarettes, while photographers lie in wait.
The first time I met Aniston, in May 2002, we went fancy-bathtub shopping on Beverly Boulevard (she was just beginning to remodel the new house) and then out to lunch. She was in a terrible mood, partly because she was being followed by paparazzi. I had no idea we were under surveillance until a few weeks later, when a friend who works at a photo agency sent me a few contact sheets of the two of us doing . . . nothing, frankly: feeding the parking meter, window-shopping, talking on cell phones, me blowing my nose, she digging through her bag. She seemed spooked the whole time we were out on our little walk, constantly looking around. Once we got settled in the restaurant, she relaxed and we had a lovely and hilarious conversation. But I also got the sense that she was an emotional girl, full of conflict. She seemed to be on the edge of tears a couple of times.
I asked her then if she cried a lot, and she said, "Yes. I cried today. I even have this thing where I see an elderly person trying to run to make the light and I want to scream out, 'Just take your time! We're not going to run over you!' Those little things make me cry. I'm very emotional, and I get teased about it a lot. Like, 'Weird you're crying.'" That last line, which is classic Aniston, seemed to encapsulate her struggle at the time in one perfect little wisecrack: You, with the perfect life! What have you got to be upset about?!A year and a half later, crying comes up almost immediately, when I ask about Oprah. "She was doing a show about our final year, and there was an audience, and I, unfortunately, am one of those blithering idiots who cried on Oprah. I couldn't stop myself. I really wish I hadn't, but it was this reality check. We've all been in sort of a state of denial about the ending of Friends and this kind of made it real. The way she was talking about, 'What will you miss? And what are you going to be like the last week? And what do you all think of each other?' And, I mean, we were all like, 'Holy shit.'"
Did others cry?
"Yeah," she says. "I think even Oprah got a little misty. It was just something that took us by surprise."
Who is the most broken up over the show ending?
"I think we take turns," she says. "They would all probably say that I'm having the hardest time. Or Matt LeBlanc. Everyone goes through their moments, though. What will we do? Thank God Joey has a show."
This, by the way, is one of the most endearing things about Aniston: even she sometimes refers to the actors by their characters' names. Which leads me to her excellent theory about Why Friends Matters: because the Friends were actually friends, it was, in a weird way, the first reality show. "It's six people in a room, basically living their everyday lives with all sorts of situations that come up. Then, all of a sudden, there was Survivor and Big Brother." Here she slips into the voice of a fast-talking producer. "'Let's just put six people in a room and let a camera roll! Or throw 'em on an island and let's see what happens!' Friends was sort of the birth of all of these groups of 'friends' in a 'room' behaving with each other. Let's take it one step further and make it . . . real!"
At the end of January, Friends will finish taping its last episode, and shortly thereafter, on February 11, Jennifer Aniston will turn 35. She has just recently begun to contemplate both of these facts. There is, for example, the tiny, nagging concern that she will not know exactly when it is time to start thinking about age-appropriate dressing. "Someone will tell me when it's not OK to wear a midriff, right?" she says. When I suggest that dozens of journalists will surely be more than happy to point it out, she nods appreciatively. Aniston believes that the current and oft-repeated postulate "40 is the new 30" makes a lot of sense. "And don't we have Demi Moore to thank for that? It's almost too much to even take, she's so gorgeous."
When Friends was in its first season, a pre-famous-haircut Aniston was sent to New York to take meetings with editors at fashion magazines. "I met with someone at Vogue," she says, "and she was like, 'You know, honey, it takes a lot to get in this magazine.' I was so nervous. I got all dressed up and did my hair, but I was like, 'What am I doing? Meeting magazine editors so they can look me over?'"
Today, needless to say, things work a little differently. For one, she no longer has to audition. For another, Aniston gets a two-day shoot with Steven Meisel and a cover story. When I ask her how the shoot went, she is typically self-deprecating. "Without fail, the night before, I go, 'Why do I think I'm allowed to be in a magazine?' I just get so terrified, but especially this time. I was afraid that Steven was going to show up and go, 'Ohhh, OK, I see. Wow, we've really got our work cut out for us.'" Pause. "'Bring in the big guns!'" She laughs. "But it was amazing. I was watching the most well-oiled machine doing the most unbelievable, meticulous work."
Back in May 2002, when I asked Aniston about fashion, she said, first, that she "resented" it. The next day she took it back and said, "I don't really get it." Today she says, "I love it. I love when people put me in it. And God knows, I'm slowly getting better at putting stuff together myself. You know, I'm not one of those people who are all about the new season. During my move, I tried to clean out my old stuff from . . .high school. I was literally finding things from the eighties. I try to stay up on it, but I just don't like being ruled by it. I don't like feeling that every time I walk out of the house I'm going to be ridiculed or put on trial." Frequently her solution is flip-flops and jeans because "that's just safe."
At the Emmys this year, Aniston wore a kicky blue vintage Halston number, which for her seemed very un-safe. "I've never worn a vintage dress," she says. "I just had the urge. I wasn't feeling gowny and fabulous. I just wasn't in that mood. I waited till the last minute, as usual, and I found that beautiful dress. Didn't even have to have it altered." She leans into my face and, as she does so often, gently mocks the whole idea of being interviewed at all. "So there it is. Isn't that fascinating?"
Just then, a guy with a walkie-talkie darts past the window. Aniston bristles—and then mutters obscenities under her breath. The waiter notices her discomfort. "Are they still there?" he says, looking out the window.
"Yup," she says. "There's one across the street, there's one right here, and there's one over there." Then to me: "Sorry. I have 400 eyes on every side of my head."
Is it always like this?
"You know, sometimes I can duck out and get away," she says. "Do a little zip-zap-zoo and sort of lose them, but I really think at a certain point you just have to give in to it. I don't want to let them make money off of my daily existence, which is just feeding into that machine, creating this world that doesn't really exist, making it more intriguing than it really is." She sighs, takes a sip of her wine. "But it's just not going to go away."
Ever since Aniston got married, she's been an object of media obsession. But the press frenzy really went into high gear in the summer of 2002. For one thing, The Good Girl, which came out in August, earned her universally glowing reviews. It went a long way, she says, toward squelching some of the raging insecurity she has about being taken seriously as a dramatic film actor. "I was very relieved," she says. "It was almost like my Sally Field moment: Ooooh, they do like me! But I remember thinking, OK, now don't get comfortable. You're going to have to work really hard on the next one. This could be it."
A month later, Friends finally won the Emmy for best comedy, with Aniston taking home her first Emmy as best actress in a Comedy. "Yeah, it was pretty great," she says. "I was working hard at the same time, so I didn't sit around patting myself on the back. I always get introverted in a weird way. I don't know how to explain it. I was a little overwhelmed by it all because it was such a condensed period of time, but I remember saying, 'Have fun, because this may never happen again.'"
Her raves for The Good Girl also led to her getting cast opposite Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty, which took in $86 million on the weekend it opened last summer and was Aniston's first hit.
Needless to say, the press are not likely to lose interest in her and her husband anytime soon. Early 2004 is already shaping up to be an Aniston-Pitt juggernaut. Aside from the bye-bye-Friends media orgy that will surely engulf the nation, Pitt—tan, muscled-up, and leonine—will appear in the $150 million epic Troy in May. (What is it about long blond hair on a male star that makes women in middle America lose their marbles? Remember the Brad-mania that accompanied Legends of the Fall?) Aniston's latest film, Along Came Polly, comes out in January. It is a romantic comedy starring Ben Stiller, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Debra Messing. The film is essentially an update of the opposites-attract genre: Stiller plays a risk-averse man who has mapped out his life, which includes marrying Debra Messing. After she cheats on their honeymoon, Stiller hooks up with Aniston, who plays Polly, a kooky free spirit. Aniston took the part because she "laughed her head off" when she read the script. Stiller, who has known Aniston from their sketch-comedy days in the early nineties, says, "I'm not an expert on her Friends character, but I know that who she is as a person is closer to the character she plays in our movie. She's really kind of surprisingly cool and very open-minded about life."
Aniston and Pitt, along with Brad Grey, have formed a production company, Plan B, and they hope to make a film together about Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered in Pakistan. Pearl's wife, Mariane, initially refused to sell the rights to her book, A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband Danny Pearl, but changed her mind after meeting with the couple. "She is one of the most inspiring and courageous women I've met in a long time," says Aniston. "And if the film is something that seems worthy of the story that she told, if it's done in the right way, then it will be made. That was sort of the deal that we all set with one another, as well as with her, because it's such delicate subject matter."
Aniston, who says she would love to play a purely dramatic role someday ("I can see it"), is tentative when I ask her about playing Mariane Pearl. "If it works," she says, "I would love to think that I could, but I reserve the right not to. We'll have to see when it happens. I'm just excited about nurturing it."
When I interviewed Aniston a year and a half ago, she worried out loud about needing to be better educated about current world events. Taking on the Pearl film would appear to be part of her making good on a promise to herself. She and Pitt have also attended some meetings of One Voice, an organization dedicated to bringing peace to the Middle East that was started by a Jewish-American businessman. The press has been typically cynical about the idea of a Hollywood couple's being interested in anything besides show business or themselves. "We're not going to Israel," says Aniston, denying one report. "I'm hesitant about getting into a political discussion because I'm educating myself at the same time and it's so easy to take that and go, 'Oh, they're going to Israel,' and all of a sudden you're in the cross fire."
Smartening up about the world is not the only fear that Aniston has faced down recently. When Pitt was away in Malta making Troy, Aniston, who is deathly afraid of flying, forced herself to visit him on the Mediterranean island. "Let me tell you something," she says. "That ain't no short trip." Indeed, getting there required her to take four separate planes—her first commercial flights since 9/11.
Pitt was gone for six months, the longest they've been apart since they met. "It was hard," she says, lighting another cigarette. "And yet it was good. There's nothing like having some quiet time. But I have to tell you, it's amazing to realize how much you love somebody when they're not there. Where are they?" Eventually, though, she adjusted. "There was total trust and communication, so it was OK. But now, having him back is fantastic."
While Pitt was away, Aniston finally moved out of her little cottage in the Hollywood Hills and into the Beverly Hills manse that the couple bought in June 2001. It has been a long and arduous project. "There was the design of the house, which was Brad's job, but the rest was a team effort, which is why it took so long, because we had to agree on everything. My sweet, dear husband, who has such patience with me, the idiot savant, is inherently brilliant with homes, structure. I had a hard time with it at first because I felt a little bit inferior, because for me, it's not about the hippest thing, it's about what feels the best. It could be from a garage sale and if it feels good, it will work. And you know, my home has always been my prized possession; it was always the thing that I did great. There was a lot of 'Honey, what do you think?' It was very symbolic for us. And we have a house that is truly a combination of both of us, and it's beautiful. At the end of it, it was the greatest thing we ever did." Pause. "Next to making a kid, and then the house will be the second-best thing we ever did."
That's the big question, I say, teasing.
She levels me with a look: "Do you all want to actually be there when we conceive?" She laughs. "It will happen when Friends is over."
One gets the sense that Aniston may even be ready to tackle another subject close to home. As almost everyone now knows, Aniston and her mother, Nancy, have spoken only once since 1996, when her mother spilled some family secrets on a tabloid-TV show; in 1999, she published a biography that detailed embarrassing parts of Aniston's childhood. I noticed in recent interviews that Aniston has sounded sanguine about the betrayal. "A lot of it is me being very stubborn and very self-righteous in my position of how I was wronged by my mom. And I think there comes a point where you have to grow up and get over yourself, lighten up . . . and forgive. People are who they are, and they make mistakes. I definitely see that there's hope. I think I have to be the one, but I haven't gotten there yet. My husband doesn't know my mother, and that's weird, because she was my life. And maybe that was the problem. But, you know, I see myself, I look in the mirror, I watch the show, and I'm like, Oh, my God. You're Nancy. You've become her, so you may as well call her." She takes a deep breath. "It's so easy to talk about other people and rake them over the coals. And that's the price you pay for being a known personality." Here she slips into a kind of moron voice: "'You asked for it. You're a celebrity.' If I hear that one more time. . . ."
She gestures toward the street and the lurking photographers with their walkie-talkies and high-powered lenses. "I didn't actually ask for this," she says. When I use the word hard to describe life under a microscope, she bristles. "Hard being relative. It's hard when you're on the front lines with a gun in your hand." But then she concedes, "It's a weird strain of hard. Because it's not life and death. Thank God, this is the hard. Mariane Pearl . . . there's that kind of hard, that life. And then there's this." She takes a drag off a cigarette. "And then I also have to fight with the guilt, the inner voice going, 'Well, I don't have a right to be complaining.'"
In the last half-hour of our long, leisurely conversation, some of Aniston's friends have begun to arrive. There is a stylist, Todd, the guy who found that vintage Halston she wore to the Emmys. Then a couple of women whose names I don't catch. Suddenly the room is electrified with noise and excitement. A guy named Kevin comes in. He works for Warner Bros. "One of the people we work with on Friends," Aniston whispers to me. "We're very lucky. We have good people." He comes up to the table and kisses her hello. "I just saw the trailer to your new movie," he says. "It looks fucking hilarious."
"I hope so," says Aniston.
"And I saw the teasers today for Troy. How rockin' is that? It's such a sucker punch."
"It really is," she says.
"Yeah, really good," she says.
"Are people still being crabby?" he says of the cast of Friends.
"No, we're great now. Everybody was acting out trying to make it easier to leave each other."
Earlier, I asked Aniston if there was any truth to the story that she was the one who didn't want to do another season of Friends. "It's not complete bullshit, but everybody had an issue. People wanted different things, and doing a shorter season was the compromise. I really wanted to go out on top. And I also felt a little bit like we'd played it out and I didn't know what more we could do, but sure enough, that's not the case. Thank god we went another year because if we ended last year you would have found me up in a tree somewhere screaming things at people: I am Rachel!"
As if on cue, Courteney Cox walks in looking gorgeous. Because Aniston is obscured by a wall, I impulsively wave to her as if to say, "Over here." It is so easy to think that the Friends are actually your friends. Cox looks at me as if I'm a weirdo fan but waves anyway. When I tell Aniston this, she cracks up laughing. "See? That's just how sweet she is. She'll wave to you." As Cox makes her way through the crowd, I ask Aniston if they really are best friends, and she bottom-lines it for me with a joke: "If we were lesbians we would marry each other."
Did you hit it off right away?
"Not right, right away," she says. "Well, that's not true. I remember meeting Courteney and I was enraptured. First of all, that someone's face could be that beautiful? And it goes way beyond that. Her spirit is infectious. She's somebody you are around and you just want to be a better person. You want to live! She lives so fully. She and David Arquette are something to witness. They have no inhibitions, they are very forthcoming, and that's just a different road to take, where everything is worn out on her sleeve. She's inside out. She's like a hairless cat."
When Cox finally arrives at our table to join her friend for dinner, it is my cue to leave. When I stand up to say goodbye to Aniston, something about the spirit of the evening inspires her to practically climb over the table to hug and kiss me. A look of astonishment crosses Cox's face. "My God," she says. "This is so great that she's enjoying being interviewed for a change. What went on here?" The paparazzi finally catch a glimpse of their prey, who is momentarily unobscured by the wall she has been sitting behind, and they literally all jam into the doorway of the restaurant, so that flashbulbs blind me as I head out to the valet to get my car. Back home, a couple of days later, I buy a copy of the New York Post and there is a big photograph of Aniston, trying to escape into her Range Rover at the end of the evening. In the picture, she appears slightly annoyed and yet, somehow, sort of resigned. Her long blonde bangs cover much of her face as she peers into her rearview mirror with one eye, futilely hoping for a clean getaway.
"Everybody Loves Jennifer" by Jonathan Van Meter has been edited for Style.com; the complete story appears in the January 2004 issue of Vogue