Jennifer Aniston proving herself in new film Cake

EVERYONE’S favourite Friend still feels she has a lot to prove, despite her success. Jennifer Aniston tells Frank Bruni that a slice of her new movie Cake, will showcase her talent

Jennifer Aniston at a photocall last November. Picture: Contributed
Jennifer Aniston at a photocall last November. Picture: Contributed

You can star in one of the most beloved sitcoms of the last quarter of a century, win an Emmy, be paid $1 million per episode, find as much success in movies and still have more than a little something to prove, along with a whole lot to lose.

So in the seconds before the first public showing of Cake at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, Jennifer Aniston was a wreck inside.

“It didn’t hit me until the lights went down that the most people who’d seen it were eight people, and all of a sudden we were in a 1,500-seat theatre,” she says, her eyes widening at the memory. “I just didn’t know how it would be received. It’s a vulnerable, terrifying moment.”

Cake, about a devastated woman’s uncertain recovery, does away with pretty, peppy Aniston and installs a pill-popping harridan in her place. She has scars on her face, flab on her body, an anguished gait and an acid tongue. It’s a kind of glamour-for-grit statement just familiar enough to raise the possibility of eye rolls in lieu of applause. It’s a plea of sorts, and Aniston had no guarantee of a charitable answer.

But when the lights rose in Toronto, the audience did, too, giving her a standing ovation. And while the movie, which opens in the UK later this month, got mixed notices from the handful of critics who weighed in, she got just enough positive recognition to essentially muscle herself into the awards season.

She has been an indefatigable whirlwind over the last few months, following the media script of a publicist known as an Oscar whisperer and attending more than a dozen question-and-answer sessions at special screenings in California and New York. And it’s working. In December she picked up Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Critics’ Choice nominations for best actress, although she failed to convert these into statuettes.

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She recognises this moment as perhaps her best chance to “take away the cloak of Rachel,” she says, referring to her part on the sitcom Friends. The intensity of her desire to do precisely that was suggested by her reaction when, toward the start of our interview recently at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, I note that a reviewer had called Cake a showcase for her “hitherto hidden acting chops.”

“Hmm, yes, very deep underneath,” she says of these ostensibly buried gifts, adding that the notion was “kind of head-scratching – Wow.”

A few minutes later, she returns to the critic’s “hidden” phrase, again registering frustration with its insinuation that something other than talent and craft had gone into her work in Friends and about two dozen movies, not all comedies, since the mid-1990s.

And she alludes to the phrase twice more after that. In each instance, her otherwise smooth, affable manner takes on the slightest of edges. “You have to do something really dark to be taken seriously, I guess,” she says. Then, referring to both the duration of Friends and its popularity in syndication, she adds: “If you’re in someone’s living room every week for 10 years and every day on God knows what network, people are going to have a hard time saying, ‘OK, we’re going to see you do what now’ without making associations. It’s a Catch-22. It’s like: ‘I know I can play this part, you just have to let me.’ And then it’s ‘I can’t let you play that part, because I’ve never seen you do it.’ There were jobs that I really wanted and would fight and fight for and then the obvious previous Oscar winners would get them.”

For example?

She shook her head. No go. She knows too well how much the media loves to pit one celebrity against another. To believe the tabloids, she has spent the last decade in a grudge match with Angelina Jolie, whose husband, Brad Pitt, was of course married to Aniston first.

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“It’s ridiculous – that the two names have to go into the same sentence and there has to be a compare-and-despair thing,” she says.

But fate keeps nudging the names together. One of the surprising subplots of the Oscar race is the way Jolie’s much-discussed, doggedly promoted prospects for a best director nod, for Unbroken, dimmed just as Aniston’s odds for a best actress nomination brightened, although in the end neither got the call this time around. Along the way, there was also that Sony nastiness, including disparaging emails from producer Scott Rudin about Jolie.

Aniston beats back any discussion of that. “I don’t want to give any fuel to the fire,” she says. She is practiced and game enough to permit 30 seconds of conversation about Jolie and Pitt. But a full minute is pushing it. Her posture stiffens.

For a long time now, Aniston, 45, has been one of Hollywood’s most mercilessly chronicled celebrities, pressing on through a ceaseless storm of gossip and a constant swarm of paparazzi.

“They would interrupt our shots,” recalls Daniel Barnz, the director of Cake (whose credits include Beastly and Won’t Back Down), describing takes of outdoor scenes ruined by the whistling of photographers trying to put a startled expression on Aniston’s face and get her to look their way. “We didn’t have the budget or manpower to keep them at bay.”

And she has clearly developed strategies for the fishbowl. She surrenders just enough so that she doesn’t have to give up too much. She scatters tidbits of apparent revelation amid anodyne lines.

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Before I ask, she mentions Justin Theroux, the star of the HBO series The Leftovers and her fiancé of more than two years, dropping him into a story about an unappreciated boyfriend who died years later of a brain tumour.

“He was my first love – five years we were together,” she says, referring to that boyfriend. “He would have been the one. But I was 25, and I was stupid. He must have sent me Justin to make up for it all.”

I take note of her engagement ring, with its gargantuan diamond.

“It’s a rock, I know,” she says, sounding abashed but not really. “He rocked it up. It took me a while to get used to it. I’m not a diamond girl. I’m more Indian jewellery and stuff.” Her outfit isn’t regal: blue jeans and a black, open-collared shirt.

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I note the speculation about why she and Theroux haven’t tied the knot yet, and she says they’re still figuring out what kind of ceremony they want. She doesn’t volunteer any more detail than necessary.

She bristles at the scrutiny her private life gets, in part, because it underscores what she believes to be a double standard, one that came up the night before our interview, when she talked with an audience after a Manhattan screening of Cake.

A woman noted that Aniston had repeatedly fielded the question of whether she was concerned about the likeability of her Cake character. “That’s something men don’t get asked,” the woman said.

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Aniston interjected before it was even clear the woman was done.

“They don’t get asked a lot of things,” she said.

During our interview, she elaborates: “You don’t see a lot of men getting asked: ‘Why aren’t you married? Why aren’t you having children?’ You don’t get the ‘Well, they seem to play the same thing over and over again,’ and some of them do.”

“We’re very much a sexist society,” she says. “Women are still not paid as much as men.” Just days earlier, the latest batch of Sony leaks revealed that Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence earned less for American Hustle than Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner did.

“I’ve been up against that in negotiations myself,” she says, but declines to be more specific. And she notes that men’s looks and ageing aren’t dissected with the withering judgment directed at, say, Renée Zellweger, when she re-emerged on the red carpet last October with a seemingly changed face.

“There was a big whistle blown out on her, and it was unnecessary,” Aniston says. “Did she really look that different? Would she walk into a room and you’d say, ‘Who is that?’ That’s Renée, from here on down.” Aniston made a sweeping motion starting just below her eyes. “You can’t hide those pouty little lips.”

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“I really do think you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” she adds. “You either are too fat – ‘Oh my God, she’s gained weight, getting chubby, mid-40s spread!’ – or ‘She’s so skeletal, get some meat on her bones!’ I’ve been on too-thin lists. I’ve been on what-happened-to-her lists.”

She has in fact churned out movies at an unflagging pace. And while many have been romance-tinged, conventional Hollywood comedies, she has routinely built in exceptions. She was the femme fatale to Clive Owen’s patsy in Derailed (2005). She tucked herself into one of director Nicole Holofcener’s idiosyncratic ensembles in Friends With Money (2006). Most notably, she played a Texas dime-store clerk trapped in a mirthless marriage in The Good Girl, a tiny 2002 drama for which she got rave reviews. But the movie quickly faded from memory.

She’s hoping for more from Cake.

When the screenplay for it circulated through Hollywood in 2013, she was one of many actresses to lobby for the lead, which she got only after it was turned down by someone else. Neither she nor Barnz would say whom.

Barnz sees her change of pace in Cake less as a physical transformation along the lines of Charlize Theron’s in Monster or Matthew McConaughey’s in Dallas Buyers Club than as a tonal departure like Mary Tyler Moore’s in Ordinary People.

Aniston’s commitment to the project was instant, he says.

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“She attached herself with zero financing on board,” he says. “You’d think that actors would do that for projects they love all the time, but it’s not true. Their representatives get nervous: if the project doesn’t then get financing, it’s a reflection of their client.”

To play the part, Aniston stopped exercising, put on weight, let her hair get dirty and didn’t wear make-up. All of that is actually less striking on screen than her sluggish, jerky movements, a manifestation of the character’s ambiguously defined physical injuries and reliance on narcotics.

One resource for understanding her character’s experience was a close friend, Stacy Courtney, who has also worked as her stunt double. One of Courtney’s legs was mangled by a boat propeller years ago, and afterwards she endured nearly a dozen operations and a gruelling regimen of physical therapy.

In their conversations, Courtney says, the actress was “really breaking it down and wanting to know: What did it feel like to be that woman, to be in that kind of pain? She really wanted to be inside my body.”

The Cake shoot spanned only about a month. Aniston’s exertions to ensure that the movie is noticed – that nothing about it or her work is “hidden” – have lasted much longer.

And the nervousness that trailed her to Toronto is gone, replaced by pure resolve.

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Fussing with her microphone at that midtown Manhattan screening, she said: “I’m afraid that I’m not going to be loud enough.” So she spoke up. And everyone heard her just fine.

Cake (15) is in cinemas from Friday 20 February

© NYT 2015