At the top of a long, winding hill, behind an imposing gate and an anxious dog, stands Jennifer Aniston.
“Come on in,” she says, sandaled and smiling as she ushers me into her home.
Before I’ve had time to take in the sweeping views of Los Angeles from her entryway, she’s in the kitchen whipping me up the shake that she enjoys most afternoons — with collagen peptides, antioxidants and a slew of other ingredients that she meticulously measures and pours into her blender. This is Aniston, the host, a role that her friends all say she was born to play.
“I can’t exaggerate how much she loves it, and how good she is at it,” says one of her longest and closest, Kristin Hahn, with whom Aniston and her first husband, Brad Pitt, started Plan B and, later, Echo Films. “You go to her house and everything’s warm and cozy. If it’s wintertime, there’s a fire going, the bar’s open, and dinner at Jen’s house tastes unlike any other dinner. I mean, I’ve been eating in her ‘house restaurant’ for 20 years now and I swear there’s, like, aphrodisiac in that food.”
Jason Bateman, another longtime friend, brings his family over to Aniston’s most Sunday evenings for what’s known in their circle as “Sunday Fundays,” where dinner and drinks are served and A-list progeny (i.e., his and Jimmy Kimmel’s kids) run around her sprawling Bel Air property. The group lovingly refers to their host as “Carol,” a nickname that Bateman attempts to explain: “Carol’s sort of like a den mother,” he says, “or if you can imagine a woman who’d be the enthusiastic leader of a bowling team and all that goes with that. Someone who’s almost stuck in the 1940s in the way she organizes stuff because she just wants to make sure everybody is comfortable and has a good time.”
Before long, I’m following Aniston, or “Carol,” through her mid-century home, past a stacked bar, a mirrored gym and a Zen garden, some of which were featured in an Architectural Digest cover story in 2018. Back then, the office that I’m headed to belonged to her second ex, Justin Theroux, and it was considerably darker, a mix of cement, paint and stained floors. “It was cool,” she says, “very J.T.” Now, it’s Aniston’s sanctuary, where she comes to read scripts and think, and it’s all creamy whites, with a door mat that reads, “Welcome to the babe cave.” Theroux had been by a couple of weeks before and had asked to see it. “I was like, ‘Come on in,’ ” Aniston recalls, “and he was like, ‘Well, I got to say, it’s super nice.’ ”
The Morning Show star has spent more time here in the past two years than she has in any one spot since she starred as Rachel Green on NBC’s runaway hit, Friends, some two decades ago. She’d feared she may be bored or, worse, lonely, in the early days of lockdown, when leaving wasn’t really an option, but instead she enjoyed her own company. Like everyone else, Aniston got into cooking and documentaries and Zooming with her vast orbit of girlfriends. And by November, she was back in production on the second season of her Apple TV+ series, for which she’s also a hands-on producer; five months later, she was surrounded by her Friends‘ co-stars (and real-life friends) for a reunion that hit her harder than she anticipated. Along the way, she launched a hair-care brand and quietly donated millions to charity.
Soon, the 52-year-old will be back on the road, having lined up a series of projects, including a Murder Mystery sequel with her pal Adam Sandler. But first, Aniston, who’s being honored with The Hollywood Reporter‘s Sherry Lansing Leadership Award for her professional and philanthropic contributions, kicks off her sandals and gets real about her own long, winding road to this place in her life and career.
While mixing my shake, you said you were excited to jump back into a comedy — in this case, Murder Mystery 2 — after a very dramatic season of The Morning Show. Do you find you take material home?
No, I’m thrilled to leave it at work. What did wear on me was the emotional and physical drain that took place over those seven months, just trying to pull that out on a daily basis. But once I started working with an incredible woman, and I’ve worked with a lot of great coaches, but this particular woman had a different set of tools and it was about getting really personal with myself. At first, I was like, “Oh no, no, no, no, we don’t go in there. We don’t go into that.” Cake was one of the first films we did together, and before that the anxiety of an emotional scene was almost too much. I’d think, “I’m not a dramatic actress because I don’t know how to cry.” I just knew how to laugh because that was how I remedied all of the darkness.
Your character delivers a monologue in the finale, in which she says, among other things, that she hadn’t realized her decision to be on TV would be an invitation to the world to “dig around asking questions about [her] sex life.” In what ways did that speech resonate?
I mean, there’s something almost witchy about Kerry Ehrin, our head writer. I had a 9-millimeter bulging disc right before we were supposed to go back into production this season; I was actually supposed to start in October, and I didn’t go back until November because I’d tried to stand up one day and couldn’t. I couldn’t move. Four days into this injury, I read episode five, and it’s like, “Alex can’t move [she’s thrown out her back].” I’m like, “How is Kerry doing this?!” So, yeah, art imitates life, and she wrote a monologue that if I could’ve written it myself, I would have — and it felt really good because I don’t think I’d ever have the balls to say, “Go fuck yourselves. Get the hell out of my panty drawer, you motherf—ers, and let me do my job and stop being mad at me for it.” There was definitely something very freeing about that.
You also shot the Friends reunion, which was something that you and the cast had resisted doing for so long. What changed?
Enter [director] Ben Winston. We were all like, “I don’t know if we were just seduced by his talent or his charm or a combination of all of it.” Even the boys were like, “Damn, I’m kind of in love with the guy. Like, I don’t know if I said yes because it’s good or because he’s so gorgeous.” Whatever it was, we all said yes, so …
It was a powerful reminder of how strong the chemistry of that cast was and seemingly still is.
We really did have so much fun together. I remember that was one of the things when we were young and dumb and renegotiating, one of the [studio’s] threats was, “Well, we don’t need all six of you. We can do this with four of you.” We were like, “What? You can? You can get rid of Rachel or Joey or who?” Then it was like, “No they can’t, wake up.”
I’ve heard you say that the reunion was harder on you than you anticipated.
Time travel is hard.
Right, talk to me about that.
I think we were just so naive walking into it, thinking, “How fun is this going to be? They’re putting the sets back together, exactly as they were.” Then you get there and it’s like, “Oh right, I hadn’t thought about what was going on the last time I was actually here.” And it just took me by surprise because it was like, “Hi, past, remember me? Remember how that sucked? You thought everything was in front of you and life was going to be just gorgeous and then you went through maybe the hardest time in your life?” It was all very jarring and, of course, you’ve got cameras everywhere and I’m already a little emotionally accessible, I guess you could say, so I had to walk out at certain points. I don’t know how they cut around it.
The career was one thing. I didn’t know what was coming, and that’s been nothing but blessed. It’s a different caliber of work but I love it, no matter what, even if it’s a terribly reviewed, dumb comedy, it doesn’t matter if it brings me joy. It was more personal stuff that I had expectations about that sort of shape-shifted, so to speak. That was what was jarring, that we all had an idea of what the future was going to be and we were going to go hunker down and focus on this or that and then it all just changed overnight, and that was it. But again, everything’s a blessing if you’re able to look at life’s ups and downs in that way. And if it all hadn’t happened, I would not be sitting here the woman that I am.
As part of a more recent cultural reckoning, we’ve seen the media narratives of folks like Britney Spears and Monica Lewinsky be reframed through a 2021 lens. If we were to revisit yours — the endless tabloid coverage, the Team Aniston T-shirts — do you think we, as a culture, would be horrified?
I don’t know, because I think people are still doing it today. What the tabloids and the media did to people’s personal lives back then, regular people are doing now. Although I haven’t seen a tabloid in so long. Am I still having twins? Am I going to be the miracle mother at 52? (Laughs.) Now you’ve got social media. It’s almost like the media handed over the sword to any Joe Schmo sitting behind a computer screen to be a troll or whatever they call them and bully people in comment sections. So it’s just sort of changed hands in a way. And I don’t know why there’s such a cruel streak in society. I often wonder what they get off on.
And yet you’re still here. You never had a public breakdown, you never shaved your head. How do you think you were you able to stay centered through it all?
A godsend of support — just so many evolved, positive people around me. I also grew up watching someone [Aniston’s late mother] sit comfortably in victimhood, and I didn’t like how it looked. I knew that this person was giving me an example of what I’d never want to be, and I will never ever be that. I think it’s toxic, and it erodes your insides and your soul. And listen, is it a sliver of an annoyance to have to publicly go through dark shit in front of the world? Yes, it’s an inconvenience, but it’s all relative. So, I had a choice to make: Either I’m going to surrender into bonbons and living under my covers or I’m going to go out there and find a creative outlet and thrive, and that’s what I did. It just happened to be with a movie called The Break-Up. (Laughs.)
How do you think that Hollywood sees you versus the way that you want to be seen, and how has that changed over time?
I was the girl next door, the damsel in distress, the brokenhearted — your traditional rom-com themes. And at a certain point, it was like, “Can’t we do something else? Am I just on this part of the cereal aisle? Like, will I ever get to be a bountiful Kashi or some sort of oatmeal, or am I going to be Fruit Loops forever?” And then you start to doubt yourself. “Maybe I can’t? Maybe there’s a reason that no one [is giving me these opportunities]?” Now, so much is self-generated, which is great since I wasn’t going to get the jobs I’m really interested in because the industry isn’t secure enough to say, “Yeah, let’s try it.” They go for the actors they know can play the fancy dramatic roles. But there are still certain directors I’d love to work with, ones who have their pick of who they like, and sometimes I want to go, “I’d love to be part of that club.”
I’d love to work with Wes Anderson.
I’ve heard you say that you were initially resistant to the comedy path. Is it true you met with Lorne Michaels about a role on Saturday Night Live, and it was you who wasn’t interested?
That was right before Friends, I remember walking in, and it was [David] Spade and Sandler, and I knew those guys forever, and I was so young and dumb and I went into Lorne’s office and I was like, “I hear women are not respected on this show.” I don’t remember exactly what I said next, but it was something like, “I would prefer if it were like the days of Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin.” I mean, it was such a boys’ club back then, but who the fuck was I to be saying this to Lorne Michaels?! So yes, adorably that happened and I’ve hosted Saturday Night Live a couple of times, and I love it so much.
How about now? Does the industry see you as you want to be seen?
I don’t know because I don’t know what the industry is anymore. It’s not the same industry that it used to be. It’s not that glamorous anymore. It’s slowly becoming about TikTok and Instagram followers. It’s like, we’re hiring now based on followers, not talent? Oh, dear. And I’m losing touch. I’m not great at going, “I’m going to stay relevant and join TikTok.”
Sure, but when you decided you were finally ready to join Instagram two years ago, it caused such a frenzy that the site actually crashed. I believe you broke the record for being the fastest user to reach 1 million followers.
And then I was like, “Fuck. What now?” (Laughs.) I used to say, can’t I just join Twitter for a day and say “Debunk” or “That’s bullshit”? The answer was no, because then people respond and you have to follow up, and I was like, “Well, that sounds terrible. I don’t want to do that.”
Matt Damon recently talked about the potential career impact of tabloid attention, which he, unlike his pal Ben Affleck, has largely managed to avoid. He said, “If people can see 16 pictures of you drinking coffee or walking your dog, I think it dilutes the desire to see you in a movie.” Do you agree?
It’s a fine line to walk, maintaining some sort of mystery, but also being able to participate in current society — going out to dinner or being on Instagram. And that’s the other thing about the pandemic: I’m prone to agoraphobia, and so I used to be like, “Let’s go to dinner,” and now I’m like, “No, let’s not. Come over, come over, come over.” I think I’ve been to five restaurants [since the pandemic began], and the same ones because they required vaccinations. You know, someone literally called me a “liberal Vax-hole” the other day. I don’t understand the disconnect right now, being bullied for wanting people not to be sick? I mean, that’s what we’re talking about.
So, how do you feel the attention paid to your private life has impacted your professional one?
Well, people certainly project onto you and all that, but my job is to go, “Listen, I’ll show you what I’m capable of, and you decide if you want to subscribe.” So, you disappear as much as you can, you have fun, you take on these weird roles, you don’t give a shit, you enjoy yourself, you remember that you have a gorgeous group of friends and your life is blessed and you do the best that you can. I used to take it all very personally — the pregnancy rumors and the whole “Oh, she chose career over kids” assumption. It’s like, “You have no clue what’s going with me personally, medically, why I can’t … can I have kids?” They don’t know anything, and it was really hurtful and just nasty.
I remember hearing you talk with Gloria Steinem about how it can feel like your value as a woman is tied to your marital status and whether or not you’ve procreated, to which Gloria said …
She said, “I guess we’re in deep shit.” (Laughs.) It’s the same with Dolly Parton; Dolly Parton never had kids. But are people giving her shit for it? No, no one’s tried to put her in a white picket fence.
Men seem to have escaped that judgment as well.
Which is such a double standard: Men can be married as many times as they want to, they can marry [younger] women in their 20s or 30s. Women aren’t allowed to do that. Men in their 30s, by the way, are way different from men in their 40s and 50s. And late 20s even — it’s a whole new world that I’m finding is alive and kicking and they’re not … what was my point? (Laughs.) Oh, about maintaining a little bit of mystery so that people can suspend disbelief when they see you in character. I guess I feel like if you’re doing what you do well enough, you should be able to do it. And if you’re not, you probably shouldn’t do it anymore.
Shifting gears, your Morning Show co-star Reese Witherspoon recently sold her production company at a valuation of $900 million. Is building something like that appealing to you?
(Shakes her head no.) That’s too much work. I like to not work as much as she likes to. (Laughs.) I say to her, “You exhaust me, woman. I don’t know how you do that.” She’s like, “I don’t idle well.” And I’m like, “Obviously.”
Do you idle well?
Oh, I idle beautifully. (Laughs.) I love to work, but I also love to not work. I’m really OK. And this may be pandemic-related, because I went through a period of working nonstop with maybe a month or two off here and there for almost 25 years.
Having had this time, do you foresee yourself slowing down?
I don’t think so. In fact, I’m about to speed up and not be free for two years. But I’ll schedule it so that I get breaks in between, and not just go back to back to back. You need that time to recharge and be with your friends and your family and your dogs.
I’m curious, do your choices feel different today?
I’m being offered a lot of very dark stuff, so I guess be careful what you wish for. One project is funny dark, which I love. There’s another one that’s just dark, and I go, “Ooh, I’ve got to think about that,” but that’s a year and a half away. There are, like, five films in development that I’m excited about. One has a Big Chill vibe, and I love an ensemble like nobody’s business, and then there’s this one that’s very bizarre that I’m probably going to do after Murder Mystery 2, which is next. Murder Mystery is my “Get me to a comedy, please, I need fart jokes,” as I crawl over the COVID finish line.
Are we at the COVID finish line?
I meant my creative COVID finish line with The Morning Show, but I do think we’re getting closer. I’m excited to get on a plane again — and terrified as well. I haven’t left California since January 2020. Courteney [Cox’s] in Malibu is as far as I’ve been. It’s Sony studios, Courteney’s, the Batemans’ — there are, like, five houses I’ve been to.
You seem to be a little surprised by how much you enjoyed slowing down. Is that a fair assessment?
It surprised me that I didn’t become bored immediately. I loved cooking. I wasn’t brilliant at it, but I found ways to make eggs every which way and I became a lover of pasta again. Carbs are not the boogeyman. And then it was exercise and meditation and conversations. Like, you’d find yourself on a weekly Zoom circle where you’d get real metaphysical and woo-woo and talk about what’s it all about.
Your Friends co-star Matthew Perry announced recently that he was writing a memoir. Does that hold any appeal to you?
I don’t have the memories done yet — they’re still coming. But that doesn’t appeal to me, really. I also feel like, “Who cares?”
Your father is still a working actor at 88. Do you envision yourself doing the same at his age?
Oh yeah, I’m just getting started. I’ve only recently started to be like, “Oh, I got this.” I think I needed to get over those hurdles of self-doubt and own who I am and where I am and just how long I’ve fucking been here.
You really feel you’re just getting started?
I do. I really, really do.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.