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'GOOD' AS IT GETS FOR JENNIFER ANISTON, PLAYING A PLAIN JANE PROVIDED A REFRESHING AND RISKY DEPARTURE FROM HER ROLE ON 'FRIENDS'.

Byline: Evan Henerson Staff Writer

THE YEAR THE NBC comedy ``Friends'' first went into syndication, Jennifer Aniston was followed into a San Francisco drug store where a pair of autograph seekers discovered her purchasing - among other things - toilet paper and feminine hygiene products.

``They said they had been following me for blocks, something like, 'We weren't sure that was you. Can we have your autograph?' '' recalls Aniston. ``OK, that's painless. They just want an autograph. Then it just kind of took off like a rocket all of a sudden, the most boring, mundane things ... somebody wants to take a picture of you eating lunch? What's the big deal there?

``The only difference between my life and your life,'' she continues, ``is that I have weirdos who follow me and take pictures and are obsessed with things that you don't understand why they're obsessed with them.''

The Emmy-nominated star of ``Friends'' and the current film ``The Good Girl'' says this with a straight face. Accurate or otherwise, Aniston - one of TV's most believable regular girls - clearly believes she is still something of a regular gal.

There is, of course, considerable evidence Aniston leads a slightly different life. Weirdos typically don't become obsessed with people who aren't paid $1 million per half-hour TV episode, live in splendor and are married to Brad Pitt.

``It's part of the deal, the attention and all of that, and she has certainly handled it,'' ``Friends'' co-creator David Crane says of Aniston. ``She's one of the nicest people I know - easygoing, fun and she seems really rooted. As time goes on, she seems increasingly clear on what she wants.''

Her cheating part

Director Miguel Arteta, who deglamorized Aniston considerably in the newly released dark comedy ``The Good Girl,'' calls the actress ``America's sweetheart.'' And if unlucky-in-love Rachel Green - Aniston's alter ego on ``Friends'' - is the barometer, it's not such a far out claim.

``The Good Girl,'' which features Aniston as an adulterous convenience-store clerk in rural Texas, may be just the film to shake up that image. Aniston certainly hopes it is.

So does her director.

``Ten years ago, I got to meet my favorite director, Sam Fuller, for about two hours,'' recalls Arteta, whose last directorial effort was the equally dark ``Chuck & Buck.'' ``He would come right up to my face with his cigar, and say, 'Cast on hunch, kid! Cast your neighbor, cast the biggest movie star in the world. Just cast on hunch!' And God bless him.

``When (writer) Mike White suggested Jennifer Aniston, I remembered Sam's face. 'Cast on hunch, kid!' Here's America's sweetheart doing all this morally dubious stuff. Not only did it seem mischievous and fun, it gave a whole new look to the film.''

Those accustomed to the comically gorgeous Aniston of TV will have difficulty recognizing her as the ordinary-looking Justine Last, a woman with a nowhere job married to a pot-smoking house painter, Phil (played by John C. Reilly), and wondering if there isn't more to life.

So much for glamour. As for comedy, although Aniston gets a few good laugh lines, the bulk of the yuks falls to characters like Tim Blake Nelson (as Phil's house-painting partner, Bubba), Zooey Deschanel (as an overly frank co-worker) and screenwriter White as the store's God-fearing security guard.

``I wanted to change,'' says Aniston, who worked a seven-day week filming ``The Good Girl'' and ``Friends'' concurrently. ``It was exciting to not wear all the pounds of makeup, blow dry your hair and all that stuff. I felt like I've been waiting for this all my life.

``I kind of felt like if I'm going to sink or sail, I better try it now. What the hell. I've got nothing to lose. It can't be worse than 'Leprechaun,' '' she continues, referring to the 1993 horror film about, uh huh, a killer leprechaun.

Relax - it's Jennifer

In person, Aniston is gracious, forthright and casual. The Sherman Oaks- born, New York-raised actress uses words like `` 'razzi'' (for paparazzi) and ``fudder nudder'' (for the stuff that fills up the tabloids). As quickly as she chides the media machine for churning out irrelevant fluff, she'll catch herself and say she understands that the unwanted attention is the flip side to celebrity: ``But I get it,'' she says. ``I get it also.''

A regular gal? Pretty darned close, according to ``Good Girl'' co-star Jake Gyllenhaal.

``Everyone asks if there's, like, a preconceived notion about working with her,'' says Gyllenhaal, who plays Holden, Justine's younger lover. ``With all that hustle and bustle around her because of the position she is in, I think it's powerful for her to take that risk and risk the failure, risk being criticized.

``Because everyone wants to criticize her and say, like, all she cares about is her hair when really I think she's just a wonderful person.''

Aniston admits she's not the first person directors or casting agents generally think of for low-budget independent films requiring an acting stretch. ``The Good Girl'' script was sent to her, but generally speaking, if she wants an un-Rachel-like part, she has to campaign for it.

It's not exactly a Justine-like predicament, but Aniston says she can relate to feeling caged.

``You can feel trapped not being able to act in all the jobs you want. You can feel stuck. It's all relative,'' she says. ``It was good to explore that part of myself, the sadder, more depressed part, the person who doesn't always have to be happy and smiling and funny.

``You can't blame people for not trusting me to be able to do something,'' she adds. ``Just because you can do one thing really well doesn't mean you can score at everything else. So it's up to me to kind of prove myself, and I don't mind that.''

Nearly a decade ago, Crane remembers the ``Friends'' auditions and the difficult search for the part of Rachel. Aniston, who had been cast in another series, was one of the last actresses the producers saw, and they had to hope her other series would fall through. The role was, Crane said, a difficult one to cast.

``When you first meet that character, she's kind of shallow and self- involved - and in the wrong hands, that could be such an unpleasant character,'' says Crane. ``We saw a lot of very attractive actresses, and they were not bad actresses, but they didn't break your heart a little bit.

``That's the thing about Jennifer: She breaks your heart a little bit.''

They'll take Manhattan, not Oscar

When they first hit the scene in 1994, the ``Friends'' sextet of Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer were all in their mid 20s to early 30s. With the possible exception of Cox, who played Michael J. Fox's love interest on the final two years of ``Family Ties,'' they were unknowns.

The success of ``Friends'' quickly changed all that, catapulting the cast members from the small screen to countless magazine covers to a pair of wooden cutouts that still grace the terminals of the Burbank Airport.

Film fame hasn't exactly beckoned (maybe that's why there's another season of ``Friends''). Certainly, one or more of the ``Friends'' has occasionally attached him/herself to a hit, but none has been asked - or demonstrated an ability - to carry a big-budget movie. In fact, a close look at the most visible projects shows a tendency to cast as a version of their ``Friend-ly'' selves.

Aniston: aka Rachel Green, unlucky in love, romantic comic relief. Before ``The Good Girl,'' Aniston played girlfriends (to Mark Wahlberg in ``Rock Star''), wives (``She's the One'') and hopeful romantics (``Picture Perfect'' and ``The Object of My Affection''). We give her kudos for voicing the mom in ``The Iron Giant,'' and we won't mention the 1993 horror bomb ``Leprechaun'' although Aniston herself does. Next up: a role opposite Jim Carrey in ``Bruce Almighty.''

Cox: aka Monica Geller, the neurotic, overpushy brain. More memorable as the in-your-face newswoman in the ``Scream'' trilogy than as the gal pals in ``Ace Ventura'' and the nearly unwatchable ``3000 Miles to Graceland.''

Kudrow: aka Phoebe Buffay, the good-hearted ditz. Not many do dim blonde as well or as often. The small hit ``Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion'' was Phoebe on the road; ``Analyze This'' was Phoebe as career woman. Her turn in Don Roos' ``The Opposite of Sex'' was a departure, but that was Christina Ricci's movie.

LeBlanc: aka Joey Tribbiani, the studly, not-too-bright actor. Anyone who can rebound from the baseball-playing-chimpanzee movie ``Ed'' deserves a certain amount of credit for cockroachlike fortitude. Then again, what does it say about your film career when you appear in ``Charlie's Angels'' - and its sequel - as an Angel's boyfriend?

Perry: aka Chandler Bing, the charming smart aleck. He paired with Bruce Willis in the darkly comic ``The Whole Nine Yards'' and has romanced Salma Hayek (``Fools Rush In'') and Elizabeth Hurley (the upcoming ``Serving Sara''). Off-screen antics - including reported addictions and weight gain - have netted him more press than his films.

Schwimmer: aka Ross Geller, the nerdy brain. Has fared better on TV (``Band of Brothers,'' ``Breast Men,'' ``Uprising''). Apart from the low-budget ``The Pallbearer'' opposite Gwyneth Paltrow, Schwimmer has largely had supporting roles in films like ``Six Days and Seven Nights'' and ``Apt Pupil.''

CAPTION(S):

3 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) Unfriendly terrain

Shedding her sunny image, Jennifer Aniston portrays a depressed adulterer in `The Good Girl'

(2) no caption (Jennifer Aniston)

(3) LE BLANC, COX, PERRY, ANISTON, SCHWIMMER, KUDROW

Box:

They'll take Manhattan, not Oscar (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 15, 2002
Words:1598
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