Jennifer Aniston: 'Friends' for life?

The 'Friends' actress has struggled to distance herself from her iconic role. James Mottram asks her about her latest film
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The Independent Culture

A theory: Jennifer Aniston's CV reads like a summary of her life to date. Even if she's far removed from the dowdy supermarket cashier she played in The Good Girl (2002), it's a spot-on way to describe this squeaky-clean and sunny Californian. In Picture Perfect (1997), to the casual observer, her marriage to superstar Brad Pitt was exactly as the film says. I admit this is not a watertight concept, given that it is hard to see where the 1993 potboiler Leprechaun fits in (unless she has a thing for Irish folklore) but you get the idea. Of late, as she became the woman scorned after Pitt fled into the arms of Angelina Jolie, art has been forced to imitate life. After once starring in a Lynx aftershave commercial which saw her reading a "How to Keep Your Man" manual, the last couple of years have already seen her in the Graduate-inspired romantic comedy Rumor Has It (something she's faced on a daily basis from the tabloid press) and the scam movie Derailed (her life of late). To come is The Break-Up, ironically the film where she met current boyfriend Vince Vaughn. In the middle of all this comes Aniston's latest film, Friends with Money, which - quite apart from recalling the sitcom that turned Aniston from a struggling actress into a global icon - rather sounds like her social life these days.

Born in Sherman Oaks but raised in Manhattan, as a child she had to make good with hand-me-down clothes, crayons and dolls. "I couldn't wait to finally go out and make my own money," she told one interviewer. "The idea of never relying on someone else always thrilled me." And, boy, did she manage that. By the end of Friends' final season in 2004, it was reported that she was earning around $1m an episode. Yet when we meet in a hotel during the Sundance film festival, where Aniston has come to promote Friends with Money, she manages a pretty good impression of the girl-next-door. Admittedly, to be next door to Aniston involves your property backing on to a $29m Beverly Hills mansion. Nevertheless, she claims to still do her own housework. "I do!" she cries sweetly. "I make my bed every day and I clean my kitchen."

Not that I can report that Aniston has dishpan hands. Wearing jeans, a lilac jumper, a grey scarf wrapped around her neck and leather, fur-lined, boots, she spends much of the interview fiddling with a half-empty Starbucks coffee-cup, seemingly oblivious to the crowds that have gathered outside to grab a glimpse of her. At 5ft 5in, there's not so much to see - particularly as Aniston has managed to remain slim since her agent told her to lose 20lb when she was just starting out. Now 37, she's also far more beautiful than the myriad paparazzi shots of her suggest. Everything about her - the blue eyes, the honey-coloured hair and the tanned skin - seems to glow..

Her father, John Aniston, was a regular player on the long-running US daytime show Days of Our Lives, and there have been times of late when Aniston's life appears to have been culled from a soap opera. She has been cast opposite Pitt and Jolie as the victim of a "sick, twisted Bermuda Triangle", as she dubbed it in Vogue.On top of this, she has been forced to deal with her strained relationship with her mother, Nancy Dow. As a child, Aniston was told by her mother always to make more of her features. "You got to the point where you felt like the ugliest duck on the planet," she says. It was Dow who held the family together after Aniston's father left home for another woman while Aniston was a teenager studying performing arts in New York. But their relationship deteriorated when she gossiped about her daughter on a television show. Dow subsequently published the book, From Mother and Daughter to Friends: A Memoir leading to reports that Aniston called her mother "an unfulfilled, bitter old woman". Aniston has vowed never to depend on a man in the way her mother did on her father.

In the past, she has worked her fair share of menial jobs - from being a waitress to a bike-messenger - to gain this sought-after independence. "I was out of work for a long time," she says. "We've all been there at some point. I absolutely had no money. When you don't have it, you're really thrilled with getting $500 a week waitressing." Did she ever worry that she'd never achieve success? "I wasn't worried about it or not worried about it, maybe because I never had any great ambition or just knew I'd always be OK. I mean, I always wanted to act - it was all I could do - and I think I just knew I would be doing it."

It's for these reasons that Aniston notes that she feels "very connected to Olivia", her character in Friends with Money. Perhaps because it arrived at a time of crisis in her life, it's arguably her finest film-role to date. Olivia is a singleton without the angst of Bridget Jones, though without the income either. Much to the shock of her wealthier chums (Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack and Frances McDormand), she refuses to take hand-outs as she toils away as a maid. But Olivia is not above foraging for free samples in a department store. "I did that," Aniston pipes up, "I still do!"

Her character immediately recalls her role of Justine in The Good Girl, another blue-collar character trapped in an unfulfilling life. "There is a similarity," Aniston says. "She's a non-glamorous, more ordinary girl who is a little bit stuck and has lost self-esteem." It's no coincidence that it's Aniston's first film to be directed by a woman - Nicole Holofcener, who made the excellent Walking and Talking and Lovely & Amazing. "There was nothing magic I did to bring it out of her," the director shrugs, when asked what she did to glean such a competent performance. "It all came from her."

Friends with Money, stresses Aniston, is not a chick-flick - a label that she reviles. "I hate it," she says. "It's really stupid." That said, from She's the One to The Object of My Affection, it's the territory where she has often found herself. While her film career has flourished much more than any of her peers on Friends, she has yet to eclipse the likes of Cameron Diaz or Kirsten Dunst. Her biggest hits - Bruce Almighty (which took $242m in the US) and Along Came Polly ($87m) - have been more the result of the popularity of her leading men, Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller respectively. Her film roles have been largely anodyne, as studio heads have tried - and largely failed - to relight the spark she kept burning for 10 years as Friends' Rachel Green. But then, as Jake Gyllenhaal observed while co-starring with her on The Good Girl, "People just associate her with Rachel. In public, everyone was like, 'Rachel, Rachel - what's happening with you and Ross?' After a while she was like, 'Oh, Ross is great!'"

Aniston admits that she has spent years in Hollywood encountering "short-sighted" casting directors who believe she can only play variations of the character that won her an Emmy in 2002. "I'll take as long as it takes," she sighs, regarding the issue of typecasting. "Unfortunately there's [Friends] re-runs everywhere, but I love that character. She gave me my career. And, fortunately, we have directors in the world like Nicole who don't give a shit! That baggage didn't stop her seeing me as an actor." She says she doesn't feel like she could ever return to television. "Not because I'm above it," she hastily adds, "but because I really don't think I could ever top that experience. I miss acting in front of an audience. It was like every Friday was opening night. But episodic television is gruelling and it was years and years of the same thing."

Aside from the self-fulfilling prophecy that is her film credits, she also has a fledgling career as a producer, as part of her work for Plan B productions, the company she set up with Pitt. She has attached herself to a variety of forthcoming quality projects - including Gus Van Sant's The Time Traveler's Wife and Martin Scorsese's The Departed, his remake of the Hong Kong classic Infernal Affairs. It leads us onto discussing how independent cinema differs from Hollywood. "There are a lot of differences," Aniston notes. "It feels more like camp. I don't know how to explain it. It goes so fast and it's so much more enjoyable because you don't lull and you get to keep acting. You don't waste time waiting for the lighting to be set. I like that speed. You just knock it out."

While there have been reports that Aniston was thinking of selling up and moving to Chicago (where Vaughn hails from), she is certainly not planning to quit the business. "No, because I love acting," she says. "I have so much fun doing comedy."

'Friends with Money' is released on 26 May