Jennifer Aniston: The actress next door

We don't see Aniston as a real woman made of flesh and blood. We struggle to see her as anyone other than Rachel
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The Independent Online

Up front and first off, a question. When Brad Pitt split up with Jennifer Aniston last year and ran off with the wild-eyed Angelina Jolie, was there a small part of most people that silently nodded in understanding? Was there a majority who understood the attraction of a woman Vanity Fair magazine once deliciously described as a "tattooed vixen with a taste for bisexuality, heroin, brotherly incest, mental institutions and wearing her husband's blood" compared with the smug girl next door?

No one wished Aniston any ill-feeling, of course, and no one would underestimate the pain of such a public and dispiriting break-up and divorce, but did not most people also quietly murmur "Me too"? This, admittedly, might be matter on which men and women disagree. But there is another theory that neatly explains such a response to Aniston and it is summed up in one word - Rachel.

Rachel Greene - the flatmate that Aniston played in the hugely successful US television series Friends that ran for 10 years. Rachel - that spoilt Daddy's girl who couldn't even focus enough to serve customers in a coffee shop. Rachel - the self-absorbed middle child who always wanted her own way and who never stopped yapping. No wonder Brad ran off to Namibia with the crazy woman from Tomb Raider.

You see, we don't see Aniston as Aniston, as a real, 37-year-old woman made of flesh and blood. We don't even see her as a Hollywood star, once one-half of that fêted Golden Couple. No. Because of the soaring popularity of Friends and its lengthy tenure on our television screens we struggle to see her as anyone other than the terrible Rachel.

Yet that may all be about to change. Aniston's latest Hollywood outing, The Break-Up, opened in the UK this week having met with mixed reviews but considerable commercial success in the US. The review in Rolling Stone magazine warned: "You won't leave The Break-Up with a skip in your step - it's more like a knot in your gut." Aniston, who co-stars with the gregarious Vince Vaughn, is effective in the oddly paced film that starts as a comedy and then morphs into a melancholic examination of one couple's failure to communicate. She is a largely convincing and sympathetic character, even if she brings few surprises to her performance. Vaughn, too, is very good as her flawed but very human boyfriend.

Yet regardless of the film's genuine quality or otherwise, from Aniston's perspective it has been another important step in putting the pieces of her life back together after her divorce from Pitt after seven years of marriage. A little ironically given the film's title, it also appears to have been the genesis of a relationship between Aniston and co-star Vaughn.

The gossip columns are certainly convinced that there is more than mere speculation about Aniston and Vaughn's relationship, yet - very wisely - the actress is refusing to confirm anything. (Her non-denial denial of the relationship - "He's a great man, he's a great friend, he's a great actor and so much fun" - was about as convincing as Jolie's denial last year that she and Pitt had got together while working on the set of the truly terrible Mr and Mrs Smith.) She even found room for a little gentle humour when pushed about the relationship by interviewers Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan. "Where did you hear that," she quipped, when she appeared on the couple's Channel 4 show.

Truly, the Jennifer Aniston sitting on Richard and Judy's couch last week appeared a very different woman from the one who emerged in the aftermath of last year's split with Pitt. It was in January 2005 that the couple issued a closely worded but outwardly amicable statement to say they were going their separate ways. There was not any truth, they insisted, in the rumours that were abounding in the tabloids.

As it was, the reality was rather different. Pitt, it soon emerged, had struck up a relationship with Jolie and was intent upon pursuing it. Aniston made hints to interviewers that Pitt had lied to her when she had confronted him on the matter. Whether or not it was part of a wider public relations battle that saw a Hollywood boutique selling "Team Aniston" and "Team Jolie" T-shirts, Aniston also burst into tears in front of the interviewer from the influential Vanity Fair.

"There are many stages of grief," she said. "It's sad, something coming to an end. It cracks you open, in a way - cracks you open to feeling. When you try to avoid the pain, it creates greater pain. I'm a human being, having a human experience in front of the world. I wish it weren't in front of the world. I try really hard to rise above it."

These were the days when Aniston would hide herself away in her beach-front home in Malibu, turning to her bevy of long-time girlfriends for support and trying to deal both with the sense of loss and betrayal. Sometimes she would walk to the water's edge and scream. "Not too loudly," said Aniston, who was once engaged to the actor Tate Donovan. "You don't want people to think that you're crazy. But it can be very cathartic." There is no reason to doubt that the feelings Aniston revealed to her interviewer that day were anything less than genuine, though had she needed to resort to her acting background there would have been a deep, rich seam.

Acting is in her blood. Aniston was born in California, the child of actor parents. Her father, John Aniston, was Greek and her godfather was the late Greek-American actor Telly Savalas, probably best known for his portrayal of the bald, lolly-sucking cop Kojak. Aniston was just 11 when she joined the drama club of the famed Rudolf Steiner School in New York. Her father, who had changed his name from Ioannis Anastassakis, starred in a series of television soaps.

Aniston went to high school in New York, enrolling at the Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts and joining the school's drama society. When she left she worked on a series of off-Broadway productions and earned money to make up the rent by working in various part-time jobs, including that of bicycle messenger.

After appearing as a regular on Howard Stern's radio show she relocated to Hollywood and secured roles in a short-lived TV series and a television movie. She was hardly hitting the big time, however, and several projects she was involved with were quickly cancelled. By 1993, when she appeared in the widely panned horror movie Leprechaun, she was ready to try to find another career.

"I was once told to avoid the business altogether because of the rejection that goes with it," she said. "People would say, 'Why don't you want a normal job?' But I wanted to act." From the perspective of her career it was just as well she stuck at it. The following year she won the part of Rachel in Friends, having persuaded the producers at NBC who had initially wanted to cast her in the role of Monica, the part eventually played by Courtney Cox.

The series Friends was hugely successful, vastly influential and won Aniston four Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe award. By the time the series finally staggered to an end - some good time, even the show's fans agree, after it had lost its zip - Aniston and the other leading characters were commanding fees of $1m an episode. Even more remarkably, Aniston's character's layered hairstyle from the first two series even led to a new look - the "Rachel" - that was widely copied and imitated. (That cut, incidentally, was the work of stylist Chris McMillan, who also did Aniston's hair for her and Pitt's wedding day.)

Indeed, despite the theoretical objection to Aniston because of her unbreakable link to the Rachel character, there are some people - especially women, it appears - who like her a good deal. Is this because she is less threatening than some Hollywood stars? Is it because she comes across more as the attractive girl next door made good rather than the utterly dazzling, high-maintenance starlet? Is it a result of the barbed and relentless press campaign that was waged against Jolie last year?

It may be that people simply felt sorry for Aniston after her break-up. Perhaps tellingly, a poll last year in Cosmopolitan discovered that while Aniston topped the list of women men would most like to marry, Jolie topped the list of women men would most like to sleep with. In a separate poll she was named the most powerful celebrity on the planet. And in that battle of the T-shirts, "Team Aniston" outsold "Team Jolie" 25-1.

Whatever it is, it is clear there are people are on her side. When Aniston appeared on Richard & Judy, Finnegan fawningly told her: "You've got millions and millions of people wishing you well. I have to say, I honestly don't know of anybody we've interviewed who has inspired so many of our friends and teenage children to say 'Please tell her I love her'." Even Aniston had the decency not to know how to respond to such nonsense.

"Thank you," she mustered. "You've got me all kerplunked." Yet while Aniston is slowly putting her life back together, working on new projects, apparently indulging in a new romance, it appears she is still tempted to mess it all up and make all this progress meaningless. Yes, Rachel has reared her head once again.

Terrifyingly, in that same interview Aniston fuelled speculation that she and her Friends friends would consider a reunion. Previous possible reunions were scotched because Aniston herself was reportedly cool to such an idea, but this time she declared: "I do miss it. The only thing I can think of doing is maybe a Thanksgiving episode. Our Thanksgiving episodes were really fun." Jennifer, please. Think of yourself, think of the future. Forget about Brad and forget about Rachel.

A Life in Brief

BORN 11 February 1969, Sherman Oaks, California, to actors John Aniston and Nancy Dow. Two half-brothers, John Melick and Alex Aniston.

FAMILY Married Brad Pitt, 29 July 2000; divorced 2 October 2005; no children.

EDUCATION Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, New York City.

CAREER Several off-Broadway shows, The Howard Stern Radio Show, short-lived TV series Molloy, 1993 movie Leprechaun. In 1994 she was cast as Rachel Greene in Friends. Has also appeared in the movies Bruce Almighty, Along Came Polly, Friends with Money, The Object of My Affection, The Good Girl and The Break-up.

SHE SAYS "When somebody follows you 20 blocks to the pharmacy, where they watch you buy toilet paper, you know your life has changed."

THEY SAY "What you see is what you get. She's very genuine, honest and down to earth." - Vince Vaughn, actor and boyfriend