The 30th Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) presented the Montecito Award to Jennifer Aniston, in recognition of her work in the independent feature Cake. Named after one of the most beautiful and stylish areas in Santa Barbara, the Montecito Award is given to a recipient whose style has been a contribution to film, and the Friends star has had a series of memorable performances in both comedy and drama.
While there, Jennifer Aniston talked about why she’s stayed true to the independent spirit of filmmaking, knowing that she always wanted to be an actor, how Friends came about, how The Good Girl allowed a little pivot of people’s perspective that she was grateful for, the total departure of Horrible Bosses, the distraction of the paparazzi, still having to fight for the roles she really wants, and where she pulled her performance for Cake from. Here are the highlights of what she had to say during the Q&A.
Question: You’ve starred in six movies that have grossed over $200 million each, worldwide, which makes you one of the biggest stars in the world. What’s it like to be here?
JENNIFER ANISTON: We began filming Cake on April 3rd of last year. The fact that I’m even here, I feel flabbergasted. It’s incredible. In Chinese astrology, it was the Year of the Horse, so you better hang on tight because it’s all going to move really fast, and I guess I get what they were talking about.
You’ve done big movies and small movies, but you’ve always stayed very true to the independent spirit of filmmaking. Why is that?
ANISTON: It’s been very good to me, honestly. The reason I keep getting to work and do the jobs that I do is because independent film allows you to have a little more freedom, creatively. From the filmmaker’s point of view to the actors and the roles that they give you, it’s been allowing me to keep pushing it a little further, and allowing that actor in me to go deep and explore. Where would we be without independent film? All we’d have is The Avengers.
You come from a family of actors and have always been around the business. Did you always know that you wanted to be an actor?
ANISTON: I grew up in New York City, and I was born into a family of actors. I remember going to see my first play, which was Children of a Lesser God on Broadway. And then, I saw Annie, and forget about it! It was me, my hairbrush and my record player, for hours on end. But I couldn’t sing, so that wasn’t going to happen. I was also going to a Waldorf school, which didn’t allow you to watch television, but I could go to the theater. And my dad (John Aniston) was on a soap opera, and is still on a soap opera. So, I wasn’t really allowed to watch television, unless I was home sick, and then they allowed me to watch TV. I remember one morning that I was watching an episode of That Girl that my dad was on, and I was overwhelmed that my father was in the television set because I wasn’t quite sure what he did, at that point. So, I really did have that fantasy of it, but I didn’t think I would ever actually achieve it. I didn’t know if it was possible, but I had that creative bug, pretty early on.
ANISTON: I thought we’d be dancing on tables and on taxis, but it didn’t happen. A lot of the teachers that were in the movie were our teachers. It was great.
After school, you went to do New York theater, right?
ANISTON: Off-off Broadway in Hoboken.
Did you have to support yourself through other jobs, then?
ANISTON: Yes. I worked at an advertising agency, as a receptionist. I worked two days as a bike messenger. It was really wrong to put me on a bike in New York City with taxi cabs. And I worked at an ice cream place in Lincoln Center. And then, I waitressed for about two and a half years. All the while, I was auditioning, but I just couldn’t get arrested. I couldn’t even get a commercial. For commercial auditions, you had to go in with three or five people, and they put you in front of a white screen and tell you, “You’re at a party. You have a burger, and you have a beer, and you’re flirting with this one. Go!” It was just so awkward. I was terrible at that. I couldn’t even get a commercial.
What made you want to keep pursuing it?
ANISTON: I just had this deep feeling in my gut that somehow something was going to happen, and I just had to be patient. I was hell-bent because my dad was just begging me not to be in the industry. He said, “I do not want your heart broken. The rejection is brutal. Please, please, please don’t do that. Become a lawyer.” That was my one rebellion. I was hoping that I was going to make it, so that I could prove him wrong. I just kept going. I’m happy he made that claim that he didn’t want me to do it.
And then, you wound up in L.A.?
ANISTON: Yes. My dad had moved to Los Angeles about five years before I had moved out. I was just on a summer vacation to go visit him. I had graduated from high school and I chose not to go to college, so I was pounding the pavement, doing my waitressing. I had a manager, who I think was a manager, and an agent. I went to visit my dad in L.A. and went on a couple auditions. I asked my friend for a hundred bucks, so that I could get headshots. About three months in, I got a sitcom, which was awesome.
You got a few sitcoms.
ANISTON: I did!
And none of them worked.
ANISTON: No, they didn’t!
So, when did Friends come into your life?
ANISTON: It was called Friends Like Us, at the time. I was doing [another show]. We had only done six episodes and the network didn’t think it was going to get picked up, so I went on auditions for second position, as they call it. I read the script, and I had never had a reaction like that to a show. It was my contemporaries, it was in New York City, it was funny, it was interesting, and I had never read anything like it. This guy named David Schwimmer was already cast, and Courteney Cox was already cast. I had seen David Schwimmer at a play at Northwestern because my friend was going there. And then, [that other show] ended up getting picked up, even though they had cast me in Friends. So, there was a period where I had to stand out the group photographs. I had phone calls from girlfriends saying, “I’m auditioning for your part in Friends. Do you have any ideas?” I was actually surprised that they were considering replacing me. But then, thank god, they didn’t find anyone. They just took the chance that [the other show] would fail after the two episodes that they had picked it up for. I just did this back and forth with Sony and Warner Bros. for two weeks, and then it went away, poof, and Friends went great. I had 10 years of the best schooling in the world.
And you wanted to play Monica, didn’t you?
ANISTON: No, they wanted Court to play Rachel. Unbeknownst to each other, I wanted to play Rachel and she wanted to play Monica. It worked out perfectly.
How did The Good Girl come about?
ANISTON: I owe all the gratitude to Miguel Arteta and Mike White, who thought, “What an exciting thing, to take this girl from here and put her in this?” Miguel kept saying that it was a character that was doing unlikeable thing, so there had to be a likeability. He thought it would be a nice fit for us, so I got to play Justine. It was one of those things that allowed a little pivot of people’s perspective, which I was really grateful for. All I’d been doing, up to that point, was comedy.
How did you get involved with Friends with Money and Nicole Holofcener?
ANISTON: I actually knew Nicole from my friend, the wonderful Catherine Keener. We’d been on camping trips and just had a lot of fun social gatherings together. One camping trip, in particular, she was stuck behind a computer the whole time, and it turned out she was writing Friends with Money. And then, she asked me to be in it.
ANISTON: It was crazy! That was a great script to get because I couldn’t believe that they wanted me to do it. They actually never thought that I would say yes, and of course, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. I thought, “How much fun would that be to play?,” and it sure was. Those three boys are so fantastic. They’re like the modern-day Three Stooges, and I love every one of them. The whole idea of Horrible Bosses is so original and so fabulous. And I got to do a sequel! I had carte blanche. She’s totally unforgiving and unapologetic.
You’ve been in a few tabloids in your life, and there is always paparazzi around trying to shoot on film sets. How do you deal with that, when you’re trying to act?
ANISTON: It’s a real distraction, and it’s a real hassle. It’s just one of those things that’s unfortunately out of anybody’s control. You just have to hope you can get through a take where they don’t ruin it by screaming something, or using their flashbulbs during a take, if you’re doing a night shoot. When you’re out there being quite vulnerable and emoting, having these animals over there, to the left and right of you, is disheartening. Even if it’s a lighter performance, but especially with a harder one, it’s an added challenge. It’s not something they teach you or warn you about. You’re out there and it’s like, “Oh, crap, that’s happening,” and you still have to do your job.
Do you still have to fight for the roles that you want?
ANISTON: Yeah. Cake was something that I really had to lobby for. Usually, I don’t even get the opportunity to go in the room ‘cause it’s usually given to an actress that is already in the director or screenwriter’s mind. Usually, I’m not put onto those lists. To be quite honest, I’ve even heard back, “Too much baggage with that. Too known, and won’t be able to disappear.” That just made me want, more and more, to find something that I could dig my heels into. It’s a blessing and a curse. You’re so lucky to be a working actor ‘cause god knows it’s really hard to be a working actor in this industry. I’m quite grateful, every day. But there’s a lot of ability in all of us, and it’s a catch-22. If you give me the job, I’ll show you I can do it. But, they don’t give you the job because they’ve never seen you do it. You have to wait for those opportunities where someone says, “Yeah, I’m gonna take a chance on you and give you a shot.”
How did you fight for Cake?
ANISTON: Cake tops my list of experiences, and I’ve had some extraordinary experiences. It wasn’t a knock-down, drag-out fight, but it was offered to other actresses that you would expect a part like that would go to. It just really grabbed me hard, and I just knew that I wanted to do everything I possibly could to just get my hat in the ring. That moment happened when I could sit in the room with (director) Daniel [Barnz], and I said, “I will take no shortcuts. I will go to the moon and back. I know what this requires.” And god love him.
As an actor, where did you pull that character from?
ANISTON: I pulled her from many places. There’s an older woman that I know. There’s also a few acquaintances and dear friends that I know, who suffer from chronic pain. And then, I had to layer in the emotional drama and loss, in all of that. I really feel like I was in a great acting class that I hadn’t had in years, and I was able to work with an incredible acting coach who helped me mine this woman, with Daniel, and just an incredible support team. We were all taking a chance. Daniel was taking a chance on me. He was a newer director, so I was taking a chance on him. Everyone was out of their comfort zone and wheelhouse. We were just in this little creative bubble together, and we were fearless. I remember leaving it behind me and finishing it, and I just felt like I’d had the greatest work-out. I felt like I had exorcized all of this incredible stuff. What a fun time!