Here she comes, in faded cutoffs and a tank top. Has there ever been a more casual star? A more unrepentant Southern California girl? I am standing in the midst of the dust and chaos—the clattering hammers, the buzzing saws—of the massive construction project that is Jennifer Aniston's sprawling new Beverly Hills home. It is midday in late September, and Aniston is picking her way through the site. As she heads toward me she looks comfortingly—almost defiantly—the same as she always has. Long, sun-streaked hair. Check. Tanned yoga body. Check. Toe rings and hippie beads. Check. There will be no moody movie-star transformations, no fresh tattoos to prove how unpredictable she is.
When I arrived a few moments earlier, a big, genial security guy helped me park my car among all the construction vehicles and then took me to an office where a man named Phil introduced himself as Aniston's "estate manager." An elegant fellow with a British accent, he is a holdover from her only slightly more grand life with Brad Pitt, when they owned a 12,000-square-foot Normandy mansion not far from here and a big spread in Santa Barbara. "He's very…Phil," says Aniston with a laugh. She stops for a second and, as she so often does, rethinks out loud. "Maybe we don't mention that I have an estate manager." And then: "He's more like the butler."
Meanwhile I am agape, trying to take in the scale of this unusual house; all 10,000 square feet are on one floor, and everything is of a surprising proportion—the rooms, the doors, even the doorknobs are bigger than you'd expect, especially for such a small person who will soon live here all alone. As we take a tour, Aniston points out a bathroom that looks as if it were designed for Wilt Chamberlain. The handles on her office door are enormous bronze mudras hands from Thailand. "I know there's a meaning to the positioning of the fingers," she says, "and I should know what it is, but these basically are meant to ward off evil spirits." Then she leads me down a fantastically wide hallway to the front doors—giant twin slabs of bronze. "This is the best thing about this place," she says. "Look at the size of them! They're huge! And I love this little Wizard of Oz peephole." She opens the tiny door, peeks through, and says in a Munchkin voice, "No, she will not see you!" and then slams it shut.
The house was designed in 1970 by architect Hal Levitt, best known for the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. When Aniston bought it a couple of years ago, it was in the middle of a renovation that was nearly complete. But a closer inspection turned up structural problems, so she ripped everything out and started from scratch. What she thought was going to be a four-month project turned into a nearly two-year journey. She seems to be loving every minute of it. As the partner in her film-production company, Kristin Hahn, says, "She's not intimidated. She's like the foreman! She is overseeing every single decision."
The house itself suggested a decor, one that Aniston hired interior designer Stephen Shadley to help her execute and describes as "combo platter": Hawaiian lanai meets Balinese Zen palace. "It wanted to have that feeling that when you walked in you were able to throw your feet up and just be peaceful. But I also wanted it to feel…sexy." She narrows her eyes and shakes her hair for comic effect. "This is a sexy house!"
Indeed it is: There are acres of travertine and Brazilian teak. There is a Japanese soaking tub, a huge indoor/outdoor fireplace, and outside, off the vast deck with a view of Los Angeles that goes all the way to the Pacific, a sleek, custom-designed pool with a waterfall running its entire length. All of the public rooms in the house have glass partitions that disappear into stone walls, turning the entire place into one big breezeway. When I joke that it is "Jen's Balinese Funhouse," she tells me her friends are calling it "the JA Spa."
It is hard not to think that this house is a turning of the page for Aniston, a symbol of a brighter, shinier future, exorcised of ghosts. She is literally building a new life for herself. But there are some things about Aniston that never change. "About ten cars followed me up here today," she says with not-quite-genial resignation as we pull up chairs in a makeshift meeting room to eat a lunch prepared by her personal chef and delivered by an assistant. "And I'm like, Really? At this point? Today you're basically going to see me go into my office and you're going to see me come out of my office. Eventually this picture's going to buy you what? Lunch? A pack of smokes? Maybe not even that anymore."
This is a joke, of course, a bit of mock humility. Or perhaps it's just wishful thinking. Because, if anything, photographs of the comings and goings of "Jen," as the tabs like to call her, are worth more than ever. The post-Brad Aniston is one of the biggest tabloid stars in the world, and her image moves a lot of magazines. Partly because she took two years off from making films, she has been almost entirely defined lately by the tabloids as a woman who dates younger men and spends her days lolling around the pool in Cabo.
Woody Allen recently said in an interview that "thoughtful people don't take the tabloids seriously. They're basically a form of entertainment." Aniston knows this, but it still feels to her like a cross to bear. "You basically watch my life," she says as we eat our chopped salads. "It happens in front of you. And I can protect it and try to control things only to a certain extent. I think what I'm doing now is letting go of the reins a little bit and saying, 'It is what it is.' But there is more to me than just a tabloid girl. This whole 'Poor lonely Jen' thing, this idea that I'm so unlucky in love? I actually feel I've been unbelievably lucky in love. Just because at this stage my life doesn't have the traditional framework to it—the husband and the two kids and the house in Connecticut—it's mine. It's my experience. And if you don't like the way it looks, then stop looking at it! Because I feel good. I don't feel like I'm supposed to be any further along or somewhere that I'm not. I'm right where I'm supposed to be."
Luckily for Aniston, she has two surprisingly entertaining movies opening in succession—one on Christmas day and the other in early February—that ought to change the conversation by reminding everyone how wonderfully funny and moving and real she can be on-screen given the right material. The first, Marley & Me, is the better film—and perhaps the more important one. Aniston costars with Owen Wilson, and the two of them do some of their best work ever—Wilson is a true revelation. (As Aniston says, "Everything he went through in the last year really allowed for a beautiful performance. He arrives in this film.") Perhaps because they both have a high-strung hippie vibe, their chemistry is lovely to behold. "They are so captivating," says David Frankel, who last directed The Devil Wears Prada, "and it was apparent from the first second that I saw them together." If you somehow missed the hubbub about the best seller Marley & Me, it is a memoir based on the newspaper columns of John Grogan about his family's relationship to their neurotic dog, indeed the "world's worst dog." Having to costar with an animal is always a dicey proposition, but everyone comes out of this with their dignity intact.
The film begins with the couple getting Marley as a puppy and ends when the dog dies, a narrative arc that allows the filmmakers to examine a marriage over the course of their pet's life as the two build careers, have three children, make compromises, and reach middle age. The studio suggested Aniston to Frankel. "I was nervous to meet her, frankly, because the character had to age from 22 to 40, and Jen is in her late 30s, and I kind of felt that that was a stretch," he says. "But she came down the stairs and all of my anxiety went out the window. Within five minutes I said, 'It's yours if you want to do it.' "
The movie is at times very funny, but let the dog-loving buyer beware: There are some wrenching scenes. In the screening I attended in Los Angeles, there were about 20 people, and most of them were openly sobbing in the last half hour. But there are also many subtly rendered moments in which Aniston's authenticity really holds the screen, never more so than when her character discovers she's had a miscarriage. As Frankel says, "She has no words. All the heartbreak of that moment, which any woman would feel going through it, is magnified when you watch Jen and you know how much she does want a family and children. My wife said it's the most wistful movie she has ever seen. It is about the things we wanted in life and didn't get, and yet we still have the desire to celebrate what we do have. I think that really applies to Jen. She's gotten more than her fair share of happiness and success, and yet I think the reason her personal story continues to captivate us beyond all reason is that there is a very accessible yearning in her for something more, something intimate, something lasting."
Aniston resists drawing any comparisons to her real life, especially when it comes to wanting children. (When I ask her point-blank about it, she grows visibly irritated. "I've said it so many times: I'm going to have children. I just know it.") But talking about the film does shed some new light on her relationship with her parents. When I mention that she is very good at portraying the bickering and fighting of couples on film, she says, "That is so funny. I just mimic my mother. That woman, when she got mad, was scary. I don't know if I ever really get mad in real life. It's what my shrink was saying to me all those years: You need to get mad! I think rage is so ugly. I just think there's a way to be mad and discuss it." Famously estranged for more than a decade, Aniston and her mother are in the middle of a slow, careful reconciliation that began after Aniston divorced Pitt. "She's changed," says Aniston. "She's humbled with age. She fell in love. At 73 years old. I'm like, No, no, no, no, no! I don't want to hear how great the sex is!" She puts her fingers in her ears. "I got, I got, I got it, I got it!" (When I ask after her father, the soap-opera actor John Aniston, she says, "He's in Topanga Canyon, still on Days of Our Lives—my white-haired papa, handsome, gorgeous man that he is. Always asking me to do something for the Greek community.")
Aniston's feelings about her other new film, He's Just Not That into You, are—how to put it?—a little more complicated. Directed by Ken Kwapis, who has done several episodes of The Office and, most recently, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the film is based on the notoriously brutal advice book co-written by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo and features a stellar ensemble cast that includes Jennifer Connelly, Ben Affleck, Scarlett Johansson, Drew Barrymore, Justin Long, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Bradley Cooper. The source material itself could very easily have devolved into Hollywood slop, but because it was developed by Barrymore's Flower Films, the script and the performances lift it up into something unusual: a well-paced oddball romantic comedy (sort of) with interesting things to say about how and why men and women behave the way they do in relationships. It is, in other words, a movie about head games.
Aniston and Affleck play a couple who have lived together unmarried for seven years and are so natural with each other on-screen that you find yourself thinking, Were they ever a couple? In fact, they barely knew each other before working on this project. Affleck, who hadn't been in a film in two years, tells me he was "dying to swing the bat again as an actor" and jumped at the chance to work with Aniston. "She always struck me as extremely smart, kind, and funny—and her talent is evident to all," he says.
"I find their chemistry to be quite magical," says Kwapis. "It is one of the secret weapons of the picture." One of their scenes—in which Aniston essentially asks Affleck to marry her or it's over—is a difficult emotional turning point in the film. "When she realizes that he won't marry her, the pain she expresses—boy, I don't know. It's one of those moments where, whatever's going on with her as an actor, it's not a show," Kwapis says. "At that point you realize we're not in for fluff anymore." Her costar and producer Drew Barrymore acknowledges that Aniston is not on-screen much but plays a crucial, non-comedic role—"It's kind of an interesting range of emotions to have in one character," Barrymore says, "but she packs it all in."
When I tell Aniston that I really enjoyed the film, she expresses genuine surprise. "You did?" It quickly becomes apparent that it's not necessarily that she doesn't like the film; it's the subject matter that makes her squirm. "I liked my story line, but…." She stammers and sputters. "I don't know. I don't…like…girls…whining…and complaining…about…wanting a man! I never liked Sex and the City, the kind of thing where women only feel empowered once they find the Man. It is just not up my alley. I don't believe in it. There is nothing you can control about love. Somebody once said, Everything you want in the world is just right outside your comfort zone. Everythingyoucouldpossiblywant!"
Perhaps the whole genre strikes too close to home. Two weeks after my visit to her house in Los Angeles, we meet for dinner at a midtown hotel in New York City. Aniston is wearing her urban uniform: low-slung jeans, boots, big belt, black top. The place is nearly empty, which is obviously a relief to Aniston, who seems to prefer a non-sceney restaurant more often than not.
As we all know, ever since Aniston began dating Pitt in 1998, her love life has never been out of the news. Their divorce only ratcheted up the interest in her every romantic move. These days, the public fascination with her relationship with Vince Vaughn seems almost quaint. I ask her if there's anything else to be said about that time. "I call Vince my defibrillator," she says with genuine affection. "He literally brought me back to life. My first gasp of air was a big laugh! It was great. I love him. He's a bull in a china shop. He was lovely and fun and perfect for the time we had together. And I needed that. And it sort of ran its course."
Most recently she's been linked with John Mayer, whom she met last February at an Oscar party. "Barely knew his music," she says. "And then we ran into each other a week later, and that was that." The two began dating—Aniston flew to England to join him on his tour; they took a well-documented vacation to Miami—and partly because of Mayer's past relationships with Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Love Hewitt, the paparazzi went bananas. Many people questioned Aniston's judgment; Mayer, after all, is nine years younger and has a bit of a…reputation. To which Aniston says, half kidding, "People need to mind their own business! Did you ever think Claudia Schiffer and David Copperfield made sense?" She laughs, knowing that this has the potential for a good parlor game. "Did Susan Anton and Dudley Moore make sense? Wait! I got more! Did…did…did…Madonna and…." She trails off. "I don't want to get a dog in that fight…but we'll think of more." We both laugh, and then she gets more serious. "But you know, it isn't designed. Love just shows up and you go, 'Oh, wow, this is going to be a hayride and a half.' "
After they split in August, Mayer, having been trailed for days, famously lost it in front of the paparazzi while leaving a gym in New York. In one of the more ill-advised moves in the history of modern celebrity romance, he burst into a rant, saying, among other things, "If you guys are going to…run every lie under the sun…have me as a man who ended a relationship."
Mayer caught a lot of grief for his lack of chivalry, but Aniston chalks up his outburst to inexperience. "He had to put that out there that he broke up with me. And especially because it's me. It's not just some girl he's dating. I get it. We're human. But I feel seriously protective of him and us. Trust me, you'll never see that happen again from that man. And it doesn't take away from the fact that he is a wonderful guy. We care about each other. It's funny when you hit a place in a relationship and you both realize, We maybe need to do something else, but you still really, really love each other. It's painful. There was no malicious intent. I deeply, deeply care about him; we talk, we adore one another. And that's where it is."
The aspect of Aniston's tabloid persona that feels truly off base is that she is "needy" and "clingy" and "obsessive" about ex-lovers. In fact, just the opposite seems to be true. As evidenced from our conversation about Mayer, she seems entirely sanguine about how complicated and unpredictable love can be. She even seems to have made peace with her ex-husband. When I ask if she ever speaks with him, she says, "Yes!" in a tone that suggests that it is almost a silly question. How is he? I ask. She looks at me for a long couple of seconds and makes one of those classic Jennifer Aniston faces, one that lets you know that what she is about to say is going to be…ironic. "He seems…great?" she says. How often do you talk? I ask. "We have exchanged a few very kind hellos and wishing you wells and sending you love and congratulations on your babies. I have nothing but absolute admiration for him, and…I'm proud of him! I think he's really done some amazing things."
I ask her if she can remember exactly when the post-divorce acrimony receded. "You mean, when were Brad and I healed?" she says.
Yes, I say.
"Well, it never was that bad," she says, knowing that it will be hard for a lot of people to believe. "I mean, look, it's not like divorce is something that you go, 'Oooh, I can't wait to get divorced!' It doesn't feel like a tickle. But I've got to tell you, it's so vague at this point, it's so faraway in my mind, I can't even remember the darkness. I mean, in the end, we really had an amicable split. It wasn't mean and hateful and all of this stuff that they tried to create about Brad can't talk to Jen and Jen can't talk to Brad because this person won't allow it. It just didn't happen. The marriage didn't work out. And pretty soon after we separated, we got on the phone and we had a long, long conversation with each other and said a lot of things, and ever since we've been unbelievably warm and respectful of each other. Whoever said everything has to be forever, that's setting your hopes too high. It's too much pressure. And I think if you put that pressure on yourself—because I did! Fairy tale! It has to be the right one!—that's unattainable."
When I ask her about Angelina Jolie, Aniston asks me to turn off the tape recorder for a moment. Suffice it to say, if there is never any love gained in the first place, there can be no love lost. But she did want to put a few things on the record. (Funnily enough, they involve some of the same issues brought up by the recent profile of Jolie in The New York Times, in which she talks about falling in love on the set of Mr. & Mrs. Smith.) She asks me if I ever saw a cartoon that appeared in the New York Post a couple of years ago that depicts Aniston talking on the phone in her kitchen. The bubble over her head says, HI ANGELINA…I DECIDED TO TAKE YOU UP ON YOUR OFFER OF A "SIT-DOWN TALK."…In the drawing, Aniston is loading a shotgun, and there is a copy of Vogue sitting next to her. (The cartoon was inspired by an interview I did with Jolie for this magazine in January 2007 in which she said she would welcome the opportunity to "sit down" with Aniston.) Someone sent Aniston the cartoon ("the funniest thing I've ever seen," she says), and afterward, she could not resist the urge to buy a copy of Vogue to see what the fuss was about. What really rankled Aniston about the piece was that Jolie felt the need to recount a detailed timeline of exactly how her relationship developed on the set of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, while Aniston was still married to and living with Pitt. "There was stuff printed there that was definitely from a time when I was unaware that it was happening," says Aniston. "I felt those details were a little inappropriate to discuss." Aniston, still galled, shakes her head in disbelief. "That stuff about how she couldn't wait to get to work every day? That was really uncool."
Oddly enough, one of the more difficult aspects of Aniston's divorce planted the seed for one of the most significant things that is now happening in her life: her production company, Echo Films. A decade ago, during the salad days of Pitt and Aniston's courtship, they started a production company out of the garage of Aniston's best friend, Kristin Hahn; it eventually grew into Plan B. In 2002, Brad Grey, now the head of Paramount, joined as a partner, and the company moved into beautiful new offices in Beverly Hills, teamed up with Warner Bros., and began producing blockbusters like The Departed. But once Aniston and Pitt separated, the partnership had to be dissolved. Hahn and Aniston took some time before deciding to start over again on their own, and now, says Aniston, "we just love it. Finding the book, the article, the right writer. We love the process."
When I ask Hahn what it's like to work with Aniston the producer, she says, "One of the things that people don't realize about Jen is that she is a brilliant businesswoman. She's a working girl! She is in her office every morning, figuring out her day and making it happen."
Aniston is eager not only to produce but to direct. "I made a short film, Room 10, a couple of years ago and loved it so much," she says. Hahn is convinced that Aniston will thrive at it. "In our group of girlfriends, we always joke that she can cut hair better than anyone; she can mix a drink better than any bartender. I think producing and directing for her is going to be the same way. Wherever she points that wand, flowers grow."
Appropriately enough, all the films Echo has in development right now are about—and there is no better word—ballsy women. Counter Clockwise is a biopic about Ellen Langer, Ph.D., the first woman tenured in the psychology department at Harvard, an iconoclast born in the Bronx who has done controversial work on the mind-body connection, a subject Aniston has been preoccupied with for years. The Goree Girls is a true story about a group of women in a Texas prison in the 1940s who formed a country-western band, became a worldwide sensation through a prison radio show, were eventually pardoned by the governor, and then disappeared into obscurity. (When I ask Aniston if she can sing, she says jauntily, "I can carry a tune.")
But it is a third project, Pumas, that is the furthest along—and the most telling about Aniston's state of mind these days. It is a film about older women dating younger men that Hahn describes as a "high-octane comedy about sexual politics and double standards." Aniston's description is both funnier and cruder: "It's sort of a female Wedding Crashers. It's about these girls who aspire to become cougars. They just paaarty! Young party girls who just find hot young guys to play with and then dump them. Why can't women do it?" At a time when Hollywood is obsessed with the Judd Apatow version of the infantile, directionless 40-year-old man, it is a tantalizing notion. Aniston, after all, has trained with the Big Boys—as David Frankel says, "What she does so brilliantly is play great tennis with the big stars of our day: Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey, Vince Vaughn." Why couldn't she create an alternative by having fun with female stereotypes—not to mention provide another option than the Carrie Bradshaw model she so detests?
There is no doubt that Aniston is noticeably more confident. Even the prospect of turning 40 in February in ageist Hollywood doesn't seem to faze her. "I'm not saying I'm 40. I'm 30-10. I don't feel 40. I don't know what it means. I just know that all of a sudden it's something that's in print next to my name. AND NOW SHE'S 40. It almost feels like some sort of badge of honor in a weird way."
Whatever happens next, one thing is certain: We will still want to watch her life. As Stacey Snider, the new CEO of DreamWorks, who has known Aniston for years and is developing The Goree Girls, observes, "She's special enough to be somewhat unattainable but real enough that you can imagine a friendship, which is why you pursue her. And you either pursue her as a fan reading everything there is to read about her or you pursue her as a journalist, as you have, just superinterested, or me as a film exec, always conscious of her work. There's something so pretty and sunny and winning about her. You bask in the reflection of her goldenness." She goes on, "Sometimes I think it must be horrible for her that so many people are interested in her every move, but I'd like to believe that a lot of that interest—not all of it, maybe, but a lot of it—is that people love her and want the best for her."
"Prime Time" has been edited for Style.com; the complete story appears in the December 2008 issue of Vogue.