It’s been 15 years since Jennifer Aniston signed off as Rachel Green on “Friends.” In that time, she’s received plenty of other offers to star in a TV show, but she hadn’t been tempted by any of them. “I was doing so many films at the time,” Aniston says on a recent afternoon, sitting in the living room of her Bel-Air mansion, as her two dogs — Clyde and Sophie — scamper around her. “So I never thought, ‘Oh I’m nostalgic.’” And she didn’t think anything could compare with the professional experience of “Friends” anyway. “If I was going to go back anywhere, that’s where I would want to go. Meaning in my mind.”
Next month, Aniston returns to the medium that made her into a household name and an international star (with box-office hits such as 2011’s “Horrible Bosses” and 2013’s “We’re the Millers”). In the Apple TV Plus drama “The Morning Show,” she plays a veteran anchor, Alex Levy, who finds herself in the spotlight after her famous male colleague, Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), is fired over sexual misconduct allegations. Aniston is an executive producer on the series along with Reese Witherspoon (who plays Bradley Jackson, a local newswoman who takes over the newly vacated co-anchor chair).
The original pilot for “The Morning Show,” which focused on the cutthroat world of morning TV, was completely re-written after Matt Lauer was fired from “Today” in November 2017. And while Carell’s Kessler, the disgraced anchor on “The Morning Show,” bears some eerie resemblances to Lauer, Aniston insists that the show is a work of fiction.
Still, she studied old episodes of “Today” and “GMA” to find rhythms of her character, and she spent time grilling Diane Sawyer, Willie Geist and Gayle King about their early-morning routines. She even re-watched “Today” on the day before Lauer was fired. “Did he know? Did he not know?” Aniston asks. She felt disgust at the news of his abusive conduct. “I was so devastated,” Aniston says. “It’s such a strange thing; it felt oddly like my dad did something terrible. I trusted him and had been interviewed by him. He was there for so many moments in my life. And when ‘Friends’ was ending, it was Katie [Couric] and Matt interviewing us.”
For this week’s Power of Women issue (where Aniston is honored for her philanthropy with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital), the actress spoke to Variety about her new TV role, the legacy of “Friends” and the one time that Harvey Weinstein tried to bully her.
What was it like producing “The Morning Show” before Me Too became a national movement?
The show got picked up. We sold it to Apple with an outline. Then, about four months later, the whole s— hit the fan and, basically, we had to start from scratch.
Did that change your process for building the character?
I work with this wonderful [acting coach] named Nancy Banks. We read. We think about her. We think about what her physicality is. Here was the big kicker for me. [Nancy] would take me places that I was not sure I wanted to go emotionally. So if I was bumping up against something, she would say, “Well how does this feel…” Almost like therapy. I also lost having a life, because Sundays were always spent with Nancy for four or five hours, going over the week’s work.
Because it was shot like a movie?
A series of movies out of order and the most dense material.
Were all the episodes done out of order?
Most of them were. We’d shoot this and then we’d say, “Well, we’ll throw in some of Episode 104.” And while we’re adding a scene from 107, you have to go, “Where was I and where will I have gone by then?”
“Friends” must have been so different.
“Friends” was like going to see a play for three or four hours. And it was just laughing and wonderful fun. And this is fun. It’s just a lot harder. My bandwidth had to expand so that I could take in all the information.
I know you spent some time with Diane Sawyer. What other journalists did you model Alex on?
All of them.
Did you watch “Today” episodes when Katie Couric was on?
I actually watched those live when I was growing up. But yeah, it was very interesting. I went to the DVR that I had of “Today” before Matt Lauer was fired and then the day he was fired, because that was so fascinating to see. Mitch Kessler is not based on him at all. He’s just sort of the archetype of all of the men that he’s representing.
There’s a scene where Mitch’s wife leaves him to go to the Hamptons that reminded me of Lauer.
Yes, sure. Who doesn’t live in the Hamptons on the East Coast? Who isn’t going to go to Amagansett or somewhere fancy for the weekend?
Are all the characters in “The Morning Show” meant to be fictional?
All fictional, but also kind of highlighting aspects of the archetype of a charming narcissist, of a generation of men that didn’t think that was bad behavior. That’s just the way it works. And men are flirts and women are coy and find it flattering. And thankfully, with the sacrifices of these women who have come forward, this isn’t going to happen anymore. It’s wonderful that you’re accountable and you have to check yourself.
Did you ever work with Harvey Weinstein?
I did one movie, “Derailed,” with Clive Owen.
Did you spend time with Harvey?
I had to. There was the premiere dinner. I remember I was sitting at the dinner table with Clive, and our producers and a friend of mine was sitting with me. And he literally came to the table and said to my friend: “Get up!” And I was like, “Oh my gosh.” And so my friend got up and moved and Harvey sat down. It was just such a level of gross entitlement and piggish behavior.
Did he ever try to bully you?
He knew better. I remember, right when [his ex-wife] Georgina’s clothing line Marchesa was starting. That’s when he came to visit me in London while we were shooting. He’d be like, “Ok, so I’d like you to wear one of these to the premiere.” And I went through the book, and at the time, it wasn’t what it is today. It was not for me. He was like, “You have to wear the dress.” That was my only bullying. And I was like, “No, I will not wear the dress.”
And he accepted that?
Well, what was he going to do? Come over here and make me wear it?!
Do you think that the Me Too movement has led to permanent change in Hollywood?
Absolutely. I think there’s still room for improvement, but I think that kind of behavior is done. I think people have had the s— scared out of them. It’s also this big pendulum. Everybody has this new playbook and everybody’s trying to figure out what the new rules are. But what’s so wonderful about doing this show is that it is so unapologetically honest in terms of topics and the situations. It’s basically showing all sides. It’s showing how things are said behind closed doors during Me Too, that no one else has the balls to say in front of the world.
Have you been inspired by the wave of female empowerment that’s happening right now in Hollywood?
I think it’s an incredible moment. Look, there are unsung voices, unsung talent that has yet to be discovered. Our eye is now on that prize. You have to make people think it’s not a choice anymore. This is actually the new normal, as it should be. And I think it’s going to get better and better. Our show has six female producers. As a woman who has been in this business for 30 years, it’s been great and it’s been tough. And now here we are. We have the first show bought by Apple.
Did you have any reservations selling “The Morning Show” to Apple?
Yes and no. But I have to say the “no” outweighed the “yes,” because we knew what we were doing — even though they didn’t have walls yet or telephones.
How did you meet with them if they didn’t have walls?
They came to CAA. There was really something exciting about being the first at Apple. Apple is pretty awesome. They make cool stuff. Why wouldn’t they maybe make cool television? And they are all about quality, not quantity, so that was really appealing. And in spite of their comical secrecy, it’s been worth it. Who doesn’t want to be part of the Wild Wild West?
You’ve signed on for two seasons of “The Morning Show.” Could there be more?
If there’s stuff to talk about and if we’re not dead tired from it. I literally went into my covers for two weeks when we wrapped.
Why did you decide to return to TV?
It wasn’t until the last couple of years when these streaming services were just sort of exploding with this amount of quality that I actually started to think, “Wow, that’s better than what I just did.” And then you’re seeing what’s available out there and it’s just diminishing and diminishing in terms of, it’s big Marvel movies. Or things that I’m not just asked to do or really that interested in living in a green screen.
The movie business has changed dramatically.
It’s changed so much. I think we would so love to have the era of Meg Ryan come back. I just think it would be nice to go into a movie theater, sit cozy. I think we should have a resurgence. Let’s get the “Terms of Endearment” back out there. You know, “Heaven Can Wait,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Goodbye Girl.”
Do you think that all this content that the streaming services are producing is the new future of Hollywood? Or do you think that this is a phase?
I don’t know. I’m shocked this is where we are, but excited that this is where we are. I didn’t see it coming. I remember not understanding. What the hell does streaming mean? They’re like, “It’s there all the time.” So tuning in on Thursday nights at eight o’clock is not a thing anymore? Or you’re not going to the bathroom on a commercial break and someone yells, “It’s back on!” That doesn’t happen anymore? It’s kind of sad.
Were you surprised that WarnerMedia spent so much to buy the streaming rights to “Friends?”
I’m shocked. I’m amazed. And you’re welcome.
Why didn’t you ever do a “Friends” movie?
Because our producers wouldn’t want it, wouldn’t let us. Look, it’s not been without our desire to, because our fans have wanted it so much.
So there were points when the six of you would have done it?
It depends. I mean, we haven’t all sat in a room. But would we have loved to have done something together? Yeah. It would have been fun. We could have redesigned it for a couple episodes. But whatever. Maybe it’s better this way, but we’ll never know.
On Netflix, it feels like “Friends” is still one of the most watched shows in America.
I know. It’s a phenomenon that I am amazed by. To have a whole new generation of children adoring the show as much as they did back in the day when it was airing for the first time is incredible. I want to know what people love so much about it, because there wasn’t any of this. Now most people’s consumption is the [phone] screen, which I’m very conflicted about. If you can’t drive until you’re 16 and you can’t drink until you’re 21, why should you be allowed to have social media? Like to have a distraction that prevents you from learning to connect with people?
Do you think there should be an age limit for social media?
I don’t know. I don’t have kids. I just know that I’m watching my girlfriends’ children and they’re all struggling because of social media. Do you know that mental health has gone through the roof? And primarily what they’ve discovered, it’s because of social media. It’s compare and despair, over and over again. Do they like me? Do they not like me? Am I good enough? It’s hard enough as it is being a kid without the damn “likes” or “not likes.” I wish they would remove the “like.” Why do they need them? Why do we need a comments section, where these trolls with no lives try to be hurtful?
But going back to “Friends,” I think the reason that it still continues to be popular is that the its thesis was that you don’t need a romantic partner if your friends are everything. That was an idea that was ahead of its time.
Right, right, right. It makes you happy. Even when I stumble on it, it makes me happy. I love it and I’ve also forgotten most of it, so it’s really fun for me to rediscover.