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Taking risks in the indie 'Cake' is paying off for Jennifer Aniston

Ex-'Friend' Jennifer Aniston sees her role as a pill addict in 'Cake' as a breakthrough in her career

Jennifer Aniston's sitting on the floor of her Bel-Air home, wedged in the tight space between her coffee table and sofa. "I know, it's weird, right?" says the actress, looking cramped in her otherwise spacious living room. "My dogs run things around here [she points to the pitbull stretched across her white couch]. She kicked me off. I know my place."

Humor and self-effacing affability are near-trademarks of Aniston, who became America's sweetheart playing Rachel Green on the 1994-2004 TV series "Friends" and who continued her comedic streak in a variety of subsequent film roles, some memorable ("Marley & Me," "Bruce Almighty") others forgettable enough not to be mentioned here.

But for director Daniel Barnz's indie drama "Cake" (which gets a wider release starting Jan. 23), Aniston opts for darker territory as the depressed, acerbic, pain pill-addicted Claire Bennett. Her broken and prickly character has lost the will to live after an unthinkable tragedy that's left her in chronic pain.

It's not a pretty part. Aniston, 45, is a cranky mess for most of the film — bags under her eyes, hair stringy, face scarred and scowling. It's at odds with the perky image of her early career, and it fits a little too nicely with the tabloid narrative of "Jen's Terminal Heartbreak!" since her split from husband Brad Pitt in 2005.

"It is a risk, especially if you're me and you're so known," she says of taking on the unglamorous role. "I'm fighting through being in your living room for 10 years, every week — every day — and being known as one person. That's a hard shell to shake for an audience and for an industry that's got to make money on this. People have got to believe it."

Judging by early reactions to the film, they do. For her grumpy, limping, pajama-clad role in "Cake" — which also stars Adrianna Barraza ("Babel") and Sam Worthington ("Avatar"), Aniston received a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, was nominated for a Golden Globe and is now seriously poised for that once-elusive Oscar nod.

"This does feel like a turning ..." she stops herself. After years of ups and downs in Hollywood, Aniston is cautious about referring to this as a potential breakthrough moment for her. "To be having a conversation about my work, as opposed to the other BS, is really so refreshing. I feel like a plant that's just been starving for nourishment. I needed a good rain."

Director Barnz ("Phoebe in Wonderland," "Beastly") isn't all that surprised by the shower of accolades. He cites sitcom star Mary Tyler Moore's dramatic transformation in "Ordinary People" as part of his inspiration for casting Aniston. "I find as a filmmaker, that when you cast somebody in a role that's so different from what they've done before and give them an opportunity to express themselves differently, they will really lie down on train tracks for you," he says. "And that's what Jen did.

"Sure, she's not the go-to choice," he continues. "But she has something about her, an innate forgivability, that was so necessary for a role that can otherwise be so harsh."

Dressed in jeans and a white sweatshirt, Aniston looks much the same as she did in the '90s (sans the perky hairdo). She appears healthy, happy, friendly and, of course, personal-trainer fit. Her hair today is a tousled mix of honey, brown and blond that shimmers like in a shampoo ad as she wrestles her dogs away from guests.

Aniston's home is a reflection of the star herself, casual and comfortable yet worth millions. The Midcentury multilevel structure sits behind an intercom-operated security gate and atop a hill overlooking Los Angeles. Inside, it's a mix of minimal elegance and earthy, Asian-meets-everything-else-worldly decor. Various handlers and house staff move in and out of the front room as she sits for an interview, or, as she likes to call it, "the journalistic equivalent of speed dating."

Her fiancé, writer-actor Justin Theroux ("Mulholland Drive" and HBO's "The Leftovers"), is among the fray, and he tries to sneak past unnoticed. "Hey, there!" she greets him; he waves and apologizes for interrupting. Once he's gone, Aniston whispers: "He's so sweet, it breaks my heart. The nicest person in the world. I keep waiting for Ashton Kutcher to walk in, 'You're being punked!'"

Aniston's personal life, or the tabloid version of it anyway, has been the subject of many an article and photo gallery since her breakup with Pitt and his reported overlapping relationship with Angelina Jolie. If all those articles and posts are to be believed, Aniston's still heartbroken, is always on some red carpet within 50 feet of Angie and pines for the day when she too can have six (or is it seven?) kids.

"That part of my life is completely out of control," she says, clearly perturbed by the subject. "I haven't gotten jobs because of that attention, and the things they say ... never true! I've always been that person who would be like, 'Hey, that's a lie!' But what do you do? Open a Twitter account just so I can say, 'That's not true'? It's an industry based on snapping shots of someone's cellulite. Who cares?!! Argh, don't get me started ..."

Gossip rags are not the only culprit when it comes to the public, or at least Hollywood's, perception of Aniston. Her wildly successful beginnings as a sitcom star have contributed to what she calls "a limited imagination" regarding her talents as an actor.

"I was going through frustrations in my career [leading up to 'Cake']," she says. "I wanted to work with this director or that director — and it was like 'why can't I be part of that?' I had such amazing success in that one piece of our industry, but I wanted to stretch myself more. I was starting to fear maybe they're right. Maybe I'm not right for any of these parts. But I can't let other people's opinions — or lack on being chosen for a role — make me doubt what I know I can do."

"Cake" is an $8-million film that was shot around L.A. in just under a month. The screenplay is by newcomer Patrick Tobin, whose work Barnz discovered through a screenplay competition.

Aniston knew immediately after reading the script that she wanted the part. It tapped into deeper recesses, some of which she had called upon in earlier dramatic roles such as 2002's "The Good Girl."

"I'm comfortable going to dark places that have lived in me for a long time," says Aniston. "At this point in my career, it was like [screw] it. I'm ready to be raw and expose myself. And it couldn't be the pretty version; it had to be real, painful, ugly and unflattering."

Barnz said that after showing an early cut of "Cake" to Aniston's close friend and former co-star Courteney Cox, the actress — like many who've since seen the film — was so lost in the bruised-up world of Claire that she forgot she was watching Aniston.

Much has been said about Aniston's transformation for the role — notably her daring decision to gain weight, look schlumpy and go makeup free. "There's something beautifully liberating about letting yourself be that exposed," she says. "I guess now I can go out looking like anything, 'cause it doesn't get worse than that. But [the reaction] is so hypocritical. Men never get any of that when they look rough or troubled. With me, it's 'she's unglammed!' As though I'm all glam normally.

She pauses, "By the way, to go to work and wear pajamas and T-shirts every day was pretty fantastic. I remember the scenes where I'd have to put on a blouse, and it was like 'You mean I have to do buttons?'"

lorraine.ali@latimes.com

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