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Present Perfect

Newsday

She’s like . . . so into this.

“This” being whatever you want to call the peculiar practice of talking to strangers, one after another, as they file into a Manhattan hotel suite to ask her about the weather, her hair (ah, that hair), her regular job, her co-workers, the movie she’s finishing up this summer, the movie she made last summer that she’s giving interviews about right now. . . .

One would think, after all the exposure Jennifer Aniston and her fellow cast members on “Friends” have received over the last couple of years, that this carousel (or is it a roller coaster?) of publicity has taken her on too many rides for it to have any sustained entertainment value. But practically the first thing Aniston tells a visitor who comes in at the tail end of a crowded afternoon of interviews about her first movie-star vehicle, “Picture Perfect,” is how much she’s really, truly enjoyed the whole day.

“Maybe it’s because it’s my first one, I don’t know,” she says. “But I’m really having a great time! I kept hearing about how boring and tedious this whole process was, but . . . it’s interesting to hear these different questions . . . sometimes the same questions with a different spin on them. And it kind of challenges you to think of new things to say each time. Like you wish you could go back and tell someone you talked with earlier, ‘Know what I just thought of?’ And . . . well, listen, it must be really tiring for you guys with all the movies out there every week. . . .”

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The first impulse from one’s jaded instincts is to wonder if Aniston will continue to be so solicitous toward journalists after her sixth or seventh movie. But there’s something about the guileless gleam in those baby blues that subdues any inclination to harrumph. “She really means it!,” you end up thinking.

Within minutes of meeting Aniston, you realize why more than 30 million viewers of “Friends” can never get enough of her. Lapsed princess Rachel Green, her mood-swinging alter ego on “Friends,” is lucky to be portrayed by a person who’s not only nicer than she is, but makes niceness itself more magnetic than one thought possible.

In “Picture Perfect,” which opens Friday, Aniston plays someone who, like Rachel, isn’t always very nice. Her character, Kate Mosley, is a talented creative director for a Manhattan ad agency whose boss won’t promote her because her state of unattached-ness makes her too free to bolt for another firm. So a photographer (Jay Mohr from “Jerry Maguire”), whom Kate casually met at an out-of-town wedding, is set up by both her and her colleague (Illeana Douglas) as a fictitious fiance.

Which not only gets her promoted, but perks the interest of the office Lothario (Kevin Bacon), who prefers affairs with women already “taken.” Complications ensue--as they tend to do in romantic comedies like this--when the photographer suddenly becomes so famous he can no longer be kept at a distance.

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Aniston came by the script for “Picture Perfect” from her father, actor John Aniston, who knew one of the co-writers, Arlene Sorkin, from their work together on “Days of Our Lives.” Jennifer had previously been in supporting roles in such recent films as “ ‘Til There Was You” and “She’s the One,” directed by Edward Burns.

This time, the 28-year-old actress is the star, the marquee name that will “carry” the movie into the marketplace. And no one’s more aware than she is that there are lots of entertainment industry pundits watching to see if she’ll be the latest member of the glamorous “Friends” cast who crashes and burns when she attempts to parlay her TV stardom to the big screen.

“This whole thing of . . ., " she makes quote marks in the air, “ ‘Will this be another “Friends” flop?’ I don’t know. . . . It’s more fascinating to me than anything else. Because as actors you’re given an opportunity to do a part and I would think . . . I mean, how many great actors have had flops in their lives? I’m sure they do.

“But I think we have all these expectations behind us because we’re on this show that became a phenomenon. And there’s this interesting process [in the media] of bringing everybody down, to make us into failures. I don’t know why everybody doesn’t just . . . let things happen without making any final judgments on careers or having any prejudices.”

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So far, the skepticism and smirking that other “Friends” have drawn for their movie ventures haven’t so much as grazed Aniston. Is it possible, to paraphrase the title of Burns’ film, that Aniston is the One among her “Friends” compatriots to make a big-screen breakthrough?

Her long-range prospects, to be sure, are impressive. “The Object of My Affection” boasts direction by Nicholas Hytner (“The Madness of King George”) and a screenplay adapted by Wendy Wasserstein from the novel by Stephen Macauley about a pregnant woman who depends on her gay male friend for moral support.

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It hasn’t been an easy shoot. Those working on Hytner’s closed set have engaged in cat-and-mouse games with paparazzi cruising the city to get shots of Aniston simulating full-term pregnancy. And if you’ve been in the metropolitan New York area during the past couple of weeks, you understand the heavy dues involved in doing anything out of doors with a 100-plus heat index, much less walking around with 13 pounds of extra padding in front of lights and cameras.

“My heart goes out to all those women who are pregnant during the summer,” says Aniston, who also had to wear sweaters and suede jackets for exterior scenes during the peak of the recent heat wave. “You couldn’t get the scenes done fast enough before the sweat started pouring out of you. I mean, I’ve felt as though I’ve been walking into this huge mouth. It was so hot!”

Still, she likes the idea of coming to New York for the last couple summers to make movies during her off-season from “Friends.” “L.A. is a different place. You drive by life. But here, you’re in the middle of life with all its chaos and variety moving around you. I love the energy.”

And though she was born in Sherman Oaks, Aniston did her growing up in Manhattan, where the acting bug bit her at age 11. She attended the High School for the Performing Arts intent on making acting a career despite her dad’s warnings.

“He gave me all the usual reasons. ‘You don’t want to deal with rejection,’ ‘It’s competitive,’ ‘You can’t always count on steady income.’ All that. And he did it in such a way that it was almost like making sure I was going to do it. Or maybe that’s what he’d intended, I don’t know.”

The elder Aniston continues to give advice; the most frequently offered, his daughter says, is “to be very wary . . . to be very aware of every move that’s made and the deals going on around you because not everyone is going to be nice.

“It’s almost like the advertising world in [“Picture Perfect”], where everything isn’t what it seems and there’s all this deception based on image and the whole issue that Kate has to deal with is, you know, how do you maintain your integrity in this kind of a world? How do you stay true to yourself?”

As far as Aniston is concerned, a big part of “staying true” means keeping her steady gig. With “Object of My Affection” wrapping up production this week, Aniston can’t wait to fly back to the left coast to begin “Friends’ ” fourth season. However “Picture Perfect” scores in the box office, don’t expect Aniston to leave her “Friends” behind any time soon.

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“I think I would be crazy to leave,” she says. “I get so much from that job. It’s so fulfilling. And we have this strong bond between us. We’ve had intense experiences together. We’ve had heartaches together. We’ve been through too much for it to just end before it’s time. And it either goes on with all of us or none of us. There’s none of this thing of . . . ‘Well, if one or two of you leave, we can go on without you.’ ” She adds, softly. “No way.”


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