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Time to Transition

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite having one of the most famous faces in the world, beamed into 100 countries on a daily basis as one of the six stars of the TV show “Friends,” Jennifer Aniston is not always recognizable. Indeed, just last summer, a little-old-lady resident of Simi Valley was so happy to discover that the neighborhood’s abandoned storefront had been transformed into a Retail Rodeo--Hollywood’s idea of a dingy discount store--that she marched up to the hunched-over shopgirl at the makeup counter and tried to buy something.

“She didn’t recognize it was Jennifer,” says director Miguel Arteta, who was in the middle of a rehearsal at the time for Aniston’s new film, “The Good Girl,” which opens today. “I thought, ‘My God, we’ve got a movie.’ ”

And why would she recognize TV’s Rachel Green, stripped of her glossy hair, tawny skin and her famously arched brow, her lithe figure literally slumped into depression as if saddled by 50-pound weights? Through much of the movie, only her blue-green eyes are allowed expression, and they flicker nervously back and forth, like rabbits caught in a trap.

“The Good Girl” is a Wal-Mart rendition of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” a comic meditation on the frustrated life. This isn’t Depression with a capital D, the usual Hollywood kind that allows for epic scenery-chewing and blatant Oscar posturing. This is D for Dairy Queen, Domino’s pizza and dead-end jobs. Aniston plays Justine, a clerk in a Texas variety store, caught between her mind-numbing days and her lumpen nights with her sweet-natured house-painter husband (John C. Reilly) and his best friend (Tim Blake Nelson), both usually stoned out of their minds by the time she arrives home. Her one bid for passion involves a fellow clerk (Jake Gyllenhaal), an unstable college dropout, a decade younger, who’s re-christened himself “Holden” after Salinger’s restless hero.

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This world of diminished expectations suits Aniston, a deft comedian who, unlike many performers, manages to be not only wry but also humble. Her Justine knows that the sound of her heart breaking is not an orchestra, but the forlorn din of wind chimes on a hot Texas night.

On a hot Los Angeles morning last week, Aniston admits that this quintessential indie role was the answer to her prayers--literally. Just two weeks before Mike White’s script arrived in her dressing room at “Friends,” she’d been “praying for something to manifest.”

After nine seasons on “Friends,” and a sputtered movie career that includes such forgettable films as “Friends” wannabe “Picture Perfect,” she was, well ... a wee bit bored.

“I knew I couldn’t just keep doing this. I don’t want to be kept in this little slot,” she says, looking more like herself, in cream painter pants, a tank top, her hair slung back and no makeup. “Not to put down the romantic comedy. Just after a while it gets a little monotonous. You feel like you’re reading the same thing with the same formula with a different backdrop.

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“I’ve been doing this for so many years on this show. People know who I am but they don’t really trust me to do the other.... Then Miguel Arteta comes along who thinks it will be interesting to mess that up a little bit.”

Arteta and White’s first collaboration, “Chuck & Buck,” was a comically creepy riff on “Fatal Attraction,” about a man arrested in some adolescent developmental stage and obsessed with his best friend from childhood. They specialize in ordinary lives, indeed alienated folks, whose worlds are enlivened--and rocked--by the force of their fantasies. Released by Fox Searchlight, “The Good Girl” cost less than $10 million, less than half what Aniston earns for a season of “Friends.”

Arteta says that he and White considered a whole host of usual indie suspects for the part but weren’t excited about the prospects until White finally suggested Aniston. “Something about the humor she had even in her TV show, it’s very approachable and very relatable. It feels somehow grounded,” says Arteta.

At Home With Brad Pitt

As she sits at home by her pool, Aniston does feel relatable; she fiddles with the straps of her tank top, shuffles Norman, a sweet sheepdog mutt, out of the way, talks with her hands like her character Rachel on TV and pours Splenda into her coffee.

“The new fake sugar,” she says ironically. “It’s not a carcinogenic. Brad was saying, ‘You have to stop with the Sweet’n Lows.’ I have to have it so sweet, the amount of sugar I’d put in there!” Puzzled by what she’s actually slipping into her drink, she reads the ingredients. “It’s sucrose ... no, sucralose. It’s got to be fake something.”

For those who have managed to avoid People magazine, or TV’s “Entertainment Tonight” or any of the numerous outlets of the celebrity machine, Brad is Brad Pitt, Aniston’s husband of two years. The pair are usually credited with living in a French-Normandy-style mansion in Beverly Hills, although in fact they still live here, in a small (tiny by movie-star standards) two-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills, bought by Aniston in the blush of her first “Friends” success. The pool is not much bigger than a wading pool, and the house--what can be seen of it--is a cozy stew of wood and books and light.

“It’s such a mess,” says Aniston. “That’s why I’m embarrassed to walk you through. We’re so cramped, we’re falling out of it....” Still, the house, which looked “like a public school” when she bought it, is full of sentimental feelings for Aniston. “It’s going to kill me to leave ... this house has been so good to me.” They’ve spent the last year fixing up their new Old World-style home, a renovation that seems to be requiring a certain amount of mediation between Pitt’s modernist aesthetic and Aniston’s more cozy one. “We have those knockdown-drag-outs once in a while,” she says with a laugh. The resulting home is “eclectic ... with bits of modern furniture mixed in.”

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“The reason I think it’s taken us this long is because symbolically we’re establishing and creating the foundation. Watch

It’s hard not to get the feeling that Aniston’s life is going into another big transition, with the probable end of “Friends” next year. “I’m sad. Every time I talk about it or think about that moving on, I get choked up,” she says, “but it’s time. It’s time.” At a recent junket for the film “The Good Girl,” almost every journalist asked if she was worried she wouldn’t work after the show ended, a thought that hadn’t crossed her mind. “Hopefully I will survive,” she says. “But there is the possibility, I guess.”

The brewing word on “The Good Girl” has already begun to change her career options and last week landed her the biggest film role of her life, opposite Jim Carrey in the upcoming comedy “Bruce Almighty.” When she took on “The Good Girl,” shot in her off days from “Friends,” she asked Arteta, “Please keep watch over me and don’t let me do anything that you’ve seen before.”

He didn’t let her.

“By the third day, I was ready to strangle him,” says Aniston. “I was frustrated. It was muscles being exercised that have been asleep for years. And it was scary. I found myself crying all the time. He pushed me into uncomfortable places. I didn’t realize how uncomfortable I was with experiencing depression or being sad.” Indeed, the sadness in her life she’s usually tried to extinguish with comedy, her greatest survival skill.

Mediator for Her Parents

While to millions of fans Aniston’s life seems the embodiment of the American Dream, she says it wasn’t always so. Born in the San Fernando Valley, Aniston saw her parents divorce when she was 9, and she moved to New York’s Upper West Side with her mother Nancy. At 11, she knew she was going to be an actor.

“It was all I could do,” she says. “I didn’t have confidence in myself that I could do much more.” Both parents were also actors, her father successfully on a soap opera, her mother much less so. “She was a terrible actress. She’d be the first to tell you that. She couldn’t handle the rejection.” Aniston doesn’t usually speak about her mother, because the pair are famously estranged, after her mother wrote a tell-all book about her famous daughter. But her spirit does seem to hover over “The Good Girl.”

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Despite the bounty of her present-day life, Aniston says she related to Justine. “I feel so much like that person sometimes. That’s what’s so interesting.” She begins to riff again, slowly, without the familiar self-deprecating inflections. “That boredom I can understand. My childhood was depressed and sad; not to say my home was like a prison, but there was an element that was confining and sad.”

Justine, she adds, “reminded me a lot of my mom. Here was a woman who was born into a different generation that didn’t have opportunities that we women have, even the self-help books or therapy. When the divorce happened there wasn’t a lot she could do.”

Throughout her childhood, Aniston was always trying to be the “good girl,” mediating her parents’ hostility, and like Justine “sometimes lying about things to not hurt Mom and then lying about things to not hurt Dad and getting myself in trouble and not realizing that the truth is the most beautiful version of love, no matter how painful it is. We can be in conflict and you’re not going to go away. You’re not going to disappear, which I think is what I always felt.”

Now it’s time for Aniston to disappear. In 25 minutes, she’s taking a plane to Toronto, the first leg of her cross-country press tour. This is a rare feat for Aniston, who’s not only never been to Canada but barely traveled because she’s afraid of flying. “I have to get over that to see the world,” she says. “I’ve been so riddled with fear. If there was ever a moment when I was maybe going to go, I got out of it. I’ve gone to hypnotists, everything. I once took an anti-anxiety pill. I still felt anxiety. I just didn’t have the energy to act it out.”

Unable to keep the comedy away, she riffs humorously--suddenly more Rachel than Justine. “It’s like this thing I watched on the Learning Channel, ‘Trauma Center.’ My guilty pleasure--me and my husband watch these things like ‘When Animals Attack’ or ‘Real World’ or ‘Good Times Gone Bad.’ There was this one called ‘Trapped in a Body,’ and it was about surgery where [the patients] didn’t go completely under. [The doctors] could cut into them and they wouldn’t scream, but they could hear it and feel it. It was awful.”


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