Talk about chewing the scenery. In "Marley & Me," the title character -- that would be the dog Marley, not Me -- literally eats the furniture. Jennifer Aniston recalls her introduction to her costar, a yellow lab named Clyde. "I walked onto the set and put my sweater and my bag down on the couch, and that dog leapt up onto the couch, grabbed my sweater and started ripping it," she says. The trainers responded immediately, but not as she expected. "They said, 'good, good boy!' and gave him treats." No wonder Clyde came to work every day with a big smile. "The set was a toy."
Clyde and 21 compatriots who played Marley were constantly rewarded for bad behavior. Call it Method dog training. It was all in service to the role. The Fox film, opening Dec. 25, is based on the book of the same name by John Grogan, culled from his popular newspaper columns about life with his wife, Jenny, their children and their pet Marley, the worst dog in the world.
Sitting on a couch in her homey office in Beverly Hills, Aniston looks every inch the girl next door who happens to be a movie star. Three people had gotten her the book for Christmas last year, including her father. "I thought, this isn't a book I'm going to sit down and read, because it's got a dog on the cover," she says. "I don't know why I had that weird prejudice against it." She had a similar reaction to the script initially. "I was like 'Uck, a dog movie?' " she recalls, but quickly revised her opinion upon reading it. "It's so much more than a dog movie, it's this beautiful portrait of a marriage and this 15-year span between these two people and this sweet little unconditionally loving creature that sort of walks through it with them."
Aniston goes on to praise her human costar. "Owen Wilson is so divine in this film," she says. "I've never seen him play a part like this. He was a man; he was a husband; he was a father. And I feel like, how brave of him, to walk through the year that he walked through," and still show up so wholeheartedly for the film, she adds, delicately referring to Wilson's apparent suicide attempt in August 2007. (This is Wilson's first role since then. He has not addressed the incident in the mainstream media but requested in a statement at the time that he be allowed to "heal in private during this difficult time.")
In addition to Wilson ("He has no temper, no ego, he's collaborative and funny and sweet," Aniston says) and the canine scene-stealers, eight children played the couple's three kids at different ages. "And it wasn't just children or a dog in a scene or two, this was every day," the actress points out, adding that the old adage about never working with kids and animals didn't hold. "It was perfect. Everybody was in love with everybody."
Aniston has played pregnant characters in film and television, and certainly does her share of love stories, but this is her first wife and mother role, the part that starts after her boy-meets-girl movies end.
So how did she prepare for her role as a mother? She didn't. Director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada") asked her not to do anything in advance of the shoot in Miami, to just let the role unfold organically. "I said, 'You're the boss, I'm your actor, so let's go,' " says the actress, who usually works with a coach for her movies. "It was all on the page. There was really nothing to do, except be."
Aniston is delighted to be able to go back and forth between studio and independent films -- "one for me, one for you" as she puts it -- but feels like she accomplished both with this one. There are some movie sets that are a blast to be on, but "it didn't quite make it up on the screen. Or it was hell, but it worked," she says. "When you actually can have [the finished film] be as fantastic and fulfilling as the experience itself was, it's called a home run. A creative, emotional home run. Those moments don't happen that often."