Courteney Cox has been famous for 25 years. Yes -- Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" video, which caused "who's-that-girl?" attention to be directed toward the blue-eyed, short-black-haired, T-shirt-and-jeans wearing Cox, made its MTV debut in July 1984.
At the time, the then-20-year-old Cox, who had spent her childhood in Mountain Brook, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham, was working at a music agency in New York and doing some modeling. Her career after that -- "Family Ties," "Ace Ventura," "Friends," "Scream" -- has made her a key part of several pivotal television shows and movies of the last quarter century. She will soon star in a new comedy, ABC's "Cougar Town." And she might make an excellent witness to the splintering of mass culture, having been a participant in such hugely popular fare, as well as the vacillations of the celebrity-industrial complex.
Except Cox has a terrible memory. Even about something extremely, um, memorable. "Did we get a million dollars an episode just for one year or two?"
She was asking the question over a recent steak dinner when the subject of the final season of "Friends" came up, during which all six lead cast members were paid exorbitant salaries.
Then, with half-feigned marvel in her voice: "Isn't that amazing? A million dollars an episode! What did I do with that money? More importantly."
Her pre-"Friends" years in Los Angeles are also somewhat hazy. "I used to go to the Cat and Fiddle," she said, trying to grasp backward in time. "Maybe I'd go to the Chateau Marmont back then -- it's much hipper now."
Her laissez-faire forgetfulness would be a shock to anyone who didn't realize she was actually acting for the 10 years she played Monica, the hilariously uptight, sometimes unhinged whippet who kept all the "Friends" in line. It's a role Cox is so closely associated with that her own personality seems to be that of a hyper-organized clean freak tweezed within an inch of her eyebrows' lives.
Cox is more complicated than that. What she does remember from the late '80s and early '90s, besides her many homes -- Cox is a serial house redoer-decorator-mover -- and a few relationships (including with Michael Keaton at his "Batman" height), is a vague feeling that she wasn't quite where she wanted to be in life. "I think before, maybe I wished I was someplace else, or, 'Oh, maybe that lucky thing will happen, and I'll get recognized in a way that someone will trust me to put me in that role,' " she said. "I don't know how I thought all of these things were going to happen without really going for stuff. I don't know whether I didn't think I deserved it or whether I was just shy. I'm not sure.
"But now I'm much more confident. And I believe that things are exactly the way they're supposed to be."
Playing a cougar
Some of those things are: a happy home life with husband David Arquette and their 5-year-old daughter, Coco. A phalanx of friends they host at small gatherings every Sunday night -- yes, yes, Jennifer Aniston is one of them. Two houses to split time between, one in Beverly Hills and one in Malibu. A production company, Coquette, that Cox and Arquette run together.
And Cox will play the lead role in "Cougar Town," a slightly dirty comedy about a recently divorced mom in Florida looking to date, which will premiere Sept. 23 at 9:30 p.m. Its tone is broad on subjects such as sex, aging and parenting, and Cox's Jules is blunt and inappropriate -- the show will likely divide critics and viewers from the title on down.
The days have been long and, particularly since she's been on a break from steady work on television since FX's ill-fated "Dirt" was canceled last year, it has been exhausting. "I don't think I've ever starred in something where I really am in every scene," she said. "I'm trying to decorate my bungalow, get my dressing room settled. I'm constantly searching for outer peace. I want my life to be calm. I want it to be organized. Because that's all I'm really searching for, I'm always chaotic."
Not that Cox wants any of this to stop, mind you. She said: "I hope this show is a huge hit and that people love it. Because I like playing this character more than any character I've ever played."
What? More than Monica? More than Gale Weathers, the tabloid reporter from the "Scream" movies? "Yeah!" she said emphatically. "This show says what I think."
Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel, the co-creators of "Cougar Town," spend a lot of time with Cox to channel her into Jules. Lawrence has known Cox since he wrote on Season 1 of "Friends" -- though he's not sure how much Cox remembers him from then. After that, he went on to start "Spin City" and "Scrubs," and they were "kind of like extras in each other's lives." He wanted to work with her on a new show when he heard she would like to return to comedy post-"Dirt." "I always thought she was a talented and funny actress," Lawrence said. "But also a cool chick. A cool broad."
About the creation of the Jules character, Lawrence said: "I wanted her to be like Courteney. If you talk to Courteney when she's off-guard, or when she's being herself, she's incredibly frank, she's incredibly brassy. Very opinionated, very self-deprecating. But at heart she's still a goofball. I don't think she's gotten to do that a lot."
Life as a 40-ish woman
Cox is 45, and on "Cougar Town" she is playing 40-ish. Does its comedic harping about age and changing, sinking bodies cause her to think about her own life? "Well, the show doesn't make me think about aging -- I've been thinking about aging since I've been aging," Cox said with a laugh. "I can't believe the time I spent in my 30s, even late 30s, thinking about some of the stuff I did. That was ridiculous. What a waste of time. Now I actually need to start thinking about it."
Within the framework of the minute-by-minute gossip cycle that goes from the blogosphere onto the pages of the glossy weekly magazines, Cox remains somewhat of a cipher. She has done thousands of interviews in 25 years, of course. And has a public persona amassed through smidgens from magazines and websites that is something like this: Cox is a control freak who married a kook from the wacky Arquette family, but they seem to make it work. She has had some nebulous anti-aging things done to her face. She's a grounded force in the untethered romantic life of her best friend, Aniston. She's been open about multiple miscarriages and failed in vitro attempts -- now she has a cute kid.
Considering the depraved or pathetic alternatives, it sounds pretty nice and fairly ordinary, right? In an interview that lasted more than three hours, during which Cox tried an astonishing number of times to divert attention away from herself despite being the subject of a profile, this question about normality elicited her longest soliloquy of the night.
"You can live a very normal life if you don't actually look for things," she said. "Someone said, 'Oh, I saw a picture of you on the Internet, that was a really pretty hat.' Not hat, I don't wear hats. 'That was a really great dress!' I was like, 'Oh, I just wore that the other day, how did you know?' 'Oh, well, on blank-blank-blank-dot-com.' I wouldn't know."
She continued. "I don't know whose movie made money -- I haven't seen a movie. I don't know who's famous and who's not, I don't know any young people that are coming up. I'll see somebody, and I'll say, 'That girl's really pretty.' And someone may say, 'Oh, of course, she's on "The Hills" or something.' Is that a show?"
Yes, "The Hills" is a show.
Cox went on: "I've got strong opinions, and I can get short. But I'm just not that high-maintenance. So the whole world knows I had miscarriages. And yes, I've done in vitro however many times -- three times. Yes, I've said that David and I go to therapy. Yes. Nothing's too precious for me. For some reason, I don't care."
She concluded: "I wish I could be a little bit more, like, 'You're trying to dig something out of me,' and me being like, 'I'm not going to talk about that.' What do you want to talk about? I don't care."
Marta Kauffman, a co-creator of "Friends," said of Cox, "She is the most down-to-earth, real human being" -- she waited a few beats -- "probably in Hollywood."
A sensitive area
Being famous can cause practical inconveniences, however. Like when you're trying to combat lice. "Recently my daughter had lice," Cox said. "OK? Wasn't fun. Became a big outbreak in the house."
When Cox went on a non-picturesque errand to buy anti-lice nit combs at Hair Fairies, a.k.a. "The Head Lice Helpers," three paparazzi were accompanying her, and: "So I stayed in the car, and I called up my assistant, and I said, 'Dude, I can't get out of the car.' So that's the only problem."
It's the sort of anecdote -- a revealing personal tidbit that combines the banal with the absurd -- that she drops into conversation with little worry that she's saying too much about her family and, specifically, Coco. And why should she be afraid, after 25 years of this? It is simply a fact that Coco will grow up in front of cameras -- the pregnant Cox was photographed aggressively -- and that is her life, which is, according to Cox, a carefree one. "She doesn't know fear," Cox said.
Cox, on the other hand, who considers herself always to have been sensitive, has grown even more so since having a kid. To the point where she can't bear to landscape the front of her house because it would involve killing the plants there.
"I can't tell you how much time I think about taking up the plants that don't really work anymore," she said. "Something has completely changed in me. I don't know what happened. I'm sure it's after Coco -- I'm sure. I have a life to take care of. But whoa, did I turn into a freak!"
When the interview was nearly over, she seemed to begin worrying that she hadn't been able to express who she is -- that she is unable to articulate interesting things about herself. It was not a concern but she said: "I bet you a million dollars that if I were the interviewer and I called you up and said, 'Kate, tell me about Courteney Cox,' you would be able to speak more eloquently about me than I would ever be able to myself.
"I gotta get better at this," Cox said. "I've been in the business 100 years and I somehow have to get better at these interviews."