“Hi!” says Aniston, who’s calling from Los Angeles and whom I’ve interviewed a number of times over the years. Her camera’s turned off today, but her face flashes before me anyway: the warm blue eyes, the wry smile, half hidden by a sweep of lion-blonde hair. “It’s so good to talk to you!”
She’s in the middle of post-production for season two of Morning Wars, the hit AppleTV+ drama she stars in with Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell and Billy Crudup, streaming now. Morning Wars is some of the more addictive prestige television in recent years, and Aniston’s been unabashed in her praise for the show, which brought her out of post-Friends TV retirement in 2019, and has elicited one of the finest performances of her career. “It’s one of the most beautiful gems you could hope for,” she enthuses.
But Aniston is characteristically frank about the challenges of filming the new season during lockdown. “We weren’t together the way we were before,” she says, recalling the daily COVID tests, endless masks and elaborate social distancing protocols necessary to shoot Morning Wars safely. “One of the great things about doing a show is [that] your crew is your family. But we were all separated this time. So it wasn’t the joyful creative experience you’re used to. I missed seeing everyone’s faces.”
It’s this frankness of Aniston’s, I think, that’s one of the chief reasons people continue to love her after all these years. Despite nearly three decades of Friends-induced mega-fame (and Beverly Hills mountaintop-living) there’s a disarming, wry sort of candour about Aniston, 52, that’s tough to resist. She may be one of the most famous humans on the planet, but chatting with her feels very much like catching up with an old friend from high school.
For the uninitiated, Morning Wars follows the behind-the-scenes battles at a Today Show-type news program, as its stars and executives attempt to navigate America’s rapidly shifting cultural landscape. Season one took a head-on (and decidedly high drama) look at corporate sexism, ageism and the impact of the internet on a network newsroom, with Aniston and Witherspoon as the duelling co-anchors, scrambling for survival while their workplace was roiled by the #MeToo movement.
On the show, Aniston plays Alex Levy, America’s longtime morning show sweetheart who’s in constant danger of being edged out by the younger, scrappier Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon) – an internet whistleblower/viral sensation brought in by the network to boost ratings. And it must be said that watching the blue-steel sparks fly between Aniston and Witherspoon is one of the juicier delights that TV currently has to offer.
Without wanting to give away any spoilers, season two of Morning Wars picks up a few months after season one left off – with the network still reeling from Aniston and Witherspoon’s on-air accusations of widespread sexism and secrecy. (Cue the trailer’s visual of Aniston in seclusion, clutching a mug of tea and staring pensively into a snow-filled landscape.)
“When you see Alex, she’s sort of at a crossroads,” Aniston says. “She’s definitely taking time. It’s a few months later, and she’s doing the personal inventory of what on Earth she has not looked at, or turned a blind eye to for so long.”
Although the show is set shortly before the pandemic, the world of Morning Wars is a recognisably dark and tumultuous place. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the show has floundered in Alex’s absence, and the network is now desperate to get her back, as it attempts to grapple with its sexist culture – not to mention the additional spectres of racism and homophobia that have come to light. “We had a little bit of a dark blanket over us,” says Aniston of shooting season two. “But that was what the season was about, so it lent itself to what we were doing.”
Still, Aniston says, she was thrilled to be working – and humbled by what she describes as a period of “personal re-evaluation” that came about during the long lockdown of 2020. “When you feel, energetically, the whole world come to a halt, and something bigger than all of us, bigger than anything, takes over ... I mean, we are not God, we cannot control this. Everyone was powerless in this moment, and all we could do was stay home. And I think it forced a lot of us to have a little bit of personal re-evaluation on what is important and what’s not important.”
At the same time, Aniston says there was part of her that also “loved being in that solitude”. (Having visited Aniston’s house, I might add, that we all might have loved lockdown if we’d been lucky enough to live there.) She read spiritual books, such as Jay Shetty’s Think Like a Monk and the works of Yung Pueblo. She meditated. She kept a journal. She painted.
“You know how to paint?”
“Oh my God,” she say, laughing. “I went to a Rudolf Steiner school. I was more skilled in whittling and watercolour than in geometry.”
Other bright spots in Aniston’s lockdown included mini COVID versions of her famous gatherings with the women she’s been close to since she moved to Hollywood in her 20s, including longtime producing partner Kristin Hahn and actress Courteney Cox. “I had days when the girls would come over and all the kids would go outside and play, and it was really fun, but it also felt very much like we were in straitjackets.”
Despite the darkness of 2020, an unexpected highlight arrived in the form of the long-awaited Friends reunion, which aired on HBO in late May this year. Though Aniston had indicated in recent years that she was open to the idea of revisiting Central Perk with the original cast, the reality of actually doing it brought a whole other level of joy. “Oh my God, it was so fun,” she says. “I don’t think any of us expected it. I think we had a fantasy of what it was going to be like to travel back in time. But what we didn’t realise was that it [would be] like Cinderella.”
For 48 hours, Aniston explains, the original Friends sets were meticulously resurrected – from the violet walls and refrigerator magnets in Monica and Rachel’s apartment, to Joey and Chandler’s reclining armchairs and the giant peach velvet couch at Central Perk. “Everything was exactly as it was when we walked off – [down to] the trinkets on a shelf that the camera couldn’t even see,” she says. “And all the sets were coming down at midnight. So it really was like Cinderella, where everything was just going to fall away.”
In this sense, Aniston says, the reunion was a bit of a heartbreaker too. “There was a lot of excitement in our little bodies back when we were filming our last episode, and a lot of heartbreak and sadness to say goodbye after 10 years of that family,” she says. “So I think it was … obviously a lot has happened to every single one of us, so it was very bittersweet.”
When I ask her to elaborate, Aniston pauses for a moment, then explains, “Imagine going back to your childhood, or one of the happiest times in your life, where everything was a lot simpler. Where you had so much life ahead of you. What would you have done differently? What could you have done differently?”
The other thing that blew her mind, Aniston says, were the stories of fans from all over the world recounting what Friends has meant to their lives. “Half of the first day, we were in absolute tears,” she says. “These stories just ripped our hearts out. And the reach the show had – I don’t think I was aware of that, and I think [director/producer] Ben [Winston] did such a beautiful job conveying that.”
“I couldn’t believe the numbers,” I say, recalling Winston’s statement that the show has been watched by an estimated 52 million viewers. “I couldn’t believe the numbers!” cries Aniston. “How on earth is that possible? What is it?
“I think the show tapped into something about communication that we don’t have anymore,” she adds. “Social media has killed it. Just people hanging out in a coffee shop. Not staring at a screen or focusing on something like how many likes you got. I feel very lucky to have been a part of it. My 20s and 30s were without any of that. It was so much more fun. It was so much simpler and easier and kinder.”
When I ask Aniston about the recent reports that she and actor David Schwimmer are dating, she gives a hoot of laughter. “That’s really funny. I was just saying, ‘I hadn’t heard a word of this.’ Honestly. I was getting a couple of texts from people saying, ‘I thought you were on a break, LOL.’ And I kept saying, ‘What are you talking about?’ And then I went online to see what was happening and I was like, ‘That is the funniest rumor that I never heard that got shot down in the quickest amount of time.’”
So it was the internet’s fantasy? “I think it was the internet’s fantasy,” says Aniston. “And I love being a part of internet fantasies. There are a lot of them, it seems, and it was adorable. David is one of my dearest … he is such a brother to me that it would just … that’s pretty hilarious. But I get it being someone’s fantasy.”
Back in real life, Aniston is busy prepping to film Murder Mystery 2 with Adam Sandler (with whom she’s been friends for 30 years) in January. The original, which streamed on Netflix in 2019, was a monster hit, grossing the equivalent of a $120 million US opening weekend, and delighting audiences with the sight of Aniston in a red dress behind the wheel of a red Ferrari Testarossa. And there are a couple of other projects in the pipeline that Aniston isn’t at liberty to discuss. “I’m missing movie theatres,” she says. “But I just want to do great work in whatever medium it comes up in.”
Asked what makes her happiest these days, Aniston answers without missing a beat, “Oh, that we’re alive still. That we get to have another day, you know? It’s the simple things.”
Morning Wars is streaming now on AppleTV+.
This story originally featured in the October issue of marie claire Australia, out now.