Jennifer Aniston is so well known as Rachel Green from “Friends” and her subsequent comedic output, that it’s easy to forget she has serious dramatic chops. She was a revelation in 2002’s indie drama “The Good Girl,” opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, and also impressed in Nicole Holofcener’s ensemble dark comedy “Friends With Money.” But it’s her most recent turn in Daniel Barnz’s “Cake” that’s garnered the actress the best reviews of her career and her first Golden Globe nomination for a feature film. The film, which boasts a ‘blacklisted’ script by Patrick Tobin, stars Aniston as Claire Simmons, a heavily scarred woman reeling from a recent tragedy, who shuts everyone close to her out of her life in order to cope with the pain. Shortly following the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Vulture went so far as to call the vehicle “Aniston’s ‘Monster'” (the drama that earned Charlize Theron her Best Actress Oscar, for a similarly unglamorous performance). Aniston spoke with Indiewire about the buzz surrounding “Cake,” and about why she was more than ready for the challenge.
Reactions to your performance have been through the roof. How affirming does that feel to know the film’s being received in this way?
That’s what is bringing so much joy to all of us. We’re kind of looking at each other going, “Can you believe this?” This little indie that could was received with such love! For me, I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a moment of, “OK, here we go. We’re gonna dive into these waters and go somewhere we haven’t been before.” It’s almost that thing of “be careful what you wish for,” here it is. There was something about the timing of all of this, and the confirmation of when you risk and when you’re bold, and challenge yourself, it can’t go wrong. The only thing that can go wrong, you know, is, “Oh my God, the people say this is horrible and an atrocity.” But at least you know you still made the effort and you still took the chance. That’s all that really mattered for me.
I needed to challenge myself and I needed to challenge my work and who I was as an actor. I know what I’m capable of, but after years and years of being asked to come back to the party for very similar parts… I definitely had varying degrees of characters, but this was something I never even got the opportunity to play. Someone this layered and complex and in pain. And crotchety! I guess understandably so. You get stereotyped to some degree, so you have to flex your muscles more and bang your drum a little and take control in order to take part in movies like this. That’s okay by me. I’m up for that — that challenge. Especially by this age, I just want to work with great directors. Really great movies. And I just knew I had to prove this to myself, that I’m capable of other things.
You say that you’ve been stereotyped to some degree. Do you feel Hollywood typecasts you?
There’s a perception of that. That’s sort of a wider scope. The perception is: we see you as this, we see you in this part. Or even the word has come back from directors: “No, she’s too famous,” or “she’s too this,” “can’t get rid of the persona.” But I understand that. But the young directors, those are the ones I’m grateful for. Even Miguel Arteta back in the days of “The Good Girl,” he found it exciting to take someone who had that persona, and put her in this. To him, that was a challenge as a director. Same thing with Daniel Barnz! That’s unexpected and that’s weird, that’s a challenge! For him. So everyone was excited they were trying something a little bit farther. For me, this was one of my greatest challenges. There was so much there to play. So much to be truthful with. Whether it was the physical pain, the emotional pain, the addiction, all of it. Tracking that honesty was sort of an actor’s “Ooh, I get to pull all of my tools out.” You know what I mean? It’s funny, because I’ve really loved my career. I’ve had incredible opportunities.
Yes, and a great variety. But you know, I think there’s sort of a narrative out there where people are really woah. Shocked, to see something like this. For those that know me, I think they’re not that shocked.
You brought up your public persona earlier. You’ve been a tabloid fixture for years –still, I imagine it’s strange to know that people think they have a hold on who you are based on what they read.
It’s so weird. It’s a terrible feeling. Because you go, “How do I bite through that barbed wire?” Because those stupid things aren’t going away. The tabloids aren’t going away. The fact that I was on a hit television show for ten years and in your face (and probably still am) [laughs]. How do we get allowed to play other parts? That’s what I said and what I was excited about. To see if I could cut through the barbed wire of that prison, in a way. “Prison”: I don’t mean that in a negative way because God knows “We’re the Millers,” or Dr. Julia in “Horrible Bosses,” Polly in “Along Came Polly.” I feel there’s a wonderful variation and variety and all these girls and women. They’re not all Rachel Green.
Especially Dr. Julia in “Horrible Bosses.”
Especially “Horrible Bosses”! But it’s fun for me! You know what I mean? I was over at the CBS Studios on Radford earlier today, where my first television show was. It was a sketch comedy show called “The Edge.” It was the funnest. Sketch comedy — the characters, and the prosthetics, and all of that sort of stuff stuff. It was fun for me to reach back into that toolbox [for “Horrible Bosses”].
When you look back at a show like “The Edge” and see how far you’ve come, do you still have “pinch-me” moments?
I do. It’s moments where I go, “That felt like a minute ago!'” This was in 1990. 25 years ago! That’s crazy. When you think something’s two minutes behind you, and in fact it’s 20 years behind you, that’s when you go “Wow. This has been happening a long time. Gratefully. Thankfully.”
I was surprised to learn you had to lobby for “Cake.” Did you coming on as producer help secure your casting?
That was part of it. It was out to another actor at first. I just said, “If this opens up, I’d love to sit down with the director and tell him ‘I know I can do this. I will go to the moon and back with you. I’m ready for this, I’m up for this, I won’t let you down. There will be no shortcuts.'” I was not the first person on their list, I guess.
What so appealed to you about “Cake” and playing Claire that made you want to fight for it in the first place?
I just think [writer] Patrick Tobin did a really great job. Also, this being his very first screenplay, which kind of blew my mind! In his late 40s, for that matter. He’s not even a young spring chicken where you can be like, “Oh, all right, first screenplay.” It’s just this woman — I fell in love with her. I fell in love with her wicked wit, in spite of this horrible pain — physical, emotional pain. I felt she was so layered, and I had such empathy for her. I just enjoyed the story. I went along with it, I didn’t pity her, I felt like she was very strong. To the point of also being extremely stubborn and stuck. Also seeing the vulnerability in that. The humor, I loved. That was throughout.
That’s the one thing, of course, that I can connect with, and I think that anybody who’s gone through loss and pain in any degree finds humor as an outlet. Me, especially — a way to kind of cope. To laugh at it, as opposed to let it just paralyze you, and arrest you and take you down. So that I was able to connect with, but everything else was something I’ve never even come close to having walked through. So I was excited for the challenge of that, and creating her. I had the luxury of many weeks to do homework, and really explore her, and investigate her, and sit with people, sit with doctors, understanding these drugs, these combinations of drugs. The pain management, and what is the pain? Where does it start? Where was the injury? Where was the accident? What was the accident? Getting the physical characteristics — the walk, the movements, the voice. All of that. I had the luxury of a lot of time to really hone that.
Good thing you had the time to prep, given that you had no time to shoot the actual movie!
I know! I had more to time to practice, and rehearse and play. I remember one time I was like “let’s do this!” Just chompin’ at the bit. Five weeks and we were just like boom, done. We were walking, sleeping, eating, breathing this movie for five weeks straight. And had a really amazing time! And laughed a lot during the process of it, which was great. It was a really remarkable crew, and amazing director and the helm. We were lucky. Felt like this little acting troupe that was just traveling around all these locations — in Los Angeles which also never happens!
As a producer you’ve, no doubt, seen the film many times.
We’ve been in every edit, me and my producing partner Kristin [Hahn]. She was really the hands on since I was doing the other part of it, in front of the camera stuff. We were in that editing room, we maybe saw five different cuts of it. Four maybe? And then just little tweaks of it. Little tiny tweaks. I mean, he really had it in his head as he shot it, you know? He was able to edit as he shot almost.
The reason I brought that up was because I wanted to ask you what it’s like to watch yourself? So many actors can’t sit through a performance of theirs. As a producer, you can’t escape it.
I don’t squirm and get “Oooh, I can’t watch myself.” I actually learn from my mistakes, so I like to watch [laughs]. You can study it almost. “Oh, good to know!”
There were times where I moved too quickly. I was moving too fast. Or, that looked too easy in that one. It was fun for me to have the ability to get in there like a little microsurgeon and find the takes that, to me, were the most authentic and truthful to the character.
You’re obviously incredibly proud of this project and excited to get it out to the public. What’s your plan going forward, to really make good on the accolades this project has brought you?
It’s not really up to me, I’ve gotta be honest. I still have the power, the ability, to go out and find material that I self-generate and create. That I will still be doing ’til the cows come home — ’til they won’t let me do it anymore. But we’ll see, that has yet to be seen. But I’m not a game-planner, honestly. I kind of go with what’s happening at the moment. It almost creates anxiety to create plans for the future. Because what if I don’t live up to the plans? I don’t want resolutions that much. I like to be in the moment and see what’s happening. I just wanna enjoy the film and everyone who worked so hard on it. We’re so proud of each other, and we’re just pinching ourselves all the time with all the love this little film is receiving. It’s so special.