Jennifer Aniston & Reese Witherspoon On Battling Ageism, ‘The Morning Show’, & Dealing With Sexual Harassment In Hollywood
Among the many highlights of Apple TV+’s addictive The Morning Show are the quick-witted (and emotionally fraught) verbal sparring matches between America’s sweethearts Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. On a recent afternoon in a suite at Claridge’s, however, the glossy, impeccably well-groomed pair are virtually cheerleading for each other in between feminist rants. “The most ageist stuff I ever heard was from financial advisors who said to me, ‘Start saving money now because at 40 you’re not going to be making anymore money,” says Witherspoon, leaning in towards me conspiratorially. “I make more money now in my 40s than I’ve made in my entire career… I remember a [specific] guy telling me that, and guess what? I fired him!” She pulls away and laughs. “That’s not a joke,” chimes in Aniston, grinning. “You tell them, sister!” rejoins Witherspoon.
You get the sense that Aniston and Witherspoon have been waiting their entire lives for a project like Apple TV+’s landmark series – for which both actresses are nominated for Best Actress in a TV Series: Drama at the Golden Globes tonight. Set over 24 days, the catalyst for the plot is a decidedly Today-esque scandal: Mitch (Steve Carrell), the long-term host of a morning news programme in Manhattan, is accused of sexually harassing coworkers and abruptly fired – much to the horror of Alex (Aniston), his co-host for the last 15 years. Brought in as his replacement on the whim of the ambitious head of the news division, Cory (Billy Crudup), is the fiery, inexperienced reporter Bradley (Witherspoon), who has a habit of going rogue on live television, pushing Alex even closer to the edge.
Critics may have been divided over the first episodes of the series – but, taken as a whole, its 10 hour-long instalments represent a more nuanced depiction of the fallout from #MeToo than any other series since the Weinstein allegations cracked the foundations of Hollywood. Through subplots that involve a host of what first appear to be minor characters – including junior network staffers played brilliantly by Bel Powley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw – The Morning Show broaches numerous thorny issues, from the nuances of sexual coercion (notably, Powley’s Claire has a consensual relationship with a much older senior weatherman) to the potentially exclusionary nature of mainstream feminism (“’Cause America loves a good Cinderella story as long as she’s a white girl,” says one of the few TV hosts of colour after she’s passed over for the job in favour of Bradley).
Nowhere is the drama more poignant that in its depiction of Mitch – who is loveable, pathetic, and dangerous in equal measure over the course of the series – and how the people in his life struggle to come to terms with the accusations against him. He is adamant that his relationships with coworkers – including multiple sexual encounters with Alex as well as several “PAs and assistants” – were “consensual affairs”. “Everything’s changed, but they forgot to send me the memo,” he says after his firing. “Since the dawn of time, men have used their power to attract women.” Then, later in that same episode: “This is Weinstein’s fault!” (In a particularly brilliant scene, Mitch is complaining about the #MeToo movement to a director and long-term friend who has also been accused of sexual harassment – only to be completely horrified by what the director turns out to have done.) In spite of it all, Alex struggles to condemn him.
“We’re enormously proud that our show is so balanced – because you cannot have nuanced conversations about #MeToo or hostile work environments or sexism or ageism if you’re not having men in the conversation as well,” says Aniston. “Mitch has no idea that he’s of a time when this is all of a sudden different with new rules that no one told him. [Showrunner and executive producer] Kerry Ehrin wanted to come at it without any judgements but to let the audience walk away and leave it up to their interpretation. It’s messy and beautifully honest, and as everyone is navigating this new normal, the audience is watching it, and we’re going through it together.”
Ageism, in particular, is a subject that both Witherspoon, 43, and Aniston, 50, feel passionately about – seeing it as fundamental to the power imbalance in Hollywood. “In other industries, the older you get, the more positions of power you get, and our male colleagues definitely ascended into more powerful positions as producers, but it wasn’t the same for women [in the past],” Witherspoon tells me. “There were moments where it was like, ‘Oh, you’re 27 years old. You shouldn’t have a child [on screen] older than five because it ages you,” Aniston confides. “And the fall-out of that is that we haven’t seen motherhood properly represented on screen for probably 20 [or] 30 years,” continues Witherspoon, “Because some of our greatest actresses were told not to play mothers. So you’re really missing out there.”
As for what needs to change most urgently in Hollywood, Witherspoon is clear: “I think that pay is really important in every industry on every level. More women in boardrooms, more women of colour, LGBTQ representation across the board in our industry and every industry.” (Notably, Witherspoon and Aniston, who own their own production companies, also serve as producers for The Morning Show.) For her part, Aniston is especially keen to see more female directors and screenwriters. “You cannot just leave it to one gender… You just can’t. You’re eliminating so many incredible, rich stories that are happening in the world that will hopefully make it a better place.”
Are there moments when either of them regret tolerating sexist behaviour before the #MeToo movement? “Yeah, there are things and conversations,” admits Aniston. “Thankfully, I’ve never had a moment when I was alone in a space and felt unsafe. If I ever was, it was easily handled, but I have had a conversation that I regret not standing up to about ‘my place’ and what I can or cannot say or do, or what’s going to be more ‘desirable’. There’s conversations that I wish I could have stood up better to…” Witherspoon, meanwhile, has previously spoken out about multiple experiences of sexual assault over the course of her career, which she was told to keep quiet about by various agents and producers.
In many ways, then, working on The Morning Show has been a cathartic experience for them both. Take one of their favourite scenes – which reminds Witherspoon of Jack Nicholson’s famous “you can’t handle the truth” speech in A Few Good Men – when Alex gives the network executives trying to push her out a piece of her mind. “The part you guys never seem to realise is that you don’t have the power anymore,” her character explodes. “You are all so convinced that you are the rightful owner of all of the power that it doesn’t even occur to you that someone else could be in the driver’s seat. And so we have to just gingerly step around your male egos in order to not burst this precious little bubble. Well, surprise! I’m bursting it.” In short, it’s Aniston at her most compulsively watchable. (Her deadpan precis of the scene: “All these old white men just sitting around, and one woman.”) “It’s so good, and it’s how women feel,” explains Witherspoon of Alex’s speech. “We’re taking care of the kids, we’re running the schools. We’re doing a lot but we don’t get to make the big decisions.”
“Actually,” says Aniston with a grin. “Now we do.”
The Morning Show is available to watch now on Apple TV+.