Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon interview — We don’t want to be America’s sweethearts any more
What happened when two of the most powerful women in Hollywood worked on The Morning Show, their first project together? Hilary Rose meets them
It is fair to say that Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon don’t look like any of the other people in Claridge’s on a damp November afternoon. The lobby of London’s most glamorous hotel is awash with pasty-faced businessmen and soggy visitors having tea.
Upstairs, Aniston, 50, and Witherspoon, 43, are holding court in a suite, giggling, finishing each other’s sentences and glowing, like radioactive Ready brek. Partly it’s the lighting, partly it’s the make-up and the golden tans, but mainly it’s that shiny-eyed, clear-skinned good health that only being very rich and living in California seems to bring.
Aniston has biceps like a personal trainer’s, and they both have the sort of expensive blond hair that requires a hairdresser on the full-time payroll. They’ve been friends for 20 years, ever since Witherspoon guest-starred in Friends, and always wanted to work together. Now, with The Morning Show, they’ve managed it.
“I had a production company in my twenties and I never got any movies made,” says Witherspoon, dressed in a little black dress and sky-high stilettos. “I got a pat on the head, 100 per cent because I’m a woman. I literally had studio heads saying to me ‘We already made a movie with a female lead this year, we’re not going to make another one.’ Fifty per cent of the population out there is women. We should be 50 per cent of the people you see on screen.”
Aniston nods. “I feel like I’ve always been fighting for the right to be here. I was only seen as the girl next door, or America’s sweetheart. There was nothing else out there for me to play, nothing more complicated or juicy, so I had to find the material myself. It’s like being in the Fruity Pebbles section . . .”
“It’s a cereal. It’s like you’re one kind of cereal,” Aniston continues, while Witherspoon gazes at her incredulously, “you’re Cap’n Crunch or Fruity Pebbles. But I could also be Raisin Bran!”
At which point Witherspoon kicks her legs up in the air and guffaws with laughter.
The Morning Show is based on a book about American daytime TV called Top of the Morning. It’s a star vehicle for Aniston and Witherspoon, which they also co-produced, and for which they were reportedly paid $1 million each per episode.
It’s tech giant Apple’s first foray into television, an attempt to challenge the dominance of Netflix with a streaming service of its own. It was, says Witherspoon, an opportunity to collaborate on a project that they pretty much controlled from beginning to end. Aniston is insanely charismatic as Alex Levy, a TV anchor whose co-host for 15 years, Mitch, played by Steve Carell, has just been fired for sexual misconduct.
“Most of them came on to me!” he shouts at one point, bewildered by how quickly his world has collapsed and placing the blame at the feet of Harvey Weinstein. “It was consensual! I didn’t jizz into a plant in front of anyone!”
“I’m sorry you’re such an asshole,” Aniston tells him later.
“Me too,” he replies.
The script was already being developed when Harvey Weinstein fell in 2017, at which point Aniston says they paused to think how they were going to deal with it.
“It wasn’t just Harvey, there were many, many allegations of workplace misconduct,” says Witherspoon. “It was part of the conversation that people were having every day at work. It doesn’t matter if you’re in media or if you work at Tesco, these are the conversations right now: what is abuse of power, sexism, racism, ageism and we went right into it.”
Aniston’s character starts the day with Red Bull and coffee, ends it with neat vodka, and drinks celery juice in between. Witherspoon plays Bradley Jackson, a small-town local news reporter who ends up on Aniston’s programme after footage of her having a meltdown while covering a demonstration goes viral. (She has her mother saved in her phone as “That Woman”.)
Jack Davenport, who got his break in the Nineties programme This Life, plays Aniston’s estranged husband and Billy Crudup a sleazy, smooth-talking TV executive. I thought it was great — sharp, witty, topical, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny but some of the early reviews haven’t been so positive. At one point Aniston’s character is told that she’s past her sell-by date, which used to be a common complaint by women in Hollywood that the parts dried up once you hit 40. Aniston agrees that life used to imitate art. She’s dressed to mirror Witherspoon in a sleeveless little black dress and strappy Louboutin stilettos, with big gold cocktail rings.
“Women ahead of us were definitely told that by a certain age there were no parts, so you’d better head on out to pasture, but the men could continue to go on. We came in at a time when that shifted a bit. At 40 I was doing some of my best work and working more than I’d ever worked, and at 50 I was probably making more money.”
Aniston has been famous for half her life. Born in California and brought up in New York, her father was a jobbing actor who separated from her mother when she was nine. There wasn’t much money and her childhood memories were of being “shunted’’ between her mother’s Manhattan apartment and her father’s home in New Jersey.
She graduated from the High School of the Performing Arts in New York, landed a few roles off-Broadway and paid the rent by being a waitress. In 1990 the Chicago Sun-Times wrote an article about the 21-year-old actress headlined “Rising star?”
“I visited LA last summer to visit my father and brother, and hadn’t really intended on staying here,” Aniston told the newspaper. “But then I thought it might not be a bad idea to try to get my career going in television.”
She duly landed several TV roles, and conceded that looks, drive and luck were as important as talent. “It’s certainly not fair,” she said, “but Hollywood isn’t exactly a bastion of fairness.”
Both she and Witherspoon spent the first decades of their careers labelled as America’s sweethearts, and now want to make films about strong, flawed, messy, complicated women. “It’s about not just being the girl next door, or the girlfriend, or the girl that’s been left or who wants to get married,” Aniston says.
“Things that revolve around the romantic nature of a woman’s life,” Witherspoon continues, “when we have so much more complexity.”
Aniston’s film debut was in a 1993 slasher movie in which she was pursued by an axe-wielding dwarf. The following year, she landed the role of Rachel in Friends, the show that has become one of the most popular TV comedies yet made.
It created global superstars of all six of its young actors, but perhaps especially Aniston, whose every haircut generated headlines and queues of women waving her picture at their hairdressers. She married her first husband, Brad Pitt, amid huge global attention.
She spoke confidently of the children they planned on having. It wasn’t to be, and the marriage ended in divorce, as did Aniston’s second marriage to fellow actor Justin Theroux. Rumoured now to be single, she lives in a vast house in the luxurious Los Angeles suburb of Bel Air, where she hosts Sunday Funday pool parties for the tight-knit group of girlfriends and their families whom she’s known since long before she was famous.
Witherspoon gushes about how supportive Aniston has always been, that she’s always been able to rely on her if she needs someone to talk to — “she would always drop everything’’. Aniston puts that down to her long-standing girlfriends, many of them now wives and mothers.
“We’ve raised each other,” she says simply. “There were times in my early actor years when I would notice other actresses being very competitive and not supportive and I never understood why. I was, like, there’s room for everybody here.”
“But there wasn’t,” adds Witherspoon. “There was only one job, and if you were helping another girl get that job, that might be your livelihood. There were so few parts for women. I remember reading a horrible, terrible script in 2010 and hearing that every actress in Hollywood wanted the part. That’s when I got mad. It wasn’t good enough. We’re fighting over playing somebody’s girlfriend in a stupid movie because it’s the only job? That’s when I started getting busy with my production company.”
Witherspoon — real name Laura Jeanne Reese Witherspoon — was brought up in Nashville, Tennessee. Her parents were doctors, but she started acting in ads as a child and appeared in her first feature film at the age of 14. By the end of high school she’d acted in three films and although she won a place at Stanford to read English, she dropped out after a year to pursue acting full-time.
She met her first husband, Ryan Philippe, at her 21st birthday party. He’d gone for the free beer. She told him, “I think you’re my present.” Two years later, she gave birth to Ava, the first of their two children, followed by a son, Deacon. The couple divorced in 2007 and Witherspoon has been married since 2011 to Jim Toth, a talent agent with whom she has a seven-year-old son, Tennessee.
Her first production company was called Type A after her own personality, which she described at the time as “driven, ambitious and obsessive’’. Promoting Legally Blonde in 2001, Witherspoon said: “I adore being a girlie girl, but I am also very tough and know what I want out of life.”
On the set of Friends, Witherspoon remembers Aniston as being “nurturing and loving . . . you always invited me over for dinner, and to your Christmas parties’’. Aniston says the 23-year-old Witherspoon was “sweet and nervous and she had a baby. She was a baby with a baby.” There’s clearly real affection between the two, although they rarely get the chance to hang out.
“Let me explain something to you,” says Aniston. “We wrapped The Morning Show, she went directly to another show. There is no hanging out to be done with this hard-working woman.”
“Come on Big Little Lies,” shoots back Witherspoon, talking about her hot, multi-award-winning production in which she stars alongside Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Laura Dern.
“Can I come on?” Aniston asks. “It would be really fun . . .”
“Nicole would die to have you there,” says Witherspoon. “She loves you. She’s always, like ‘How’s Jen?’ ”
The first three episodes of The Morning Show are available to watch on Apple TV+. New episodes will roll out every Friday