Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon on fame, cancel culture, and the strangeness of filming during Covid
Replaceable is not a word you’d use to describe Hollywood big-hitters Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon
The former is, of course, known the world over as Rachel Green in Friends (a show Witherspoon also appeared in, as Rachel’s sister, Jill) and went on to forge a formidable film career, while Big Little Lies actress Witherspoon is an Oscar winner for her role as June Carter Cash in 2005’s Walk The Line.
And yet the pair don’t take their success for granted, knowing how easily people can be cancelled – a topic that is addressed in their Apple TV+ original The Morning Show, in which they play news anchors.
“In our culture, there’s never been a time of more change, and a more unforgiveable time to live in,” Witherspoon, 45, suggests at a press conference over Zoom, while Aniston, 52, nods along in agreement.
“We all are just humans trying to figure it out. We’re all capable of terrible things and we’re all capable of great things, and none of us are just the one horrible thing we ever did. The show really beautifully addresses cancel culture. There’s a human cost to exiling people or condemning them for one thing they did in their lives because no-one is perfect.”
Both New Orleans native Witherspoon and LA-born Aniston are also executive producers on The Morning Show, which follows a group of journalists working for an American TV network called UBA, and the challenges they face in the workplace.
Series one of the newsroom drama proved a hit; a star-studded cast, bold themes – the writers took on the #MeToo movement, exploring sexual misconduct in the workplace – and an explosive finale, which saw Alex Levy, played by Aniston, at breaking point.
After she and her colleagues, Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon) and Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup), decided to expose the toxic culture at UBA, Alex quits The Morning Show at the start of series two and escapes to Maine to write her memoir – which leaves Bradley at the helm with Eric (Hassan Minhah), a new co-anchor, by her side.
Meanwhile, we find the show’s disgraced former co-host Mitch (Steve Carell) – who was fired in the first series after allegations of predatory behaviour – living in Italy, having left his family and career behind. But can he really escape his past?
What’s also interesting about series two is the decision to set it against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic – we’ve seen many TV shows choose not to address it. Most of the new episodes of The Morning Show had been written, and filming had actually already begun in early 2020, when production was shut down due to lockdown – but the creatives made the call to rethink the story arc, do a rewrite and include Covid.
The series is set from January to March of 2020, and starts when news of a deadly virus is first coming out of Wuhan, China. We see how different characters respond to the situation, and how fears grow as time goes on.
“It’s this theme of the world happens when you’re busy making other plans, so we’re all very invested in our own struggles and our own ideas and our own pursuits, and then something even bigger than all of us is happening in the world,” notes mum-of-three Witherspoon, who’s married to talent agent Jim Toth.
How did making a show, while also dealing with living in a pandemic, affect the cast?
“It took me down; it was hard,” admits Aniston, who split from husband Justin Theroux in 2017, and is reported to be single currently. “We had endless Zooms with our incredible epidemiology team because the main thing for everybody was everybody’s safety – the entire crew – and then everybody’s family when they would go home. So it was a very, very strict protocol.
“It was so bizarre to be a creative group of people, and we’re also interactive… Even during rehearsals, your masks are on and your shields are on, and then it’s like, ‘Rolling’, and all of a sudden, ‘Oh, I guess the virus doesn’t exist now for this five-minute scene that we’re going to do!’ So it took some adjusting.”
Dramatic moments don’t just come from scenes about Covid; there’s also the 2020 US presidential election, the aforementioned exploration of cancel culture, and issues such as betrayal, self-doubt, and sexual identity.
Many of the characters go through a lot of self-examination and moments of reckoning. There’s a particularly poignant line from Alex, which is included in the trailer, about how there’s a cost to success and fame – which Aniston notes she agrees with “100%”.
“You put yourself out there as an artist… It’s become a sport for people, to decide how they feel about a different person this week or the following week, or what they’ve said, or if something was said out of context. It’s a lot more than just, ‘we’re going to perform for you and we’re going to create a show so that you can be entertained’. Now, there’s the ability to tap all parts of you.”
“Success without meaning or purpose is really difficult – it can feel very empty,” follows Witherspoon. “And I think there’s a lot of people who have achieved a lot and they’re unhappy – we all know them. Sometimes you’re running a race to a place and you get there, and you think, ‘What am I doing here?’
“And ‘Where am I? What did I just run to?’” adds Aniston, with a laugh.
The Morning Show feels incredibly real and believable; it’s one of those programmes you find yourself totally lost in. And a lot of that is down to how relatable the characters are, especially Alex and Bradley.
“I love Alex’s absolute ability to be professional in one moment and then lose her shit uncontrollably in the next moment,” quips Aniston. “She is a human pendulum. It’s fun to navigate and dissect that, as a character.”
Meanwhile, Witherspoon teases that, in this series, Bradley is “very vulnerable”.
“She’s on a journey of self-discovery and identity and she’s really questioning the place that she came from and her place inside the world. That was a really fun part to play because I know so many people who are in their 40s and still discovering who they are – they really don’t know. So that was really meaningful.”
– The Morning Show season 2 arrives on Apple TV+ on Friday September 17