With the exposure — or overexposure — of her personal life, it’s easy to forget “Derailed” is Jennifer Aniston’s first film since “Friends.”
The 36-year-old actress, whom tabloids long ago nicknamed “America’s Sweetheart,” is starting a strong push for big-screen stardom with four upcoming releases that include “The Break Up,” “Rumor Has It” and “Friends with Money.”
Whether moviegoers will embrace her as a movie star — not a sitcom actress, not just perpetual tabloid fodder — should become clear after this run of movies.
Will all the tabloid attention interfere with audiences’ acceptance of Aniston as different characters?
“I don’t know, we’ll see,” she says. “I only can hope that I’m doing my job well enough that that won’t happen. It’s unfortunate; that’s the thing I don’t like about it.”
Not comfortable with ‘sweetheart’ labelAlongside Clive Owen, she plays a would-be adulterer in the thriller “Derailed” — atypically dark fare for Rachel Green.
“I’m not trying to shed any labels,” she says, but acknowledges “a big part” of the film’s appeal was its difference from her previous roles.
While she says the “sweetheart” tag doesn’t bother her, it’s clearly something she’s not quite comfortable with — after all, it doesn’t exactly fit Aniston, a mostly private person with a dry sense of humor who’s more likely to puff on a smoke than enter a beauty pageant.
“I don’t know what it means,” she says. “I’ve heard that title attached to a lot of woman. Hey, you could be called a lot worse things.”
Aniston, who spent most of her youth in New York, grew up with acting around her — her father, John, was a longtime regular on “Days of Our Lives” and owned a cabaret where she says she “got the bug.”
Some of her early ventures were in comedy, including several TV shows that didn’t last a full season. She spent a year on the cast of the short-lived sketch comedy show “The Edge” and at one point had talks with NBC about joining “Saturday Night Live.”
“It’s so funny, because I never had intense ambition,” she says of the period. “I didn’t know I was struggling. I was just a waitress who auditioned on the side.”
Missing her ‘Friends’Nevertheless, in 1994 she landed the part of Rachel on “Friends,” which ended last year. Aniston, her best friend Courteney Cox and the rest of the cast were close-knit and always negotiated their contracts in solidarity.
“I miss them, that’s the one thing I miss terribly — the crew, the writers. Everybody worked there together so long, everyday, eight months out of the year. Like school ... depending on what kind of a student you were.”
“Friends” also was where she met her first sideshow. When the series was catching on, her hairstyle became a national rage.
“But I grew that out fast,” she says. “Whatever it is that they’re going to be boxing you in for, you try to bust out of it.”
Aniston did films on the side during “Friends” — “The Object of My Affection,” “Office Space” and “Rock Star.”
“I would have loved to have been doing movies, but nobody wanted me,” she says. “It’s that Catch-22 of you’ve never done a movie and you’ve done television.”
Her starring role in 2002’s “The Good Girl,” though, won her acclaim. In it, she played a discount store clerk who strikes up an affair with a stock boy (Jake Gyllenhaal).
“‘The Good Girl’ was the first one where I felt like I was able to move away from what I had been known to do,” she says.
Tabloid fodderOf course, Aniston is well-known for her 4½-year marriage to Brad Pitt. They announced their separation in January and the divorce became final Oct. 2. It would be difficult to overestimate the coverage paid to the romance’s conclusion.
Magazines splashed photos of Aniston, Pitt or “the other woman” — Angelina Jolie — on their covers like Jackson Pollock dashing paint. Any and all gossip was printed including hurtful presumptions about their relationship.
In interviews, Aniston has made it clear she will not discuss recently published photos showing her kissing “The Break Up” co-star Vince Vaughn. She does say, though, that the paparazzi’s hunger has gotten “really dangerous” and “twisted” to the point of “feeding into a bizarre part of our society.”
She compares the invasiveness to being robbed, but knows “people don’t really have a lot of sympathy for it.”
“And I don’t blame them,” she adds.
But without going into plot details (which current ads make out to be stunning on a “Sixth Sense” level), “Derailed” also uses her “sweetheart” image to its benefit.
“That’s something you can you use to your advantage,” the director, Mikael Hafstrom, says. “The general audience reaction to her is that she’s trustworthy and in this case, that’s a good thing.”
Aniston, who says she “doesn’t have a method or anything” to her acting, will likely have “Friends” further in her rearview mirror after “Derailed” and the three other films. But that’s a bittersweet prospect to her.
“I love ‘Friends.’ I’m proud of it — the best thing that ever happened to me.”