Even in a town used to seeing movie stars and celebrities, a personal appearance by actress Jennifer Aniston following the screening of her film “Cake” generated a sell-out crowd for the Malibu Film Society last Sunday.
In a marked departure from the comedy and romantic comedy films she’s made following 10 successful years on the TV sitcom “Friends,” Aniston is star and executive producer of the dark comedy-drama “Cake.” Of the more than two dozen films on her resume, this is only her third foray into a dramatic role. Her first was 2002’s “The Good Girl,” which earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Female Lead.
In a performance that’s generated Oscar buzz since the film’s debut at the Toronto International Film Festival this fall, she plays the part of a former trial attorney with an acid wit dealing with chronic physical and emotional pain, addiction to pain killers and separation from her husband. It’s a very unglamorous role for Aniston, who wears no make-up on screen. Little by little, the film reveals the traumatic event that led to this state of affairs, and Aniston’s attempts to circumvent the pain before coming to terms with it. Along the way are hilarious scenes with her pain support group, her Latina housekeeper and a friend’s spouse.
In an interview, Aniston, dressed in black glasses and a tweed jacket, described her character, Claire Simmons, as “the role of a lifetime.”
“It’s a beautiful layered character,” she said, describing the myriad of emotions she got to play – acerbic, quirky, funny, adventurous and sarcastic, yet at other times angry or depressed.
Aniston hadn’t been specifically looking for a dramatic role for her next film.
“I was just looking for something that excited me,” she said, and when she read this script, she “begged and begged” to be given the part.
There was also physical acting involved, as Aniston described having to play a character with chronic pain throughout her entire body, having to walk as though she were in pain, lying in bed in pain, and even having to put the passenger seat in the car all the way down in order to ride comfortably. Aniston said her biggest example and inspiration in that regard happens to be her own stunt double, who lives in chronic pain but has managed to overcome it. She also talked to other chronic pain sufferers to prepare for the role, and gained newfound respect for the condition.
The actress said she researched how to play someone addicted to pain pills – how to pop pills like handfuls of candy, the cravings, the mood swings before and after taking the pills, and the blurry line between whether the pills were really for physical pain or just as much for psychological pain. She even made sure the pain pills she was taking were the same that addicts take.
When Aniston first became interested in the script, it was already in “someone else’s hands” director Daniel Barnz said. It was set for an actress who was “a more traditional choice for this kind of role,” Aniston added. They didn’t explain how they got it out of the other actress’s hands, but it didn’t hurt that Barnz had always been a huge fan of Aniston’s, and it also didn’t hurt that Aniston loved the script so much she was willing to invest some of her own money in the independent film.
“It wasn’t a movie like any I’d made before,” Aniston said. “I don’t want to be lazy and I don’t want to be safe and just keep doing the same thing over and over.” She observed that “after 10 years of being in people’s living rooms” on the sitcom “Friends,” and with the show still in daily syndication in many areas, it’s hard to escape being typecast as her character Rachel even though the show’s been over for 10 years. For that reason, Aniston said she’s not the first actress producers think of when casting a dramatic female lead, so she doesn’t get the chance to read many dramatic scripts.
Newly formed Cinelou Releasing will open “Cake” for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run in December, before doing a wider release in January.