'We've got her hidden,' says the elegant brunette who greets patrons of the secluded patio of the Beverly Hills Hotel. A hotel security man of large dimensions nods pleasantly as we head back to a table shielded by a semicircular grotto. There sits Jennifer Aniston. She is in conversation with another woman, but looks up and makes an amiable gesture to reel us in.
Aniston, 35, was recently listed by Forbes magazine as America's ultimate celebrity, based on her visibility and her sheer avalanche of income. Between her soon-to-be-concluded series Friends and a busy spate of moonlighting in feature films, she earnt some $35m in 2002. Her companion is Kristin Hahn, a writer and filmmaker and a key executrix of Aniston and husband Brad Pitt's company Plan B. These two fledgling moguls give off an air of happy innocence. Sitting under a striped awning, pert, stylish and wide-eyed, they resemble a couple of kids waiting for an aunt to arrive with ice cream.
They manage to keep their upbeat mien even as the interviewer places his tape recorder on the table, then introductions are made, establishing that their friendship of 15 years reaches back to what Aniston has described as her Laurel Canyon gang. Aniston is happy to discuss Along Came Polly, in which she plays the title role of a flighty Manhattanite, opposite Ben Stiller as the neurotic risk analyst who's fallen for her. But for a few more moments they're squarely planted in Plan B mode.
'So how this all happened,' explains Aniston, 'we basically said, "Let's start to make a movie," and started with one little baby step, right? What's the saying about the longest journey starts with one...?'
Kristin: 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions?'
Jennifer: 'The road to - no, that's a different one. No, the big - what is it? - oh, it's what Mariane says in the beginning of her book...'
For a moment, it's as if the patio has been cast into shadow. Aniston is referring to Mariane Pearl's memoir A Mighty Heart, which tells of losing her journalist husband Daniel to terrorist kidnappers. Spurred by the couple's, and Hahn's, early interest, Plan B (and Warner Bros, which bankrolled the deal) acquired the book over stiff competition. Aniston finishes the phrase: '... starts with one step. So Brad and I did this under the radar for a while, and we called ourselves Bloc - the dictionary definition is a group of people coming together, uniting under a common cause.'
Jennifer: 'Yeah, Blocheads, Bloc Productions. Bloc Products. Bloc Party. It sort of snowballed and we're having a blast. In fact, we've got 17 movies in development. We started this little company underground, didn't really talk about it because we didn't want to be accused of being actors who have vanity deals where you don't do anything. We wanted to do something first. And then about a year later, [über agent/producer] Brad Grey approached us. Then it sort of grew into this huge machine in corporate Warner America world.'
'Brad and Jen and Brad provide a sort of gravitational pull that allows us to really be attracted to material that isn't, quote unquote, studio, middle-of-the-road material,' says Hahn.
Not the least of these is the first one set to shoot, a production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp.
The earliest project Hahn and Aniston dreamt up, years ago (though it was never embarked on), was a memoir of sorts. 'Yeah,' says Aniston, 'As the Hill Turns. All the dramas that go on, and the incestuous relationships that went on among our friends. It was just like, well, Friends.'
'A whole amalgamation of people just helping each other stay sane,' says Hahn.
'And some of us succeeded at that,' adds Aniston. 'Others went crazy.'
And those would be?
'We don't name the names of the crazy people,' she says.
When Brad Grey turned up on the set of Along Came Polly last winter, he was bringing words of encouragement to his female partner. Aniston had broken her toe on an ottoman while rushing for the phone at home. 'She and Ben Stiller are on a boat,' says Grey, who saw Aniston standing with her wounded, wrapped foot just below the camera's view, 'and they were basically flipping the thing around. I was nauseous just watching it.'
The scene takes place near the midpoint of the story, which was written by John Hamburg much in the vein of earlier scripts he'd worked on: 2000's Meet the Parents and 2001's Zoolander, both starring Stiller. This time Hamburg would direct his own screenplay. Hamburg, whose directorial debut was the darkly funny Safe Men, immediately knew his Polly co-stars had comic chemistry: 'This movie flip-flops between the two of them reacting to each other... When you work with Ben, you need to keep up with him. Not many people can, and she managed to, perfectly. And he managed to keep up with her.'
Stiller's obsessive-compulsive Reuben and Aniston's title character, an author of such volumes as The Boy With a Nub for an Arm, are old schoolmates who meet up as adults. 'Ben's character plans his entire life out the way that a lot of us do,' says Hamburg. 'We say, "At this age I want this, I want to be married, I want to have kids at this age." The rug gets pulled out from under him [wife Debra Messing cheats on him with a St Bart's scuba instructor played by Hank Azaria] and Polly comes into his life. She's a big force of change in his life, and the role needed a really strong actress.'
Universal executive Mary Parent, who oversaw Polly, recalls the furore caused by Aniston doing a scene with Stiller in midtown Manhattan - a noisy pack of paparazzi was shouting to the actors even as they played an important early moment - 'because, you know, they want to see her. She's a bona fide movie star. I'll never forget, I walked into my office one day and there were a bunch of assistants looking out the window. I said, "What's so exciting in my office?"And they said, "Jennifer Aniston is down there." You know, there are big movie stars on our lot every day, but I don't have a crowd of assistants in my office every day looking out the window.
'She's got it all: the talent and the range. She's got comic timing like nobody's business. She's extraordinarily beautiful, but at the same time I think she's just as appealing to women as she is to men, and - how do I say this? - women don't punish her for the fact that men think she's hot.
'Her character in The Good Girl was the antithesis of all that. And it wasn't like you had to take a minute to see her that way. She just was that character. I think that it says a lot about her ability as an actress to transcend an iconic part like Rachel. I think she's going to traverse the independent and the major studio worlds effortlessly.'
For Polly producer Stacey Sher, gutsiness is a trait Polly shares with the woman who plays her. 'She sort of has all of her technique in her back pocket and so what you get is a person who is fearless in their performance. Combine that with her extraordinary comedic timing... It's really fun to watch her and Ben together. She always wanted to make sure that she never fell into Rachel, because she was working two jobs, and she was vigilant about that, and in making sure that John Hamburg never let her get away with it.'
At one point in November 2002, Aniston was juggling three jobs - the next-to-last season of Friends, the last shooting days of Bruce Almighty and Polly. 'We just figured out all the permutations and made it work,' says Sher, 'and she was always so prepared that there was never a bleed-over of any character into any of the others.'
With Friends ending its 10-year run, Aniston should be able to concentrate on films. Though some of her fellow Friends have taken a thrashing for their excursions into film, she's transcended everything from Leprechaun ('Oh, we never discussed that? That's because we don't') to a second-fiddle role in Bruce Almighty ('That was a Jim Carrey movie,' she says equably).
Aniston discusses the warm critical reception she earnt playing a frustrated supermarket worker in The Good Girl with the pragmatism her years in the business have given her: 'I think it allowed me a little more time. It's like I said, I just want to be around for a while. I just don't want to fade away and wash up - because I didn't take chances, you know. I wanted to know. I was getting very comfortable in my comedy mode and I wanted to scare myself a little bit. And that was good, because I didn't know if I could pull it off. I thought I would be a laughing stock. And one of my greatest fears is being laughed at.'
If Aniston has many film execs and others in Hollywood high places touting her acting chops and her future, the comments about her more personal virtues add up to almost a din of steady praise. The extreme solicitude she shows in social or work settings seems to be generated from her own vulnerabilities. The rift that opened between her and her mother after Nancy Aniston discussed her in a TV interview and, later, in a memoir has seemed to abate in recent years and periods of estrangement from her dad, John - for more than two decades a soap opera star (most notably as the somewhat villainous Victor Kiriakis in Days of Our Lives) - are in the past.
Her parents divorced when she was nine, but she spent parts of her fifth and sixth years in the area of Crete where her dad, born Anastassakis, is from. 'My dad decided he wasn't making it as an actor, so he went to go to medical school in Greece. We moved there, and stayed almost a year.'
She remembers their apartment in Athens and later living in Crete on 'a beautiful old farm with goats running around. And I remember going to a lot of ruins and loving just getting lost, going into all these little, like, nooks and openings that no one could fit in, but I could.'
When her dad was cast in a soap opera in New York, they returned. John Aniston, perhaps not so surprisingly, discouraged his daughter's interest in acting. 'He never let me go to the set. I remember visiting once or twice. I wasn't allowed to watch TV till I was a teenager. I remember when I wanted to go to Performing Arts, the high school, and he just said, "Don't. Don't do it, don't do it. Be a doctor, be a lawyer."'
Aniston's features are still but her eyes are more shielded than usual: 'I feel like I didn't have any choice. I don't - didn't have a lot of confidence in myself to do anything else but pretend. And act. And entertain. I like making people happy. It kind of works being a people-pleaser; it's the ultimate job, to get to work doing things that allow people to escape for a half hour or two hours or whatever and be entertained. It's so necessary, too, to have those moments, especially right now - this is a weird time.'
A short while after this meeting, Aniston will reach a $550,000 settlement with an entrepreneur who allegedly sold photos of her sunbathing topless in her own back yard (earlier, she reached settlements with two magazines that published them). And although she's only intermittently political, there's one piece of legislation she'd like to see passed - an anti-paparazzi bill. 'I don't expect people to have sympathy for me. It's not even what I'm asking for. I'm just thinking, how can we do something about it? There's no protection. You don't know how crazy these people are.'
She grows a bit flinty recalling the days when she and Stiller were driven nuts by mobbing photographers: 'Like weird vultures, just the bottom of the food chain.' Almost worse, the Beverly Hills mansion she and Pitt moved into in July is a regular stop for gawkers, who stand in the street outside their property. 'It's embarrassing, wondering what our neighbours are thinking. It's a wall, it's a gate, what are you people looking at? Why are you ringing my doorbell all day long? And they put you in this star map thing, and these tour buses go around every hour. Then there's walking tours now that are, like, 20 people. It's like they're at a zoo.'
And yet life in the zoo - she and Pitt were married on 29 July 2000, in what she calls a 'pretty normal, straight-arrow, beautiful ceremony' - is clearly sweet. As Pitt worked on the historical epic Troy, Aniston got away to visit him in Malta and in Cabo San Lucas. (The couple love Mexico; Aniston says the best use she's found for what she seems to regard as a nervous-making oversupply of money is flying friends down to Mexico and sharing a large villa for a few days.)
They found their house - a six-bedroom, $14m Normandy-style gem built by architect Wallace Neff in 1934 for two-time Oscar winner Fredric March - after an 18-month search. But the purchase was the easy part. Refurbishment was something of a trial. 'I love my house. Love it. It feels very symbolic to me - it was two years in the making, in the redoing of it. Something about creating a foundation with someone. It is a fascinating process and I really do believe it's such a test to a relationship that it's the same thing as the stories you hear about having babies. It is hard doing a house together. And if you make it through that, man, you can make it through anything. And I mean... luckily he was gone for five months of the time and I got to move in and do that. We really probably would have hung each other from trees.'
It has to be said on behalf of houses that they don't wake up crying at 4am. So, with six bedrooms and Friends wrapping up, perhaps it's time for the blessed event that's had an eager public and overeager press interested for a while now?
'Yeah,' says Aniston, with a directness that's surprising for someone under such scrutiny. 'It's time. It's time. You know, I think you can work with a baby, I think you can work pregnant, I think you can do all of it. So I'm just truly looking forward to slowing down.'
Aniston declines to set a timetable for babymaking, but she co-operates in doing the maths for the couple's year: 'I'll have finished Friends by end of January, he'll be finishing [Mr and Mrs Smith, opposite Angelina Jolie] at the end of February. Then he starts Ocean's Twelve. So I, thankfully, will be able to go and travel with him while he's doing that.'
And that Friends finale - what kind of summing up has she foreseen?
'I'm going to miss the whole thing. You know, Danny DeVito just did our show, and he was saying, like, a year later it hits... The most consistent thing I've had in my entire life has been this television show and these people, and they're my heart and soul and I can't even imagine... It's just an amazing, beautiful thing that we got to have.'
She knows the day will come when she rolls up her Moroccan rugs and unplugs the fax machine in her dressing room. There will be travel, during shared breaks from films - 'I've never been to Ireland, I've never been to Italy. I want to go to Spain. Brad's never been to Greece, to meet some of my relatives over there.' The script beckoning most strongly to her is an untitled one by Ted Griffin, who wrote Ocean's Eleven and Matchstick Men.
'I wouldn't call it a comedy or a drama; I think it's a little slice of life that has a little bit of everything. Life is funny. Life isn't categorised into drama, comedy, action, is it? So I don't know why they try to categorise everything. It drives me crazy - why it would have to be just a romantic comedy or... I want to have a little integrity, a little story, you know. That's why I don't like slapstick comedy. I don't like big, balls-out comedies.'
Well, the trailer for Along Came Polly does show Polly gaping at Ben Stiller as he stands on the toilet with a plunger and water gushing out, and isn't there a crazed ferret in there somewhere?
'The ferret,' says Aniston. 'Ooh, hated the ferret. Of course, I get a ferret of all things to have to hold and cuddle with. The trainer says, "Look, you can switch it from hand to hand and just look how he's so docile, he's so docile." And then Ben gets him and it's just like...' Aniston mimes some rapid-fire biting motions with a crisp, gnashing sound. 'He did get a shot after that.
'This movie makes me laugh. I think it's worth seeing,' says Aniston. 'I think it's going to be a great date movie.'
And where will those daters head when they emerge?
'They'll probably go to a restaurant they've never dared go into before, take a chance on Thai food. Or Ethiopian food, if they don't eat that. And maybe ask out that quirky person they've been thinking about but wasn't really their type. Because I don't know if we're always the best judge of what's right for us and what's good for us. Let's take some of the rules away. Living has so many rules. Ugh.'
It is mentioned to Aniston that a recent network show on 'keeping the love in your marriage' flashed a picture of her and her spouse on the screen.
'Yeah, like we're the prototype.' She grins at the thought. 'We're all out there doing the best we can, you know. We're all doing the best we can. There's nothing different. That's all it is. Talking to each other. Being honest with each other and trusting each other. It's all you need.'
That, and a certain ingredient she prescribed for the Along Came Polly wrap party? Aniston nods emphatically. 'Don't stop having fun. That is important. Go out on dates, you know. Go be romantic and stupid together and just have fun. Don't lose the fun.'
· Along Came Polly is released this Friday.