In The Morning Show, Jennifer Aniston plays a kind of angel to Billy Crudup’s devil. Aniston’s Alex Levy, an utterly dedicated and focused television news anchor, holds tight to a good-person identity, so she’s floored when co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) is outed for sexual misconduct, and she’s forced to question her own failure to see what was hidden in plain sight. Meanwhile, Crudup’s news exec Cory Ellison embraces his inner Machiavelli as he attempts to edge Alex out of her job. Then the magic happens: Alex bares her teeth, appointing surprise new co-anchor Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) and telling a post-#MeToo, all-male boardroom, “You don’t have the power anymore.” An impressed Cory then turns his disruptive instincts into a force for good as he helps Alex tear the lid off the network’s culture of complicity. In conversation with Antonia Blyth, Crudup and Aniston, who also executive produces, discuss the terror of performing a Sondheim duet, the “witchy” powers of the show’s creator Kerry Ehrin, and how 2020’s “system update” is set to be explored in Season 2.
Jen, you wanted Billy to be on the show after you saw him in the one-man play Harry Clarke?
Jennifer Aniston: Yes. 100%. It was 80 minutes of something I’d never seen in my entire life, and it was just incredible. And I’ve known Billy a long time and I’ve seen him be brilliant numerous times, so it wasn’t a shock to me, but whatever happened during these 80 minutes was a shock to me. I definitely was impressed on a level that I didn’t know that there was more room for.
Billy Crudup: I’m so happy I got on this call, you have no idea.
Aniston: Just sit back and relax. So, I remember turning to Kristin Hahn, my producing partner, and one of our producers on the show, and I just said, “I don’t care what we do, or how, or who has to make it happen. He has got to be on The Morning Show. And that was that. The original version of Cory in the show was a 30-year-old young punk/ turk kind of dude. And that just took a little bit of re-imagining.
Crudup: And a little bit of work on my part. I had to work.
Aniston: You did, but it was worth all of it. For Kerry, she really saw it very specifically as this one thing, and Billy just came in and basically had such a take on Cory and who he was. He had created an entire biography of him, and he basically just nailed it, sealed the deal. That’s a wrap, drop the mic.
Crudup: There was no chance I was going to let this opportunity slip by without arguing a major, major case in front of the court of our producers, creators, and fellow co-stars that I should be a part of it. But it was only because what was on the page to me is exactly the kind of thing that I have strived to be a part of my entire career—an ambition about creating a piece of entertainment that had a cultural investment. And it intends to be a part of a real-time conversation in a sophisticated and nuanced way that reaches audiences with the level of professional attention that Jen and Reese bring to it. So, you bet that I came up with a lot of ideas of how I should play Cory.
Neither Cory and Alex are easily defined characters. What were your conversations about their dynamics as you went into shooting?
Crudup: Some of the scenes that we shot, I feel like—and I was thinking in particular, Jen, the scene where you take control of the network, essentially, and the night when you announce that Bradley’s going to be a part of the team—what I found so exciting about the experience of working on this, was our real-time negotiation about how these characters were figuring it out. So, there is a kind of immediacy to that scene that I think comes from the discovery of what we both were bringing to it. You’re watching the conversation. These are people who are discovering themselves in real time.
Aniston: It’s literally like flying by the seat of their pants, in real time. And making really crazy, on-the- spot decisions, not thinking everything through 100%, but it’s a fun dance to watch them outsmart each other.
Billy, your face in that scene where Alex publicly announces Bradley as her new co-anchor. There’s rage, but Cory also seems almost thrilled to find a worthy adversary.
Crudup: Yeah, precisely.
Aniston: Cory is absolutely like, “Whoa.” And then also, “Well played.” He’s totally enamored with that because it’s such a Cory move as well.
Crudup: It’s a great conceit for this story as well, which is that people who have enormous gifts, not just their talent, their intellect, and their capability in the workplace, but who have enormous gifts for navigating the social structure of powerful hierarchy—so many people who are in that place imagine that the only people who can also operate the same way look exactly like them. So, Cory doesn’t take that for granted. Cory accepts that anybody who is capable of playing a complex chess game in a power struggle for something with billions of dollars at stake, could be anybody at any time. And he is thrilled to find people who he didn’t expect to be on the top of their game in charge of everything. That makes him reorganize his entire social calculus. So, when she does that, it’s an exciting moment for him.
He is weirdly not at all sexist. You expect him to be and then he just isn’t.
Crudup: Early on, Kerry just said, “Hey, I just want you to think he had a great relationship with his mother who was a badass.” And so, to my mind, what that meant creatively is don’t take anything for granted and don’t worry about the people who do take it for granted because they’re not real players. People like [network president] Fred, who have been allowed to survive for so long based upon their own superficial understanding of how it works.
Aniston: God, I can’t wait to get back to work. Just talking about it, it gets me. And Season 2, it’s getting so good.
Mark Duplass told me Season 2 is in rewrites right now, and he reminded me how this first season was also rewritten to keep it super current. Can you say anything about Season 2?
Aniston: Well, here’s what I think we can say: There is something about how the show works and it’s now been made very clear, at least for the first two seasons. We had a good portion of Season 1 outlined-ish. And you know, we were still dealing with the human ills, racism, inequality, ageism, and the feuds that go on behind the scenes of these mom and pops that we see every morning, but then #MeToo happened. So, then that was another layer to the cake that had to be added into the whole story, and it just made it that much more exciting and current. So, for Season 2, the same thing. We had a good six or maybe seven outlines already done, and we were in the middle of shooting [episodes] one and two. And then there was just this feeling, and I couldn’t put my finger on it, and the producers couldn’t put their finger on it, but it was like something’s missing and I don’t know what it is. And then the COVID crisis happened.
Now, again, Kerry is back to the drawing board, and we are incorporating COVID in a way that is so exciting. I mean, I’m not calling COVID exciting by any stretch of the imagination, but in terms of where Season 1 ended, because the covers were being pulled on the network. Alex has a breakdown/ breakthrough on live television, and for whatever reason, it’s like complete awareness, like she just popped into reality and was like, “What the fuck?” And this vomit of guilt and everything, this confession on live television happens. So, we’re entering Season 2 with, okay, this enormous seismic shift has just taken place, and we went to black, and we’re out. Now what?
It’s really interesting to see the direction that this pandemic has taken her with Season 2, because I believe what we all have taken away from these months in quarantine, and the state of the world as it exists right now, is a lot of contemplation, and a lot of excavation, and a lot of inward work. And, what’s excess? And the covers are being pulled on our government—that entire shitshow—and just everything that’s getting exposed. It feels like there’s an upgrade that’s taking place. So, I believe that that’s what we couldn’t put our finger on that we were missing in these first couple shows, was that humanity, it was that level of what’s happening currently in our society. If there a silver lining of COVID, it is the level of awareness that I think has been taking place with people.
In a way, Season 1 was about the building of what has become a tsunami of much-needed change.
Aniston: Exactly. And now we’re in that change. So, it’s sort of profound, and it felt like that’s what was missing. That was the piece, that was it. Kerry, our witchy writer, we call her ‘witch’ because she predicts things. When we did the fire episode, that was [about] the fire from the year prior. Fires happened again, and then our show airs two weeks later, and it’s got fires. And then in the finale, I don’t know if you remember Reese [as Bradley, reading the news] saying about a cruise ship?
Crudup: Yeah. I remember. There were 5,000 passengers contained.
Aniston: Yep. A virus had taken over.
Crudup: They were being quarantined; it was a mysterious virus.
I like the idea that you said about an upgrade—this is not just because of Apple—but it made me think of a system update, that there is this idea of a revolution that’s introduced throughout the entire season, that there are any number of sociopolitical revolutions that need to take place, not just philosophically, but materially. We need them to happen now.
It’s one thing to have a majority of people in a democracy understand that. It’s another thing to get that instituted. And then it’s a third thing to see the institution of that reformation made manifest. And that’s the part that I feel like season two can really explore. There are so many system upgrades that are required in the country that we live in right now, that the opportunity for exploring that in a narrative format, they’re ripe, and they’re necessary, and it makes this show, to me, even more vital for its audience.
When Cory helps Alex stay on air in the finale, so she can speak the truth, he really seems redeemable, just as Alex is redeemed for any complicity she may have had. They both wanted the same thing in the end. Did you see it that way, that you were two sides of the same coin?
Aniston: Yes. Absolutely.
Crudup: Definitely. I think Cory has, oddly, a very clear sense of right is right. He doesn’t mind playing the game in a world of people who are playing games. But when it comes down to whether or not we are denying people opportunities for no good reason, simply because we want to stay in power because we look the way that we do, he, I think, recoils at that.
You should see the way I’m gesturing right now.
Aniston: I can, Billy. I feel it through the phone, babe. I’m not kidding. I’m right there, it’s not lost on me. I know it.
Crudup: I should have worn a workout outfit, because I’m sweating.
Let’s talk about that musical theater duet scene. That was amazing.
Aniston: Well, Billy and I, our next stop is the Tonys. That was terrifying, let’s be clear. But then, how exciting? Because I mean, one of my favorites as a kid was Sweeney Todd. I mean, Sondheim, for Christ’s sake. Give us a harder song. I thought she was trying to test us to see if we could do it. It’s like, “Just you watch, Kerry.” I mean, Kerry’s like the master, right? Like, that little dance, that sparring of the two of them in that moment, was I think his version of, “I appreciate you, and you and me, we’re very much the same. I like crazy. We sort of have the same amount of that, and nothing’s going to harm you. I got you.” And can she, or can she not trust him? It’s so infuriating. I don’t know.
I don’t know either.
Aniston: We still don’t know, to be honest. And that’s the fun of it.
Crudup: You have to watch your back when there’s anybody in the room who thrives on conditions of chaos. There are any number of people in very powerful positions in our country right now that thrive on chaos for no good reason other than they don’t mind navigating it. And whether they’re proving their point for selfish reasons or they’re proving their point for some ethical center, one never really knows, I suppose, until you count all the chips at the end. But that’s one moment when you see a human connection between the two of them, that all of a sudden becomes disconcerting in an exciting way. Are they both going to the same thing, or is somebody really exploiting the other for their own personal gain?
I mean, I know very little about musicals because I recoil from anything that I can’t do. And Sondheim in particular is way too exotic for me. In fact, I saw a production of Sweeney Todd that was so expertly executed that I thought, “I should never go see a musical again. This is horrifying, what these people can do.”
Aniston: Well, don’t go see Hamilton, by the way, if you haven’t.
Crudup: Oh, trust me, I did, and I had the same reaction. But then I had to take my son back to it, because it was just too good.
Aniston: I’ve seen it four times.
Crudup: The actual manufacturing of it, making the sausage in that moment of it was just hard work. It was just like going to every resource I could so that I could stand with Jen, who can sing, record it in Capitol records, I’m walking past pictures of Marvin Gaye, and not completely crap my pants.
I didn’t completely. Partially, but not completely.
Aniston: And you killed it. Billy killed it. He loves to keep saying, “That’s the recording.” It’s like, “Shut up. Take it. Own it.”
Crudup: I’m one of those people that you go to karaoke and I’m like, “No, no, no.” And five minutes in, any Neil Young song that comes on and I’m singing louder than one should in an enclosed space.
Aniston: It’s like, what is it, Linda Ronstadt, “Blue Bayou”, or whatever, that kind of a song, if that starts going…
In the end, Mitch is unmasked as what Kerry has called “the monster”. He has to just sit with it. I know Steve Carell is not yet officially confirmed for Season 2, but if we see him again, what do we think about the notion of second chances for people like that?
Aniston: I don’t know if that’s redeemable, that’s pretty dark. There are always the stories of the breakdowns, and then the drugs and alcohol, and the “Oh, God, it’s terrible” and then they clean up their act, and then they’re on the cover of People magazine with their thumbs up, like, “We’re back!” I don’t know.
Crudup: I feel like, if you put as many years of work into doing something acceptable that you’ve put into doing something that’s unacceptable, then I’ll talk to you. And if you want to begin to build your life back from there, fair enough. But if you put in as much work as Mitch did at undermining people and oppressing people and traumatizing people because you just didn’t have the time to give a damn, you’ve got a shit ton of work to do.
Aniston: Yeah. I think there are different levels. There are varying degrees, as we know, in all situations. But that was very conscious.
Crudup: Yeah, exactly. He was a manifest predator who has absolutely no real understanding of the depths of destruction in his wake.
Aniston: Just an ignorant narcissist. Completely oblivious.
Crudup: How long must it take for him to come to that realization first, and then how long must it take for him to do years of good work, exposing the depth of that understanding, to then be back in a conversation of whether or not people want to hear from you.
It’s so brilliantly written, that scene where he tries to set himself apart from his film director friend Dick (Martin Short), who he decides truly is a pervert, while he himself cannot be.
Aniston: Two predators basically sharing stories, and then all of a sudden, one saying, “Well, I’m not you.” Comparing their predatory behavior. It’s so amazing.
Jen, you have the Friends reunion special coming up soon, although it’s been delayed again due to COVID. What are you looking forward to most about that show, and Billy, are you a Friends fan?
Aniston: I’m not going to put Billy on the spot. Here’s what I’m going to say about that and I’m going to talk so long that it’s going to take up all the time and Billy won’t have to answer that.
Crudup: Don’t you dare. If I don’t get my time…
Aniston: So yes. Unfortunately, it’s very sad that we had to move it again. But this is not a safe time, period. And so that’s the bottom line. What we are going to be excited about is doing it. I’m supposed to renew my driver’s license and I don’t want it to say 2020 on it. I just don’t. I want 2020 to get out and behind us.
Crudup: How could that also be the number for perfect vision? That seems impossible to me right now. Somehow, shit has come into focus.
Aniston: Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s it Billy, it’s a good thing.
Crudup: Let me tell you this. Friends is a cultural institution, and if we can’t hold on to some of the things that we love, we’re fucked.
Aniston: Yay. It’s going to be super. You know, this has also given us more time to make it even more exciting and more fun than it would have been. So, I choose to see the glass half-full about this postponing. I mean, look, we’re not going anywhere. You’re never going to get rid of Friends. Sorry. You’re stuck with us for life, guys.