During the Q&A following Wednesday’s American Cinematheque screening of the new Jennifer Aniston drama Cake, a woman in the audience exclaimed to the former Friends star, “I’ve been dealing with chronic pain for over several years and you nailed every mannerism, every emotion as well as the experience of living with it: People often think we’re faking it, and we’re not.”
The woman was the second of the night to say she had battled chronic pain and applauded Aniston’s turn as Claire Simmons, a woman who has weathered a grave tragedy, and battles chronic pain that cripples her body. The crowd at the Egyptian Theater was gobsmacked, and gave the actress several rounds of applause.
One has to see Aniston in Cake to believe it. From the first frame, you forget it’s her up on the screen. She completely loses herself in the role, sans makeup, except for scars throughout her body. It’s not a stretch, rather an effortless performance, so Academy voters, prick up your ears. Deadline’s Pete Hammond couldn’t be more correct: Jennifer Aniston is a bona fide Oscar contender in the best actress slot.
At the top of the Q&A, moderator Jason Bateman (who shares four onscreen credits with the actress: The Break-Up, The Switch and Horrible Bosses 1 & 2) told Aniston, “I’ve never seen you do anything like that before, I never doubted you could do something like that before, but I’ve never seen it. You’ve never been asked to do that.”
Aniston answered, “I don’t think I could have done this five or 10 years ago. I don’t know if I could have brought to the part then what I brought now: A level of fearlessness.”
As wonderful as Theron was in that role, Aniston’s Claire is a far more accessible character to audiences: Despite Claire’s curmudgeonly nature, she has a heart of gold. In Cake, there’s more than just the tragic pain that Claire battles.
Guilt-stricken from the suicide of a young woman in her therapy group, Nina (Anna Kendrick), she aims to reconcile with her ghost as well as the woman’s widowed husband (Sam Worthington). Throughout it all, the only person who thoroughly understands Claire is her Mexican caretaker Silvana (Oscar nominee Adriana Barraza).
Director Daniel Barnz, working from newcomer Patrick Tobin’s screenplay, strikes just the right tone. Cake is never heavy-handed in its melodrama, nor in the gravitas of Claire’s struggle. A sense of hope bubbles below the surface, or as Aniston told Deadline after the screening, “the film allows you to breathe.”
During a 1990 panel at the New Orleans Film Festival, casting director Marion Dougherty (who discovered Robert Redford and Jon Voight among other greats) once said that if she had to choose between two actresses for the same role, she’d go with the one who is nicer off camera, because audiences would connect with her better.
When choosing best actress, awards voters could also use the same criteria: Aniston’s affability and lack of pretension will carry her a long way during Oscar season. She’s an open book when it comes to her acting method, and such revelations will no doubt resonate with her peers.
Aniston’s sincerity shined through Thursday when she boldly answered a query on how she deals with the tabloids, while balancing a serious career.
“Negative comments are hurtful, and there are a lot of bullies in the world with free time,” she said. “You do your best to tune out the noise, take the good with the bad, and keep grounded with amazing friends who tell you to snap out of it and focus on your job. It’s a challenge to say ‘I’m not tabloid fodder’ and I welcome and embrace the challenge of that.”
When it came to landing the part of Claire Simmons, Aniston felt ready to play outside her comfort zone.
“The role checked all the boxes for me to play darker, I wanted to disappear,” she told Deadline. “The script had to be bulletproof.”
The reason why there’s been a lag between Aniston’s dramatic roles, her first a celebrated turn as a discount store clerk in Miguel Arteta‘s The Good Girl (2002) (she was nominated for a female lead Indie Spirit) and her performance as a cash-strapped maid with wealthy girlfriends in Friends With Money was because of “stereotyping that occurs (when it comes to roles) in this town, and I had to flex more for the role.”
Aniston credited directors such as Arteta and Barnz, saying “It’s the young ones who see you in another light. Miguel had this sentiment to cast me in a dramatic role (Good Girl), much in the same way Robert Redford cast Mary Tyler Moore in a serious role in Ordinary People.”
Aniston pieced Claire together from two people she personally knew, one a painkiller-addicted stuntwoman whose right leg was injured in a boat accident, the other a close friend who weathered a deep loss in her life by becoming a crotchety alcoholic.
“She had empathy,” said Aniston who in addition to wearing a back brace to get into the physicality of the part, also studied Barnz’s mood book for the film and worked on the proper vocals. In addition, Aniston gained weight by ignoring her regular workouts over two and half months, and being less stringent about her diet.
“It’s the different aspects of people, you dive into and let that become part of you,” she said.
But whether it’s Cake or Horrible Bosses, Aniston said she approaches the emotion of “comedy and drama in the same way. You start with the truth of the situation of the character. Their real truth. We’re being this human being, whether it’s the situation of portraying (Claire) or someone who is a sex addict (dentist Dr. Julia Harris in Bosses), it’s their truth, no matter what.”