To reach Jennifer Aniston, you have to drive up and up and up, then announce yourself at a white gate that opens onto a field of gray pebbles sprouting symmetrical trees. A procession of stone slabs leads like a bridge to the massive bronze doors on an otherwise solid white facade. Aniston answers, casual in jeans and a black T-shirt. She’s disarmingly friendly. She thinks she knows another person with my name. She asks about the traffic. She leads me to her beautiful family room and kitchen, with its built-in pizza oven and glass-encased wine room, and offers to make us peppermint tea. She apologizes in advance for the texts she might get from her showrunner because she’s a month away from shooting her upcoming show with Reese Witherspoon.
While she brews the tea, I plop my bag on the counter, like we’re just hanging out. I tell her my daughter drained my phone battery right before I left the house, and so we start chatting about kids and phones. How badly they want them. When they should be allowed to have them. Do you let them feel left out, or “Do you try to save their sanity by not letting them grow up inside a teeny computer? It’s a real internal conflict,” she says, carrying the mugs to the sofa. “So much is out there.” This is true. She would know.
Dumplin’, out now, was adapted by Hahn from a book by Julie Murphy. It is, among other things, a tribute to Dolly Parton. The filmmakers asked Parton to license her songs for the movie and write an original composition for the soundtrack. She and her collaborator, 4 Non Blondes’ Linda Perry, wound up writing six. Aniston, a lifelong Parton fan who’d named one of her dogs, yes, Dolly Parton, says that working with the legend was a thrill. During their first meeting, a dinner at Aniston’s house, Parton remembers asking, “Do you still have Dolly Parton? Can I meet her? I’ve always wanted to meet Dolly Parton.” (They met.) Later, when Aniston went to Perry’s studio to listen to the soundtrack, Parton says that “[Aniston] would listen to the song, and she would just cry and cry. You’ve got to be really sensitive for things to touch you like that.”
Aniston, whose parents divorced when she was young, says of her friends, “We always joke that we raised each other, we mothered each other, we sistered each other, we’ve been kids to each other.” She made her own family her own way. “I also was never a kid who sat around and dreamed about a wedding, you know? Those were never my fantasies. When I was first popped the question, it was so foreign to me.” That childhood environment, which she escaped through movies and TV and dreams of being an actress, led to her career. “My priorities weren’t about finding partnership and who am I gonna marry and what am I gonna wear on my wedding day. I was building houses with shoe boxes and toilet paper and felt. It was always about finding a home that felt safe. And I’m sure, because I was from a divorced-parent home, that was another reason I wasn’t like, ‘Well, that looks like a great institution.’ ”
Aniston and her mom were famously estranged for years. “My mom said those things because she really loved me. It wasn’t her trying to be a bitch or knowing she would be making some deep wounds that I would then spend a lot of money to undo. She did it because that was what she grew up with. ‘You want to be happy. It’s hard for big girls.’ She was missing what was [actually] important. I think she was just holding on and doing the best she could, struggling financially and dealing with a husband who was no longer there. Being a single mom in the ’80s I’m sure was pretty crappy.”
She’s purposefully protective of her private life, she says. “Look, I also don’t want to become…. There are times when I’ve found myself becoming a little too isolated. I don’t want to become that person, either. I don’t want to lose touch with what’s out in the world.” Not long ago, she was doing research for her show about morning-news anchors, and she went on YouTube. She was watching clips of different newscasters, and suddenly an old Diane Sawyer interview of her popped up. “And I clicked on it, and I just sat there riveted, only because I realized, Oh my God, I was really vulnerable! Somehow, along the way, I calloused up.”
It feels intimate on a grand scale, or maybe it’s the other way around. “It’s a big house,” she says, “but it also has big rooms.” They hold a lot of people. She does plan to redo the dining room, “but that’s because I can never not do something,” she says. She’s still building and rebuilding her dream house, only not with shoe boxes anymore. We go out on the terrace, and she shows me the pool below. “This is where, every Sunday, we do ‘Sunday Fundays,’ as we call it, where [my friends’] kids come and we huddle around down there and they jump around in the pool.”