Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston are sharing a screen for the first time since Friends. They talk disturbing cover-ups and their decades-long fight against sexual harassment
Hadley Freeman – The Guardian
‘People are in my panty drawers all the time’ … Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. Photograph: Eric Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstock
“What a wonderful sweater!” gasps Reese Witherspoon, pointing at my old green jumper.
“Wait, I’m sorry, look at those cool shoes,” adds Jennifer Aniston, with a comedy emphasis that verges on Chandler Bing-esque, and all eyes turn to my muddy, five-year-old trainers.
“And the bag, oh my gosh,” Witherspoon continues appraising my outfit.
Neither of them mentions my trousers, so I make a mental note to burn them when I get home.
The three of us are meeting in a central London hotel and although outside it is dark and rainy, the two of them, in little black dresses and black high heels, are as golden and glossy as a pair of show ponies on a summer’s day. I, on the other hand, have rain-soaked hair and at least one surplus stone in post-partum weight. But Aniston and Witherspoon will not be swayed from their lovebombing (“I love the Guardian!” – Witherspoon).
It is a supremely girly way of easing into an interview, engaging in the female lingua franca of insistently complimenting another woman. If it weren’t for the fact there are three PRs in the room with us – one next to Aniston, two next to Witherspoon – I could almost believe that we were just three gals, hanging out for giggles on a Friday afternoon.
The actual reason we are hanging out today is to discuss Aniston and Witherspoon’s extremely shiny new television series, The Morning Show, in which they both star, and produce – it’s very much the showpiece of the new streaming service, Apple TV+. It is the first time the women have worked together since playing sisters on Friends, and, as all the press releases excitedly emphasise, it is the first TV show Aniston has committed to since the sitcom that made her a star. The two women have stayed friends since playing Rachel and Jill Greene – “Jen throws an amazing Christmas party!” “I do love entertaining!” “And you’re so good at it, you need to teach me!” – and stress keenly that they are hands on “from top to bottom, from script, to casting, to the tone” of The Morning Show.
“It’s a great partnership because I’m a morning person and she’s a night person,” says Witherspoon.
“Literally,” agrees Aniston.
“We literally share the responsibility together, and there’s something so refreshing about that,” finishes Witherspoon.
Watching and listening to them talk gives a sense of their working dynamic. Witherspoon takes the conversational lead, Aniston gamely backs her up, Witherspoon makes the concluding statement. Bish bash done.
Both women are experienced producers with their own production companies. I’ve met many male producers and Aniston and Witherspoon definitely have a less macho, more personable energy than, say, Jerry Bruckheimer, and let’s not even mention the Weinstein brothers (at least, not yet).
“We have to change the power structures. Just the fact that she and I are producing our own material, and things are starting to get better in terms of equal gender [representation] in rooms of power, that’s going to prevent a lot of workplace misconduct,” says Witherspoon.
“Absolutely,” echoes Aniston.
Why it’s necessary for these power structures to change, and how that started to happen, is precisely what The Morning Show is about. The series was originally envisioned as a TV drama about breakfast TV, but just as they were starting to work on it in 2017, Matt Lauer, the much-loved presenter of NBC’s hugely popular breakfast programme, Today, was accused of sexual misconduct. Instead of dumping their planned programme, Aniston and Witherspoon helped to rejig the story.
It now opens with the male newscaster, Mitch (Steve Carell), being accused of sexual harassment, to the horror of his long-term co-host, Alex (Aniston). “So now, instead of dancing around that subject, we were like, OK, episode one – there it is,” says Witherspoon, who plays Bradley, the newscaster brought in to replace Mitch.
For two decades, Lauer was one of the biggest television stars in the US. Imagine Phillip Schofield combined with Gary Lineker and Ant and Dec and you have some sense of Lauer’s ubiquity and seemingly clean-cut appeal. Although Carell isn’t explicitly playing Lauer on The Morning Show, he absolutely nails his onscreen all-American-dad charm and the creepy darkness beneath it.
The allegations against Lauer were shocking from the start – it was said that he had a button on his desk that enabled him to lock his office door as soon as a woman entered the room – and they have only become more gothic.
He has been accused of anal rape and, in his new book, Catch and Kill, the former NBC journalist Ronan Farrow says not only did network management know about Lauer’s behaviour, but they killed Farrow’s investigations into Harvey Weinstein out of fear that the movie producer would retaliate by exposing the truth about Lauer. NBC and Lauer – and Weinstein – deny all allegations against them. When I ask if they have read Farrow’s book, Aniston points to Witherspoon and says, “She has,” in a “she’s the reader” tone of voice.
“Yes, and [the cover-up he describes] is so disturbing. It happens in so many industries, but hopefully that’s changing,” Witherspoon says.
Lauer was not the only US breakfast TV host to be accused of sexual misconduct in 2017: CBS’s Charlie Rose also stepped down after multiple women accused him of harassment. (Rose apologised for his “inappropriate behaviour” but said he did not believe all the allegations made against him were accurate.)
Aniston and Witherspoon spoke to Rose’s former colleague Gayle King about what the revelations felt like for her, given they sat next to each other for years.
“You know, it’s heartbreaking. You miss them,” says Aniston.
“He was a friend. And they were on air for so long and you didn’t know this about your colleague’s personality,” says Witherspoon.
The show isn’t perfect. Aniston is great as the brittle TV anchor seemingly on the verge of losing her mind. But the plot is clunky and the characters’ motivations are so baffling that even they seem confused by them: “Why are you doing this?” “I don’t know!” they shout at one another.
Given that the series is ostensibly about the #MeToo movement, its stakes are bewilderingly low: the show’s main concern is whether a wealthy female presenter’s career will suffer because of her male colleague’s behaviour. Is that really the worst thing those involved can imagine happening to a woman – losing a highly paid job?
Yet the show deserves credit for touching on some of the ambiguities within the #MeToo movement, such as whether a man sleazing on younger subordinates should be discussed in the same breath as an accused rapist, and how we unpick the complexities of consent when a sexual experience can be interpreted totally differently by the involved parties.
“There’s this absolute denial – ‘It was consensual, it was consensual’ – if you’re a narcissist to the degree a lot of these guys are. They think, of course every woman wants to sleep with me,” says Aniston.
“This is not an echo chamber of women talking about #MeToo,” says Witherspoon. “It’s actually a very gender-balanced conversation because we need men watching the show. Real change doesn’t happen unless the incumbent power structure accepts it.”
This is not an echo chamber of women talking about #MeToo. It’s actually a very gender-balanced conversation
That seems a somewhat debatable point – has the patriarchy ever really accepted feminism? – but I want to talk to Witherspoon about her character in particular. One of the key moments in the series is when she realises that almost everyone knew about Mitch and she sets out to expose this culture of corporate silence.
In 2017, Witherspoon revealed that she had been sexually assaulted by a director when she was 16, and was instructed by agents and producers to keep quiet about it. “I wish I could tell you that was an isolated incident in my career but, sadly, it wasn’t. I’ve had multiple experiences of harassment and sexual assault,” she said.
She felt, she added, “guilt for not speaking up earlier”.
I ask how it felt to play a character so fearless about revealing the kind of experiences she endured when she was younger. “It’s interesting that you say that. When stories [about assault and harassment] come out, I sometimes get really upset and it runs the gamut from sad to heartbroken to extreme anger. I think it probably drives me to tell more stories about it because art is the best antidote,” she says.
“Yes,” adds Aniston supportively.
How does she think her experiences affected her personally?
“It makes me determined not to let this happen to other young women. I’m so grateful to the women who spoke out about things in their past because I’m in a different position, obviously, but those women had nothing to gain, and some lost their jobs over it. They are the real heroes in my mind.”
So does she wish she could have spoken out sooner?
The temperature in the room drops palpably.
“Ummm no. It was a culture of silence and silence was a condition of my employment. That’s what I was told,” she says.
“Yes, yes,” adds Aniston.
I wouldn’t normally press a woman about her experiences of sexual harassment and assault. But given that for the past 20 minutes we have been talking about the importance of talking about sexual assault allegations and cover-ups, and the courage of women who speak up, I am surprised that Witherspoon is shutting down any discussion of her experiences with aphorisms about art.
Perhaps I’m asking the wrong questions. I try again: are the people who harassed her or told her to stay silent still working in the entertainment industry?
The room goes sub-Arctic.
“Ummmmm no,” Witherspoon eventually says. She shoots a frowny-smiley face towards her PRs.
“I think we’ll move on now, OK?” one of them says firmly to me.
Aniston is looking at me dazed, as if shocked that I’ve broken some code. I feel a little as if I am about to be ejected from the cool girls’ table.
But it’s fine. We’re all professionals, so we move on to Harvey Weinstein, a less controversial subject, given that everyone agrees he is Bad. He distributed Witherspoon’s 2002 film The Importance of Being Earnest and produced Aniston’s 2005 film Derailed.
“I was never alone in a room with him,” says Aniston.
“I was never alone with him either. But I didn’t know why,” adds Witherspoon.
“Me neither. But always someone would stand in the room,” Aniston echoes.
“Now I look back and I’m very grateful to those people who stayed in the room with me. What they knew, I don’t know,” says Witherspoon.
Witherspoon, 43, and Aniston, 50, have been hugely famous for more than half their lives, with the former shooting to fame in the 90s teen film Cruel Intentions when she was 23, and the latter becoming a TV icon at 25 in Friends.
Probably the most fun part of The Morning Show is watching Aniston show, through her character, how being in the spotlight can drive a woman to near breaking point. “There is something very interesting about being a public person and playing a public person and incorporating those challenges and bringing them out into the open,” she agrees.
Few modern celebrities have been more in the white-hot light of public fascination than Aniston. Ever since the end of her marriage to Brad Pitt in 2005, she has been treated by the media and public as more of a soap opera character than an actual person, one whose life (will she have children? Will she marry again?) we can all follow breathlessly. When she joined Instagram last month, posting a photo of herself and her Friends co-stars, she caused the site to crash. Is she comfortable with the amount of exposure she has?
“I find it very odd,” she says, leaning forward earnestly. “I don’t understand it – it doesn’t make sense to me. I’d love for someone to break it down, but there it is and now it has to keep going.”
Does it control her life?
“No! No, no, no,” she scoffs.
She admits she joined Instagram mainly to promote the show.
“But also, I think I had this idea … I don’t want to be the only person … Let’s see, what do I want to say here?” she says, with the wariness of one accustomed to having their most casual comments blown up into headlines. “I thought, ‘Why would I do this? People are already in my panty drawers all the time.’
“And I want them out of my panty drawers. But now I can decide which pair to show them.”
“That’s the best thing you ever said!” hoots Witherspoon.
On that note, our time is up.
“Thank you for your thoughtful questions,” says Witherspoon, as if thanking me for a kidney.
“Yes, thanks!” Aniston adds.
And I leave them fighting for the #MeToo movement, within their limits.
The Morning Show is on Apple TV+.