Of course Jennifer Aniston and Sebastian Stan are bound to talk about the 1990s. Stan is receiving Emmy buzz for donning tattoos and losing weight to play Tommy Lee, the Mötley Crüe drummer, in Hulu’s limited series “Pam & Tommy” — which is set in the decade that made Aniston a star on “Friends.” Actually, as Aniston thinks about it, she could see Stan chilling on the famous coffeehouse couch on her former sitcom. But they don’t agree about one thing: Is he a Joey or a Chandler?
The time travel then moves to the early days of COVID, to discuss Aniston’s transformative turn as anchor Alex Levy on Season 2 of “The Morning Show.” In the latest arc on the Apple TV+ drama, her character jets to Italy to confront her disgraced colleague and best friend Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) — but that wasn’t always the show’s plan. By the time they finish exchanging stories on Variety‘s “Actors on Actors” presented by Apple TV+, Aniston and Stan are so comfortable, they’ve cast themselves in a dream project together.
SEBASTIAN STAN: I’m such a huge fan of yours. I have been for years, so this is very special. Where I’d love to start is with doing a show during COVID, and incorporating COVID as subject matter. How was that approaching it from the perspective of Alex?
JENNIFER ANISTON: There was obviously no COVID when we started shooting, although there were rumblings of it. It was, like, January. We had shot for about a month. All of a sudden, companies were closing and working from home. We were all saying, “What about the actors? We don’t have the luxury of social distancing. We’re in scenes together.”
ANISTON: And they’re like, “Screw the actors.” So we shut down. We took that time to realize that there was something missing in Season 2; it had to be completely reimagined. The same thing happened with Season 1, where we had about seven shows outlined, and the #MeToo movement happened. I feel like our show is kind of in this place where we actually deliver the news literally, as in real time.
STAN: I found in the pandemic watching the news was heartbreaking and exhausting. And sometimes it made me paranoid. Did you find that you ended up watching more news as a result?
ANISTON: Actually, the opposite. I watched more news before, because I loved morning shows. But when we started shooting, I stopped watching. It was too much. You shot “Pam & Tommy” during the pandemic as well.
STAN: We did. We started around this time last year, so the vaccines were just coming out. Everybody felt safer or a little more relief. But it was just weird because it was the ’90s every day for 12 hours.
ANISTON: Which, by the way, feels like yesterday.
STAN: I know.
ANISTON: I have about a thousand things to ask you about “Pam & Tommy.” Can I just ask one really blatant one, get it out of the way?
STAN: Of course.
ANISTON: So you have a scene where you’re talking to your penis?
STAN: Yes. We talk.
ANISTON: How do you prepare for that? How does it read to you on the page?
STAN: The train of thought starts to go into panic mode. It was a tricky scene to shoot, because we didn’t know if it was really going to work — if it was going to be too much or not.
ANISTON: Did you shoot it kind of two ways?
STAN: No. There were components, manual and prosthetics and things, and people with wires sort of plugging things into sockets.
ANISTON: That’s crazy.
STAN: Well, yeah. Look, we have the benefits of CGI. But we went old school for it, which was an interesting experience.
ANISTON: Very bold. Very brave.
STAN: His penis is a character in the book that he wrote. So the writers were tipping their hat off to that, and trying to find a creative way of how this guy would confess his love for this woman.
ANISTON: How much did you study Tommy and Pam? Were you familiar with them in the ’90s?
STAN: I’m from Europe originally.
STAN: Romania. And then I lived in Vienna for a while. We moved to New York in ’95. I remember “Baywatch” more than anything. Even in Europe, we used to watch that religiously. You know, communism or not, you got “Baywatch.” But I didn’t really know what happened. That’s what was surprising about doing the show — how many people really didn’t know that the tape was stolen, or they had nothing to do with it.
ANISTON: And it was right at the time when the internet really shaped a new culture about people becoming famous. This thing of people becoming famous for basically doing nothing. I mean — Paris Hilton, Monica Lewinsky, all those.
STAN: Yeah. When you look back at the ’90s, you do see how many things have happened in that decade. Even the O.J. Simpson thing was actually the beginning of 24-hour news.
ANISTON: I always say I feel lucky that we got a little taste of the industry before it became what it is today, which is just different — more streaming services, more people. You’re famous from TikTok. You’re famous from YouTube. You’re famous from Instagram. It’s sort of almost like it’s diluting our actor’s job.
STAN: That brings me to something I’m curious to ask you about “The Morning Show.” Did you find anything different with it being a streaming service? Or how did you approach the dialogue piece of this?
ANISTON: Well, “Friends” was — half-hour was so easy compared … I mean, you had an audience.
STAN: That sounds like the most terrifying thing ever.
ANISTON: And by the way, every actor who was a film actor who came onto our show, they were terrified. It was like, “Who are these people laughing at what I’m saying?” I think “The Morning Show” feels like you’re shooting a film, although you’re covering much more real estate a day. The dialogue for me, I would take every Sunday, and I would hammer the whole week out with my acting coach. We would spend three hours, sometimes four, just going over every scene so that I became comfortable. I’m speaking like someone who is way smarter than myself.
STAN: Did you watch anyone in specific?
ANISTON: My dream human is Diane Sawyer. I had a wonderful dinner at her house right before we started. And the stories were endless and fascinating. And Gayle King was great. Chris Cuomo was great. Hoda. They were excited too, because it is such a world behind the scenes of what goes on.
STAN: I’m always just amazed that their day starts at 3 in the morning.
ANISTON: It’s a very strange nocturnal existence. There were nights where Diane said she wanted to live her life with her husband and go to the theater, and she just would stay awake. And then, recover on the weekends. She said she couldn’t make the coffee at home because her husband would smell it and wake up — so she would sneak out of the house, run to work and make her coffee. Very considerate of her.
STAN: In terms of Alex and Mitch’s relationship, did you guys always know at the end of Season 1 where it was going to go? And some of those twists and turns, particularly with Italy and so on?
ANISTON: No. We had to reimagine. After we went on summer break, [showrunner] Kerry Ehrin would think about Season 2 and gave us the little bullet points. And I was supposed to start in rehab, like for mental health. And we always knew Mitch was going to die. He went to do coverage on a war. He blew up in a building or whatever. It was just like, “This is so violent.” But then this played out beautifully with him being sent to exile in Italy to live in his shame. Have you always wanted to be an actor?
STAN: I guess I was like really good at impressions or something. My mom used to bring me out when we had people over.
ANISTON: And your first big break was “Gossip Girl”?
STAN: “Law & Order.” Jerry Orbach.
ANISTON: I went to high school with his son. Are you a good auditioner?
STAN: I don’t know. I didn’t mind it so much.
ANISTON: That’s good. I was terrified of it. I would walk into that room just shaking. It’s a shock I ever got hired. Let’s be clear. My first job was a Bob’s Big Boy commercial.
ANISTON: I couldn’t get hired for like two years because I was just my own worst enemy walking into a room. You would have been a great cast member on “Friends.” You would have been a Joey.
STAN: There are so many times where I’ve gone through a lot of lonely nights with “Friends,” I will tell you.
ANISTON: It’s a friend to have in the room sometimes.
STAN: And my friends would always go around and be like, “Who are you most like?” I always came closest to Chandler, because I get very sort of neurotic. And I just used to die laughing. Coming back to Rachel for the “Friends” reunion, I can’t even imagine how surreal that experience must have been. How did it feel, seeing everybody? Is it cathartic? Or is it weirdly the same goose bumps come back? It’s so familiar.
ANISTON: It was all of the above, honestly. I don’t know we expected for it to sucker punch us as hard as it did in the emotional gut. We just had the idea this is going to be so fun — we’re going back to the sets exactly the way they were. And literally, every single nook on a shelf was the same. It was so creepy. But each and every one of us, we walked in, it was just like, “Oh!”.
ANISTON: Time travel. It was ’04 when it ended. And we were different. We were so little. Our lives were ahead of us. And so much has changed. We kind of had rose-colored glasses going into it. And then, it was like, “This is really a lot heavier than I thought.” But I wouldn’t change a lick of it. Every time we all get together, it’s just like no time has passed. We basically grew up together, and taught each other a lot. We’re each other’s fall guy because the world was happening. We were exploding, and that kind of notoriety was sudden. And we were in these four walls doing the show, and this insanity is happening. And thank God we had each other, because we really couldn’t talk about it outside. It was before social media, so we still had some sanity.
STAN: I’m thinking if you had social media when “Friends” was happening, it’s almost like I’m sure the network would have said, “Hey, can we get a TikTok video of you guys?” And so much of that was preserved for the screen. And that’s why I sometimes wonder: Are we without some of that mystery?
ANISTON: I get very nostalgic about the past. I also find it interesting that people still love it today, because what are they relating to? You look over at a table of four people having a meal. And there’s usually three people on a phone, just scrolling mindlessly.
STAN: And you guys are on the couch and reading the paper and talking over coffee.
ANISTON: I have a really weird question. This has nothing to do with anything. You know how there’s this new thing where everyone says, “It’s tech neck,” because you’re looking down on your phone? Didn’t people do the same thing when they read the newspaper and books? So why is tech neck a new thing?
STAN: I —
ANISTON: I don’t know. Just thought I’d throw it out there. By the way, working on green screen, how do you feel about the Marvel movies? I mean, that’s got to be tedious, right?
STAN: I feel like it’s more opportunities to get distracted. You’re looking over there and it’s a planet, and there’s a cliff and all these people are coming — and you’re just staring at a wall. It’s bizarre. I’d love to be able to have things to interact off.
ANISTON: An actor, an actual person.
STAN: And not a tennis ball. But then, it also just makes you use your imagination in a different way. I never discriminate between any type of genre.
ANISTON: Do you have a favorite?
STAN: If I could just live in “Notting Hill” the movie forever, I would.
ANISTON: Is that a romcom? Why do they have such a bad rap these days, because wouldn’t that be fun to do one?
STAN: It would be.
ANISTON: Wanna do it?
STAN: Do you wanna?
ANISTON: I do.
STAN: Do one in a second with you.
ANISTON: Shooting in New York City?
STAN: Yeah, yeah. That sounds great. They could probably write that very quickly.
ANISTON: Great. We’re gonna do a rom-com. So exciting. We’re bringing them back