By Karen S. Schneider
August 26, 2002 12:00 PM

Now and then, Jennifer Aniston likes to take leave of the Hollywood Hills bungalow she and her husband, Brad Pitt, call home and have some time to herself—you know, meeting pals such as Melissa Etheridge and Kathy Najimy at a local Mexican restaurant for chips and salsa and a margarita. Or dropping by one of their houses for dinner and a game of Taboo. Or, if profes sionalism demands it, hopping into bed with a smoldering hunk a little more than half her husband’s age.

Even though her tryst with 21-year-old actor Jake Gyllenhaal was all in a day’s work—scripted into her role as a dowdy and unhappily wed clerk in the indie flick The Good GirlFriends fans might be taken aback by the somewhat unsettling sight of Aniston, in the first love scene of her 13-year showbiz career, groping about seminaked on the big screen. But Pitt, 38, didn’t mind a bit. Says Aniston, 33, with a laugh: “He was just like, ‘Be nice to the guy. He’s just a kid!’ ”

For the record, the kid can take care of himself. Says Gyllenhaal, only half in jest, of their romantic interludes: “That’s the only reason I did the movie.” Aniston’s reason? Call it Stage 1 of her master plan. After she wraps what is expected to be the final episode of Friends come spring of 2003, she says, “I’d like to travel. I’d like to have a family. I’d like to do it all.” But all in good time. While friends and fans can’t seem to wait to see Aniston’s Zone-honed figure swathed in maternity clothes (“Both she and Brad would be incredible parents,” enthuses singer Etheridge), she has other plans. “Absolutely it will happen,” Aniston says of motherhood, “but probably not for a while. Probably Friends will end, close that chapter, and see where we go.”

Right now she’d just like to find her Ordinary People. And she’s not talking about a staff to care for the 12,000-sq.-ft., six-bedroom mansion in Beverly Hills that she and Pitt bought last summer. The actress sometimes referred to as the Mary Tyler Moore of her generation is looking for projects that might release her from the Girl Next Door rut—much as the Oscar-winning 1980 drama People did for Moore. The Good Girl is proving a great start. Aniston plays Justine, a depressed cashier who seeks relief from a dreary marriage to a pot-smoking couch potato (The Perfect Storm‘s John C. Reilly) through a deadend affair with a coworker (October Sky‘s Gyllenhaal). Echoing critics across the country, the New York Post raved, “The Friends star announces herself as a true big-screen talent, channeling despair, hope, confusion and wry humor.” But when she chose the somewhat risky role, Aniston had a harsher critic in mind. “I wanted to prove, to myself most of all,” she says, “that I could maybe try something different.”

Which is saying a lot for the woman who has eaten the same salad at work nearly every day for the past eight years. “She’s a creature of habit,” says her Friends costar and real-life pal Courteney Cox Arquette. Indeed, in the years since Aniston first walked onto the NBC set on the Burbank lot in 1994, much has changed—from marriages for Aniston, Cox, 38, and Lisa Kudrow, 39, to million-dollar-per-episode paychecks for each member of the cast, including Matthew Perry, 33, David Schwimmer, 35, and Matt LeBlanc, 35. But more has remained the same. The “not exactly timely” Aniston still phones an equally tardy Cox during her 20-minute drive to work each morning and asks, says Cox, “How late are you today?” She still wanders to her costars’ dressing rooms to chat between takes. (As Perry notes of the gang’s “clichéd but true” sense of camaraderie, “Upstairs is just kind of a less funny version of the show that goes on downstairs.”) And come lunchtime, without fail, she still joins Cox and Kudrow in the commissary.

“Every single day she eats a salad and she orders it the exact same way,” says Cox. “Light on garbanzo beans, turkey and some kind of lemon dressing made by a wonderful craft-services woman we call Mama, and pecorino cheese—Jennifer’s favorite.”

So why, nearly 1,000 Mama specials later, is Aniston finally ready to leave the lunch line? In part because the $24 million she stands to earn this season pretty much guarantees she will not, as she feared starting out as an actress, have to “be a waitress for the rest of my life.” Then there’s the guy with the overgrown beard (cultivated for his role as a time traveler in the sci-fi epic The Fountain, set to shoot in Australia in the fall). Two years after Aniston and Pitt married on a Malibu cliff, their union remains “very simple and easy,” says Cox. And not because, as tabloid reports have implied, they smoke copious amounts of marijuana. “False,” Aniston told TIME, adding that if she were stoned “I’d barely be able to have a conversation with you.” Whether attending premieres or just working out the compromises of daily life—”You do the dishes on Tuesday and I’ll do the dishes on Wednesday,” as her longtime actress pal Najimy describes it—Aniston counts on Pitt for more than his promise to “split the difference on the thermostat,” as he vowed back at the altar.

“It’s a nice feeling to have somebody that you just like so much,” she told Vogue this month. “I think it’s made me more comfortable in who I am to have someone who loves me and accepts me with all of my crap and dysfunction and insecurities and struggles. And he kind of sees it all through these beautiful rose-colored glasses.”

If only she could have lent a pair to her colleagues on The Good Girl. When writer Mike White suggested her for Justine last year, director Miguel Arteta remembered her edgy performance as a waitress in 1999’s comedy Office Space and saw potential in casting her against type. “She’s incredibly beautiful, but it’s not otherworldly beauty, like a Sharon Stone,” he says. “She’s very relatable.” Others were a little less enthusiastic. “I’d heard of her, obviously, and her haircut surrounded me for a couple of years when every girl had it,” says costar Reilly. “But I was like, ‘Jennifer Aniston? That girl on the TV show? Wait, explain that to me.’ ”

Aniston prepared for the spring 2001 shoot by working with an acting coach who put weights on her arms and legs to curb what Aniston calls her “bad acting habit” of Gesticulating Cute. And she agreed to Arteta’s request that she not wash her hair. The fact that the superstar in their low-budget midst doled out back rubs to the crew after long workdays helped her win friends on the set. And she pulled off the part, says Reilly: “She’s the real deal, just real ordinary. She put to rest whatever questions people had.”

The Good Girl—which earned an impressive $208,600 in a limited four-theater release in early August—should give her the movie-career boost she hopes for. Previous forays onto the big screen—including 1997’s Picture Perfect, 1998’s The Object of My Affection and last year’s Rock Star—did not. But the struggle never diminished her drive. “She’s a very hard worker, and I mean mostly in her life,” says: castmate Perry. “If there’s some issue, she goes and just works it out.”

Happily, her hardest work off-screen these days has been sorting through fabric swatches. Tired of bumping into her husband in the 2,500-sq.-ft. Hollywood Hills bachelorette pad she bought seven years ago—they use his old nearby digs as an office—Aniston and Pitt shelled out $13.5 million for their 1930s French Normandy mansion a year ago and proceeded to gut it. “Once we put the walls back together,” she says, “I’m sure it will be a blast to decorate.” Still, she has not entirely given herself over to the as-yet-unscheduled move out of what she has called her “bungalow on top of the clouds.” The two-bedroom hilltop hideaway is, after all, where she first set up home after hitting pay dirt on Friends, and where she first fell in love with Pitt, who, like her, was fast asleep on July 18 when the announcement came that they had both been nominated for Emmy awards—she first for outstanding lead actress playing Rachel Green on Friends and he for outstanding guest actor for his Thanksgiving Day appearance. “So many wonderful walks of life have come in and out,” she told USA Today of her home; leaving it, she added, “is going to tear my heart out.”

It’s no surprise that Aniston holds domestic calm so dear. When she was 9, her home life was disrupted when her father, veteran soap actor John Aniston, 69, left her mother, Nancy, 66, a onetime model, for another woman. As a teenager in Manhattan, she had little contact with her L.A.-based dad, only to reconcile with him after she moved west in 1989. Seven years later she became famously estranged from her mother after Nancy talked about her to a tabloid TV show. “It’s not like she woke up one morning and said, ‘I’m mad at my mom,’ ” says Najimy. “She’s really made such huge efforts to try to get it straight. But sometimes it’s more productive to say, ‘Distance is going to heal this.’ That’s where she is now.”

Instead, Aniston has created a kind of family among her friends. Over the summer she and Pitt have spent evenings at the Malibu house of Cox and her husband, David Arquette, 30, where they “just eat and talk and have glasses of wine and enjoy ourselves,” says Cox. “Once they spent the weekend. We pretended this was a hotel and kind of got away here.” A couple of times a month she leaves Brad at home and meets up with her girlfriends. “I’ll call and say, ‘It’s time to talk,’ ” says Najimy. When it’s just the two of them, they share fajitas and get intense, “because we have a lot of catching up to do.” When the twosome expands to include Etheridge and actress Catherine Keener, like anyone else they talk about books, relationships, even Aniston’s role in the latest tabloid headline. “We sit around laughing at most of them,” says Etheridge.

Not that a decade of fame has completely hardened Aniston to what Najimy calls “misinformation. She cares about what people think of her.” But not enough to worry about changing out of her favorite orange pants and J. Crew flip-flops when she goes grocery shopping. Both she and Pitt “have a drive for success,” notes Etheridge, “but it never overshadows their drive for a healthy, happy life. They enjoy their careers, but if it was ever bad for them, they would so drop it.”

That’s not on the agenda just yet. On Aug. 6 Aniston began shooting the comedy Bruce Almighty with Jim Carrey. After that, her options “are boundless,” says Perry. “She’s worked hard to put herself in a position to do what she wants to do.” Whatever Aniston’s choices, Etheridge, for one, isn’t worried. “Jennifer’s on her journey and she’s really enjoying it,” she says. “She’s just very happy and very grateful.”

Karen S. Schneider

Julie Jordan in Los Angeles