Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman on Acting in High-Adrenaline Series and Their Futures with Directing
Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman have been in each other’s orbit for the better part of three decades, and have also worked together on films including “The Break-Up,” “The Switch” and “Horrible Bosses” franchise.
Both started in the business very young yet proved to have the ability not only to maintain longevity as performers and to deftly flip between comedic and dramatic roles, but they also both took greater control of their careers by slipping behind the camera as producers and directors.
Now, the duo finds themselves Emmy-nominated at the same time: She with her first dramatic Television Academy nod for her work on Apple TV Plus’ “The Morning Show” and he with his third consecutive lead drama actor nom for Netflix’s “Ozark,” in addition to a guest performance nomination for HBO’s “The Outsider.”
Here, Variety reunites Aniston and Bateman to talk about how the adrenaline-infused settings affect their performances, what to do with comedic instincts when working on a drama and what currently drives them in the various aspects of their careers.
After working together a few times, what have you learned from each other that you’ve carried with you?
Jason Bateman: The way that she carries herself and everything that she takes on and has put upon her. It’s a very complicated full life that she manages, and she does it with grace and kindness and warmth to her closest friends and to a person she might meet that day on the set. I have learned, and it has been reaffirmed to me, that no matter how successful you become, that is still the most important thing for your own peace of mind, but also for the work environment because a lot of people take their cues from what No. 1 on the call sheet is doing and how they’re handling things — how they’re holding themselves, how they’re behaving. And she just sets such a great example.
Jennifer Aniston: OK you win.
Bateman: Just say ditto.
Aniston: Ditto! No, I’m not kidding, I have to say there is no one more professional and lovely to be around — and calm. There’s no histrionics with him: He is prepared, he is solid, he is kind, he is funny. I love my days when I get to be with Jason on a set or my house on a Sunday. He’s one of the greatest people to be around, whether I get to work with him, which I don’t get to do enough of and it’s been too long. But we’re going to write that, aren’t we, Jason?
There are more seasons of “Ozark” and “The Morning Show” coming.
Bateman: That’s true. I would love to see Jen doing some drive through the Ozarks.
Aniston: Yeah, what if there was a television and you were watching the news and it was [my “Morning Show” character] Alex Levy reporting it?
Bateman: I’m going to pitch it right now.
Aniston: It would be a kind of cool, weird crossover.
How do the high-adrenaline of the worlds of your characters now, from morning news to money-laundering, affect the way you carry them?
Aniston: The truth is that world is such a high-octane environment, and I have to say it was quite amazing to witness when I went to “GMA” to shadow. To see the intense, as you say, adrenaline running through this, that revs up — it starts like a slow hum and then the wheels go faster and faster and faster and faster and all of the anchors are walking in and out, getting all of these little sound bites and they have to also in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 be on camera — completely compartmentalizing all of this adrenaline — and deliver the news with calm and grace to America as if it’s just having a conversation. And they do this every day, some people for 25 years. Somehow they’re built that way — I don’t know where that insane adrenaline stores itself inside their body until they just spontaneously combust, which ended up happening at the end of our season.
Bateman: My character is not too dissimilar from Jen’s in that we’re always toggling between offense and then also defeat, so there is this, physically speaking, upright posture when we’re being proactive with stuff, and then there are times when it all become a bit too overwhelming for these characters. And I think that’s good because there’s not that much to be interested about with a character that is bulletproof. And I think Jen is certainly great at showing vulnerability and humanity and certainly really being present with whatever, and I try to do the same. It’s a lane that characters that are the leads are usually put into so that we can be these proxies — these portals — for the audience, so the audience can vicariously experience these situations, these storylines through. So it’s nice to be able at one point to drive the story and at other points to react to the story.
Aniston: There are those moments where Alex would just snap and there are those moments where she’s with her team and she just knows how to swing that pendulum from one version of herself to the other.
Bateman: I would say [we’re] probably the same in really being conscious of how much physicality we play in the parts because it just kind of comes naturally: When you’re defeated, you slump a little bit; when you’re in charge, you’re chest-forward.
There are so many moments where all of these feelings and Alex and Marty’s struggles just have to be written on their faces, too, though. What does it take for you to get into the right headspace for that?
Bateman: All the hard work is really done at the script level, and then you really just have to not screw that up with some expression or body language that is completely contrary. They basically create this beautiful box for us to fit in — and then working with the directors and other actors who are allergic to false moments is really helpful because you’re only as good as the taste you’re surrounded with.
Aniston: Mimi [Leder, executive producer and director] loves to have the camera sit there, and push in and push in and push in, and you have to just ignore the camera and play the beat — you just relive it. It’s hard to explain any kind of prep for it except it’s just there; you’re living in the moment of the scene. I try to be, as much as I can be, not aware that there is a camera there at all.
How do you know when you’ve nailed it?
Aniston: For me it’s instinctive. I trust about two or three people 100% [where] if I get a look I will do it again or I know we’re good. And then I’ll have no problems walking away if everybody’s happy.
Bateman: There’s an internal smell check. It just stinks when it’s not right; you can sense it. And Jen, I’ve seen you do this when we’ve worked together — you just self cut. If you’re doing something that just sucks, the last thing you want to do is give the editor or director a complete take of what sucks, so you just stop. And if you’re brave enough to watch yourself, it’s a great learning tool. There are times when I’ll think I’m doing well but it’s just terrible, so whatever that feeling was I’ve given myself a false positive and I have to reassess what that feeling is.
Do you actively look for or ask the writers for moments where you can infuse comedy, given your backgrounds, or simply just to let your characters breathe?
Aniston: No. That’s the gift: Our writers just know. I don’t have to say much to them. I’m lucky, in that I can just show up and read the material and go on this roller coaster of emotions that they created.
Bateman: I usually have a global conversation with Chris [Mundy, showrunner] before we start the season about what the whole seasonal arc is going to be, and I’m just basically listening for things that we should potentially not do because it is something that is broken or a problem or a mistake or wrong. In the first season there was something that he wanted my character to do that I thought might cede some moral and ethical ground that I thought was important for [Marty] to hold onto since there was some infidelity in the first episode. But I think that’s the only time I’ve ever said, “I don’t think we should do that.” Otherwise I’m just listening as a fan to what his plans are. I don’t pretend to know anything when it comes to writing; my job is always after once the script is done.
As executive producers on these shows, in addition to starring in them, arguably you could ask for more specific things for your characters. By separating the two parts of your jobs, what do you feel acting gives you that producing doesn’t and vice versa?
Aniston: Acting is where I lose control and then producing is where I get to pay attention to the details. But I’m also a multitasker, whether it’s looking at the day — the shoot order — and knowing, “This is going to take this amount of time” or “If we swap this scene we’re going to get that faster.” We have a great group of producers so I can slip into the character and lose control and I know it’s all covered.
Bateman: Yeah really the same things as what Jen said. The acting is a solitary thing — yes, you are working with other actors and you’re kind of in a dance with members of the crew, but you can be selfish with your efforts. There’s a lot of internal stuff going on with that and there’s a lot of joy in that. A weird analogy would be, the joy you would get painting something — there’s really only something you’re communicating with yourself as you’re painting and then eventually you show it to somebody and they see the final product. With producing there’s a real-time contribution and alchemy and teamwork going on, almost by definition of what that job is. Producing is almost impossible in a silo; it’s a much more outward effort, as opposed to acting being inward.
What piece of scene work were you most proud of this season?
Bateman: The thing that pops to my mind is the long six or seven page scene that Laura Linney and I had where we’re in couples therapy. It’s this long argument we have, just the two of us — and you see scenes like that in plays when people have long conversations, just hitting the ball back and forth, back and forth. And to make another terrible analogy, like tennis, there needs to be some synergy between the two people playing to present an enjoyable match to watch. And Laura is so skilled in what she does that it doesn’t take a whole lot of rehearsal or conversation before, during or after to find the chemistry, to find the rhythm that is going to create something satisfying for the audience; she just has this great metronome inside her knowing when to ramp up the speed and when to come down and let that little bit process and then come on the attack again. I’m just really proud of our ability as a cast and this one situation in particular with Laura where there’s a lot that can be done that’s unsaid. Oftentimes that’s a bit casting hurdle to jump over — to make sure you get a bunch of people that share the same sensibility and creative goals.
Aniston: Well played.
Bateman: Can I say something about you? That scene you have with Reese [Witherspoon] in the first episode where you’re doing the interview, as an audience you’re waiting for the two co-leads of the show to finally meet up and I could feel the pressure as a viewer what you two actors must have been feeling about, “Well everyone’s going to be watching this scene, what kind of chemistry we’ll have, the dynamic between the two characters, who’s going to alpha, who’s going to beta?” And then of course to honor what all the dialogue is. And you guys just played so nice together and took turns from alpha and beta and being strong yet vulnerable. I could see the two human beings being as high quality as they both are but also the acting being high quality as well.
Aniston: Thank you. I do say that was such a fun scene to play because there was so much underneath — everything you’re saying. Everything above the water and everything below was so much fun and quite a dance, and complicated! And it’s funny how with those scenes, when I know they’re coming, I’m just like, “Oh god!” The anxiety.
Bateman: Yeah. If you can remember the days of auditioning when you prepare and try and you’ve got it all worked out and you think, “If I could just be in control of my nerves enough to do what I rehearsed, I don’t care whether I get the job or not. I just want to make sure that I can execute and not get distracted by the weight of the situation.” Any scenes like that, there are so many things that can knock you off your center of your basic job of not being full of s—, and it’s hard to compartmentalize all of that stuff. You can’t just turn off and not be human. You’re feeling pressure and insecurity, and at the same time you might be playing a scene where your character’s supposed to be confident as hell.
Aniston: Exactly, that’s so true. There was also one other scene that I loved — it was a scene with my [on-screen] daughter at her dorm. Earlier in the episode we’d broken the news that [my husband and I] were going to get divorced and she feels very betrayed by us. [Alex] goes to visit her and tries to win her over with pizza, and we just see her lose it on her kid — which I thought was just a brilliantly written scene by Kerry [Ehrin, showrunner]. And also, it was just a shout out to every single mother in the world. I felt like I was speaking for all the mamas out there. It was like I just found my mom — just channeled Nancy [Dow] for a second there.
The pieces you are pointing to focus on shifting power dynamics at a micro, between characters levels, but the shows also explore a broader view of the complications and corruption that characters experience with such shifts. What is most interesting to you about those themes?
Aniston: I just think there is no better time in the world than to be telling these stories. All of this power — abuse of power — and human ills are being exposed: racism, sexism, agism, all of the isms. It’s also really interesting to play a woman who is in a powerful position and show the power struggles between men and women, and women and women. It’s happening and it’s a perfect time to be exploring that because the jig is up, we’re taking that down.
Bateman: On “Ozark” there’s some good evergreen thematics, being domestic strife and the pursuit of the American Dream and cutting corners and temptation and all of that. But there is a more topical one that we don’t try to get too didactic about — we try to sheaf it with some killings every once in awhile or a bag of money here and there — but it’s this awakening that the city folk have had to have with the way in which they perceive the, in quotes, country folk. They aren’t the people that you fly over — they are this country as well and one needs to reckon with that because they have a very valid voice and a very valid set of issues that may be somewhat dissimilar at times but we’re all in this together. So when Marty Byrde and his family came down from Chicago, to the lake of the Ozarks and they swaggered in there thinking they were going to handle everything, they [got] a real rude awakening.
Jason you won the directing Emmy last year for “Ozark” and Jen, you’ve directed but not “The Morning Show” yet. How are you both feeling about helming episodes next season?
Aniston: That is in my future, for sure. I’m excited about it, but I don’t think it will be happening in Season 2. If there is a Season 3, that’s when it will definitely be.
Bateman: I decided not to direct this year because of all of the complications that we may have to deal with as far as the COVID stuff and guidelines. I just felt like it would be most responsible to leave the directing to someone whose entire job is directing, in the event we have to pivot for certain things. And plus, it might leave me more exposed to get COVID, and if one of the actors gets it we have to go home for weeks. So I very reluctantly let everybody know for the first time I’m not going to do.
Aniston: That’s so disappointing!
Bateman: I’m kind of bummed, but I put on my producer hat and there was no way I could let me do it.
Aniston: And you can always backseat direct, you know that!
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