Jennifer Aniston and Quinta Brunson on Saying ‘F— It,’ No Social Media Policies at Work and Why ‘Friends’ Is Still ‘One of the Best Shows on TV’

Quinta Brunson and Jennifer Aniston
Photographs By Mary Ellen Matthews

During the third seasons of their respective series, “Abbott Elementary” and “The Morning Show,” Quinta Brunson’s Janine Teagues and Jennifer Aniston’s Alex Levy both overcame significant challenges. Janine moved from teaching at Abbott to working at the Philadelphia school district, where she tried to effect systemic change. “I’m excited for how much she’s grown in this time,” Brunson, the Emmy winner and creator of “Abbott Elementary,” tells Aniston. “And now she’s back at Abbott, but she’s there with a newfound understanding of who she is.”

Meanwhile, Alex found herself enmeshed professionally and personally with the diabolical tech billionaire Paul Marks (Jon Hamm), who wanted to buy and then dismantle UBA, the TV network where Alex is a star anchor. But after finding out what he was really up to, Alex exposed Paul, thwarting the sale. Their budding romance went into the toilet, along with his purchase of UBA.

There’s a sweetness to Aniston and Brunson’s mutual admiration. “Abbott Elementary” has found inspiration in “Friends” — especially in Janine’s “will-they-won’t- they” dynamic with fellow teacher Gregory (Tyler James Williams), but also in its comedic rhythms too.

Mary Ellen Matthews for Variety

QUINTA BRUNSON: Hi, my comedy queen!

JENNIFER ANISTON: Oh, you have taken the title, my darling.

BRUNSON: But we are here to talk about us, and your dramatic performances.

ANISTON: How’d that happen?

BRUNSON: Because I think when you’re a comedy legend, I do think that you transfer over to drama very well, which you do as Alex in “The Morning Show.”

ANISTON: She’s pretty fun to play.

BRUNSON: She suffers no fools. And you got to make out with Jon Hamm.

ANISTON: Jon Hamm, yes! That big, tall drink of water.

BRUNSON: Big, tall fella. You save the company as Alex, and everyone wants to tear you down. What was the most exciting thing for you?

ANISTON: Boy, there was a lot. Getting to work with Jon, because we’ve been friends for so many years. It was exciting to explore that side of Alex in that more feminine, romantic world. Also, there was a sense of kind of like, fuck it. Am I allowed to say that?


ANISTON: Oh! Since the end of Season 2 — COVID — she had a near-death experience. And she was coming out of that world like, “Eff it, I’m going to go live a little bit and not be so perfectly coiffed Alex.” And here she is, falling for this man who comes into the company, and of course, everyone’s like, “What is this guy all about?” It brought a lot of stuff up for each character: What do they stand for, morally? You’re a female and you’re falling for this person, and then all of a sudden you’re like, “I’m a journalist and my journalistic integrity is at play here.”

BRUNSON: I liked watching that. One of my favorite moments with you and Jon Hamm was at Coney Island, and this Coney Island worker berates Alex, and you just take it. And you have to explain to Paul — a man and a billionaire man — because he’s like, “You just take this?” And you’re like, “Yeah, I do.” I don’t know, something in me, the Quinta Brunson that I am in my life, really related to that.

Mary Ellen Matthews for Variety

ANISTON: What we have to take. And you just sort of swallow it. The instinct of a man — chivalry is not dead — to defend a woman who’s standing next to him, and it’s like, “Don’t waste your time.”

BRUNSON: Just don’t waste your time. And your character knowing that that Coney Island worker was carrying so much that had nothing to do with you, it was just a moment that I guess … I felt seen. I don’t feel seen that often, but I felt very seen by that.

ANISTON: Coney Island, hard place to shoot. Have you been there in a while?

BRUNSON: I’ve never been there in my life, unfortunately. I get to film indoors. We call ourselves house cats because we very rarely leave our lot.

ANISTON: At Warner Bros., yeah?

BRUNSON: Yeah, at Warner Bros. And my school facade is right across from the “Friends” couch, so that’s just a really nice thing that we get to see and remind us why we love comedy so much.

ANISTON: I do miss it. Watching your show, I feel so comforted. There’s something about it that just feels safe and cozy.

BRUNSON: I just want you to know, I learned about the beauty of an ensemble through watching “Friends.”

ANISTON: Well, you just gave me goose bumps.

BRUNSON: You know!

ANISTON: You really do all seem to have a really beautiful relationship and chemistry — it’s just perfection. Did you want to do a live audience?

BRUNSON: No. I’m not a multi-cam girl. I think the rhythm of multi-cams has changed so much since you did it. And studying your show, I think what made it so stand out was you found a rhythm — it was so quick.

ANISTON: Lisa Kudrow, by the way, hated when the audience laughed.

BRUNSON: She did?!

ANISTON: She’d be like, “I’m not done! It’s not that funny!”

BRUNSON: You guys operated like a play. To me, those are the best multi-cams — when you just feel like you’re watching a play, and your laughter isn’t interrupting the flow of the series. But who knows? Maybe one day I’ll do a multi-cam.

ANISTON: I think you and I could do one together — hello? — because it was a pretty nice experience, and we can bring it back to whatever maybe we want. When you started the casting process of “Abbott Elementary,” was that something that you couldn’t wait to do?

Mary Ellen Matthews for Variety

BRUNSON: I started with Tyler James Williams, who’s my co-star. I had worked with him previously, and I just knew we had a good chemistry and a good rhythm. I know that you pretty much mastered the “will-they-won’t-they.”

ANISTON: Right, right. I was thinking, did you kind of have previous sitcom characters like that, other than Ross and Rachel, that inspired you?

BRUNSON: I would definitely say “Cheers.” But I don’t know if Sam and Diane were as funny as you guys. You two are funny on your own. And I think that’s what was so inspiring to me, that you really stood on your own as a comedic character. And as I’ve berated you with compliments in the past: You’re just so funny. And then David Schwimmer is his own funny entity. And I thought that’s what was most important for this ensemble comedy. We have no real straight man in our show.

ANISTON: Was there one character that was tough to fill?

BRUNSON: Sheryl Lee Ralph didn’t know she was funny, but she made me laugh, which was enough for me. She’s so funny. And then Lisa Ann Walter, who you’ve worked with in “Bruce Almighty.” That was my depression movie, by the way, when I was really depressed and I couldn’t change the channel because I was so depressed. I just had a DVD of “Bruce Almighty” that I watched on repeat while I smoked out of my bong.

ANISTON: I’ve just been shoved down your throat for really a long time.

BRUNSON: What about on your show? Because you do casting, too, and you’re stacked. I was watching this season — like Tig Notaro?

ANISTON: That’s the fun part of being involved and having such a glorious team of producers. So the casting process is just sort of a fun “What’s your dream idea?,” right? So Jon was our dream for Paul, and Tig was our dream for — I’m going to forget the character she plays because I have no memory of the character’s name — Amanda!

BRUNSON: Do you come in with ideas as a producer of what you want for Alex, or what you want for Bradley, or any of the characters?

ANISTON: At the top of the season, usually months before, Charlotte Stoudt, our head writer-showrunner, will give us the idea of the arc, the big picture, the theme. “Who can you trust?” was last year’s theme. And then we’ll digest the big picture, and then we’ll come in and ask some questions and give some ideas and suggestions.

BRUNSON: What they do isn’t easy. I thought the flashback to Jan. 6 was a smart idea to stay current but also be present in the new season. I thought that was really cool.

ANISTON: It’s tough. That was tough for Reese. Scary.

BRUNSON: What was that set?

ANISTON: It was somewhere downtown.

BRUNSON: That looked like the damn Capitol. It’s Apple — I thought you guys paid the president.

ANISTON: You would think. Did you hear that, Apple?

BRUNSON: Can I ask a question I’ve wanted to ask you my whole life?


BRUNSON: Your subtlety as a comedic actress and dramatic actress is something that I think the girls — the gworls, if you will — have tried to emulate for a long time. I feel like you’ve always been so subtle. And so is that just from your birth, or is that something you learned how to do?

ANISTON: The comedy that I really respond to is comedy that is coming out of the truth of a situation where it’s not sort of showy and hitting the joke or hitting that punchline. Jim Burrows, who was our director for the first half of the first season of “Friends,” he really set a tone for us. He wouldn’t even watch the actors. He would have his hands behind his back, head down. He would just pace back and forth and listen to the rhythms.

BRUNSON: Yes. That’s what I like to do.

ANISTON: Jimmy was always about “I need you to take it down. Let’s get to the truth of this. We’re just telling a story.” So that’s what I’m drawn to.

BRUNSON: “Friends” is turning 30.

ANISTON: And I’m turning 30.

BRUNSON: Isn’t that wild? When you were a baby on that show, you were so advanced. Your fine motor skills were insane. It continues to be one of the best shows on television. How does it feel?

ANISTON: It’s so strange to even think that it’s 30 years old. Because I remember the day that it was going to premiere on television, on NBC: Matthew Perry and I were having lunch somewhere, and we knew Lisa was getting her hair colored. So we ran into the hair salon, and I snuck up — she was in the sink — and I took the nozzle from the guy that was supposed to be doing it and just started washing her hair. It definitely flew out of control, and that was unfortunate. But the excitement we had, it feels like yesterday.

The fact that it’s had this long, wonderful life and it still means a lot to people is one of the greatest gifts I think all five of us — all six of us — we never could imagine. And we see each other. I talked on FaceTime with Court last night for an hour, and Lisa and the boys, and we just have a really — it’s a family forever.

BRUNSON: Being a part of an ensemble like that — I’m part of one now only three years, and those people, they’re family. I can’t even imagine, because that was the ’90s, which is probably different.

ANISTON: It was in the ’90s and 2000s, and we had a luxury of there not being social media or the internet, so we were so isolated and protected. You weren’t faced with what people are commenting and ripping you apart or whatever. It was really an innocent time, where we could roam about the world a lot easier. But again, there weren’t phones. It’s not like hundreds of screens telling you what it is.

BRUNSON: I wish we could go back.

ANISTON: Well, we can. Time machine! We’ll build one.

BRUNSON: I long for the days. I’m like, Man, I wish I could have been a showrunner, an actor, back then, when it wasn’t “We’re a part of your thing, and we know your handle.” It’s just jarring. I had a strict “no social media” policy for the first season, and I said, “I don’t care what social media is asking us to do. We have to do what we, the writers, want to do. We know these characters. This is our world.”

ANISTON: That’s a beautiful boundary. Because otherwise you’ll lose your original creation. It’s a success because of you and you alone — that brainchild that came out of your smart, beautiful head.

BRUNSON: Thank you, Jennifer Aniston. This has been the dream of my life, as you can tell. I just admire you. I’m so excited for what you do next, and I think you’re a really, really lovely person.

ANISTON: Oh, bless, so are you, honey. And while we’re here, I’m going to put my hat in the ring like all the other actors do, because if Bradley Cooper can do it … If you find a moment on “Abbott” that you can see for this one, I’d love to come play with you.


Production Design: Keith Raywood

From Variety US