As Good As It Gets

08/15/2002 01:00AM

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 -- y ou 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 professionalism 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 Girl -- Friends 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 dead-end 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."

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