Courteney Cox starred in one of television's most popular sitcoms and another that became a cult favorite. But she will be the first to tell you that, these days, people haven't exactly been clamoring to get her to do their TV shows. About five years ago, she was tapped to star in and executive produce a Fox comedy called "Charity Case" that fizzled. It was the first time she'd done a TV pilot that didn't go to series, and, she says, it made her cautious — maybe too cautious — about pursuing another.
So when she got her hands on a script for a new TV show about a woman in her 50s trying to rediscover herself, the "Friends" star, 57, picked up the phone to pitch the perfect actor for the role: Courteney Cox. The show's co-creator, Jeff Astrof, who had worked on NBC's beloved sitcom but hadn't much kept in touch with Cox, remembers the actress declaring, "It's the only thing I've ever done that has been written for me" — even though it wasn't actually written for her.
On the page, "Shining Vale's" central figure, Pat Phelps, is a former wild child and an author who gained notoriety with a bestselling romance novel. Seventeen years later, she's feeling unfulfilled: in a creative rut and struggling to complete her second novel; her marriage on the rocks since cheating on her husband with a handyman; connecting with her two teenage kids seemingly futile. In an attempt to fix things, her family moves from Brooklyn to an old house in the suburbs of Connecticut. (Greg Kinnear plays Pat's husband, Terry, and Mira Sorvino plays a ghost only Pat can see.)
The Starz series, which premieres March 6, is both a horror and a comedy in which Pat isn't quite sure whether she's depressed, possessed or both. The emotional tenor felt familiar to Cox — and pushed her as an actor in ways she hadn't explored before.
"To play someone who's going through all this emotional stuff gave me so many opportunities," Cox says. "Going through a midlife crisis — I understand that. Being at that stage in life where, we don't want to say the word 'menopause,' but that's what she's dealing with. And what else ... marriage and how it's work, man. A lot of work. And what it's like to be a mom to a teenager — that it's not easy. Some of the best acting moments of my whole career came from this show."
Facing the sweeping ocean view from her Malibu home, Cox is sitting at the dining table of her pergola-covered terrace with Lily, one of her two Cavalier King Charles spaniels, perched on her lap. As she reflects on her return to television, she's relaxed but contemplative — a change from just minutes earlier, when the more informal Cox was on display. Wearing a faded black T-shirt and black jeans, with her hair pulled into a loose ponytail, she buzzed around her kitchen to throw together a quick snack: a turkey roll-up with a delicate layer of Fritos (her favorite) curled up inside.
"Want me to make you one?" she asks. If you're one of her 12 million Instagram followers, you'll recognize the Cox you've come to know on social media.
Like other high-profile stars in the time of COVID-19, Cox has leaned into giving fans carefully tailored yet easygoing glimpses of her life and home — whether she's dancing, exercising or making her sister's recipe for artichoke dip. Even the sometimes star-studded Sunday gatherings she regularly hosts have become a staple of her online posts, with famous faces like Brandi Carlile, Ed Sheeran and Elton John assembled around the piano, with Cox tickling the keys. (A book of John's sheet music currently rests on the piano's music stand.)
"I wasn't really cooking before we had lockdown. I used to cook a long time ago, but I hadn't in so long," she says. "I started playing the piano more, I played more tennis. I've just had more time to do hobbies, so I might as well post about it.
"I wasn't on social media for years," Cox continues. "And at first it's like, how aloof do you want to be, and how private? But then, if you're gonna be on social media, you can't be that private. I decided I'm not going to worry if I am not perfect. I can show this goofy side of myself. It kind of makes me feel creative. I get to come up with ideas. I direct these little things."
Instagram is more than a creative outlet for Cox — a DM with Carlile led to Cox directing her first music video, for the singer-songwriter's single "Right on Time." Her friends say it has allowed fans to get a glimpse of the Courteney they know. And, yes, she is sometimes like the character she is best known for.
"Courteney will be the first person to tell you she's a Type A personality," says her "Scream" co-star Neve Campbell. "She's constantly sort of in business brain, in the sense of thinking about how to create things for herself and be proactive in her work and in her career."
It's why Jennifer Aniston, Cox's longtime friend and former co-star, wasn't surprised that Cox, in her most Monica-like turn to date, launched her own line of home-care products: "When is she her happiest? I would say cleaning, but she would kill me for that," Aniston says. "But I've never seen someone with a bottle of Windex and a cloth more hours out of the day. You can literally be in the middle of a conversation, and her eyes just sort of like drift away from yours. She's just like, 'I noticed a smudge.'"
Raised in Mountain Brook, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham, it was hard for Cox to fathom a career as an actor. (A summer camp stint as Anna in "The King and I" didn't change that.) She studied architecture at Mount Vernon College in Washington, D.C., before dropping out and moving to New York, where she worked at a music agency and did some modeling and the occasional commercial spot. She'd go on to land early roles in "The Love Boat" and "Ace Ventura," but what stands out about that time, she says, is that she "didn't know what kind of actor I wanted to be."
"I didn't have the confidence to stretch myself, to push myself," she says. "I didn't try for things, and that's something I really regret. I'm not a lazy person at all, but I also didn't want to put myself in a position where I felt out of my depth. ... When I was starting out, I just wanted to get a job. Now, I want to be respected. And I want to be seen as somebody who has been around for a long time and is challenging themselves ... as opposed to we know her."
Cox has been famous for nearly four decades, after all, garnering attention with her appearance in Bruce Springsteen's 1984 "Dancing in the Dark" music video and a run on "Family Ties" before her career took off with her starring role as uptight, clean-freak chef Monica Geller on "Friends," which catapulted the cast into dizzying fame. But with the megahit sitcom's continued popularity, first in syndication and then in streaming, and the longevity of the "Scream" franchise, carving out a new niche has required Cox to get creative.
Three years after "Friends" ended, she executive produced and starred in FX's two-season drama "Dirt," where she played the editor-in-chief of a glossy tabloid magazine — a role reversal for Cox, whose life often provided fodder for the supermarket checkout line. She had a longer run as divorced single mother Jules Cobb in "Cougar Town," an ABC-turned-TBS sitcom that tackled sex, aging and parenting with its cul-de-sac clan over a six-season run; she also executive produced and directed several of its episodes. And she recently executive produced three seasons of the Facebook Watch docuseries "9 Months With Courteney Cox."
But, Cox says of "Shining Vale": "It's been a while since I acted [on this scale]. This role has helped me find a new excitement in it."
That may explain why Cox isn't too concerned about escaping the shadow of her early roles anymore. The last couple of years have allowed her to return to the blockbuster properties that established her star power in the ’90s, reuniting with her fellow "Friends" cast members for a long-awaited nostalgic reunion and reprising her role as cutthroat reporter Gale Weathers in the latest installment of "Scream."
"It's like when you have a kid and you wish that you had spent more time and not [tried] to rush the baby years," Cox says of looking back on "Friends." "We went through so many things together — everything from parents dying to marriages, divorces. It was such a period where so many changes took place. The reunion was really emotional. I love these people. There's such history."
With "Scream," a re-imagining of the original that was released in January, Cox says she was "surprised" by the whole thing. "When I heard they were going to do a relaunch of 'Scream,' I thought, 'What?' I love doing them anyways, so I thought, 'Why not?' A lot of my life happened on and in the space between those movies."
Though it's built on two genres she's intimately familiar with, her role in "Shining Vale" forced her to take a new approach: To prepare, Cox worked with an acting coach, Nancy Banks, whom she connected with through Aniston. Cox credits Banks with helping her find new depth at this stage in her career, achieved through intense script analysis that Banks calls "detective work."
"There's no great tennis player that stops using a coach, if they want to stay Wimbledon-ready," Banks says. "I feel like Courteney probably was ready for this kind of task. And the tone of this show, quite frankly, is not something she has done before in this exact way. I think, for actors, it's very exciting when you can reinvest and rediscover and push oneself. And Courteney is relentless in her pursuit of improvement."
"That was a game-changer as far as reinvigorating my love for acting," Cox says. "Now, I would never do an episode or scene without running things by her or talking it through. Nancy just makes things more interesting — things that I wouldn't see it that way. And so it really brought a lot of joy to this part, for sure."
"Shining Vale" co-creator Sharon Horgan, who's become known for crafting complicated women protagonists in shows like "Divorce" and "Catastrophe," says that spark comes through onscreen, conjuring a character that Cox says felt most like herself yet transforms what we've known her to be.
"The greatest thing was how much she connected with the character," Horgan says. "And when someone really wants to play something, it's just so infectious and exciting. But we couldn't have guessed that she would have brought it to the extent that she did. It's not her. She's not playing herself in any way. It's a real transformation — and exciting, I think, for people to see her playing that kind of character."
That's because, as Aniston says, Cox has gotten bolder as she's gotten older.
"Courteney is always curious and always wanting to get out of her box," says Aniston, who was one of the handful of people Cox asked to read the "Shining Vale" script. "All of us who were on 'Friends' were sort of in a continuous break me out of this Rachel bubble or Monica bubble. But I think it's been long enough that that's happened, so I love that she's trying to scratch different itches. She wants to go deeper ... there's so much more in Courteney that hasn't been accessed."
On a Friday afternoon in Malibu, there are more pressing items on Cox's agenda than trying to put her career in perspective — like getting tonight's menu of turkey burgers and sweet potatoes figured out before a group of her friends drop by later or her 17-year-old daughter, Coco, arriving home and belting out "MOMMM!" from the other room.
But it's clear she's found — or perhaps is still finding — a certain balance, embracing the legacy of "Friends" without being constrained by it.
"I want to be remembered as Monica," she says. "But I'd also like to have something else. ... I want to make a mark not just as one character but as other characters and other successes. I have a lot more to do. I have a lot more to show."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.