Courteney Cox has been famous for 25 years. Yes -- Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" video, which caused "who's-that-girl?" attention to be directed toward the blue-eyed, short-black-haired, T-shirt-and-jeans wearing Cox, made its MTV debut in July 1984.
At the time, the then-20-year-old Cox, who had spent her childhood in Mountain Brook, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham, was working at a music agency in New York and doing some modeling. Her career after that -- "Family Ties," "Ace Ventura," "Friends," "Scream" -- has made her a key part of several pivotal television shows and movies of the last quarter century. She will soon star in a new comedy, ABC's "Cougar Town." And she might make an excellent witness to the splintering of mass culture, having been a participant in such hugely popular fare, as well as the vacillations of the celebrity-industrial complex.
Except Cox has a terrible memory. Even about something extremely, um, memorable. "Did we get a million dollars an episode just for one year or two?"
She was asking the question over a recent steak dinner when the subject of the final season of "Friends" came up, during which all six lead cast members were paid exorbitant salaries.
Then, with half-feigned marvel in her voice: "Isn't that amazing? A million dollars an episode! What did I do with that money? More importantly."
Her pre-"Friends" years in Los Angeles are also somewhat hazy. "I used to go to the Cat and Fiddle," she said, trying to grasp backward in time. "Maybe I'd go to the Chateau Marmont back then -- it's much hipper now."
Her laissez-faire forgetfulness would be a shock to anyone who didn't realize she was actually acting for the 10 years she played Monica, the hilariously uptight, sometimes unhinged whippet who kept all the "Friends" in line. It's a role Cox is so closely associated with that her own personality seems to be that of a hyper-organized clean freak tweezed within an inch of her eyebrows' lives.
Cox is more complicated than that. What she does remember from the late '80s and early '90s, besides her many homes -- Cox is a serial house redoer-decorator-mover -- and a few relationships (including with Michael Keaton at his "Batman" height), is a vague feeling that she wasn't quite where she wanted to be in life. "I think before, maybe I wished I was someplace else, or, 'Oh, maybe that lucky thing will happen, and I'll get recognized in a way that someone will trust me to put me in that role,' " she said. "I don't know how I thought all of these things were going to happen without really going for stuff. I don't know whether I didn't think I deserved it or whether I was just shy. I'm not sure.
"But now I'm much more confident. And I believe that things are exactly the way they're supposed to be."
Playing a cougar
Some of those things are: a happy home life with husband David Arquette and their 5-year-old daughter, Coco. A phalanx of friends they host at small gatherings every Sunday night -- yes, yes, Jennifer Aniston is one of them. Two houses to split time between, one in Beverly Hills and one in Malibu. A production company, Coquette, that Cox and Arquette run together.
And Cox will play the lead role in "Cougar Town," a slightly dirty comedy about a recently divorced mom in Florida looking to date, which will premiere Sept. 23 at 9:30 p.m. Its tone is broad on subjects such as sex, aging and parenting, and Cox's Jules is blunt and inappropriate -- the show will likely divide critics and viewers from the title on down.
The days have been long and, particularly since she's been on a break from steady work on television since FX's ill-fated "Dirt" was canceled last year, it has been exhausting. "I don't think I've ever starred in something where I really am in every scene," she said. "I'm trying to decorate my bungalow, get my dressing room settled. I'm constantly searching for outer peace. I want my life to be calm. I want it to be organized. Because that's all I'm really searching for, I'm always chaotic."
Not that Cox wants any of this to stop, mind you. She said: "I hope this show is a huge hit and that people love it. Because I like playing this character more than any character I've ever played."
What? More than Monica? More than Gale Weathers, the tabloid reporter from the "Scream" movies? "Yeah!" she said emphatically. "This show says what I think."
Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel, the co-creators of "Cougar Town," spend a lot of time with Cox to channel her into Jules. Lawrence has known Cox since he wrote on Season 1 of "Friends" -- though he's not sure how much Cox remembers him from then. After that, he went on to start "Spin City" and "Scrubs," and they were "kind of like extras in each other's lives." He wanted to work with her on a new show when he heard she would like to return to comedy post-"Dirt." "I always thought she was a talented and funny actress," Lawrence said. "But also a cool chick. A cool broad."