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Jennifer Aniston on the 'honor' of starring in Iraq War drama The Yellow Birds

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Jennifer Aniston will soon be seen showing off her dramatic chops once again, in Alexandre Moors’ Iraq War drama The Yellow Birds. The film will make its debut at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, and EW caught up with Aniston ahead of its premiere.

“War movies aren’t usually my thing; I find them very hard to watch,” Aniston says. “[But] the way this script read, and the vision that Alex had — it was really connecting into the humanity of the soldiers; the parents that are left behind waiting, counting the minutes; the loss of innocence.”

Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan play American soldiers in Iraq — only one of whom returns home. Aniston plays the mother of Sheridan’s character, who becomes distraught after his fate is revealed.

“I already had an extreme amount of respect and gratitude and awe of anyone who would go and fight war, the men and women that are the heroes,” Aniston tells EW, “but then to actually have immersed ourselves in this story, and to really have to connect [to] some reality of what these innocent men and women are faced with — it’s unfathomable, it really is.”

Aniston is also an executive producer on the project, which was first brought to her attention by Cinelou Films’ Marc Canton and Courtney Solomon, who previously produced Daniel Barnz’s Cake, of which Aniston was also star and executive producer. Canton and Solomon acquired the rights to Kevin Powers’ novel, which was adapted for the screen by David Lowery and R.F.I. Porto, during that film’s production. “For the whole shoot, they kept talking about this movie,” Aniston recalls. “And when they got it, not too long after that, they approached Kristin [Hahn, Aniston’s producing partner] and me again and said, ‘Would you guys want to come on board, and Jen, would you play this part of one of the two mothers?’ and we both looked at each other and said, ‘Gladly. Absolutely.’”

Aniston has been producing more in recent years and finds the role to be especially gratifying. “It’s just nice to be a part of the building and the weaving of the fabric of a film,” she says. “I’ve loved being a part of finding a script, finding the book, finding the team, surrounding it with all the great creatives that are going to make it into a film.” Key to the success of The Yellow Birds is its buzzy young stars, Ehrenreich (also known as the young Han Solo) and Sheridan (who will star in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One). Being on the set with the two actors, Aniston says, felt “like watching a young De Niro.”

Sundance Institute

“It really did feel like you were watching these young kids on the brink of an explosion of career,” she says. “They went through hell and high water to get through these parts, and they’re absolutely breathtaking in them. You only can imagine that these young guys have that much gravitas in their souls to portray these parts.”

For her own part, Aniston says it was an “honor” to play this role and to “try to scratch the surface of these mothers and what they have to go through and the sacrifices that they also make.” And while Aniston has consistently impressed critics and audiences with her dramatic roles — from her Spirit Award-nominated performance way back in 2002’s The Good Girl to her Golden Globe- and SAG-nominated turn in 2014’s Cake — she is, of course, best known as a comedic actress, a Friend and a Horrible Boss.

“I mean, as actors, to be funny, you have to be able to be sad. All of the emotions are in us,” Aniston says. “I’ve always sort of had it in me, it’s just being able to have the opportunities to kind of explore more of these roles. It’s an industry where you’ve got to show it; otherwise, they don’t know that you can do it, even if you can. So it’s sort of a catch-22: It’s like, they won’t hire you because you haven’t done it, but then if you haven’t done it, how do you get hired [in the first place]?”

But that doesn’t mean she’ll be abandoning her funny movies. “Look, here’s the truth: I love comedy. It’s something that makes me happy, it brings me joy, it brings people joy. We live in a pretty dark world as it is,” she says. “I’d rather laugh all day than cry all day, but we’ve got it all in us.”

The Yellow Birds is of the crying-all-day variety, but Aniston is fiercely proud of it. “It’s like a beautiful portrait of a film,” she says. “It’s hard, but it’s beautiful.”

The Yellow Birds premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 21.