NEW YORK – An actress can do "ugly" in any number of ways. There's all-out hideousness, as with Charlize Theron's overweight "Monster" serial killer. There's isolated quirkiness, like Nicole Kidman's big fake nose in "The Hours."
And then there's something altogether scarier for a celebrity: ordinary, everyday plainness.
So it took a special kind of director to get Jennifer Aniston to appear onscreen makeup-less, with greasy hair and sweatpants, scrubbing away at a toilet.
"I think she was glad to not be wearing high-heeled shoes," says Nicole Holofcener, director of "Friends with Money," in which Aniston plays a thirtysomething woman whose life is going nowhere.
"Jennifer and I had a conversation about how down-and-out this particular character would look," she says. "I didn't want her to look particularly sexy, and Jen agreed. I mean, she's cleaning houses."
Aniston's character, Olivia, works as a maid and sleeps alone while her three friends -- played by Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack -- enjoy high-flying careers and happy marriages.
It's a decidedly unglamorous role, but one that Aniston has said she relished.
"I think that's how I actually see myself," she told reporters when the movie debuted at Sundance in January. "I'm from there. I've had moments of insecurity in my life. I've had moments of low self-esteem."
The "Friends" star entrusted herself completely to Holofcener, who's established herself as an incisive director of quiet films about undramatic characters -- first 1996's "Walking and Talking," which co-starred Keener and Anne Heche, and 2001's "Lovely and Amazing," which featured Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer and Keener.
"I just knew Jen could do it," says Holofcener, who found it easy to dispense with Aniston's world-famous image. "I felt that her face was right. She has a certain stillness in her face, and a vulnerable quality in her eyes."
Not only did Aniston sign on for the scrubbiest role in the movie, but she (as well as the three other lead actresses) also took a sizable pay cut, in consideration of Holofcener's limited budget.
So just what is it that gives this 46-year-old independent film director such clout with A-listers like Aniston and Oscar-caliber actresses Keener, McDormand and Cusack?
Holofcener demurs, saying she just writes what she knows and hopes for the best.
"I write from a personal place, and I base the characters on myself and people I know," she says simply. "I tell stories about real people, people I know, people I like. I don't need a lot of money and a lot of camera equipment.
"You can tell a story cheaply that, hopefully, will move people."
In this case, that story revolves around the influence of money, the last frontier in taboo subjects.
"It's so interesting -- I can talk to my friends about the details of our sex lives, but to say, 'What did you make on that last job?' would get such a startled response," says Holofcener, who's also written scripts for "Six Feet Under," "Sex and the City" and "Gilmore Girls."
"I feel like we should stop being so ashamed of whether we have money or don't. It doesn't say as much about us as we think it does," she says. "But we're all so afraid of being judged for having it or not having it."
She also explores the depths to which all of us, she says, are capable of sinking -- money or no.
"Olivia's f—-ed up. She's a mess!" says the director. "But we've all put ourselves in really degrading situations in relationships, which the maid outfit sort of personifies."
The outfit in question is a tacky French maid's costume, given to Aniston by her dimwitted personal-trainer boyfriend (Scott Caan), who insists she clean the house in it while he watches.
It's a painful scene, in the context of Olivia's bottomed-out life, and yet the director says she also had to grapple with the logistics of putting one of the world's biggest stars in a skin-baring getup.
"If she looks too sexy, then she's turning on the guy she's doing the scene with, but is she also turning on the audience? Will they just see a sexy girl in a sexy outfit? It's a fine line," says the director, who dealt with similar issues in "Lovely and Amazing," when Mortimer did a nude scene.
Aniston, for her part, was totally game -- but admitted she wasn't crazy about the outfit itself.
"I hated it. It was awful," she said at Sundance. "To put that thing on? It was itchy and cheap and terrible. The boys on set got a kick out of it, though."
The three other actresses fare better, sartorially and otherwise. But Holofcener says she made a point to use minimal makeup and hairstyling, to represent the reality of the sort of women she knows -- including fine lines and, yes, wrinkles.
"I think we all agreed that we like our faces," says Holofcener. "Of course there's a temptation to look younger, but I don't think that's going to happen with this group.
"Fran and Joan are so intelligent, I think they're aware of their natural beauty. They don't have to look like Barbie dolls."
Holofcener says she's been dismayed by the proliferation of plastic surgery -- particularly among people she's been keeping her eye on for upcoming films.
"There are actors I'd like to work with, and then they change their faces!" she says. "It's a shame, because I think I would find that very distracting."