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 Cox, made its MTV debut in July 1984.
At the time, the then-20-year-old Cox, who had spent her childhood in a suburb of Birmingham, Ala., 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 now stars in a new comedy, ABC’s “Cougar Town,” which debuted Wednesday (9:30 p.m., Ch. 7).
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 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 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, 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.”
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 plays the lead role in “Cougar Town,” a slightly off-color comedy about a recently divorced mom looking to date. Its tone is broad on subjects such as sex, aging and parenting, and Cox’s Jules is blunt and inappropriate — the show probably will divide critics and viewers from the title on down.
The days have been long and, particularly because she has 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.”
Cox is 45, and on “Cougar Town” she is playing 40-ish. Does its comedic harping about age and changing, sinking bodies cause her to think about her own life? “Well, the show doesn’t make me think about aging — I’ve been thinking about aging since I’ve been aging,” Cox said with a laugh. “I can’t believe the time I spent in my 30s, even late 30s, thinking about some of the stuff I did. That was ridiculous. What a waste of time. Now I actually need to start thinking about it.”
Cox went on: “I’ve got strong opinions, and I can get short. But I’m just not that high-maintenance. So the whole world knows I had miscarriages. And yes, I’ve done in vitro however many times — three times. Yes, I’ve said that David and I go to therapy. Yes. Nothing’s too precious for me. For some reason, I don’t care.”