Unlike most of us, Jennifer Garner does not get road rage. Unlike most of us, she does not blow a gasket, scream at her GPS, or cut off other drivers when she’s lost on the streets without a clue as to where to turn. No, when she veers off course, which, she notes, is an all-too-frequent occurrence, she often actually finds peace in those moments and may even stop to notice a gorgeous tree. Really. Garner has her mother to thank for her wonderfully well-adjusted perspective. “She is a comfy, smart, wise lady,” Garner says of her mother, who imparted her motto, “Happiness is your responsibility,” to Garner and her two sisters during their upbringing in West Virginia. Since then, happiness — and the decision to seize it — is something Garner just hasn’t been able to shake, even during those times when she’s driven down the wrong road in life.
“You can make choices,” she says. “And a big thing that my mom has always been a believer in — I know it’s a total cliché — is finding happiness in the smell of bread baking or in taking in a sunset or in a beautiful tree. When I was a kid and we were carpooling, I’d be in the backseat with my friend, and my mom would stop the car and say, ‘We are not moving until you look at that tree!’ At the time, I was like, ‘Okay, all right.’ But I did it.” She laughs that trademark Garner giggle and adds, “Now I never know where I am. I’m always lost. But I also always see a really pretty tree.”
These days, whether by choice or by circumstance, Garner has plenty to be happy about. In January, she and her husband, Ben Affleck, expanded their family, which already included three-year-old Violet, welcoming their second daughter, Seraphina. The switch from being a family of three to being a family of four has been an easier transition than Garner expected. “You just have to stay in constant motion and not try to fit anything else in,” she offers. Despite their high-wattage status, she and Affleck are often photographed living their lives as normally as possible: retrieving Violet from preschool, grabbing fresh vegetables from their local farmers market, making a dressed-down Starbucks run, and engaging in all sorts of other gratifying family outings a noncelebrity family would also enjoy. Garner has found satisfaction not only in her home life but also in her professional career, where she’s in high demand after her recent successes on the big screen (Juno) and onstage (Broadway’s Cyrano de Bergerac). In fact, America’s most relatable sweetheart is back in theaters this month, costarring alongside Matthew McConaughey in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, a crowd-pleaser of a film that deals with the nagging, universal question, what if?
“It works on every level that a romantic comedy should work on,” Garner says of the film. “And Matthew is just so good. He grabs hold of every scene.” McConaughey plays Connor Mead, a playboy bachelor who may have let his childhood love get away; Garner stars as Jenny Perotti, the smart, soft, and stunning pal from his past. Over the course of a wedding weekend, Connor is granted a second glance at how things could have turned out, as he’s whisked back in time to the years when he strayed so far away from what ultimately mattered. “If you have that romantic-comedy bone in your body,” Garner says, “this one is a no-brainer.”
Looking back over the course of her life, Garner herself doesn’t see many moments that she would go back and change. Nor should she. She attended Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where she considered majoring in chemistry but took up acting instead. Upon graduation, she toiled in New York, working as a hostess at Isabella’s restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side before landing an understudy gig with Broadway’s A Month in the Country. Soon after that, she made her way to Los Angeles, where she found limited success on the much-hyped but ultimately short-lived series Significant Others and Time of Your Life. It was a guest role on J.J. Abrams’s Felicity that became the game changer for her. In 2001, Abrams gave Garner the lead role on his then-new series, Alias. Viewers flipped for her “regular gal by day, hip spy chick by night” performance. Men wanted to date her; women wanted to be her. A star was born.
Yet while her professional life soared, her personal life plummeted. First, there was her very public divorce from then-husband Scott Foley, which was followed by a failed romance with Alias costar Michael Vartan. But keeping in line with her mother’s motto, Garner allowed herself another shot at happiness. She dusted herself off, seized the reins of her life, and grew from the experiences. She told InStyle magazine several years later, “Now I’m much more willing to see myself as human and flawed, and accept someone.”
Garner acknowledges that her successes (and shortcomings) have made her the person she is today. And while the life she’s living now — replete with fame and the challenges that celebrity can bring — may not be the one she had imagined for herself, she couldn’t be more grateful for the hand she’s been dealt. “I guess that I never anticipated living in California or doing what I do for a living on this scale,” she says. “Yeah, there are what-ifs, but the funny thing is that I don’t see my life being that different in any permutation. I still see myself as doing what I do and living the way that I live. I still, you know, do the dishes. It’s less glamorous than it seems.”
Garner relishes her role as mother to her daughters and considers herself lucky that her line of work allows for plenty of flexibility — she can pass on movies she doesn’t feel passionate about or develop a project entirely on her own. She recently founded her own production company, Vandalia Films, which has given her more control over what films she tackles and has allowed her to tap her inner strengths. “With producing, I’ve really liked learning to trust my own voice,” she says. “I do have an opinion, and I feel like that has bled over into my acting work more, where I feel more confident speaking my mind and feeling like I have something to offer.”
She’s also learning to trust that same voice to guide her through the land mines that can arise with raising two young kids while still nurturing her own needs and desires. Like many working moms, Garner struggles with balancing her home life and career. “I feel like a working mom who has the tug of, when I’m working, feeling like, is this selfish? But then I think, ‘I have the right to make a living,’ “ she says. “I don’t know. I’ve been home now for a long time, and I feel the tug of work, and then as soon as somebody says, ‘You have a day of press,’ I’m like, ‘What? Are you crazy? I’m with my kids!’ But it’s a good tug, and it’s worth struggling through. It’s just my heartstrings being pulled.”
Her compromise is to work less and to travel only when necessary. Gone are her grueling 100-hour weeks from her Alias days, and when she’s away from her children, it’s for as little time as possible. In fact, now that she’s planted her roots so firmly at home, the one thing she might go back and change if given the chance would be how much globe-trotting she did in years past. “I think I would have taken advantage of being able to travel more when I was younger and done a summer in India and a semester in Rome,” she says. “Travel now is always squished by the idea of my family waiting for me, so I go as fast as I can and come home as fast as I can. If I go anywhere really beautiful, I’m hardly there 12 hours.”
When Garner made the decision recently to devote more time to charity work — a choice no doubt influenced by her husband’s outspoken advocacy for the crisis in the Congo — she kept her focus close to home. She became an ambassador for the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), a nonprofit advocacy group that works to provide children with access to health care and quality educational programs. “I did a lot of research; I read a lot of books and met with people,” she recounts. “I think rural American kids are underserved. I grew up where there was so much poverty, and nobody ever talks about it. There’s illiteracy. There’s no health insurance. The CDF provides exactly what the world that I grew up in needed. I want to be a part of that for kids in our country.”
It should come as no surprise that Garner chose children as her focus, considering the natural gift for being maternal she possesses. Her close friend and Alias costar Victor Garber has said of her, “She’s probably the best mother I’ve ever witnessed.” At the moment, Garner describes her ultimate luxury as getting to spend a few moments with Seraphina alone and focus solely on her. She also savors the time she gets to spend in the kitchen, baking and cooking for her family. “Yesterday, I made ice cream for the first time since Seraphina was born,” she says. “The day before, I made banana bread.” Suddenly, it’s clear why the actress-slash-homemaker has a golden Lab named Martha Stewart, who, she notes, is also a food lover. “She’s a great kid dog, although she’ll eat food right out of their hands,” she says. “So she has to be outside during meals.”
When Garner isn’t whipping up goodies in the kitchen or spending quality time with the kids, you might find her, along with Affleck, catching a Red Sox game on TV or, when they can, live at Fenway Park. Garner happily adopted her husband’s favorite pastime when they exchanged vows. “It’s like a soap opera: You watch three or four in a row and you start to recognize patterns and characters and faces, and suddenly, you’re hooked,” she says.
But for all her resolve to embrace happiness — in her career, in her charity work, and with her husband and children — baseball might be the one area where that proves impossible for her.
“Sometimes, I’m a little more psycho about it than Ben is,” she admits. “He is pretty chill. He is always like, ‘It’s a long season.’ And that’s where I go a little crazier than he does. I hate when they’re playing sloppily. I just take it personally! And free agency? It’s just too much heartbreak for one girl.”