America’s most relatable celebrity mom, Jennifer Garner, has just made an unremarkable solo entrance at her favorite watering hole, Tavern, where the actress recently shared an anniversary dinner with her husband, Ben Affleck.
She waves from the hostess stand, slides into her seat and orders a skim latte. Her brown eyes aren’t glazed, but they should be: Baby Samuel, 5 months, issued a 3 a.m. wake-up call last night. “I’m seven hours into my day, but it’s looking up,” she says in her characteristically upbeat tone.
Minutes later, Cougar Town co-creator Bill Lawrence strolls in with her keys, joking that parking cars is his new VIP service. Before her no-fuss arrival, Garner had been attempting to park on the street, with the latest swarm of paparazzi informing her that it was street-cleaning day. Lawrence gallantly offered to re-park her car, relieving Garner, momentarily, of the flashing cameras.
“One of my first early jobs, I did a tiny role on (Lawrence’s) Spin City,” Garner says. “I worked with Stephen Colbert, and I ended up babysitting for him — he had an even smaller role.” This is a slice of the odd life of Garner, who, by all accounts, is the most “normal” movie star you’ll ever share a fruit plate with.
In The Odd Life ofTimothy Green, out Wednesday, she plays Cindy Green, one half of a childless couple who has run out of ways to conceive. At wit’s end, she and her husband, Jim (Joel Edgerton), split a bottle of wine and dream up attributes (“Picasso with a pencil”) of the perfect child they’ll never have. Overnight, the Greens are magically gifted with 10-year-old Timothy (CJ Adams), who embodies all of their handwritten notes.
The magic sprinkled over breakfast today is a result of Garner’s resplendent candor. Makeup-free, Garner, 40, credits her cute black dress to a stop at her longtime stylist’s, Rachel Zoe. She smiles wryly at the mention of her much-touted relatability quotient.
“It’s because I always look like I’m wearing the first thing I could find, which is the truth,” she says. “I don’t understand how you can make breakfast, feed a baby, get hair braided, get a lunch put together and get an outfit on. And I don’t have that gift anyway, to just put something on and have it look good. I just wasn’t born that way.”
Garner’s toughest critics are of the pint-size variety. “My kids have a lot to say about the appearance of how I look naked,” Garner says with a laugh, describing the three to four workouts she has been squeezing in with a trainer a week to lose her last 5 pregnancy pounds. In past pregnancies, “I’ve always kind of eaten what I wanted and gained 40 pounds,” she says. “And it’s a bummer to gain that much weight and then (have to lose it). But this time, I didn’t want to gain that much weight, so I was really super-careful. And I gained 60.” She shrugs and smiles, the universal what can you do?
“Jen’s just such a regular girl,” says Edgerton, extolling her “kindness” and “uncomplicatedness.”
“Everything you feel about her on-screen in this movie or in Juno… that’s just her nature.”
Says director Peter Hedges (Dan in Real Life): “I’ve never met an actor who cares more about each member of the crew, who’s more thoughtful in the gifts she gives.” He wanted to instill the journey of being a parent in the film, which warns to be careful what you wish for. In Timothy Green, Hedges says, Garner is “Lucille Ball-funny, but then she comes around and breaks your heart.”
As a new parent to Timothy, who arrives under a cloak of E.T.-like magic, curiously caked in garden dirt with green leaves sprouting from his ankles, Garner’s character becomes a helicopter mom, smothering and worrying constantly. “She’s willing to go to those places that are certainly unflattering and extreme,” Hedges says.
Garner recognized the universality in Cindy Green and fought to play her. “I also floundered so much in the beginning,” she says, recalling watching her and Affleck’s lives change with the birth of their first daughter, Violet, now 6, and “falling in love again” with Seraphina, now 3.
“Now,” she says, sharing a photo of her chubby-cheeked, blue-eyed baby boy, “I just have crazy, crazy baby love.” Adding a boy to the family, so far, hasn’t changed much, Garner says. “My husband says that I’m different with him, but I think I’ve always been crazy about babies. But he thinks that. What does he know?” she jokes.
Suddenly, Affleck calls and Garner apologizes as she answers; he’s flying from shooting Runner, Runner in Puerto Rico. “Hi, sweetie,” she says, learning he’ll be home for dinner. “The girls are going to lose their minds,” she says to him.
Cooking with Ben and Jen
At the Affleck-Garner house, “something is in the oven or about to come out of the oven,” Hedges says. “You just kind of don’t want to leave.”
“When I first met her, I went to her house in L.A., and she was experimenting with making roast chicken,” says Jim Field Smith, who directs her in Butter, an indie film due this fall. “And she had made, like, five different types of chicken using different recipes and insisted that I try a little piece of all of them.”
(“As it happened, they were all perfect,” he quips.)
Garner and Affleck, 39, have a his-and-hers October in store; Butter, Garner’s off-center comedy about an acid-tongued butter carver’s wife, will be released a week before Affleck’s newest directorial effort, Argo. The couple regularly screens the other’s work. “I’ve seen (Argo) 15 times,” Garner says. “Every cut.”
Married seven years, both have “gotten better at it,” she says. “It’s really fun. I probably am up in his grill less about stuff. I don’t think I’m a particularly controlling person, but I probably work less to make things fit a mold in my head. And he exceeds my expectations anyway.”
What lies outside their Brentwood gates, however, is a study in the darker side of fame.
Garner’s everyday activities are, like many Hollywood moms’, excessively photographed. In her case, it’s “every day,” from 7 a.m. until bedtime, she says cautiously. Celebrities complaining about paparazzi is a tricky business, and not something she likes to “give energy to.” In her world, nannies at the park act as tipsters. Garner shares a photo showing 14 photographers pressed sardine-like against a pottery shop’s glass storefront, a row of lenses aimed straight at her.
Outwardly, she keeps calm, smiling, she says, for her children. “So inside, I rage, and outside, I go through it. I mean, life is good. I cannot complain. I would give anything for my kids not to be exposed, not to have to deal with this.” At this, her eyes water, but she steadies herself. “It’s just constantly a choice. Is it better for them to get (photographed) in the parking lot of this place but for me to be with them? It’s just something that I try my best to navigate.”
Leaving L.A. could help, “but it’s complicated,” Garner says. “Then we would be separated so much more.”
Says Edgerton: “When she says that family and being a mum is more important than being a movie star, she really means it. I know that the paparazzi are a big concern to her. … She’s very concerned about protecting her kids. She handles it exceptionally well considering that they go as far as trying to provoke her.”
A choosy working mom
If only she could call upon Butter’s devilishly mannered Laura Pickler, whose spiteful verbiage is delivered with relish by Garner. “Butter is kind of the other side of my personality,” says Garner, who produced the R-rated comedy that features Hugh Jackman as her lover, Olivia Wilde as a stripper and Ty Burrell as her philandering husband. “Like, The Odd Life of Timothy Green is me, it’s the nice side of me, and Butter is the naughty side of me.” She raises an eyebrow and grins. “But it’s not me, obviously, because she’s a horrible person, but I love that she’s horrible. It’s so much fun.”
It has been tough for Garner to decide on a next role. “I definitely get pickier with every baby,” she says. “But I do still want to work.” And Affleck is “really pro-me working. I think he thinks I’d go crazy if I didn’t, which is probably true.”
Coffee drunk, toast eaten, Garner stops on her way out to chat with fellow mom Reese Witherspoon, who’s dining nearby. Outside, cameras wait.
But for Garner, Timothy Green was worth the trip. “I feel an evangelical need to let people know that they have to see this film. This movie is for people who don’t leave the house very often, but this is so worth their while. I get it. I don’t leave the house very often, but I would for this.”