‘Oh my gosh, I really sort of opened up to you,” Jennifer Garner says, suddenly sounding a little worried at the end of a long, free-ranging phone conversation.
“I don’t usually talk about this stuff, I don’t know what happened.”
I think I do.
Usually, when a performer agrees to an interview, they meet the reporter in a big bland hotel room, their publicist’s office or some half-empty restaurant. The chat may be charming — that’s part of the star’s job — but it’s still all business: Push that latest project.
But Garner, 40, is back in small-town West Virginia right now, visiting old pals. There are no publicists, no paparazzi, no traces of the movie machine at all. In fact, she even forgot she had an interview at first — she was too busy just driving around the old neighborhood.
So when she phones, after hastily getting off the road and finding a place to make a call, she’s late and apologetic.
“Actually, it’s really pretty beautiful here,” she says, after catching her breath. “I’m sitting on my best friend’s porch and there’s a mountain in the back, and just one other house a ways off. I see trees more than anything, all dappled with sunlight. There’s even … there’s a dog,” she says, breaking off. “Well, hello, fella. Where’d you come from?”
So it’s understandable when, with home all around her and a dog at her feet, Garner lets her guard down a bit and talks a little more frankly than she usually does. And before we hang up, it’s clear that she’s gotten a little nervous about what she might have revealed.
Because all she’s shown is what any fan has suspected is always there — an unfussy, unpretentious woman who’s always put her children first and has managed to keep her marriage real even in the midst of some peculiar situations.
It’s not that far from the character she plays in her new film, “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” opening Wednesday.
Cindy Green is a woman eager to become a mother — and then fiercely protective of the small boy who, somewhat miraculously, shows up on her doorstep. Garner loves what it says about parenting and family.
“The movie is so much about loving your child for who they are, and not judging them and not judging yourself, as a parent,” she says. “That was one of my favorite things about it, because it’s something I’ve learned and I’m still learning. We can be so hard on ourselves. And other people can, too — there’s so much criticism out there!”
The mother load
Every mother gets some of it, of course, their every decision second-guessed: You’re going back to work? You’re not going back to work? You’re feeding them that?
Garner — who has three children with husband Ben Affleck — confesses she gets even more of it, as sometimes people who’ve only seen a picture of her kids in a gossip magazine rush to offer parenting tips.
“Oh, I get it from strangers in elevators!” she says with a laugh. “They’ve read something about our family, or seen a picture of me taking our children to the playground, and they all have some criticism or advice. And, you know, I don’t claim to be the perfect anything! But I want to say, ‘You know, you really should be reading something else besides these magazines. Can I send you a novel? Really, there are far more interesting things to read out there!’?”
Garner’s own childhood was “pretty peaceful.” Her mother was a schoolteacher and her father worked for Union Carbide; she grew up in Charleston, W.Va.
“It was a very peaceful upbringing,” she says. “This morning, I went by my old ballet school and saw my teacher, and visited with her, and then my old locker partner from junior high came in — it’s just a very community-oriented place … But then, people have always looked out for each other here. I remember, my mom didn’t have any help, so if she needed to be somewhere after school, we’d just go down to the neighbors’ and she’d give us a snack and make sure we did our homework. There weren’t any latchkey kids.”
Garner’s parents were strict, forbidding their three daughters to wear makeup and bikinis — Garner has joked that, at times, she felt “one step away from being Amish.” But “they encouraged each of us to embrace what we loved — and I loved ballet. I couldn’t get enough of it, ever. But I never had the extension and, even at my skinniest, I just had too much of a biscuit, you know? I just didn’t have a ballerina’s body.”
Still, even if she was never going to be one of Balanchine’s pale, long-stemmed roses, Garner thought she’d still dance.
“I hoped, hoped, that maybe I’d be lucky enough to do something on Broadway, in the chorus,” she says. “I love the feeling of being on a team, rehearsing together, sharing a dressing room — I love that so much. I get teary just watching a parade — I was in a lot of parades as a kid. So making it into a chorus line, that was sort of a dream. But then I started doing more acting in college, and went from there to summer stock where you did everything — act and build sets and scrub the bathroom.”
After college, she went to New York to visit a friend — and, on an impulse, stopped by an agent’s, as well.
“I was only 22, but I realized I had a pretty good résumé for a 22-year-old,” she says. “And I remember they said, ‘Can you do a Shakespearean monologue?’ and I said, ‘Would you prefer comic or tragic?’ That was maybe a little cocky, but I’d done a lot of parts at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival and that gave me that confidence. And before I knew it, I had an agent and an understudy job at the Roundabout. It happened very fast for me.”
Work and romance
Well, it didn’t happen all that fast. Garner still had to get a waitressing job to try to make ends meet and, at first, those ends still remained pretty far apart. “I slept on a woman’s kitchen floor for nine months,” she remembers. “It took me that long to save up the money for a Realtor’s fee, so I could get my own apartment.”
Eventually, she started getting television parts, then movies; she was Ashton Kutcher’s girlfriend in “Dude, Where’s My Car.” Then, in 2001, she landed the lead role in the spy series “Alias.”
“It was seven years before I got that job and that was good, because I needed those seven years,” she says. “I never would have gotten that role in the beginning. But it was funny, getting it, I didn’t feel as if, okay, I’ve finally gotten here. When I was doing theater in a barn in Michigan, I felt I had already gotten there.”
The TV show ran for five seasons — just slightly longer than Garner’s marriage to co-star Scott Foley — and led to other opportunities. Some, like “13 Going on 30,” were huge hits (and let her show off some of those dance moves). Others, like “Daredevil” (and its spinoff, “Elektra”) were less memorable.
But “Daredevil” reintroduced her to Ben Affleck (Garner had had a tiny part in his “Pearl Harbor”); she was already legally separated from Foley, and later, after the divorce, she and Affleck began dating.
Affleck’s last celebrity romance, however, with Jennifer Lopez, had been so exhaustively covered by the tabloids, it had come close to making him a joke; the last thing he wanted was “Bennifer II.” So he suggested they opt out of the high-profile life, something that Garner — who’d already had scares from a crazy stalker — readily agreed with.
It’s something the two stars have stuck to since their 2005 marriage. Although they publicize their own films, they avoid showing up at each other’s premieres or inviting journalists into their California home. If you’ve seen pictures of their children, it’s only because photographers staked out the playground.
“I know I live a charmed, beautiful life and nobody wants to hear a celebrity whine,” Garner says. “The last thing I want to do is complain; I love what I do and I know every job comes with a downside. But boy, this one’s a doozy. … You pull out of your driveway and the paparazzi literally chase you, running red lights — I’m a really careful driver, especially with my kids in the car, but I worry they’re going to cause an accident.”
Family and films
The couple’s children are all under the age of 7; that’s meant some gaps in Affleck and Garner’s résumés, as they try to stagger work so at least one parent’s always off.
“I guess I don’t really have this enormous ambition to feed,” Garner confesses. “If I did, I probably wouldn’t have had three kids, or just taken 16 months off. I mean, it’s not like I’m not ambitious, it’s not like I’m not human. I love what I do and I’d love to do more of it. But I feel like I’ve already exceeded my own idea of what I could do, beyond my wildest dreams, every step of the way.”
Hollywood, however, doesn’t always seem to dream as big, still seeing her as that plucky “13 Going on 30” heroine; Garner tends to get a lot of rom-coms, and while she was very winning in “Catch and Release” and “The Invention of Lying,” neither film caught much attention. And asking her to singlehandedly save “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” “Valentine’s Day” or “Arthur” is expecting too much.
But even in “Arthur,” her cast-against-type performance as the avaricious fiancé was a treat. She was genuinely touching in the sleeper hit “Juno.” Later this year, the indie satire “Butter” — which she also helped produce — gives her another edgy part. There’s a lot more that she could do, if she would.
But right now, this feels right.
“Yeah, my agent says it is definitely tougher to get my attention now, for sure,” she says with a laugh. “With every kid, I get pickier. But then that means that, with every kid, I make movies that I’m more excited about. And I’m lucky the world still sends me movies, even after being away for so long. But eventually, I think I’m just going to have to pull the trigger and work a little bit more.”
Work that she still loves just as much now as she did back in summer stock, helping take the tickets and hang the lights.
“I just love the community of it, the way you all come together and pitch in on this one project,” she says. “And then, personally, as an actress, it’s just, every now and then, finding a moment where you think, ‘That was good.’ It doesn’t happen very often, at least for me! But every now and then, I have a moment where I think, ‘Yeah. Yeah, I believed that.’ And I love chasing that feeling.”