Expectations. Parents have them for their kids – and for themselves.
For Jennifer Garner, who had her third child earlier this year, she sees the pressure of being a mom as living up to what her parents did.
“Every week I make bread for my kids,” says the actress, who stars in Disney’s “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” which opens Wednesday.
“I make them each a little man out of bread dough so they can have it fresh out of the oven and tear it apart. My mom says she only did that a few times when I was growing up, but you want to bring same warmth in your own house if you’re lucky enough to come from a house that was filled with warmth like mine.”
Written and directed by Peter Hedges, “Timothy Green” is a whimsical fantasy that’s the story of Cindy (Garner) and Jim Green (Joel Edgerton), who live in a small town where the main source of revenue – a pencil manufacturing plant – may go out of business. One evening after being told they are unable to conceive children, the couple sit around and imagine the perfect child they would have. They bury a box with a list of their wishes in their garden and later that night – after a mysterious rainfall – a 10-year-old boy (CJ Adams) appears in their house.
“Maybe I take parenting too seriously,” says Hedges, who has two teenage sons. “But it’s something I’m always thinking about.”
Hedges, the author of “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” as well as writer-director of “Pieces of April” and “Dan in Real Life,” says that when producer Ahmet Zappa (son of Frank) told him his idea for the film, stories about parenting came flowing out of Hedges. He wasn’t sure how the film would take shape when he went in to talk to Disney about doing it, but the studio had faith in him and let him go off and create the film.
“If they had told me to go away for six weeks and figure it out, I don’t think I would’ve ever done it,” says Hedges.
A fan of the work of the writer-director, Garner says she “campaigned pretty hard” for the role of Cindy. “I have no shame in that,” she says. “There aren’t that many things out there that I wanted to do this badly.”
Hedges, for his part, calls the actress as talented as she is kind, and able to move between drama and comedy effortlessly. “Jennifer is that ber-mom just by nature,” he says.
“I wanted to do it because it is so ambitious emotionally and ambitious in what it wanted to say about what’s going on in society and the recession – the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs and how that’s affecting America,” says Garner, who was raised in West Virginia. “And I love how it’s all wrapped up as a magical music box of a story.”
In “Timothy Green,” Jim and Cindy start off as typical overprotective parents but must learn how to let Timothy grow on his own.
“There is a great line that somebody told me,” says Hedges, “that when you become a parent you’re hired as their manager and at some point they fire you and you can only hope that one day they hire you as a consultant.”
Hedges identifies with a line Jim says: “I’m not going to be like my father.”
“I found that repeatedly – in big ways and small ways – I’m trying to fix my childhood through my kids,” says Hedges, who grew up in Iowa. “It was actually kind of funny when you look at it. When you think you’re better than your parents, there comes a moment when you think, `I wish I had a little bit more of their parenting skills.”‘
Garner, who is married to Ben Affleck, says the film “reminds you to live in the moment with your kids … you don’t have them forever. You have this little time with them. So just go and be with them.”
But being part of a celebrity couple in Los Angeles creates a challenge for Garner and her husband – the constant buzz of paparazzi.
“We talk about leaving L.A.,” she admits, but adds that it would be difficult because she and Affleck are involved in filmmaking and much of movie pre- and post- work is done in Hollywood. (Affleck’s latest directorial effort, “Argo,” is due out next month, while “Butter,” a film Garner produced, will be released in October.)
“The only thing that is worse than dealing with (the paparazzi) is being separated all the time,” she says. “It’s a shame that this is the way the First Amendment is being used – to follow peoples’ kids around. Because it’s not about me. It’s not about Ben. It’s about them. But you know, honestly, life is good. I keep that in my mind.”
On the flip side of that, Garner is happy to lend her celebrity to help the charity Save the Children. The actress says she was “looking for an organization that I could connect with emotionally” and had heard about a lot of marvelous nonprofits that are helping children overseas.
“I said, that sounds great but is anyone doing that in West Virginia?” She credits Mark Shriver, the vice president of the charity who helped create its early childhood education program, for recruiting her.
“I love it,” she says enthusiastically, explaining that Save the Children helps children from poor families with their educational and nutritional growth.
“Many of these kids, by the time they are 4 years old, are already a year and a half behind developmentally,” Garner says. “So it’s also impossible for them if they haven’t caught up by the third grade. This program is really effective and cost-effective.”
As the mother of two daughters – Violet, 6, and Seraphina, 3, and 6-month-old Samuel – Garner has become well-versed in kids books.
“We just read this series called `Tumtum and Nutmeg’ and my 3-year-old hung in there,” she says. “I could go back and get a Ph.D. in children’s literature, I love it so much. We go to the library and bookstores regularly. That’s one thing I can’t say no to them to, when they ask for a book.”
Hedges’ kids are 15 and 17. His younger son is an actor who is in “Moonrise Kingdom” and will be in Jason Reitman’s next film.
“I think they would like me to make cooler movies, but interestingly enough they brought friends to see `Timothy Green’ and these particular friends … loved the movie,” says the director. “I think this movie is cooler than they yet realize, and I’m hoping to live long enough that they’ll review it one day and say, `Oh, man, Dad, that was good.”‘
Asked if she was like her character, Cindy, and had expectations for her kids, Garner says she probably had a list in her head before she had her first child.
“But your children erase your memory as you go along; so I don’t remember what I thought back then. Now, all I would have them is healthy, happy and safe, and that’s all I truly care about.”
Then she pauses and adds, “I do care a little bit about manners but that’s even OK.”