Twenty years ago, Jennifer Garner thought her career couldn’t get better. She’d survived nine months of sleeping in a kitchen in Manhattan and eating spaghetti with butter while understudying for an Ivan Turgenev play on Broadway, scored a few walk-on parts on TV, and landed the lead in a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie in which she played a 19th century orphan.
“Making a couple hundred dollars a week to pay for my apartment, I really thought that was as good as it was going to get,” laughs Garner on an afternoon in Los Angeles. “I was completely and totally thrilled with that.”
Her Hallmark director, Christopher Cain, invited her to fly out to Malibu and stay with him and his wife, Sharon. The rental car company ran out of cheap sedans, so they handed her the keys to a convertible. One day, she drove around, got lost, and found herself on Hollywood Boulevard stumbling over other tourists and signs as she watched the stars go by under her feet. On Aug. 20, she’ll get her own.
“It’s all been a big accident,” she insists. Not for anyone who’s paid close attention to her performances: the attentive eyes, the steel spine, the radiant likability second only to Tom Hanks. Her first starring film role, 2004’s “13 Going on 30,” is this generation’s “Big.”
“There’s rarely a day that I’m out in the world that somebody doesn’t mention ‘13 going on 30,’” says Garner. “It just pops up in your life as a GIF.”
Only Jennifer Garner would highlight the body-swapped eighth-grader’s enthusiasm, not her ignorance. Only Jennifer Garner could take the anxious adoptive mother role in “Juno” and fill her brittle character with so much heart that she, not the sarcastic teen, becomes the film’s emotional center. And only Jennifer Garner could launch into a major new act of her career — “The Tribes of Palos Verdes,” “Love, Simon” and this fall’s HBO black comedy “Camping,” her first TV show since “Alias” — with such modesty that she hardly seems to expect that people will catch on that at 46, she’s doing the most fulfilling work of her career.
All the Charleston-raised girl, a self-described “total snob” about sticking to theater, wanted to do was eke out a living performing live Shakespeare. Growing up as the middle child of three daughters, she was so well-behaved that she didn’t pierce her ears, pluck her eyebrows, or wear nail polish. The worst thing Garner did in high school was swipe her dad’s Camry to drive to Taco Bell. She entered college studying chemistry — her dad’s profession — and then switched to drama, which aligned her more with her mom, an English teacher.
“I just love language,” says Garner. Twisting lines, muttered quips, mouthsful of monologues. Yet, when she committed to Hollywood, the best part an ingénue could get was as Ashton Kutcher’s girlfriend in “Dude, Where’s My Car?,” in which her character had magic inflating boobs.
But bimbohood wasn’t for her. At the premiere for “Party of Five” spinoff “Time of Your Life,” she ambled down the red carpet in a baggy sweater and glasses, hair cropped into a bob by TV producers who worried this pretty nobody would get mistaken for Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Two years later, “Alias” made her a star. The role was perfect: Secret agent Sydney Bristow was smart and tough, yet relatable — not a flat killer femmebot but the girl next door, magnified. Even better, every episode let Garner prove her versatility. She disguised herself as maids, goths and geishas, and pestered the make-up team to give her a real challenge — a fat janitor, maybe? — but the show kept her stubbornly sexy. Fittingly, critics compared this stunning breakout chameleon to other celebrities. Garner was “Jackie Chan in a slinky cocktail dress.” “Hollywood’s version of Mother Teresa — only hotter.” And they delighted that each episode kept her “cuffed and bound more often than Bettie Page.” Garner sheepishly referred to the T&A close-ups as “biscuit shots.”
“Playing Sydney Bristow defined me for so long, and it re-defined me to myself. It made me strong and made me more confident,” says Garner. “It even changed the tenor of my voice.” Plus, she laughs, “Talk about language — I literally had to learn different languages.”
Garner was still anonymous when “Alias” premiered in September 2001. By Christmas, she was mobbed at the mall, and spent her first TV Guide profile apologizing for being interrupted by autograph hounds.
“It’s sort of a recent phenomenon,” she blushed. One month later, she won the Golden Globe for dramatic actress in a TV series, beating out both Lorraine Bracco and Edie Falco of “The Sopranos.” At the podium, she turned to creator J.J. Abrams and self-mockingly joked, “‘I don’t know why you cast me in this role. I don’t know why you thought I could do it. I know I was good in ‘Dude, Where’s My Car,’ but seriously?!”
“13 Going on 30” confirmed that Garner was a movie star, too. The next year, she married and soon after gave birth to her first daughter. Having kids forced her to focus. She could no longer wave off her career as an accident. After each baby, acting had to be a choice.
“I would have to decide, ‘No I actually do love this job,’ ” admits Garner. She stalled for six months when her third child was born — “three kids just knocks you flat on your ass” — before her then-agent of 20 years, Patrick Whitesell, literally called her bluff.
“Patrick said, ‘Either this is the telephone call about you doing ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ and how we’re going to make that happen, or it’s a telephone call about your retirement,’” says Garner. “That was a real moment of decision and clarity and I loved him for it because it forced me to say, ‘OK, I am not ready to be home all the time.’”
Yes, she plays a lot of moms. To her, they’re individual women. Dismissing them as just moms is dismissive of moms — and of women. “That’s crazy!” she groans. “I love playing a mom because there are no higher stakes then something involving your kids. Nothing will push you further.”
She’s proud of last year’s indie drama “The Tribes of Palos Verdes,” in which her character howls in pain after her husband ditches her and their teen twins for a blonde. And though she usually watches her own movies through her fingers, the faith hit “Miracles From Heaven” “had more moments than normal where I was like, ‘All right, I can buy that.’ ”
Next month, the thriller “Peppermint,” directed by “Taken” filmmaker Pierre Morel, lets Garner play a mom who would make Sidney Bristow proud. After her daughter is murdered in a drive-by shooting, she takes vengeance on a gang.
Says Garner: “I don’t like to give up my action scenes to my beloved double Shauna [Duggins] to do for me because I want to do them — they’re scenes! It might hurt, and it takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it because it’s so emotion-filled to get to this other place where you have no choice but to fight.” She’ll also appear in the ensemble comedy “A Happening of Monumental Proportions” from director — and “13 Going on 30” co-star — Judy Greer.
Then in October, audiences will watch her shift gears into “Camping,” based on the British sitcom. It’s not Shakespeare, but the Bard would approve. “The writing was so dense and so funny, you had to really think through how to structure a monologue,” beams Garner. “Purely from a word nerd perspective, it was incredibly satisfying.”
First, though, is that Walk of Fame star. “My family is not a Hollywood-y family. My little sister is an accountant. My older sister’s in marketing. They have always been unabashedly proud and happy for me, but my job is not the focal point of our family.”
But becoming a permanent part of Hollywood is so special that her own mother lit up — “the most excited I think I’ve ever heard her be about anything!” — and now the entire clan is trekking to California to drive rental cars to the Walk of Fame, just as she did two decades ago. Garner chokes up. Then she once more modestly makes herself the butt of the joke: “Luckily, they don’t know Los Angeles well because I’m sure I’ll be way out in the desert somewhere!”