For GQ Magazine, March 2005
As TV's sexiest super-spy, Jennifer Garner saved mankind so often that the CIA made her its cover girl for their war on terror. Now she's high-kicked into Hollywood with her own plans for world domination.
Jennifer Garner isn’t the kind of girl who says “ho” very often. She quickly scans the coffee shop she picked for our interview, in case anyone heard. It’s a little place called Le Pain Quotidien in the upscale suburb of Brentwood, Los Angeles. Her local, I suspect. But it’s OK. The place is empty apart from us.
“Yup, Elektra’s a whoooooore,” she says, exhaling the last word like a sigh of relief. “It’s pretty shocking isn’t it?”
She’s talking about Elektra Natchios, the character from the Marvel comics on whom her forthcoming movie, Elektra, is based. And yes, it is shocking, but not because Natchios sells her body, per se. The comics paint her as a screwed up character - the lonely daughter of a billionaire, so filled with self-loathing that she lives in the shadows, using her incredible skills in the martial arts to work as a cold-blooded assassin for hire. Her hooker aspect fits rather well. What’s shocking is that the movie omits this part. It erases it with big moral rubbers. So when the DVD comes out, with all the special features blah about how the filmmakers went to such great lengths to stay true to the Marvel original - don’t be fooled. For all its supposed blue-state decadence, Hollywood is a big prude.
“I never read comics as a kid,” she says, “but now I’m like – wow, that’s racy! They’re so dark and violent and sexual and graphic.” She dunks her biscotti and takes a bite. “No wonder kids love them.” Precisely! Think how let down the kids will feel when you chop out the sexual and graphic parts. Now I’m no Marvel purist – you can tamper with a Marvel original all you want in my books – but as a movie-lover this omission is not just a sign of our sorry times, but a terrible waste of an opportunity. Because Jennifer Garner - and I say this with only the greatest respect – could make a fabulous screen ho. Were there the will, she could be right up there with Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman.
Clear honey-dipped skin, twinkling round brown eyes, smooth, high cheekbones and luscious, pink permapout lips. True, her face is perhaps too kind and innocent. She has the sweet smile of a young country girl. But she also has experience – she made an excellent high class cameo ho in Catch Me If You Can and, as fans of the hit spy show Alias know, she is quite at home with a ho’s wardrobe. Every week she appears in all kinds of lurid wigs, boots and micro minis, often reeling off phrases in obscure eastern European languages for good measure, like “I’ll see you upstairs”, and “I’m sorry, it’s my heels.”
In person, however, there is nothing remotely tarty about Garner. Quite the opposite. In the sometimes squalid world of modern celebrity, Jennifer Garner is a beacon of red state wholesomeness. Growing up as a good Christian girl in small town West Virginia, she wasn’t allowed to wear make-up, let alone the kind of split-thigh scorchers she wears on TV. She’s not wearing make-up today, either. Just a pair of jeans, a black poloneck, mauve scarf and plum handbag. She looks like a hot soccer mom, though she would probably dispute the ‘hot’ part. When I mention that she’s always high up on those Sexiest Actress lists, she laughs out loud as though the very thought is ridiculous.
Before we met, I rummaged like a burglar through her press file, tracing her last 10 years in Hollywood from the meteoric success of Alias, complete with Golden Globe and her ascent to the A-list with ever increasing parts in Pearl Harbour, 13 going on 30 and the Ben Affleck vehicle Daredevil, and I found no dirt whatsoever. Not a speck. She’s The Good Girl – the anti-Courtney Love, the un-Paris Hilton. She works hard, follows the rules, tells the truth and never curses, cusses or stays out late. Heaven forbid getting drunk or high.
She thinks, scrunching up her nose like a little girl. “The last time I got drunk was last night, probably. I soused myself with two glasses of wine and went straight to bed like an old lady!”
That’s not drunk, Jennifer, that’s mildly tipsy. She thinks again. “Oh, I know! We went out in Vancouver with the cast and crew of Elektra and they kept refilling my wine glass. I really did get sloshed then. But that’s sooooo rare. There’s no nightlife to speak of for me. It’s not very sexy, really, but it’s all about work. It’s like I’m in med-school or something, I’m just ploughing through.” The ploughing begins before dawn, most mornings – at 4am, to be precise, when her personal trainer comes knocking, as she has for four years now. They do treadmill, yoga, pilates or whatever takes her fancy for maybe two hours before heading for the Alias set where there’s a fair chance she’ll have to take a running jump off a 70ft building. Hardly a hangover-friendly routine.
“Alias feels like a body of work,” she says. “We filmed the 75th episode the other week. And every single episode is the same – we get the script and we say, ‘oh no, it’s too big, it’s insurmountable’. But every time, we’ve mounted it! It makes me tired just thinking about it.”
It can be tiring to watch, too. With its twisting and turning plotlines and relentless action, Alias was an adrenalin shot for the ass-kicking chick genre when it launched in 2001, hot on the stiletto heels of Run Lola Run and La Femme Nikita. Week in week out Garner will penetrate some high security facility or other, disable the alarms and pick the locks, thwacking guards right and left. “At this point I can tuck an elbow, drill a fist and do a roundhouse kick in my sleep,” she says with a shrug. Her character, Sydney Bristow, is a college student come superspy with the most spectacularly divorced parents on television – they don’t just hate each other, they operate global spy networks against each other. And Garner’s perfect in the part. It is the part she’ll be known for, just as Diana Rigg will forever be Emma Peel. Recently, she signed a hefty contract to do Alias till 2008, which means plenty of dawn workouts to come.
“Having a trainer makes it so easy,” says Garner, unconvincingly. “We watch movies while I do cardio. We’ve seen One Flew Over A Cuckoo’s Nest and now we’re watching Frida. It’s so fun! We feel so clever for working it out!” A 4am wakeup call is fun? “Well, getting used to it is hard, but once you are, it’s not that big of a whoop. I like being up early. Once Alias is over I’ll probably take it easy and wake up about six am.”
Like Bristow, Garner is hard-working, breezy, and game. While Bristow thinks nothing of invading a military base, Garner will happily rise before dawn to dangle from a wire all day, 12 storeys up. She does all her own stunts. Her arms and shoulders ripple under that that poloneck. “I get so many bruises, you would think I had spousal abuse going on,” she says. “But I’m like Sydney in that I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done without worrying about it too much. Just–“ She claps her hands. “Get it done!”
One recent assignment involved the CIA, which asked Garner to shoot a recruitment video to woo the nation’s top techy graduates into the Agency. Apparently real spooks watch Alias – which may explain their dodgy WMD intelligence. ”I know!” says Garner. “If they’re looking for tips. I hate to tell ‘em, but I’m faking it dude.” She was chuffed to be asked, though. “They need good people in the CIA right now,” she says. “So I basically said ‘cool! Join the CIA!’ and described loads of different jobs. It all falls on Sidney Bristow, I tell you. I can’t do everything!”
She can’t wait to get a tour of CIA spy headquarters at Langley, as her CIA pals have offered. “Yeeeaah, I want to go to the Farm!” she says, with relish, her eyes darting left and right. “That’s where they train operatives. Nobody knows where it is. It’s a big secret.” It strikes me that she could even be a spy herself. Her acting could be the perfect cover. She could go abroad on location, and take care of government business on the side like Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Garner laughs, “I could never lie to my family like that. And I’m terrible with secrets. If I know what I’m getting you for Christmas, then I’ll tell you in October and I may have to give it to you in November because I get so excited.”
Garner was perfectly cast for 13 Going On 30 – a girl’s version of Tom Hanks’ Big. Her publicist says, “that movie was totally Jennifer’s personality.” You can sense the 13 year old in Garner, brimming at the surface – the innocent, uncorrupted girl who believes in good clean fun, Disney style, and a bright future. This quality of being on the verge of adulthood is partly what the creator of Alias, JJ Abrams, saw in Garner when he cast her as Bristow, a character with “one foot still in youth while the other is being sucked into this darkly adult world full of politics, secrets, lies and ugly, white male mess.” Though he refers to the world of international espionage, the description applies equally to the movie industry, a renowned snakepit of deceit and cynicism. But like Bristow, Garner remains unsullied. As JJ Abrams says, “she has an oddly wise quality and I attribute that to her upbringing.”
Jennifer Garner was raised in and by the small town of Charleston, West Virginia, population 60,000. She grew up as the middle sister of three in a home so church-going and strait-laced, you can almost smell the apple pie cooling on the window sill. According to rules set by her father, Bill, a chemical engineer, and her mother Pat, an English teacher, the girls didn’t wear make-up, drink, take drugs or fool around with boys. They all played the piano, and Jennifer also took violin and sax, with singing lessons and 9 years of ballet in between. “Looking back,” says Garner, “we always joked that we were raised Amish.”
There was the one time that young Jennifer and her friend were caught sunbathing topless behind a shed on the day of her high school prom. “I didn’t have a bikini!” protests Garner. “And it was only me and my girlfriend!” But that was about it for Garner’s teenage rebellion. She didn’t even let her hair down at college.
“Now, I feel like I missed out. I wish I just had one crayzeee summer!” she says. So the prospect of a mid-life crisis when she turns 40 rather amuses her. “I could have a drunken, hash-filled 40th birthday! With brownies!” she exclaims. Of course, brownies. Brownies require baking, and there’s nothing Garner loves more than to cook. It’s her only addiction. She’s so obsessed with Martha Stewart – she has a dog named Martha – that in an interview last year she said “I really count on her to calm me down. Some nights, after a hard day on the set of Alias, I go home and watch two or three shows in a row. I Zen into it. There’s something about watching her bake.” Her brownies, she assures me, are to die for.
It was never Garner’s dream to be a star. Only when she gave up on the idea of law school did she set about her acting career with characteristic academic rigour, charting out her passage through Shakespeare festivals, regional theatre and a masters at Yale. She dashed off applications to all corners of the country and while she waited to hear, she drove to New York in a red Honda Civic and, within a week, found herself with an agent and an understudy gig on Broadway. So she stayed.
Times were tough at first. The understudy work paid $150 a week, which she supplemented with a waitressing gig. But she wasn’t getting by. “I got broke really fast and I got sick. I got bronchitis and the flu. I didn’t have a good winter coat or shoes. I was really ill-prepared.” She was also alone, for the most part, sleeping on a futon on the kitchen floor of a woman whose name she found on the Equity bulletin board. But happy, nevertheless. “Oh yeah, really happy. I felt like I was on this big adventure,” she says. “And after a year and a half, I was working enough so I could leave the restaurant and I was just… an actor. That, to me, was success. I didn’t have any aspirations for the life I live now.”
At the time, she was sniffy about television, as theatre people sometimes are, but one episode of Law and Order would pay her triple what she earned on a play’s entire run. So ultimately, the TV dollar lured her to Hollywood, where in the oldest tradition, she had a rocky start. She found herself idle and isolated, wondering why she had left New York behind her. The sheer volume of actors and the emphasis on brand names make Hollywood a hard industry to crack, even when you look like Garner. But she held tight. And it wasn’t long before she got her break on Felicity (where she met her husband), landed Alias and was swept into the heady world of fame, wealth and telephoto lenses poking out of bushes.
“The paparazzi practically lived outside my house in the Pacific Palisades,” she says. “But my house was right on the street. I was a bit naïve to think that that would be cool.” So she moved to Brentwood, to a house behind a gate. “At first I didn’t want to give in to it, but what are you going to do? You’re kind of asking for it, to be a girl in a scifi kind of show in your skimpies week in week out.”
Moving house was a minor upheaval compared with her divorce from Scott Foley in March 2004 after six years of marriage. “It never occurred to me that I would be someone who got divorced,” she says. “I grew up in a town where divorce was so rare, it was whispered about. I thought you get married, you stay married, and that’s it. I was naïve.”
Yet as much as her upbringing shielded her from the spectre of divorce, it armed her for the emotional aftermath. Like Bristow, who copes with her own loss of innocence about marriage on Alias, Garner is at once sensitive and resilient about what is still a fresh wound. “It’s hard not to judge myself,” she says. “I was incredibly sad and lonely and heartbroken as you would expect. And incredibly ashamed and embarrassed. But now I realise that I was really young then. I was 28, but emotionally much younger.”
Inevitably Jennifer won’t discuss her relationship with Affleck. The new Bennifer combo isn’t nearly so hungry for the limelight as the last. “I’ll give you this, though,” she says. “I’m always attracted to a man when I see him do a small kindness to someone he doesn’t owe anything to, whether it’s a waiter or whoever.”
Somehow it’s hard to picture Garner as anything but happy and eager for what the future holds. Her mother once told her that “happiness is your own responsibility” and Garner seems to have carried this maxim with her, through bronchitis, disappointment in LA, dizzying success and marital failure. “It takes a lot to get me down,” she says, “and I don’t stay there for long.” Furthermore, her happiness has an infectious quality. She’s like vitamins, or a cup of hot tea. She gives you a boost.
It’s not clear where Garner’s headed from here. A hit TV show, a big action movie – her career is soaring at the minute. After Elektra, a departure from the ass-kicking chick genre awaits – a drama called Catch And Release, in which she will play a woman struggling with the death of her husband. And she has also a production company to play with now, named Vandalia, after the original name for West Virginia. “Look,” she says, producing an AMEX from her handbag: ‘Vandalia productions, Jennifer Garner’ the card says. “We have to change the name. My attorney says it’s also the name of the number one porn company of all time’ or something!” Vandalia is actually a porn actress come part time hooker at the Bunny Ranch in Nevada.
But this is a minor hump in the road. The way she sees it, her horizon is filled with exciting, attainable possibilities. “I want a graduate degree, I want to be a business woman, an investment banker, a writer, a pianist. I wish I could really cook. Like Bad Boy. Like Dish-It-Up! But I‘ve never had specific goals in life. I don’t say ‘I’d like my next step to be this’ and then write it down and go after it. Actually I don’t write anything down. I just think things to myself and they actually start to happen. So watch out!”
She peers closely at me, grinning: “I just thought something about you.” And with that, she beams, waves goodbye and walks out of the coffee shop to face the blinking flashbulbs of the paparazzi who have gathered outside during the course of our interview.
I’m left with the bill, wondering what it was she thought, and ridiculously, when it’s going to take effect. All I can say for sure is that tonight, this waitress is getting a big tip. ENDS