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Jennifer Garner: “I'm Not Good At Being Fake”

The actor and mother of three has a devoted fan base and a sterling reputation in Hollywood. Maybe nice guys do finish first?

Jennifer Garner’s car is parked right over there, by the Prius, in the back of the lot. “It’s kind of a long drive,” she says, “so why don’t we go together? We can talk on the way.” Sounds good. I’ll drive with Garner, whom I’ve known for an hour and a half. Or 22 years, depending on how you’re counting.

We’ve just spent the early afternoon in a woodworking studio in downtown Los Angeles. That’s what I call it, but I’ve been corrected. Technically, it’s “wood turning.” Garner spent dozens of hours here, a ground-floor industrial space the size of a yoga studio with the decibel range of a speed-metal show, learning the craft from a master woodturner named Aaron as she prepared for her latest role as an artist in the Apple TV+ thriller The Last Thing He Told Me. 

“It spoke to the mountain girl in me — it’s a big part of Appalachian culture,” says Garner, 51, who grew up in West Virginia. She’s also really good at it. “First, we just did spindles, then we made rolling pins before we graduated to bowls.” Looks like she graduated with honors — the bowl she made that afternoon (and then gifted to me) is beautiful. After the woodworking — wood turning — is done, she sweeps the floor, vacuums up the sawdust, and brushes the chips off her cashmere sweater. It’s time for lunch.

From the outside, Garner’s car is a sleek, polished black BMW and, probably by design, not entirely welcoming — are the windows tinted? She chirps the locks open, we get in, and she pulls out of the parking lot guiding us toward lunch. A few pedestrians at the crosswalk do a double take, squinting into the windshield. Is that…? But in motion, Garner’s car is anonymous, a German luxury four-door that merges into the river of German luxury four-doors that is the Los Angeles freeway system. 

The inside of the car tells a different story. There’s loose change tossed on the console, an open pack of gum, in one of the side pockets is a bag of Pirate’s Booty — one of those small, not-for-individual-sale bags that come in a larger package usually marked “family size.”

I know this car. This is my car (not the BMW part). This is a car that is early for drop-off and queues up responsibly for 3 p.m. pickup. Where kids doze against the window with their hair still shower-wet, where they draw on the glass on cold mornings, where they change into their jerseys, text their friends, check Snapchat, lose homework. I’ll bet you that gum belongs to one kid, the processed white cheddar puffs to another, and the loose change is anyone’s guess. 

“Being a mother was one thing I knew I was going to be,” Garner tells me as she changes lanes on the 101. “I really could have been a mother in any way. I could have adopted, I could have fostered, but there was no doubt I was going to be a mom. I mean, I was the kid with the doll everywhere I went. And I had a babysitting company with my friend Carrie — C & J’s Babysitting — from, like, seventh or eighth grade.” 

I tell Garner that our daughters actually go to school together. They’re four grades apart and I wouldn’t say they know each other, but one day last year, after a particularly ugly mean-girl episode, my daughter was in line in the cafeteria trying not to cry in public. I wasn’t there and the details were as vague as if they had been recounted by a seventh grader, but as she was standing in line, an older girl asked her if she was okay and somehow managed to replace a mean-girl episode with a moment of kindness and grace. She found out later that was Garner’s eldest daughter.

“Oh, I love that,” she says. “That’s Violet.” 

Garner has three children with ex-husband Ben Affleck and she speaks as such a typical mom it’s easy to forget that she’s very much not a typical mom. Her kids don’t love to watch her movies, she tells me. “They don’t mind watching their dad, but they kind of want me to be their mom. They don’t want to see me upset and women cry more in what we do. And they don’t really want to see me in a romantic thing.” 

Garner talks about her kids with such warmth and wisdom it’s hard not to ask her for advice. So I do. Maybe a few times.

“Your kids will really figure out who they are and what they are when they’re older, and most likely they will hew toward lovely,” she says. “I have a lot of faith in my kids. I don’t love every behavior all the time, always. It’s gnarly growing up.” After all, she points out, it’s hard for everyone raising a kid in 2023. “We didn’t have the eyes on us that our kids have. I was such a first-time mom. [My eldest daughter] didn’t have a shot. She couldn’t have a free thought — I was all over her. I was a nightmare for everyone around me.”

If Jennifer Garner: Nightmare is tough to get your head around, you’re not wrong. Garner’s brand is built on niceness as much as it is on being preternaturally fit. She’s equal parts running shoes and something baking. Even calling it a brand seems cynical. 

Garner became a proper celebrity in 2001 when she was 29 years old. She got married to arguably the most Us Weekly-able actor in Hollywood in 2005 when she was 33. She spent the next 13 years in the crosshairs of a kind of public attention that even the most seasoned celebrities could hardly withstand.

After getting divorced in 2018, she began what seemed like a long and tireless campaign toward… let’s call it normalcy. Toward living and projecting the kind of familiar (and in her case, extremely beautiful and wealthy) motherhood that would be found at any school fundraiser. Somehow, through a war of attrition waged mostly with Instagram reels of layered chocolate and nut butter desserts, it became hard to think of her as anything but… nice. 

“The problem with, ‘Oh, she’s so nice’ is that when I have any kind of boundary, people think of it as much more than it actually is,” says Garner. “The problem is being recognized on a day where I’m not so nice or when I have blackness in my soul. I’ve definitely had days where I just can’t do it. I scowl at people before they can walk up to me. I’m not perfect, and I don’t think I’m rude, but I’m not good at being fake. I’m an open book of a person.” 

Garner steers us off the freeway and into the labyrinth of downtown LA's gray municipal buildings and empty lots. As we pick our way through one-way streets, I ask about her beauty routine (minimal), her workout routine (opposite of minimal), and why her hair is so thick when she’s two years older than I am and mine hasn’t looked like that since I was 24. “I’ve been working with Virtue for three years,” says Garner, mentioning the hair-care line she’s a spokesperson for, though it does seem like she’d use the line even if they didn’t pay her. “It actually works. I’m religious about the shampoos and conditioners — they’re total game changers.”

Just when we think Google will never figure out where we are, Garner spots an unlikely covered stand at the entrance of a vacant parking structure. “Is this where we’re going? If it is, I’m very proud,” she says, pulling up to a valet of the SoHo House. Her pride is not unwarranted: We’re here.  

A few minutes later, we’re sitting at a bright corner table, overlooking downtown. Within seconds, a waiter appears, friendly but not overbearing, versed in exactly the right distance to give a celebrity. This is Joseph.

“What can I get you ladies this afternoon?” Two mint teas, tuna ceviche on tostadas, and guacamole with fresh vegetables. Making California proud. 

“There is what I’ll talk about and there’s what I won’t talk about,” she says as the waiter vanishes. And, she adds, drawing that line is especially hard for her. “That’s tricky for me because it doesn’t come naturally.” 

“It’s also a fun part about being a woman,” I say. I would hate to go through life without the connection I can have with an almost-perfect stranger provided she’s a woman. It’s the feminine lingua franca.

“I know!” says Garner. “You go deep right away: ‘How are you? Nice to meet you. What is happening with your vagina?’”

Well, now that the gates have cracked open… “I just learned that our vaginas may collapse,” she tells me. “I saw my OB this week and she gave me a pamphlet about vaginal collapse.” Garner’s eyes get wide, reliving the moment in the doctor’s office. She grabs her watch: “I’m like: ‘When? Is it imminent? Do I need to put it in my calendar? What is happening?!’ Have you ever heard of that?”

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