The last time Jennifer Garner had a regular job on TV, it was as fast-running, spin-kicking, wig-wearing superspy Sydney Bristow on JJ Abrams’ delirious ABC thriller Alias. That series ended a dozen years ago, and Garner has spent the time since starring in movies, taking care of her kids and periodically being dragged into the tabloids against her will throughout her protracted divorce from Ben Affleck. Sunday night, she returns to the medium that made her famous with HBO’s comic miniseries Camping, from Girls creators Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. Garner plays intense wife and mom Kathryn McSorley-Jodell, whose behavior during a weekend birthday celebration for her husband Walt (David Tennant) is even more squirm-inducing than Hannah’s on Girls. But because she’s played by, as Dunham describes her, “the most charming person in American history,” you forgive Kathryn’s faults much more easily.
I spoke with Garner about why this project brought her back to television, what it felt like to be an intensely private person working alongside a pathologically public one in Dunham, her impact on the CIA (really) and more.
Since Alias ended, how many offers would you guess you’ve gotten to come back to TV?
Not that many. I think because I was working in other areas, [my reps would say], “She’s not open to it, she’s not open to it.” So it kind of stops the conversation.
So if someone wanted to reboot Quantum Leap with you, they wouldn’t even bother approaching your team?
I don’t think so. But this, [Lena and Jenni] just boldly came forward with, and I said yes.
Was it something that you’d been thinking about?
I wanted to do something funny. I just felt like I just wanted to go to work and laugh. I was trying to develop something with my friend Judy Greer, because I think she is the funniest of all time and she is so fun to be with, so we were trying to come up with something to do together. And then we both got offers [for] different things and said “OK, I should probably do this and you should do that.”
Had you been a viewer of Girls?
I had watched some Girls, yeah. I have some millennials around me and, yes, they had shown me Girls. And I have to say that I felt a little old when I was watching Girls. That was not my New York City experience. I wasn’t that cool, I’ve never been that cool for a day in my life. But I did appreciate the rich relationships between the women and the language, and I liked the show.
Most of the showbusiness people I encounter, especially people with families, don’t seem to have much time to watch TV. Do you?
I don’t watch a ton of TV, and if I do, I can’t watch anything scary, because I would watch something before bed, and I buy into it way too easily. I’ve never been someone who could watch Jaws. I don’t know that I would survive it. I feel like I would actually have a heart attack. Just the music alone just does me in. So, I’ve watched all of Cheers recently, I watched all of Seinfeld, I watched all of Parks and Rec. I really like watching funny people work and how they do what they do. I had a big 30 Rock binge at some point [while we were working on Camping], and I said to John Riggi, who is one of our producers and writers, who had been on 30 Rock for the whole of its run, “If Tina Fey were doing this scene, it would be so totally different and so much better.” And he said, “It would be different, but this is you doing it, and it’s OK.”
This business typecasts. You became famous playing a badass, people wanted to put a gun in your hand. You’ve gotten to do funny things periodically, but has it been a struggle to be able to show off that side of yourself?
No, I have to say, I feel pretty lucky that I’ve gone pretty fluidly between things. Maybe I’m not that calculated in the way that I think the next thing I want to do is this or that. The reason I was thinking about wanting to do a comedy is because it’s fun to be on set. And it was. I was correct about that. Not because I thought, “It’s time for people to see me in this way.” I had just been crying at work for eons and eons and was ready for a laugh.
What did you think of this character when you first saw the British version?
I thought, “I don’t know that I can do it.” Because the actress [Vicki Pepperdine] is so courageous and so unrelenting in her controlling nature and her shrillness. I just didn’t think American audiences would handle this as well as British audiences, who just are so ready for people to go balls to the wall. And we’re just not. And I’m not. My sensibility is not that hardcore. I watched the British version before I read the script and I just said, “Whoops, hold up, I don’t know that I’m your girl.” And then Lena and Jenni said to me, “Just read the script.” And I saw, especially in the end of the second episode, some vulnerability. And I thought, “If you can just see where the vulnerability is coming from, if you can justify it in some way so that she’s a real human, then I’m cool.” And then I was cool playing an asshole.
In your everyday travels, have you encountered moms in this mold?
I’m sure that I have. I think most moms that I know are pretty nice, but yeah, we can all be controlling in our own ways and think that we know the best. I’m sure I have had those moments, by the way. I don’t for a second think that I haven’t been every bit of Kathryn at different moments with a different kid. You just go through what you go through. But Kathryn’s pretty hardcore [Laughs].
A lot of Kathryn’s problems are connected to her recent hysterectomy. Lena has been very public about her own experience with that. Was it something that you talked about in terms of informing what you were doing with Kathryn?
We did talk about it. About how you could build up the walls that turn you from being the fun Kathryn on the trampoline, which is how she sees herself, or the fun Kathryn playing football, which is how her friends remember her, to being someone who is so rigid and difficult to be around. It’s that you’re in pain, people don’t believe you, they dismiss you, they tell you you’re misdiagnosed. You go through this surgery, you go through that surgery, you go through another surgery — each one is a really, really huge deal and they all amount to nothing. And then sex hurts, and then your husband doesn’t understand that sex hurts. So you see how she would get to where she is, and Lena was really helpful in explaining all of that to me. And I have somebody else in my life who had had a hysterectomy and had a very similar run-through of events. It’s really important that we aren’t making fun of that part of Kathryn’s story, because it’s real. It’s real to women.
Lena lives every aspect of her life very publicly, very unapologetically. You have had a lot of stuff in your life put out there not by your own choice. What has it been like interacting with her as a collaborator?
I think we’re really respectful of the way the other manages our public lives. I’m fascinated by her openness and her freedom. And at the same time, I am the product of a Southern family who did not pierce their ears [Laughs]. It’s just not who I am. But I have zero judgement on her, only appreciation, and I think that she would say the same — we just don’t do it the say way.
This was a relatively brief time commitment. Would you be willing to consider something else in TV that was not 22 episodes?
Can you imagine? I mean, I think back to Alias. It’s so unfathomable to me to even think of going back to that level of focus for five straight years. I can’t imagine doing it. I’m just grateful that I did it when I did, because what would I do with my kids [Laughs]? But I do miss being able to focus on work in that way. I do love that kind of head-down, nothing-else-matters, it’s-all-for-the-cause feel about work. I love my experiences on TV. I love seeing crews on television sets — they come in expecting to know their cast in a different way and to embrace the experience in a different way. If I see an Alias crew member, it’s like running into somebody that I went to kindergarten with and was best friends through high school and have lost touch with. Somebody who knows me that well, that I can’t believe I haven’t seen every day. It’s such a visceral reaction.
Kathryn’s very focused on cultivating her 11,000 Instagram followers. You have 3.4 million and counting. What would you say are the key differences between your approach and her approach to social media?
Mine is just me being goofy, and she actually feels like she gets a lot of validation from this group of women. And I think it helps her to feel like a leader somewhere. I do not feel like a leader on Instagram. My assistant edits and shoots and does all of this, and she says to me, “I just take the bits where you look the stupidest, where I’m making the most fun of you, and I put them together and put them to music.” And I say, “OK. Well, whatever makes you happy.” If it makes us laugh then sure, why not.
Have you thought much, if at all, about what Sydney Bristow has done with her life since we last saw her?
Oh, she’s such a boss. I went and spoke to the CIA and they said, “How many of you are here because of the Sydney effect?” Which is something that they literally call it. And this whole generation of women came in because they grew up watching Alias, and now those women are moving up in the ranks. I think she’s there, and I think she’s not trying to run things, she’s just quietly a badass.
At a desk, or is she still going out and wearing wigs and stuff?
I don’t know that she’s still going out and putting on high heels and wigs. But maybe she’s the Vaughn running the operation. I don’t know, she’s there, she’s out there. She’s keeping us safe.
I’m trying to imagine her taking a back seat and it just doesn’t seem right.
I don’t know if she could. It would be one of those things where they’d be like, “We need you” and she’d be like, “OK.” [Laughs]