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Jennifer Garner: Spy Girl

How the ‘Alias’ star, a nice girl from the Bible Belt, grew up to become the ass-kickingest babe on TV

JENNIFER GARNER, Alias

Jennifer Garner in 'Alias' on November 5th, 2001.

Michael Ansellt/ABC via Getty

SINCE SHE BECAME AGENT SYDNEY Bristow, Jennifer Garner has been having these dreams: Guy breaks into her house; she’s forced to attack him; she thinks (her dream self thinks), “OK, I know my punches aren’t good enough to hurt anyone.” She runs through various moves in her head; she says to herself, “God, I hope they don’t think I’m as tough as Sydney.”

“If it happened in real life?” Garner says. “God forbid.” She pauses to imagine, pursing her ample lips — lips so ample they threaten to displace Julia Roberts’ in the pantheon of objectified celebrity lippage. “I’d probably,” she finally says, “do a really good elbow and a really good knee to the nuts.” Garner offers a sweet grin. “I’ve got those up my sleeve, at least.”

We’re in Garner’s cluttered trailer on the Burbank, California, set of Alias, the hit new ABC action drama in which Garner plays a sexy secret agent who also happens to be a grad student (with term papers due!) whose life is further complicated by dad issues (who does he work for?) and boy problems (the kind that come from leading a double life), not to mention a dead fiancé (bullet to the head, in the bathtub, Episode One); oh, and her boss is a dick.

Garner is the ass-kicking babe of the moment, Alias being the latest entry in a beloved genre that has, throughout the years, hit delirious highs (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Charlie’s Angels) and unbelievable lows (the letters V-I-P come to mind), yet never seems to go away. “This is the only new show of the season that I watch,” gushes a fan no less schooled in the trash arts than Quentin Tarantino, who makes a villainous guest appearance in a two-part episode. “Alias delivers what The Man From U.N.C.L.E. always promised: It actually lives up to the coolness of its potential,” Tarantino says. “Week in and week out, Jennifer is doing fights in tight rubber dresses and heels, so, really, props. And at the same time, she’s doing all of this dramatic stuff. When I met her, I said, ‘Just so you know, you’re gonna work forever. You don’t have to prove nothin’ to nobody no more.'”

Today, Garner is wearing a smartly tailored black pantsuit with white pinstripes, her hair pulled back into a ponytail, stray wisps falling over her cheeks. She is tall, trim and striking. When she says she’s twenty-nine, you briefly think she might be fudging her age upward. Garner was a ballet dancer as a kid, and she is also a natural fidgeter, so a conversation with her may include a sudden squat or forward lurch. She’s pulling off a particularly impressive maneuver at the moment, rocking forward on a padded stool, legs pretzeled and partially sat upon, one hand absently tapping the top side of her trailer’s entertainment center. When her hand discovers and pulls down an unexpected object, it turns out to be a tangled-up pink thong. “Oh!” Garner exclaims, interrupting her own monologue, and tosses the thong behind the television.

Garner, we should note upfront, is a sweet girl from West Virginia who, as a teenager, was never allowed to pierce her ears or wear nail polish. She finds drunk people repellent, avoided parties in college and dreamed of playing Hedda Gabler onstage. For Garner’s parents, a high-water mark of her fame to date has been her appearance in Parade magazine. (“It comes with the Sunday paper, so everyone in church had seen it,” Garner says.)

Garner is perhaps most like her student-slash-spy counterpart in that she has the ability to juggle multiple tasks, of great variety, all at once — well. The previous night, she and her husband (the actor Scott Foley, of Felicity) had the cast of Alias over to watch the latest episode. Garner made apple cider. The next morning, she ran from four to four-thirty. She was on set by six. Later, she will have to kick Tarantino’s ass. Garner has a stunt double, but she does most of her own ass-kicking. As Tarantino noted, this can be much trickier when you’re showing off cleavage. It brings to mind the old quote about how Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, only backward and in high heels. Likewise, Garner is Jackie Chan in a slinky cocktail dress.

“I don’t mind getting bruises — they make me feel tough,” Garner says, emitting a little wheeze-laugh. Part of her charm comes from her willingness to be unapologetically geeky. She gasps and giggles. She raps on her head to signify knocking on wood. She does a little soft-shoe routine between takes. Now, she rolls up her right pant leg and yanks down a fishnet stocking, revealing a faded bruise just above her ankle, in the spot where your average sorority girl gets a tattoo of a rose or Felix the Cat. “Sorry, man, a couple of weeks ago, this one was really good,” she says glumly. “I’m bruised a lot. I’ll get out of the shower and be like, ‘Scott, look!’ He’s just so horrified. He’s like, ‘I have no interest in your bruises. I don’t think it’s funny. I don’t think it’s cool.'”

Garner pops a piece of gum into her mouth. She models a Russian fur hat she might wear on an upcoming mission, then holds up a tiny, spangly fabric swatch that is technically a costume, which may factor into a future Vegas shoot. She blows a bubble.

“I really loved the Charlie’s Angels movie, and seeing it really made me want to do something physical,” Garner says, “Then J.J.” — that’s Alias and Felicity creator J.J. Abrams — “put a bug in my ear, telling me that he was writing this show. I wanted the job so badly, I started going to this martial-arts teacher, Master Yu. He’s not far from my house, and his ad was the biggest in the Yellow Pages. Scott and I do everything from the Yellow Pages. It’s like, ‘Oooh, they have a nice font.’ Anyway, I went every day for a month, and by the time they asked me to audition, I was a second-degree yellow belt. Master Yu tried to kill me, though. There were all these flights of stairs by the studio. He’d have me running up and down, ten times, and he’d stand there yelling at me. I remember being on the phone one day with my mom, crying, because I didn’t want to go to class. I’d be punching, and he’d be like” — here Garner briefly assumes an Asian accent — ” ‘Hit the tiger, Jennifer! Hit the tiger!’ And these five-year-olds would come in and run circles around me. It was sad. But for some reason, I kept going.” She smiles and offers a shrug. “I loved adding violence to what I already knew how to do.”

WHEN CONSIDERING THE APPEAL OF Alias, I was reminded of the time my brother and his wife stayed at the Disneyland Hotel and heard, from the room next-door, a man being spanked by a dominatrix. Alias, like being spanked at Disneyland, is a sort of double fetish. It takes a wholesome coed next door (there’s no sex for the still-in-mourning Sydney) and drops her into a world of deceit and corruption. In every episode, Sydney’s undercover jaunts force her to don some sort of naughty Halloween costume. She’s disguised herself in a maid’s outfit and as a cyberpunk Raggedy Ann (no word yet on when that Catholic-schoolgirl mission is going down). Likewise, most weeks Sydney is either straddling and beating a thuggish male or else she’s bound to a chair and being tortured. Sydney has had a tooth extracted, Marathon Man-style. She’s been Tasered, shot with a tranquilizer dart, held underwater and given electroshock treatment in a rogue Romanian asylum. Garner’s own genuine real-life wholesomeness only adds another tweak to the show’s many layers. When I try out my fetish-interpretation of the show on her, Garner blushes and squirms and says, “Omigosh, I’m so embarrassed having to wear these dresses on the set. I just have to tell myself, ‘It’s not me out there, it’s a character, and if she has to dress like a slut, so be it.’ ” Another squirm and a giggle. “Anyway, that’s what I tell my dad.”

Sexual subtexts aside, Alias is also, quite simply, a cool spy serial, complete with cliffhanger endings (involving nuclear bombs and falls into pits), picturesque Bond-ian locales (Sydney has kicked ass everywhere from Madrid to Moscow to Taipei), a Q-type gadget guy, quicksilver plot twists, priceless dialogue (“What were you doing checking up on me checking up on you?”) and plenty of Run Lola Run-style running to a techno soundtrack. Add to that Sydney’s straight-world, prime-time-soap concerns and you have the Alias formula — in essence, the tension of “Will Sydney ever get it on?” — combined with the tension of possible death-by-garrote.

“The hard thing about writing Felicity every week,” says Abrams, “is that there’s no franchise: no law stuff, no crime, no medicine. All we have are human interactions between characters. So one day, were sitting there working on the forty-fifth episode or whatever, feeling stumped, and I said, ‘You know what would be amazing? If Felicity were recruited by the CIA and sent on these crazy kick-ass missions, and when she came back she couldn’t tell anyone about what she was doing.’ I was kidding at the time. But the idea wouldn’t go away. And after I wrote it, I thought of Jennifer.”

“She’s the reason the show’s working,” says Victor Garber, the acclaimed stage actor who plays Sydney’s emotionally distant, mysterious father. “There’s a kind of sadness underneath Jennifer’s incredibly jovial exterior — more an awareness of sadness in the world. She gets that, and in that way she’s very close to Sydney.” Garber says, chuckling, “Oh, and she could definitely kick my ass.”

ON THE SURFACE, THERE’S NOT much in Garner’s childhood to suggest inner sadness. She grew up in Charleston, West Virginia; her father, Bill Garner, who worked as a chemical engineer for Union Carbide, moved the family there from Houston when she was there. “It’s more of a little town than a holler,” Garner says, biting into a carrot stick, “but there are definitely hollers within fifteen miles. You’re just so isolated there in the middle of the hills. We have a Gap now. Talbots. And a Penney’s. Kelly’s Men’s Store, where I worked, is still there.”

Charleston is actually the capital of West Virginia, but the city proper has a population of only about 53,000. Garner grew up in a comfortably middle-class part of town. Her mom, Pat Garner, taught English at a local college. “She was very much known here,” says Pat. “She must have baby-sat half of Charleston.”

The middle of three sisters, Jennifer discovered a knack for performing at an early age. All three Garner girls were required to take piano and ballet; Jennifer also played sax in the high school marching band, swam competitively and read voraciously. There’s a family photo, taken during a European vacation, in which Jennifer is sitting on a bench in a spectacular garden, not looking at the garden but reading Roots.

Every year, Jennifer stole her elementary school talent show, her mother recalls. “The time I remember the best, she was in the fifth grade, and she was the last act,” Pat Garner says. “These kids had been sitting on the floor for an hour and a half, and they were restless and mean. But when she stood up, the gym got completely quiet. I thought, ‘This is not normal.’ Because I wouldn’t have been able to stand up there and quiet those kids down.” Jennifer told a folk tale. “She wore a pair of green overalls I’d made her,” adds her mother, “and if they showed the least bit of restlessness, she would drop one shoulder strap.”

“My mom had all these rules to make us well rounded,” Garner says. “She didn’t push us so much. It was more like success, doing good, was just quietly expected.” For Garner, it was tough to compete with her older sister Melissa, who was beautiful, a class valedictorian, a piano prodigy, a math whiz, “an everything whiz,” says Garner. “But she eventually tapered off on ballet, so I think that made me get more serious about it. I definitely have the middle-child thing of ‘Give me attention!”‘

Whatever her motivation, by all accounts Garner was more driven than most. She would often eat dinner in the car while her mother drove her from one lesson to the next, and she’d always sign up for the hardest classes. Her ballet teacher, Nina Denton Pasinetti, recalls Garner crying in class if she failed to pull off, say, a triple pirouette. “She was serious,” says Pasinetti. “The day before she left for college, she came to my home to say goodbye, and we ended up watching a foreign film, Babette’s Feast. Most high school kids wouldn’t be interested in something like that. But she said, ‘Sure.”‘

Garner went on to major in theater at Denison University in Ohio and spent her breaks doing regional summer-stock shows. She was in a sorority but skipped most parties. She was too busy, she says — and she hates drunk people. “I just feel really sorry for them, they’re so uncontrolled and gross and sweaty and about to puke,” she says. Which raises the question: Are you a control freak? “I guess I don’t see any real reason not to be in control,” Garner acknowledges. “I mean, I’m not a teetotaler. I drink more now than I did then, just because I like red wine, but I’m pretty much a lightweight.” She pauses. “I used to wish I could go back and do college again, take away some of the drive, have a little more fun, get drunk, experiment — all that stuff.”

After college, Garner went to New York and was, almost immediately, cast as an understudy in a Broadway production of A Month in the Country, starring her current evil boss on Alias, Ron Rifkin. While the other understudies played poker in the green-room, Garner watched the show from the wings — every night, eight performances a week. After that, she moved to Los Angeles and starred in two quickly canceled TV shows (Significant Others and the Jennifer Love Hewitt vehicle Time of Your Life) and played a nurse in Pearl Harbor. She also did a two-episode stint as Scott Foley’s former flame on Felicity. They flirted throughout rehearsal and shooting. Then Foley courted her, sending her flowers and inviting her out for drives on the coast. “He didn’t even kiss me until we’d been doing this for several weeks,” says Garner, “and we’d already taken our shirts off and made out on the show.”

“It always sounds so cheesy — ‘It was love at first sight’ — so I’m not going to say that,” says Foley. “But that’s what it was.”

A few other notes about Garner: Her favorite recent movies are Election and The Contender. She has a crush on Reese Witherspoon. Her favorite group is Dave Matthews Band. She enunciates words very carefully, in the manner of a stage actress and also of someone who has worked hard to lose her Southern accent. Her sweetness is not of the annoying, saccharine variety. She’ll say things like, “I don’t know, I’m not feeling that great about my spin-heel kick today,” and you can tell she’s being sarcastic, but you’re never quite sure if she’s being sweetly sarcastic or secretly barbedly sarcastic. She says she wasn’t popular in high school but that she wasn’t grossly unpopular, either. She is extremely comfortable in her own skin, not in a pampered Hollywood way but in the way of a driven person who knows herself and what she’s capable of and has been able to follow through, consistently and successfully.

“Our local newspaper called and said what did I think about Alias, how in the first episode she gets tortured and has her tooth pulled out,” says Pat Garner. “I said, ‘Well, I hate to see her tortured, but we’ve seen her raped, we’ve seen her killed, we’ve seen her abort, so what’s a tooth?’

“I think she’s wonderful in Alias, but I still like Rose Hill the best,” continues Pat. “It was a Hallmark Hall of Fame special. It’s about these street urchins who took this baby in and turned their life around. I like the sweet programs.”

I‘M NOT ALLOWED TO WATCH ANY OF THE fight scenes between Garner and Tarantino. “If you were in there,” says one of the crew members, snorting, “you’d know why.” When I return to the set the next day, Garner has a fresh bruise to show off: a large lump in the middle of her forehead, which the show’s makeup artist is dusting with a brush. During the fight, several of Tarantino’s punches went wild. She cups her breasts to suggest where many of the punches landed. She also ducked a punch to the face and ended up banging her head on a Steadicam.

Today, she is filming a tedious scene that involves removing some of her dead mother’s old books from a shelf and flashing a revelatory expression. (These shots, and there are many of them in Alias, are referred to by the crew as “reveals.” When Garner finds out I undertook a marathon eight-episode viewing session to prepare for our interview, she gives me a pitying look. “God,” she says, “I feel so bad for you. That’s so many commercial breaks of me going” — she makes a silent-movie gasp! face.) Afterward, she sits at the fake kitchen counter of her fake TV home and tosses out lines of foreign-language dialogue she’s learned over the course of the season. She says, “Hurry, this man is having an attack,” in Chinese. She says, “They’re my heels,” in Russian. She says, “It’s OK, we can wait until next week,” in Arabic. She’s annoyed that she can’t remember any German. She has just learned some sign language, which she’s shared with her assistant. All week, they’ve been comically signing each other from across the set: “Need coffee?” “Have to pee?”

“There’s nothing else in my life right now,” says Garner. “When I see my friends, I have to think about what I’m going to talk about, otherwise it’s like, ‘Oh, the other day, the DP told this joke. …’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, and one time at band camp …'”

She is called to the next scene, which takes place in an elevator. She and Garber are trapped in it, trying to escape from evil forces; it shudders and takes them back up to the floor they’re attempting to flee. “It’s the emergency-lockdown procedure,” Garber says. “The doorway will automatically open.”

“And,” Garner says, “they’ll be waiting for us.”

“All right,” the director calls out. “You’re Action Girl.” Action Girl is something Garner does to become steely and badass, a sort of parody of an actorly warm-up exercise. She stares at the elevator door and then at the ceiling. Grits her teeth. Shakes her clenched fists at the sky. Grunts out a constipated, “Grrr! I just wanna get in there! Arrr!” Everyone laughs. Then she pulls herself together and stares calmly at the elevator door. She is ready for the next reveal. “And,” somebody yells, “action!”

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