Photo: ABC / Andrew MacPherson
Jennifer Garner ‘94 is famous for several things–scoring a Golden Globe for her work as the buttkicking, wig-loving superspy on Alias, starring in movies such as Elektra and 13 Going on 30, marrying Oscar-winner Ben Affleck and having his baby (who, at press time, was three days past due)–but being a Hollywood party girl is not one of them. So it comes as a surprise that the last time I saw her was, yes, at a Hollywood party. Okay, so she wasn’t swilling Cristal and dancing on a banquette; she was chatting with colleagues about the Children’s Defense Fund, as this was a benefit for the charity held at the home of Alias creator J.J. Abrams. The host was kindly taking me around, and I was shaking hands, introducing myself as James Patrick Herman from InStyle magazine, which I had hoped would sound impressive. But then, with two small words, Jen blew my cover. “Hi, Jamie,” she said.
One of the great things about being an actor is the opportunity to reinvent yourself. When I moved to New York and started writing for magazines, I attempted my own reinvention of sorts–rather than use the nickname I was known by all my life, including my years at Denison, I opted to switch to my more professional-sounding birth name. To her credit, Jen never changed her name to something more maruqee-ish. We both hail from one of the least glamorous states, West Virginia, but whereas I’m usually horrified to admit this, Jen proudly talks about her home in interviews. Hands down, she’s now the Mountain Mama’s most famous export, followed in no particular order by country singer Brad Paisley, the brunette on Three’s Company, and Don Knotts.
What I remember about Jen’s Denison days is how demure, almost shy, she seemed in person and how charismatic she appeared on stage. I reviewed student productions for The Denisonian, which the Theatre Department probably still refers to as “Jamie’s Reign of Terror.” But I could never find anything to criticize about Jen’s performances, and it’s worth noting that her talent was showcased as early as her freshman year. While her gifts have only grown, what truly amazes me is how much she seems to have remained the same, albeit now incredibly buff, gal.
Jen didn’t make it a late night at the party, since she had to go home and learn lines, several in Czechoslovakian, for her TV show, no doubt after enduring a rigorous session with a personal trainer. (And to think I always complain that my own version of homework–schmoozing at Hollywood parties– is exhausting.) Somehow between learning foreign languages and grueling workouts with a martial arts expert, Jen supports a variety of charities. Aside from the Children’s Defense Fund, she has also hosted a benefit for Santa Monica’s Rape Treatment Center and actively participated in a fundraiser for the L..A. Alzheimer’s Association, where she entertained the crowd by singing a duet with her Alias dad, Victor Garber. Add to that maintaining a happy marriage (in a town where that is the exception rather than the rule) and now becoming a mom, which all seems pretty daunting to me, since I’m single and still I can’t even manage to find time to pick up my dry-cleaning. But then I probably spend too much time at parties.
When Denison Magazine asked me to profile Jen for their Entertainment issue, I was sure she would be too busy, especially since in addition to shooting Alias and wrapping up some film projects, she was in the middle of baby-proofing her home (or so I read in US Weekly, I’m ashamed to admit). I was wrong, and Jen graciously squeezed her alma mater into her schedule. “Living and working in the entertainment industry exacerbates whatever your natural tendencies are,” Jen says via email, commenting on the Hollywood lifestyle. “If you have stars in your eyes and love being in the social mix of things, you will have a blast but probably not be any more grounded than when you lived in Ohio. Anyone who knew me at Denison will tell you that I was not one to tear up the town. And now I find the social world of Los Angeles more intimidating than the [Fraternity] Row.” That’s saying a lot considering that the former Greek mecca was then Granville’s answer to the Sunset Strip–the place to see and be seen.
Before she was a spy, a superhero, or a 13-year-old magazine editor, Garner appeared on the Denison Theatre stage as the fragile and neurotic seductress Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (pictured here with Michael Meiners ‘95 as Stanley Kowalski). In addition to acting, the one-time chemistry major delivered many performances at Denison that called on her impressive, though now seldom-used, talents in song and dance.
“I never thought being famous would define me or, frankly, be that much fun,” adds Jen, a chemistryturned- theatre major, who didn’t initially intend to make show business a lifelong commitment. “I always loved to act on stage and was surprised to find myself in front of a camera. If I allowed myself a dream it would have been theatre in New York. Short of a triumphant opening night on Broadway, it’s hard for me to recall any fantasies of fame and fortune. Perhaps that is what left me so ill-equipped for, or at least naïve about, the changes brought about in my life as a result of Alias.”
Jen first became aware of her fame during an activity that other time-pressed celebrities delegate to their personal assistants–a trip to buy Christmas presents at a local mall. “I hadn’t been out in public since the premiere of Alias aired and it dawned on me that day that my life would thereafter, for better or worse, be permanently changed–a threshold had been crossed,” she recalls. “As soon as I arrived I found I could hardly take a step without someone stopping me to talk about the show. The experience was overwhelming–-not only because it made my Christmas shopping trip twice as long but for how it made me wake up to how little I really understood about what was happening to me.”
“It is exciting to me when people respond to something I’ve worked on–and I love being in a job that invites people to come up and say hello,” Jen says, though not every actor is flattered by the attention of star-struck fans. And hardly any of them are happy to see the stalker-like photographers who make money by hiding in bushes and taking pictures of their personal lives. “Paparazzi are not worth the time or energy to include in this conversation,” Jen says. “But it is almost impossible to talk honestly about my life without mentioning the impact they have on anyone who is harassed by them. It is a factor I have learned to deal with and one I have come to terms with, more or less, as the cost of doing business. However, it still distresses me when I see how these intrusions affect and upset my friends and family.”
To their credit, in the countless tabloid photos snapped of Jen and her husband strolling the streets of L.A., they never look angry, as I was when a paparazzo practically knocked me over in an attempt to get a shot of Rick Solomon, whose most memorable performance was in the Paris Hilton sex tape. Having witnessed such reckless and downright dangerous behavior firsthand, it’s scary for me to think what the paparazzi would do–and how far they might go–in order to get a shot of this bonafide celebrity couple.
So how does Jen keep her feet on the ground even as her fame soars? Part of that answer is found back in Granville. “A great deal of my growth has been wrapped up in the confidence and humility provided by building my professional life, but it is an evolution I would likely not have been capable of without the foundation I began at Denison,” Jen says. “I have grown up in fits and starts since graduating. I suppose this experience is not unique to me and may, perhaps, be shared by the lion’s share of my classmates.” Unlike so many movies, there was not one major plot-twist that changed everything in the story of her life, though she does seem destined for a happy ending. “The truth is, I can’t really discern between where I left off and my later experiences and influences began. But I do know I feel like a stronger, more fun version of who I was 10 years ago.” And really, how many of us can say that?
James Patrick Herman is the senior entertainment editor at InStyle magazine.
to Denison’s Future Stars
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to overestimate the value of a liberal arts education as a performer. Any performance is a compilation of your experiences and knowledge at the time of its delivery. Everything is applicable.
THE THEATRE DEPARTMENT at Denison was an amazing training ground for what I do now. The most important gift that Denison gave me was experience. I learned how to carry a story because I did it. I learned how to give a small role the greatest impact because I was encouraged and given the opportunity to do so. I learned to give myself over to whatever I was working on because Denison has the room for a dedicated acting student to do a little bit of everything.
I KICK MYSELF for not taking film classes but I didn’t think they would be relevant to where I believed I was headed. I now realize what a huge resource the Film Department is to the Theatre students and I would encourage any actor to learn every aspect of filmmaking.
IF YOU TAKE ADVANTAGE of Lisa McDonnell in the English Department, you will have a basic understanding of how to get the most out of text. With that, you will be ahead of 98 percent of the competition. You would be surprised at how many people move to Los Angeles without any clue of how a sentence is structured– in other words, how to say a line. With four years of Jon Farris’ classes, this was never going to be my problem. It was impossible to pass his class without the clearest, most thorough understanding of how to talk, how to understand the linguistic underpinnings of the words you were asked to deliver and how even the smallest bit of punctuation can affect the very meaning of a line.
ENJOY YOUR TIME there; it goes by fast. I would love to come back for a semester and brush up on Modern Drama and make a student film and do a little show in the Black Box Theatre–I would probably appreciate it more now than I did then. Mostly, I would love to be there in the fall to walk into town and have a bite to eat between class and rehearsal.