"you can’t wait for it!" Jennifer Garner on her return to TV and stepping in for Julia Roberts

Center: Jennifer Garner (Photo: Steve Granitz/Getty Images); left: Garner in The Last Thing He Told Me (Photo: Apple TV+); right: Garner in Party Down (Photo: Starz)

Jennifer Garner has an impressive roster of characters to her name: 13 Going On 30's spunky Jenna Rink; Juno's heartrending Vanessa Loring; Dr. Eve Saks in the Oscar-nominated Dallas Buyers Club. But her career-defining role remains ABC'sAlias. Garner led the five-season drama and earned Emmy nominations as double agent Sydney Bristow, helping to spearhead a new wave of strong female characters on the small screen in the early 2000s.

Since Alias ended in 2006, Garner hasn't returned to TV for an extended role, save for one season on 2018's Camping. She has, however, emerged as a scene-stealer on the small screen this spring. The actor leads Apple TV+'s The Last Thing He Told Me, a heartfelt family thriller based on Laura Dave's novel of the same name. The seven-part drama allows Garner's Hannah to explore a smorgasbord of emotions—motherhood, grief, confusion, and love—on her quest for the truth about her husband's disappearance while protecting her teen stepdaughter Bailey (Angourie Rice).

Garner also joined the cast for Starz's long-awaited Party Down revival, which premiered in February. In season three, she plays Evie, the surprising love interest (in the absence of Lizzy Caplan) of Adam Scott's Henry. Not surprisingly, Garner proves to be incredibly funny and fits the show's sensational dry comedic routine like a glove.

Although 2023 is barely underway, Garner is clearly having a memorable year. The A.V. Club spoke to Garner about what compelled her about both projects, what she wanted to evoke with her TLTHTM performance, taking over for Julia Roberts in the show, and the experience of being directed by Ken Marino in Party Down.

The A.V. Club: With Party Down and now The Last Thing He Told Me, this year feels like your significant return to television. Why was the time right for these projects?

Jennifer Garner: I love the writing of both shows. I was a huge fan of Party Down's initial two seasons. I was just happy to be involved and had a blast with those guys. I loved Evie. I loved Evie and Henry together. But goodbye, Evie. [Laughs]. As for TLTHTM, I would've done anything to play this role. I knew I had the capacity to dive into a role in a way I haven't in a long time, and I wanted to luxuriate in that process.

AVC: How was that process for you after all these years? Did it evolve in any way?

JG: It had everything I loved about TV, meaning having a longer span of time to tell the story, to get to know your character and deepen relationships with the other actors. Yet it didn't have anything that made TV so impossible to do, namely 16-, 17-, and 18-hour days for nine months straight. I was able to read and work on all the episodes before we started filming. It was such a gift to work through them with [series creators] Josh Singer and Laura Dave and craft the character repeatedly as she charted her course through the hardest time in her life.

The Last Thing He Told Me — Official Trailer | Apple TV+

AVC: One of the things that struck me is how commendably restrained your performance is because Hannah is struggling to keep her emotions in check for Bailey's sake, for the most part. How did you land on evoking that aspect?

JG: I did want to [evoke that], but I have to give credit where credit is due. I was so emotional shooting these scenes. Josh helped me out by constantly reminding me to, first of all, keep my act together. My favorite thing is to be full emotionally and then find a take where you have to hold it all in, but you must first go all the way there [emotionally] to find that take believably. We danced that dance the whole show, and I had such a partner in Josh.

AVC: You took over Hannah's role after Julia Roberts was supposed to star in it initially. Was there any apprehension? Or were you just excited to explore Hannah as a character?

JG: If Julia Roberts wants to star in something, you can't wait for it, and don't question it. So it was not until she stepped out due to scheduling problems that I even let myself dream. I was already such a huge fan of the book, so I campaigned pretty hard for this role. I stayed up late and wrote letters about it to spell out, "This is what I see. This is what the role distills down to for me. I'm not like Hannah in so many ways, but here are the core ways in which I am."

I was nervous not because of taking over Julia Roberts—that's something you can't even think about—but because the book is so beloved. The fans are rabid, and I am one of them. So I wanted all of us to be satisfied with the end result. That remains to be seen because the fans will have to let us know how we did.

AVC: How much did you connect with Hannah on a personal level, and how much of her was based on the book and script?

JG: I'm not like Hannah in a lot of ways. She's more still and restrained than I am in every way, even down to her vocal register, which is much lower than mine. I worked with a vocal coach before and during production to achieve this. Lucky for me, Hannah's career is turning wood. I learned to turn wood with my coach, Aaron Hauser, and we worked on it for months. It was such a pleasure. It was in the stillness, the concentrated act of working with the lathe, gouge, and block of wood, that I learned to be calmer and quieter. It's all about shaping something. You don't know what it's going to look like. You can't even envision it, but it becomes what it's meant to be, and it surprises you in the process of becoming. That's such an apt metaphor for this process for me [as an actor] and for then for Hannah's life in general.

AVC: Have you talked about whether TLTHTM will get a second season even though it ends in the same way the book does?

JG: Believe me, Angourie Rice and I are desperate to work together again. We so badly want more of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's Owen too. He wasn't with us every day, but his presence loomed over the production in a way that pulled us through the story. And even with Angourie, I can't think of another role I've had that has centered so much on another performer for such a long period of time. I could not be more grateful for what she taught me during this time. So we'd want to do it again. But nothing is in talks right now. Laura would have to write something again, but I personally think it's a great idea.

Party Down | Official Trailer | STARZ

AVC: I want to ask you about Party Down again and what it was like for you to be on that set, because it's also a reunion for the other cast members after 13 years.

JG: I loved getting to watch them be together again. They were like a big pile of kids, they were clearly so happy to be together again. And you couldn't find a group of people who are more likely to say, "Come on, come sit with us." I had Zoë Chao and Tyrel Jackson Williams as the fellow new kids to hang out with as well, so that was cool.

AVC: Would you want to do more comedic roles like Party Down and Evie?

JG: If I'm with a group like that and Ken Marino is directing me, then sign me up. My favorite episode of Party Down to film is the one he directed, the one where Evie, Henry, and everyone gets high [season three, episode four, "KSGY-95 Prizewinner's Luau"]. All these people that have worked in comedy forever have different skill sets. They understand and hear a rhythm that I need a little help with, and Ken was such a great teacher. It did make me want to do more of that kind of comedy.

I do have another film I worked on; I guess did have a big year of work. I produced and developed another family film for Netflix called Family Leave, directed by McG. It's a big fat body switch movie with Emma Myers, Ed Helms, Brady Noon, and Rita Moreno. We could not [laughs] ... it's so ridiculous. So it's been the perfect flip of the coin for me.

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