Tucked away at a table at the City Bakery in L.A.'s Brentwood Country Mart, snacking on a mixed-berry scone and sipping tea, Jennifer Garner, 37, wears a red gingham shirt, jeans and a cashmere cardigan. Just seven weeks ago, the actress gave birth to Seraphina Rose Elizabeth, bestowing a baby sister on 3-year-old Violet.
“It's the morning combo of nursing and trying to get Violet to preschool that's such a challenge,” Garner says. “Ben [Affleck, her husband] will do the school run. He dresses her and does her hair. It's pretty funny,” she says, with a playful glance that suggests he hasn't quite mastered the hair thing yet. “You can always tell when he has been at it, just two random barrettes hanging in there. It's so sweet.”
But Garner is not your everyday mom. Being a successful actress, a Neutrogena spokeswoman and a mother of very young children all at once is a challenge. “I always quiz Reese [Witherspoon] about how she does it. I feel like she does a really good job,” says Garner. “I growl at anyone who wants me to do something while I'm with my kids. I say, ‘No, I'm at home, back off!’ Then when I'm working and out of the house, I am in work mode. That's when Ben is there, the other half. We've tried really hard to switch off. So far it's working. I've chosen jobs that weren't as demanding as some can be.”
The career demands began for Garner soon after she graduated from Denison University in Ohio in 1994. She headed to New York City and got her first break working as an understudy on Broadway. She won serious attention in 1998 on the series “Felicity,” and has worked constantly since. Her appeal is easy to explain, say her many friends.
“There is an authenticity to Jen that permeates any image,” says Bradley Cooper, a former co-star on “Alias” (and one of Affleck's co-stars in “He's Just Not That Into You”). “It's the same reason why we vote for certain politicians. There's this innate goodness about her that's intoxicating. She makes you feel good.”
“Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” (Garner's latest film, opening May 1) director Mark Waters says that when it comes to finding actresses able to play the role of the “mentally acute and clever” Jenny, the list isn't long and Garner is at the top. “She's such a peach, but she's very sharp,” he says. “If anything, people underestimate her. She'll call you to task if you're being lazy with a script. She and Matthew [McConaughey, her co-star] had a sort of verbal swordplay. I'd seen her do it before but not so much him. She was a good foil.”
McConaughey agrees. “She's nobody's fool,” he says, “with a heavyweight's wit and a strong sense of self. She doesn't try to prove anything or compete. She just plays her game.”
But others are playing a different game. A typical day for Garner involves being followed by relentless paparazzi, and today is no different: The herd of photographers in the parking lot has grown to 20, so she knows she'll have company on her drive to pick up Violet. She hopes to lose her new friends so she can treat her eldest to a frozen yogurt in peace. “I try not to look,” she says, “but when I see these pictures of Violet and me, I'm always smiling like a monkey, trying not to let her feel my anxiety. That was some really good advice I got about dealing with it. But now that she's older, she's more able to articulate that she doesn't like it. She'll say to them, ‘Please stop flashing your camera in my face,’ but they won't stop. Then she'll say, ‘I don't understand, Mommy. I said please!’ It's just twisted.”
Garner is bothered too about the emphasis on appearance and the unrealistic expectations in Hollywood. Six weeks after giving birth, try being fitted for reshoots of scenes you were originally 20 pounds thinner for. “They had to make me look significantly skinnier with clothes,” she says of the costumers for “This Side of the Truth,” out in September. “These poor ladies who were doing the fitting were just tripping over baby stuff left and right. There wasn't a square foot of floor that didn't have baby gear on it.” She laughs, remembering the absurdity of the moment. “It is what it is. I would think I looked appropriate for someone who had a baby six weeks before. What am I going to do, not eat?”
And with that, it's just about time to jump back into mom mode, pick up Violet, and secure that frozen yogurt.