Jennifer Garner Is Stronger Than You Think She Is
The actress is the celebrity next door, our make-it-work, A-list best friend. And a quiet killer who picks up the phone and calls just about anyone, even Senator Joe Manchin, for the right cause. Who says nice girls finish last?
By Mickey Rapkin and Photographs By Michael Schwartz. Styled By Jordan Johnson
In late July a series of devastating floods ravaged eastern Kentucky and central Appalachia. Rescue efforts were complicated by battered infrastructure, and some 39 people died, including a father of five who stopped to help an injured driver before being swept away by flood waters himself.
It was the kind of tragedy you might see on cable news for a day before the camera trucks inevitably move on. Except Jennifer Garner wouldn’t let them leave. Days after the floods she was on the ground in Kentucky on behalf of the nonprofit Save the Children. Garner, who grew up just 200 miles away in West Virginia, appeared live from there on the Today show and helped the organization get much-needed cash in the hands of parents while also helping teachers get their classrooms ready. “We have a lot of work to do,” Garner told viewers, “but we will dig in.”
Garner, who turned 50 this year, has been digging in with Save the Children for nearly 15 years, first as an artist ambassador and then as a board member. She’s an effective advocate for the same reason she’s such an empathetic actor: Her inherent kindness makes you believe something better is possible. But anyone who thinks Garner is just nice (more on that word soon) isn’t paying attention. What Garner didn’t mention when she was on the air was that she had flown in at a moment’s notice on a rare day off from filming an upcoming streaming series.
“Jen had 24 hours,” says Mark Shriver, the head of Save the Children. “I thought I was going to have to pitch her, because she’s been working like crazy this year, but she said, ‘We’re past that. I’m going.’ ”
“She’s stronger than she thinks she is,” Jennifer Garner says of an upcoming character. The same could be said of the actress.Michael Schwartz
“I have a deal with myself: If I can go, I do,” Garner tells me. “I was tired. It was four months straight of work. I was so excited about my day off.” What would she have done that day? She exhales. “I don’t even know. I would have seen girlfriends. I would have done laundry. I was so behind on everything, one day wouldn’t have been a drop in the bucket. So who cares?”
Long before TV’s Alias made Garner a star 20 years ago, she had been an aspiring actress raised in Charleston, West Virginia, one generation removed from rural poverty in a middle-class family surrounded by it. “My mom grew up on a farm in Oklahoma. Her mom was brilliant at canning, at making something stretch, at finding a way to make it work,” Garner says. “They would sell eggs on the corner to people driving by. My mom makes it sound like it was fun: ‘Don’t go making a sob story out of my life.’ ” But she lived in a house with no running water, her clothing made from repurposed calico feed sacks.
Garner’s mother Patricia, a teacher at a local college, and her father William, a chemical engineer, spent their “life savings” sending their three daughters to college. Yet they didn’t flinch when Garner announced she was changing her major to theater. “They never tried to define my life for me,” Garner says from her shabby-chic home office in Los Angeles. “My mom was just like, ‘Go ahead and study what you love. Then you’ll figure it out.’ ”
“I treat Save the Children like a job—and it’s a job I take as seriously as any job,” says Garner of the nonprofit she has championed for nearly 15 years.Michael Schwartz
Garner doesn’t take that freedom for granted. In a way, that security—that chance to explore—is what she hopes to give others now. When a mutual friend introduced her to Shriver, she committed on the spot. “She said she didn’t want to do something once a year and then not be seen again. She had done her homework,” he recalls. “She said, ‘I care about literacy and how it impacts rural America.’ That’s where Save the Children has been since 1932.”
Save the Children’s services are extensive; the group offers early childhood education intervention in addition to providing medical supplies in the wake of natural disasters. But what sticks with you is the way Garner talks about the “safe spaces” the organization sets up—be it for Afghan refugees coming through Washington, DC’s Dulles Airport or children displaced from their homes by wildfires.
“When kids feel safe, they play,” Garner says, “and play is the most therapeutic thing that can happen for kids when they’ve been through something traumatic. They can release some of the tension, they can release the trauma in their bodies.”
None of this is purely about politics (“Who cares about what side of the aisle? You can’t tell me you believe kids shouldn’t have more opportunities”), and Garner has doggedly worked with Republicans like Senator Roy Blunt from Missouri as well as with Democrats including New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. Her relationship with West Virginia senator Joe Manchin goes way back. Garner got through to him when he was governor in 2010, preaching the importance of investing in early childhood education, securing funding to bring Save the Children’s resources to her home state for the first time.
“Believe me, when anything’s happening, the whole world calls me and says, ‘Maybe you should try Joe Manchin,’ ” Garner says. “I’m like, ‘I’ve got it, I’ll talk to him. I’ll talk to Lance, his chief of staff.’”
If there’s a guiding principle underlying her charitable work, it’s the desire to level the playing field. That’s why, in 2017, Garner co-founded Once Upon a Farm, a startup that sells fresh, cold-pressed, organic baby food—essentially creating a category that didn’t exist. Once Upon a Farm’s vitamin-packed pouches and bowls are now sold across the country. At Garner’s urging, the company went a step further, working with state governments (in Texas, Florida, and Michigan, among others) to make sure its products qualify for the WIC program, which helps feed low-income families.
“Everything is political,” says Once Upon a Farm’s chief executive officer John Foraker, and he credits the expansion to Garner’s refusal to take no for an answer. Last year she cut through some serious red tape to bring her two passions together: Once Upon a Farm and Save the Children pledged to provide 1 million meals to struggling children across rural America by the end of 2024.
“I used to think our competition was the Red Cross. Then I realized we all work together,” Garner says. “And that Save has a really unique and beautiful piece of the puzzle, which is specific to the little kids and to the nursing moms and to the mothers.”
Competitive isn’t a word we often associate with Garner, though we should. “Maybe a little bit,” she says, before answering a question that hasn’t been asked. “I’m not competitive with other women. But I would be competitive on behalf of Save.”
When asked to name Garner’s superpower, Shriver says she’s “incredibly nice.” Nice. Now, that’s a word you hear often when talking about Garner. When she appeared on Katie Couric’s podcast, the episode was titled “Is Jennifer Garner really as nice as she seems?” (Yes, Couric said.) But nice is a funny word. It can be dismissive, though in Garner’s case it arguably works in her favor, disguising a quiet killer who is willing pick up the phone and call just about anyone for the right cause.
With Garner, it’s tempting to read into any crumbs she drops, partly out of curiosity but also because her fans really do feel as if they know her. Her Instagram feed has only cemented her good girl image; it’s one part inspirational clickbait, two parts self-effacing mom jokes. (Garner famously posted a video of herself clumsily emerging from a swimming pool alongside a hot throwback from Alias.)
While we were all stuck at home during the pandemic, she became our make-it-work avatar, memorably hosting the Pretend Cooking Show on Instagram and YouTube, laughing as she bumbled through recipes for homemade biscuits or leftover chicken soup. She was one of us. And her fans could be forgiven for wanting to know what she was thinking when Ben Affleck, the father of her three children, remarried this summer, in a media circus that got way more attention than, say, the floods in Kentucky.
Garner—who spent that weekend shopping at Sam’s Club with her parents and her boyfriend, the Cali Group CEO John Miller—has never commented on the wedding. Why would she? You don’t testify before state legislators to fight for your children’s privacy (as Garner did in favor of Senate Bill 606 a decade ago, alongside Halle Berry) only to put their father on blast.
Addressing that word, nice, she says, “I have no reason not to be nice. My life is lovely.” But, she adds, “I’m not always just nice. I can also be salty, and I can be taciturn, or I can be really serious about what I want to get done. It’s not that I feel I’m underestimated in that way—I’m not afraid to stand up for myself and say, ‘Just so you know, this isn’t going to fly with me.’ When that happens, I don’t want you to be shocked that I’m a real person.”
In April she did do something out of character: She threw herself a splashy 50th birthday party. “I basically had a wedding for myself,” she says with a laugh. “I was so shocked that I was doing it.” But her birthday fell on Easter weekend, and after she invited her sisters and her parents, well, it snowballed. Just let the record show she also asked her guests to fill 5,000 backpacks each with enough food to feed a family of four for a program called Blessings in a Backpack.
“I put everyone to work,” she says. And then they danced to “Rocky Top” by the Osborne Brothers.
There were other reasons to celebrate. Earlier this year Once Upon a Farm closed a $52 million Series D round of financing. (Foraker, who grew the organic brand Annie’s into a powerhouse, had said he’d never run another startup, but he was lured in by Garner’s excitement.) And after having taken some time away to raise her children, Garner just wrapped her first starring role on TV in seven years. The Last Thing He Told Me is about a woman whose husband disappears on the same day his office is raided by the feds, leaving her to put the clues together. Garner lobbied hard for the role, admitting she wrote producer Reese Witherspoon long emails in the middle of the night. When asked what made this character worth fighting for, she tells me, “She’s stronger than she thinks she is.”
Suddenly I wondered if Garner has some unfinished business with Hollywood. “I don’t know,” she says, genuinely thinking about it. “Because I’m not ambitious in that way. Do I feel I’m owed some kind of accolades or something? Not really. I’ve kind of played it differently. How lucky am I that I’ve gotten to work all this time and raise a family? It’s more that the work truly comes from a place of love. I love being with a crew. I love being part of a crew. And I love when I get to be on set. It’s different from anywhere else. It’s just mine.”
By all accounts, Garner is a leader on set and never anything but prepared, and that discipline extends to her philanthropic work. “When she’s visiting homes, she’s taking notes about what they need,” Shriver says. “She’ll then follow up with me. Are we providing more diapers to mothers who are expecting? Did we follow up with the issues that the senator brought up? She’s on it. And she badgers, in the best sense of the word.” Maybe, it occurs to me, we’ve had it wrong all this time. Maybe nice girls finish first.
“If you look at the way Save the Children spends money, if you look at our ratings, if you look at the three-year-olds who have been in our home visitation programs for three years versus their neighbors who have not had that same intervention,” Garner says, almost running out of breath, “the kids in our programs test in line with middle-class kids in the rest of the country.” She apologizes for her long-winded answers, as if that were a thing we needed to hear. “I treat Save the Children like a job—and it’s a job I take as seriously as any job. I mean, how you do anything is how you do everything.”
Image Michael Schwartz