Jennifer Garner Thinks ‘the Core’ of Motherhood Is Doing the Impossible

Jennifer Garner is a woman on a mission. For over two decades, the acclaimed actress has brought depth and humanity to a bevy of memorable roles on the big screen, including Jenna Rink in 13 Going on 30, Vanessa Loring in Juno, and Dr. Eve Saks in Dallas Buyers Club. But in recent years, Garner—who rose to fame in the early aughts and earned four consecutive Emmy nominations for her portrayal of double agent Sydney Bristow on the ABC spy thriller series Alias—has made it a point to return to television.

Following a well-received supporting turn in Starz’s Party Down revival earlier this year, Garner has stepped into her latest leading role in The Last Thing He Told Me, which premieres today on Apple TV+. Based on Laura Dave’s bestselling novel of the same name, the seven-part miniseries follows Hannah Hall (Garner), a woman who must protect and forge an unlikely relationship with her teen stepdaughter, Bailey (Angourie Rice), to uncover the truth about the mysterious disappearance of her husband, Owen Michaels (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who left them with a couple of cryptic notes and a duffel bag full of cash.

“Obviously, for all of us, our past has everything to do with who we are and where we are,” Garner tells “As they try together to figure some things out about the man in their lives, Hannah becomes more and more respectful of where Bailey is and what Bailey needs to know in order to be her partner and be along for the ride with her. [Hannah] thinks of herself as someone who doesn’t miss much. … But when you love someone, it’s amazing what you [can] rewrite as it’s happening.”

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It’s a meaty role that was Garner’s for the taking. After discovering that Julia Roberts had to drop out of the project due to a scheduling conflict, Garner, who had read the novel out loud with her middle child as a bedtime story, sat down late one evening in 2021 and penned multiple letters—including one to executive producer Reese Witherspoon—in which she made her case for playing Hannah. For Dave, who co-created the adaptation with her Oscar-winning husband Josh Singer, Garner’s insight into the character allowed her to see a heroine, whom she had dreamed up over a decade ago, in a new light.

“The most important thing was that I never wanted Hannah to be a victim of this story; I wanted her to be a hero of her own life. I knew that Hannah was a complicated character in that she had to be both strong and vulnerable; she had to be completely independent and yet not so aloof that you didn’t believe that she would move and give up all sorts of things to start this new family,” Dave says. “I’ve now watched the show so many times, and every time I’m more moved by the very small changes that you see in her from where she starts to where she ends up, [as well as] how she carries herself differently as she has to make this sacrifice [to protect Bailey]. Jen is just Hannah to me from this day forward.”

In a recent video call from Los Angeles, Garner sat down to discuss the inherent strength required of motherhood, the evolution of her storied career, and her long-awaited, on-screen reunion with a blast from her Alias past.

During a Television Critics Association panel in January, you said that you’ve always been drawn to playing women “who learn their own strength in spite of themselves.” What kind of material do you find yourself drawn to now compared to earlier in your career, and how did The Last Thing He Told Me align with the kinds of stories you’re looking to tell at this stage of your life?

I think I’m more open to wrestling with bigger and bigger questions, because as you get older, life gets more and more full, more complicated, more complex. You’re asked to hold more emotions at the same time about one thing, so it’s a luxury to have a job where you can play that out. And [in] The Last Thing He Told Me, there’s so much going on for Hannah at once. Part of what’s so incredible about the book, and hopefully [what] you find true about the series, is that you really are watching a thriller unfold as you are watching a love story between what will become a mother and daughter. And at the same time, you have a romance just torn asunder by circumstance, and you have a woman who’s trying to figure out, “Do I know my partner? Has he been lying to me? What do I know? What do I not know?” And [she’s] just having the guts to follow her own instincts, and I love that for her.

Hannah falls head over heels in love with Owen, but it’s clear, at least in the early stages of this story, that she is still honing her maternal instincts. What did you find most challenging about playing a woman who struggles to connect with her child and has to grow into her power and confidence as a mother?

That was the trickiest part for me—you have it exactly right. As a mom of three and somebody who loves teenagers and loves working with young actors and diving off the deep end as though I’ve been their mother their entire lives, having to pull back and have quite the opposite relationship with Angourie and Bailey was really challenging for me. It made me realize how handsy I am with my kids. I’m always just messing with them, hugging them, [doing] something. And I had to tell myself over and over, “This is Bailey. Keep your hands to yourself.” [Laughs.] But Angourie led the way. She was crystal clear about where Hannah and Bailey were in those first couple of episodes, and she helped set the pace for us and our direction as we slowly built from people who didn’t know what to do with each other, to becoming more and more of a team.

angourie rice as bailey and jennifer garner as hannah in the last thing he told me

Angourie Rice as Bailey and Jennifer Garner as Hannah in The Last Thing He Told Me.

Ryan Green

Hannah isn’t exactly a double agent, but she is astute enough to know how to protect Bailey and think on her feet.

Hannah had no idea that she had the capacity to lie, that she had the capacity to turn on a dime, that she could make moves this big [and] this quickly. She is given an instruction by her husband to protect Bailey, and she takes that [to mean] everything. That really becomes her, I don’t know how to speak French, but her raison, you know what I mean?

Her raison d’être. [Her reason for being.]

Yeah, thank you. [Laughs.] And she takes it so literally, physically, emotionally. She takes it to mean: “Protect Bailey’s identity and who she is and what’s integral to her happiness.” So she has very clear guardrails for how to get that done.

Can you pinpoint a specific point in your own life where you felt like you were able to come into your power both personally and professionally at the same time?

Yeah, there are a few moments where I realized, “I am a mother. I am my own woman. I am totally fine. I am okay.” But more interesting is the scene that made me have to play the role, that just felt so true to me. [There] was a scene in a diner where Hannah has to tell Bailey some really hard truths that nobody has told Bailey in the past. … She has to be big enough to tell Bailey these heartbreaking truths about herself.

And that, to me, is parenthood; that is motherhood. Seeing something impossible like that and doing it anyway—and I’ve seen it for myself. This is taking it to the extreme, but I’ve seen that strength in mothers when I visit children’s hospitals, and the mothers are in the room, and [I’m] thinking, “What are the conversations this mom has had to have with this child?” That’s where the core of womanhood lies—it’s in that strength.

jennifer garner

Apple TV+

Were there any specific lines or moments from the book that you fought to include in this adaptation, even if they’re used in a slightly different context?

I would say one of the only sticking points that I had with Josh Singer, who’s our incredible showrunner and whom I just could not adore more, is I just wanted more and more of the book. And because I read the book every morning in hair and makeup up to wherever we were, whatever we were shooting that day, I would just go in and fight for a moment from the book. [Laughs.] I’d fight for another line, another moment, the phrasing that I really loved that Laura had [used]. I loved Josh’s writing and all of our writers, but there was always something [in the book], like, “But this is Hannah.”

To me, Hannah is defined by a couple of things that come up. She says, if somebody asks her for something, and it’s someone she loves, she says, “Of course.” And she is completely, fully all in on the people that she loves. I asked Laura at one point, “What are two things Hannah says that define her in a relationship?” And she could not figure out what in the world I meant. And I said, “They come up several times in the book, Laura. You wrote it! What are they?!” [Laughs.] And she was like, “Oh, I guess so…” And then I went back and showed her everywhere that they were in the book.

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This part also gave you a chance to tap back into your Alias roots. Your character encounters several shady figures and finds herself in some high-stakes chases, and you were able to reunite with your “spy daddy,” Victor Garber, albeit in a different context. Were you responsible for his casting? What was it like to finally work with him again after all those years?

I speak to Victor every Sunday. He is my spy daddy forever. And lucky for me, Josh is enough of a theater fan and enough of Victor’s fan to want to bring him back independent of me, so we were working together to think about what would be the perfect role. We hadn’t worked together in all these years, but we are so much in each other’s lives, and it was really just beyond special to be on set with him again. And it made me believe, more than ever, that we really should revisit working with people we love again and again and again, because it only deepens [your connection], it only gets better and better.

You’ve admitted in the past that people like Reese Witherspoon have been in your ear, going, “Don’t think that people are out there writing for women in their mid- to late 40s,” but you are both part of this wonderful wave of seasoned actresses who are now executive producing your own projects. What do you think has been the biggest change in recent years, when it comes to the growing number of roles for women of a certain age?

I think a huge part of the movement and the reason things have changed the way they have—we just have to give that to Reese. She is not kidding around about lifting women up: women authors, women-driven stories, stories where women are the hero of their own lives. And you see that play out not just in the books that she chooses, in the books she decides to adapt, but also in the people that are on the set—all female producers, except for Josh Singer. He’s so emotional and gushy; he’s the best kind of man. All women directors [directing] a female-driven story that is really about strength and love and family—that’s Reese through and through. She gave this opportunity to me. Just look at what she’s done for the women in our industry. And of course, not only is she doing it, she’s encouraging all of us to do it for ourselves as well.

Your body of work really speaks for itself; you’ve managed to do so much varied work across different genres for the last 25 years. Has there been a guiding principle by which you have chosen to move through this business?

That’s so nice of you [to say]. I hate to say that so much of it is what’s gonna fit in my kids’ lives [laughs], and so, so much is driven by that and how to shoot in L.A. as they go through high school and all of that. But that is not what drew me to this. I am very careful about what I put out into the world. There are so many incredibly written, beautiful stories that I just can’t be part of making because it wouldn’t serve my soul. And then, otherwise, I’m constantly looking for, “What haven’t I done for a while? And what would be a surprise for me?” I just think I’m so lucky to keep working after all this time, especially when I’ve given so much of myself to being home or working with Save the Children or doing all the other things that I do. The fact that I can still get up and go to this job is just the luckiest thing in the world, and I don’t ever forget it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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Max Gao is a freelance entertainment and sports journalist based in Toronto. He has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, NBC News, Sports Illustrated, The Daily Beast, Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, Men’s Health, Teen Vogue and W Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @MaxJGao.


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