If not for one perfectly timed phone call, Jennifer Garner might be sitting in a trailer in some far-flung state or Canadian province right now, shooting her first movie in a year after tirelessly promoting yet another kick-ass-heroine turn, in The Kingdom. Instead, she’s curled up barefoot in a Broadway dressing room, surrounded by flouncy purple Renaissance skirts, cradling a script of Anthony Burgess’s rhyming translation of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.
“Like my professor’s good little student, I went through and marked up all the meter as best I could figure out,” she says. Then she erased the marks so she would not be self-conscious in learning them. There is, she implies, nothing fluky or (God forbid) gimmicky about Sydney Bristow from Alias being cast as Roxane, opposite Kevin Kline, in a role trickier than the contemporary, more-accessible parts Julia Roberts and Julianne Moore attempted in their shaky transitions from screen to Broadway. Playing the beloved to Kline’s long-nosed seventeenth-century Frenchman, who writes love letters to her under the name of a handsome friend, is no cakewalk.
When Garner got the call in July—which would require her, husband Ben Affleck, and 18-month-old daughter Violet to move to New York weeks later—she was just about to sign on to a movie she refuses to name. Affleck, on the verge of clawing his way back to respectability with his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, after years in the post-J.Lo wilderness, was aghast. “He said, ‘Oh my gosh, that sounds terrifying. Horrifying,’” Garner recalls. “‘Why would you put yourself in front of 1,500 people every night?’ I didn’t say anything. Then he realized, ‘You really want to do this, don’t you?’”
The director of this Cyrano, David Leveaux, says he’s delighted. He’s reinterpreted a few classics (Fiddler on the Roof, The Glass Menagerie) as vehicles for big-name stars, with varying success but little hesitation. “There was something spectacularly reckless about the whole exercise,” he says, “so I said, ‘Let’s really go with our instincts on this.’”
There is at least one thing Garner seems unwilling to do: affect a diva’s haughty indifference to the experiment. “I’ve definitely had a white night or two,” she says, “thinking, Oh, what have I gotten myself into? I’m just gonna get killed. I care very much what critics say, and I’ve worked really hard at getting whatever chops back for the theater. I started working on my voice way back in L.A. I started working with a movement coach. I had a French teacher. Not all these things are perfect, but I’ve taken it incredibly seriously, and it’s with great humbleness—or humility—that I walk here with Kevin Kline, who seems to know what he’s doing, for real.”
Like much of what Garner asserts in her open and affable way (her child has changed her life, she’s always wanted to work in theater, she didn’t mind being typecast as a karate-chopping spy), her affection for Kline comes across as both road-tested interview cliché and irrefutable truth. In fact, it was her last brush with him that made her give up on theater and New York almost ten years ago to shoot a TV pilot in L.A.
Garner grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, in the sort of high-achieving American family where good cheer and extracurricular activities are strictly enforced. Her sister was a straight-A student, won the state math championship every year, and was the leading majorette in the county. “I had to work hard to be myself,” says Garner, “and not be the less successful version of her.” So she took refuge under the wing of a ballet teacher who “had her finger in every possible performing-arts pie in our little town.” At Dennison University, she switched her major from chemistry to drama, and “spent all of college in corsets and underskirts with a fan in my hand.”
By 1995, at age 23, Garner had broken into Broadway—as an understudy—in a Turgenev play starring Helen Mirren and F. Murray Abraham. But she kept coming in second for leading roles. “I was beaten several times in a row by women who were known from television or movies,” she says. Then came the chance to read with one of her idols, for Lincoln Center’s Ivanov. Kline doesn’t remember auditioning her; she’ll never forget it. “He was so nice to me,” she says. “We read and read and read, and when I didn’t get the job, I was crushed.” A couple of years later, L.A. wasn’t looking so bad. She was guest-starring on Felicity opposite Scott Foley, who became her first husband. Was theater still in the back of her mind? “In the front of my mind,” she says, eyes widening. “I thought, Well, maybe if I go and something works out here it’ll mean that I can do theater.”
Now the question is, Might there be some perfect Roxane out there feeling crushed because she came in second to a screen star whose celebrity is perhaps her greatest asset? Leveaux admits her fame “is part of the thing,” but more important, he says, is that Roxane be “inherently proactive, somebody who can go head-to-head with Kevin. She’s rather what Juliet is, although an older version”—a character who can either be iconic wallpaper or drive the action like a good (some would say anachronistic) proto-feminist.
“She’s absolutely modern,” Leveaux says of Garner, “but she’s not modern in a sense that she’s laconic. She doesn’t feel that she’s got to do that off-the-shoulder thing or hide behind some irony. She’s very direct; you can actually watch the mind working. Which is deeply French.”
Actually, irony is deeply French. Directness is deeply American, and so is the idea that conveying emotion is hard work. “She is very talented at love,” he continues. “Some people just fall in love, and some people are talented at it.”
Two weeks ago, Garner had more on her mind than just the challenges of Cyrano. Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone would open the next day. “This week, before it comes out, it’s just all anxiety, to be honest,” she said. She was also rooting for another beloved underdog, the Red Sox, who were facing postseason annihilation. “If the boys pull it together and play tonight, we’ll be unstoppable the rest of the time.”
As it turns out, the Sox are in the World Series, and Affleck is now an acclaimed director. Broadway success—perhaps the diciest proposition of them all—would complete the redemptive trifecta. But either way, Garner is putting her guns away. “Will you see me in red pleather anytime soon? No,” she says. “I proved to myself physically that I can do that kind of thing.” She plays an uptight wannabe mom in December’s Juno, a sweet indie movie starring Michael Cera. What she’d really like to do, though, is a musical. “I’m just putting it out there,” she says. “A movie musical, preferably.” That’s a tricky genre, isn’t it? “They are, but when they do work, they’re kind of magical. Every time one works, I cheer.”