Jennifer Garner Goes Camping

“I never thought that I would be on HBO.
I feel so fancy!”

Jennifer Garner is sitting with a dozen international reporters in a meeting room at the Beverly Hilton hotel. Her smile, energy, and all-around good nature practically light up the room.

Next to her is executive producer Jenni Konner, who brings her own dialed-down vibe of wry, New York detachment. The two are the yin and yang of television interview opportunities.

Both are there to promote Camping, an eight-episode comedy set in the great outdoors. 

Adapted from a British series, Camping is about eight friends who decide to celebrate one member’s 45th birthday by going on an extended trip in the woods. Garner plays Kathryn, an exhaustively controlling, tightly wound helicopter mom determined to keep a pellet gun out of the hands of her young son, Orvis (Duncan Joiner). Scotland’s David Tennant (Doctor Who, Broadchurch) plays birthday boy Walt, her henpecked, over-trained husband. Juliette Lewis is by far the most free-spirited of their group. Arturo Del Puerto, Ione Skye, Janicza Bravo, Brett Gelman, and Bridget Everett round out the diverse and playful ensemble.

Executive producer Konner did most of the directing, adapting the scripts with her friend and former business partner, Lena Dunham (Girls).

This is Garner’s first lead series role since her breakout performance as Russian-Canadian spy Sydney Bristow in the ABC action drama Alias (2001–2006). Since then, she has been a movie star, (13 Going on 30; Love, Simon), a wife (married and divorced Ben Affleck), a mom (to two daughters and a son), and, unfortunately, a relentless tabloid target.

“My problem with camping was [that] always, paparazzi followed me,” the 46-year-old actress says. “I could have used a pellet gun, for sure.”

Born in Texas and raised in West Virginia, Garner had some reservations about playing such an uptight character. “It scared me when I watched the British version because [the main character is] really unflinching.” 

She’d had her fill of playing tightly wound women before in films such as Juno and Butter. That was until she read Dunham and Konner’s pilot script.

"We are all messed up, and we do all carry our baggage with us..."

“They help you to understand why she is the way she is,” she says. “That’s all you need for me. We are all messed up, and we do all carry our baggage with us and we are all annoying to be around at times, and it’s nice to just unpack it and see why.”

Plus, Garner just loved some of the lines. “I mean, being in a scene with David and saying: ‘Do you want me to have a dysfunctional pelvic floor for the whole of your birthday weekend?’ Like, who gets to say that every single day at work?” 

Garner took exception when asked by one member of the foreign press if her character, Kathryn, was anything like any “nightmare L.A. moms” she knows. 

“I don’t live in a world of moms who are anything like my character. And at the same time, I see bits of Kathryn in myself and in my friends all the time.”

Tennant got in on the promotional conversation earlier that day via satellite. Speaking to a ballroom full of critics at the same hotel, he said he welcomed the role of “sweet and open-hearted and long-suffering” Walt — especially after playing psychopaths in such projects as Jessica Jones and Bad Samaritan. The 47-year-old says Walt is “possibly most like the real me that I’ve ever done. So it was hugely appealing to kind of get into that head space and bucket hat.”

He even dared to imply that Garner is not unlike her character. “I’m not suggesting for a second Jennifer is as mad as Kathryn is, but we’ve both had sort of character traits that I think we could identify with. Is that clear to say, Jen?”

Put on the spot, sitting on a stage under Tennant’s giant head projected via satellite up on a screen, what else could Garner do but agree? “There’s a folder in my life, yes,” she admits. “I have a paper planner. Yes, thank you.”

This is an actress who, after all, helped build sets, sell tickets, and clean the venue while performing in summer stock as a college student. She likes to get involved.

Konner stepped in to clear things up, telling reporters: “I think you can find yourself in these characters and hope you’re not entirely like these characters.”

As for actual camping, these three have very different opinions.

Garner loves it but has to stay in stealth mode, sticking to backyard overnight tent parties with her kids.

Konner hates camping. “When we made the show, I don’t know what I was thinking. We were in the woods every day and it was a terrible mistake.” 

A snake wrangler went in each morning to make sure the set was critter-free. “You don’t often see that on a set in Britain,” Tennant says.

He had low expectations to start with, having been flooded out of his tent in his one and only camping experience. “I do quite like home comfort and a shower and not smelling. Clean undercrackers [i.e., underwear]. These things are important.”

By all accounts, however, the entire ensemble had a blast on this Camping trip. Garner said she would pitch tents again “in a heartbeat” with these eight actors. She also loved that the series was shot in parkland close to her home and family in Los Angeles. The relatively quick, eight-episode shoot was a factor in her taking the series.

“That’s partly how you get a Jennifer Garner to be in your show,” notes Konner, “because it is eight and done and if you have a bad time — later!”

There were no bad times, Tennant insists, “because it was this cast of eight actors basically sitting around a campfire every day.” Lines were rewritten and ad-libbed; sun screen was shared, and there was catering.

At the end of each day, “we got to go home at night and have a shower,” Tennant says. “I believe that’s the best way to camp.”

~Bill Brioux is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and contributor to the Canadian Press.