Jennifer Garner on life’s miracles: past, present and future

The star of the new movie “Miracles from Heaven” lives her values in how she approaches her career, family, and helping others.

Actress Jennifer Garner attends the premiere of Columbia Pictures' 'Miracles From Heaven' on March 9, 2016 in Hollywood, California. JB Lacroix | WireImage

In Miracles From Heaven (now in theaters) mother Christy Beam—played by Jennifer Garner—is desperate. Her middle daughter, Anna, is wracked by pain and throwing up in the middle of the night. Her tiny stomach is bloating. And yet doctor after doctor says there’s nothing wrong: it’s acid reflux, they say. Or it’s a bug that’s going around. Maybe she’s lactose intolerant.

But Christy feels her child’s pain. She knows there’s something the doctors keep missing. And finally, she’s had enough. “You run some more tests!” She yells at a doctor. “I’m not leaving this hospital until I know what’s wrong with my daughter!”

It’s a riveting scene, one of many anchored by Garner. She brings stark authenticity to the role—“one of her most emotionally wrenching performances to date,” writes Krista Smith for Vanity Fair. Perhaps that’s because Garner connected so closely with the character of Christy Beam—a mom who’d do anything for her kids—and because she, too, has been rocked by

personal events, including a very publicized split with Ben Affleck.

Scene from MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN, Kylie Rogers, Jennifer Garner, 2016.

Scene from “Miracles from Heaven” from left: Kylie Rogers, Jennifer Garner, 2016. Chuck Zlotnick | Sony Pictures Releasing | Photo courtesy Everett Collection

But the actress leans on a power deeper and stronger than herself to see her through tough times. She knows who she is and what her priorities should be: her children, her extended family, her charity work. She may live in Hollywood, but her values seem worlds away from what we see from many entertainers.

As is her choice of even starring in a faith-based film in the first place. The movie centers around a bizarre and possibly miraculous twist in the life of Garner’s movie daughter Anna Beam, who is suffering from a rare disorder that makes her unable to digest food.

“[Miracles From Heaven] made me really look at my town of Los Angeles and realize we don’t talk about faith,” said Garner after the movie’s premiere. “It is not a conversation that we have between takes on set. On this movie it was.”

Learning family from the best

Garner is no stranger to church. Born April 17, 1972, in Houston, Texas, she spent most of her childhood in West Virginia, where she and her family attended worship services every week. Her mother was an English teacher, her father an engineer. The middle daughter of three, she was the clown of the family—and her mother thought that she might become a writer.

Her upbringing was anything but pampered. Garner’s mother, Patricia, grew up dirt poor on a subsistence farm in Oklahoma, so she knew the importance of frugality and hard work.

“I always had a job,” Garner said during her Southern Living interview. “In high school, I worked at a men’s clothing shop and babysat. In college, I worked at a summer stock theater for free, building sets and cleaning toilets.” She and her sisters were given a $400 clothing allowance every year that they had to stretch for everything from shoes to underwear. The Garner girls were raised to be sensible and smart, like their parents.

She’s smart-funny—she makes you want to be funnier and smarter, and you know that when you throw the best you’ve got her way she’ll make it better.

“I wasn’t raised in a household where vanity was celebrated,” she told Vanity Fair earlier this year. But she didn’t mind being on stage: Garner loved to dance—she’d started taking ballet lessons when she was 3 years old—and, later, to act. She performed whenever she could. But as a child, Garner says she didn’t envision turning either of them into a career. “I wanted to be a doctor, a librarian,” she told USA Today in 2003.

When she went off to college—Denison University in Granville, Ohio—Garner majored in something sensible: chemistry. But she also signed up for a beginning acting class, and it was there that she first read Beth Henley’s play Crimes of the Heart.

“Crimes of the Heart was the first play I read that I completely related to,” Garner told the Oprah website: “I am the middle of three sisters, I come from a Southern family, and I wanted to be cast as one of the girls in this story. I changed my major to theater right after that. I love the immediacy—how a play distills the essence of the story. I’ve been a fan of Beth Henley’s ever since.”

Garner didn’t know how her parents would accept her change of majors, given the uncertainty of acting, but they gave her their blessing. “I think my husband worried that she would be poor her whole life,” Patricia told Southern Living. “But bless his heart, he never told her not to do it.”

Hurrahs and heartbreak

Garner wasn’t an overnight phenomenon. After graduation, she went to Atlanta and performed in Shakespearean plays before moving to New York to take a variety of bit parts. In 2000, she landed her first major film role in the comedy Dude, Where’s My Car and then, the following year, had a small part in the big-budget Pearl Harbor. But it was a recurring role on the television show Felicity that paid the most dividends. In 2001, Felicity producer J.J. Abrams encouraged Garner to audition for a new show he was putting together called Alias. She won the part and starred in the successful show for six seasons, earning critical acclaim. The show made her a star.

“I don’t remember having more fun working with anyone than I’ve had working with her,” Abrams told Vanity Fair. “She’s smart-funny—she makes you want to be funnier and smarter, and you know that when you throw the best you’ve got her way she’ll make it better. No one’s perfect. But no one’s Jen Garner.”

As her reputation grew, some of her habits changed, as well.

“I grew up going to church every Sunday of my life, and when I did move to L.A., it wasn’t something that was just part of the culture there in the same way, at least in my life,” she said on Good Morning America. “But it didn’t mean that I lost who I was.”

Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck arrive at the Oscars, 2013.

Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck arrive at the Oscars at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 24, 2013 in Hollywood, California. Jason Merritt | Getty Images

As she worked on Alias, she also appeared in the superhero movie Daredevil opposite Ben Affleck. The movie was released in 2003, and Garner and Affleck were married just two years later. Over the next several years, they had three children together: Violet, Seraphina and Samuel. Jennifer had been married once before, to Scott Foley (the couple divorced in 2004), but she was sure that her marriage to Affleck would last for the rest of their lives.

It’s always easier to focus on the ways that you feel hurt, but I know that, with time and some perspective, I’ll have a clearer sense of where I let the system down. I cannot let anger or hurt be my engine. I need to move with the big picture always on my mind, and the kids first and foremost.

“I didn’t marry the big fat movie star; I married him,” she told Vanity Fair. “And I would go back and remake that decision. I ran down the beach to him, and I would again. You can’t have these three babies and so much of what we had. He’s the love of my life. What am I going to do about that?”

But last year, Jennifer’s storybook relationship crumbled. The two announced they were seeking divorce just one day after their 10th anniversary. Rumors swirled that Affleck was having an affair with their children’s nanny. Jennifer insists the nanny had nothing to do with the split, but the rumors—along with just everything that goes along with breaking up in the public eye—has made her job as a mother all the more difficult. “I have had to have conversations about the meaning of ‘scandal,’ ” she tells Vanity Fair—difficult conversations to have with children of any age, much less ten, seven, and four, the ages of her children.

Though Affleck and Garner’s divorce isn’t official yet, nothing that’s been said publicly suggests hope for reconciliation. And for the actress, the pain goes deeper than the sad ending of what was once a beautiful relationship.

“I’m a pretty hard worker,” she told Vanity Fair. “It’s one of the pains in my life that something I believe in so strongly I’ve completely failed at twice. You have to have two people to dance a marriage. My heart’s a little on the tender side right now, and it’s always easier to focus on the ways that you feel hurt, but I know that, with time and some perspective, I’ll have a clearer sense of where I let the system down, because there’s no way I get off in this … I cannot let anger or hurt be my engine. I need to move with the big picture always on my mind, and the kids first and foremost.”

A time of healing

Even as the couple move toward a final split, they are still very much “together.” According to E! the two continue to live on the same property and care for the kids together. Entertainment Tonight reported that they vacationed with their children in Yellowstone National Park over Valentine’s weekend.

“The main thing is these kids—and we’re completely in line with what we hope for them,” she said in her Vanity Fair piece. “Sure, I lost the dream of dancing with my husband at my daughter’s wedding. But you should see their faces when he walks through the door. And if you see your kids love someone so purely and wholly, then you’re going to be friends with that person.”

She’s not in it for the photo opportunity. She lives her values. She’s just sort of the anti-diva, and that’s unusual in this community.

Garner’s love for her children spills over into her philanthropy work, where she tries to help other people’s kids. She has worked closely with Save the Children for several years, joining the board in 2014. And she’s campaigned for laws to protect children—her own and those of other Hollywood stars—from the pestering paparazzi.

Jennifer Garner joins kids for a cooking class in support of Save The Children, 2011.

Jennifer Garner joins kids in New York for a lesson in eating fresh to launch the Frigidaire Kids’ Cooking Academy Summer Session in support of Save The Children in 2011 at Blue Hill at Stone Barns Restaurant in Pocantico Hills, New York. Dimitrios Kambouris | Getty Images for Frigidaire

“I would say that she’s very unusual in Hollywood because service is in her DNA,” Katie McGrath, another board member for the Children’s Defense Fund and J.J. Abrams’ wife, told Vanity Fair. “She’s not in it for the photo opportunity. She lives her values. She’s just sort of the anti-diva, and that’s unusual in this community.”

It’s clear that Garner’s warmth and down-to-earth charm—the characteristics that made her such a sought-after actress and spokeswoman (most notably for Capital One and Neutrogena)—aren’t just the products of a savvy agent or Hollywood’s star machine. They’re part of who she is. Little wonder, then, that the story from Miracles From Heaven—so deeply rooted in family, in values, in things eternal—spoke to Garner so powerfully.

“The book kept me up all night,” Garner told Vanity Fair. “It was so compelling and tangible. Her pain, the daughter’s pain, what it did to the family. Christy was so steadfast; she didn’t try to whitewash what was wrong with her daughter. She was next to her helping her know she was strong enough to get through it, and I wanted to be in her skin.” She adds: “I certainly was never on set thinking of my own life, except for my own gratitude. One of the great gifts of the movie was the perspective that came with it.”

Something else Garner received from the movie: she rediscovered church.

“There was something about doing this film and talking to my kids about it and realizing that they were looking for the structure of church every Sunday,” Garner said. “So it was a great gift of this film that it took us back to finding our local Methodist church and going every Sunday. It’s really sweet.”

Paul Asay
Paul Asay
Paul Asay is a movie critic for Plugged In and has written for a variety of websites and publications, including Time, The Washington Post and Beliefnet.com. He’s authored or co-authored several books, including most recently Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet.

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