1994–2001: Career beginnings
In 1994, Garner appeared in Atlanta productions of two Shakespeare plays, The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by the Georgia Shakespeare Company.
In 1995, Garner started pursuing theater in New York City and earned $150 a week as an understudy in the play A Month in the Country for Roundabout Theatre Company. She was then cast in her first television role as part of a made-for-television movie Zoya, based on the Danielle Steel novel. In the late 1990s, she made brief appearances in individual episodes of Spin City and Law & Order while also securing roles in two short-lived television series, Significant Others and Time of Your Life. During her time on Spin City she met Stephen Colbert and became an occasional babysitter for his kids.
In 1996, Garner appeared as Sarah Troyer, a young Amish woman, in Harvest of Fire, a made-for-TV movie starring Patty Duke.
In 2000, Garner appeared in the comedy Dude, Where’s My Car? opposite Ashton Kutcher, playing the girlfriend of Kutcher’s character. In 2001, she appeared as the supporting character of a nurse in the big-budget epic Pearl Harbor, starring her future husband Ben Affleck.
2001–05: Television breakthrough and transition to film
Later in 2001, J.J. Abrams, the producer of Felicity, in which Garner had played a recurring role since 1998, approached Garner to audition for the role of Sydney Bristow in his new spy drama Alias. Garner, who up until then had mostly played weepy waifs, did not learn that she “might have to throw a punch or kick” until the first few days of the audition.Told that she “throws like such a girl” and with no background in martial arts or gymnastics, she enrolled in a month-long, private Taekwondo class to prepare for the audition. Even as Garner was cast after several auditions, Abrams revealed that he remained panicked with the thought that she might not be able to pull off the role, especially as, on the first day of shooting, he was told by Garner herself, “I don’t think I can do this.”Garner later commented, “I was such a girlie-girl then. I didn’t even know how to punch.” While she performed many of the action sequences during the series herself, the dangerous explosions and complex fights were handled by her stunt double, Shauna Duggins. The first few episodes of season one of Alias, which averaged about 10.2 million weekly viewers, earned Garner the award for “Best Actress in a Television Series — Drama” at the 2002 Golden Globe Awards. Garner’s salary for the show began at $40,000 an episode and rose to $150,000 per episode by the series’ end. During the show’s run, Garner received four consecutive Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Television Series Drama nominations as well as Emmy Award nominations for her lead performance. She won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series in 2005. That same year, during the fourth season, Garner directed the Aliasepisode “In Dreams”, which aired in May. She received producer credit during the series’ final season. The series concluded in May 2006 after a shorter fifth season that was abbreviated from 22 to 17 episodes due to Garner’s pregnancy, which was written into the season’s storyline.
After the initial success of Alias, Garner made a big screen cameo in the Steven Spielberg film Catch Me if You Can in 2002; Spielberg had seen her on the show and wanted her to play that small role. Her breakout film role came when she played Ben Affleck’s love interest as Elektra Natchios in the action movie Daredevil(2003), an adaptation of the comic book. Garner stated that her training for Daredevil was more grueling than her work on Alias, and revealed that as she got hung up on wires several times during fight sequences, Affleck became “in charge of reaching up and saving [her].” She was involved in a potentially serious accident on the set of Daredevil when, entangled in wires with her arms stuck and unable to move while doing a flip, she came crashing towards a wall “head-first with such velocity, that [she] was about to smash [her] head into the wall”. Recalling how she was rescued by Affleck, she said in 2003, “out of nowhere comes this 6 ft. 4 in. red devil who just kind of put his arms out and shouts: ‘I’ve got her!’ I’m telling you, it was like, ‘I’ve got my own superhero.'” While Daredevil got mixed reviews, it was a box office hit.
Garner starred in her first leading role in 13 Going on 30 (2004), a moderate commercial success. Reviewers praised her performance as “radiant” and “effervescent without ever being cloying”, and The Christian Science Monitor commented that “while Garner is no Tom Hanks, she’s consistently appealing”.Her second lead role saw her reprising the character of Elektra in the 2005 Daredevil spin-off titled Elektra, a box office disaster that was panned by critics. The Boston Globe stated, “Based on Garner’s humorlessness, lack of vocal inflection, and generally bland disposition, ‘the Way’ she has yet to grasp seems to be that of acting,” whereas USA Today concluded that “Jennifer Garner … is far more appealing when she’s playing charming and adorable, as she did so winningly in 13 Going on 30.
Garner performed the Frank Loesser song “My Heart Is So Full of You” on the 2006 charity album Unexpected Dreams – Songs From the Stars. She appeared in the films Catch and Release (2006) and the action thriller The Kingdom (2007) alongside Jamie Foxx, Jason Bateman and Ashraf Barhom.
Garner then appeared in the Jason Reitman-directed comedy/drama feature Juno, which became a sleeper box office hit, grossing over $230 million from a production budget of $7.5 million. Kyle Buchanan of New York Magazine described the film as a turning point in Garner’s career: “She came into the movie a steely figure, and left it as the mother you’d give your own child to. He said a scene in which she spoke to her potential adoptive child in her mother’s stomach as “Garner’s best screen work ever … writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman expertly deploy Garner’s innate humanity as a trump card.” Entertainment Weekly declared Garner’s work the best female supporting performance of the festival, saying, “The star of Alias and The Kingdom does no butt-kicking in this sweet comedy. Instead, as a young wife desperately hoping to adopt, she’s funny, a bit tough, and unbelievably touching.” Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly said, ” I don’t think Jennifer Garner has ever been lovelier or more affecting than in her turn as Vanessa.” Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times found Garner “touchingly awkward” in the “beautiful” scene in which Garner’s character spoke to Juno’s unborn baby.
Garner made her Broadway debut on November 1, 2007, playing Roxanne in Cyrano de Bergerac alongside Kevin Kline at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway. The show was originally set to run until December 23, 2007, but it was extended through January 6, 2008 due to the Broadway stagehand strike in late 2007. She then had the starring role alongside Matthew McConaughey in the 2009 romantic comedy Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, that came out to negative reviews but was a modest commercial success.Also in the 2009, she had the lead in Ricky Gervais’ directorial debut The Invention of Lying. A romantic comedy, the movie was released to favorable feedback from critics and audiences alike and modest earnings at the box office.During a promotional interview for the movie, Garner remarked why she was drawn to the project: “When I first read it [the script], I just laughed out loud, and that’s the most important thing. I loved the way my character was introduced. I loved the challenge of looking at a scene and thinking, I have to play this with no subtext, no irony, no sarcasm and just be as straightforward as I could possibly be. I think that’s a really interesting acting challenge”. In 2010, Garner appeared in the ensemble romantic comedy Valentine’s Day, directed by Garry Marshall, which also starred Ashton Kutcher, Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Anne Hathaway, Julia Roberts, former Alias co-star Bradley Cooper, and Patrick Dempsey among others. She portrayed the girlfriend of Dempsey’s character.The film was a commercial success, grossing over $215 million worldwide.
She starred in Arthur a remake of the 1981 film. The film received poor reviews and failed at the box office with a total gross of $45 million on a $40 million budget. In the same year, Garner was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The following year, she appeared in the drama The Odd Life of Timothy Green, as Cindy Green.The film is about a magical pre-adolescent boy whose personality and naïveté have profound effects on the people in his town. It received mixed reviews from critics and had modest ticket sales in its theatrical run. In October 2012, Butter – starring Garner – was released, to mixed feedback from critics and poor earnings at the box office. Despite the reception for the film, several reviews like those for Austin Chronicle and Variety expressed praise for Garner’s part. Garner reunited with Matthew McConaughey in the 2013 film Dallas Buyers Club, which received positive reviews and was a box office success with a worldwide gross of $55 million over a production budget of $5 million. On April 24, 2013, Garner began filming Summit and OddLot Entertainment’s dramedy Draft Day in New York and Cleveland, Ohio. The film also stars Kevin Costner, was directed and produced by Ivan Reitman, and was released in 2014. Garner also co-starred with Steve Carell and Ed Oxenbould in the 2014 Disney adaptation of the popular children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Garner starred in the 2015 comedy-drama film Danny Collins alongside Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Bobby Cannavale and Christopher Plummer. In 2014, Garner was recognized by Elle Magazine during The Women in Hollywood Awards, honoring women for their outstanding achievements in film, spanning all aspects of the motion picture industry, including acting, directing, and producing