“It was porta potty central!”
It’s a sunny fall afternoon in early October and Jennifer Garner, stylishly casual in a luxe gray sweater, black leather miniskirt and barely-there makeup, is recounting the unglamorous side of filming almost exclusively outdoors for HBO’s new comedy, Camping. “We only ever saw a porta potty, but that’s really not that big of a deal once you commit,” Garner states matter-of-factly, as she lounges on a couch in a quaint four-star Beverly Hills, California, hotel room with her co-star, David Tennant,by her side. “There were rattlesnakes.” “If you walk through any sort of long grass, you’ll hear,” Tennant chimes in, miming the rattlesnake handler they had on set, prompting Garner to react with laughter. “‘GET OFF THE GRASS!’ and you had to remind yourself that that was an issue.”
In the eight-episode series, adapted from a British property by Girls team Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, Garner plays controlling, quintessential type-A mom Kathryn Siddell-Bauers, who throws what’s meant to be a low-key 45th birthday weekend for her meek and obedient husband, Walt, but which quickly unravels into a weekend of tested marriages and unexpected revelations among their quirky group of friends and family members. Garner and Tennant aren’t new to the rigors of television, though it’s been a while since Garner has led her own show — since she donned the red wig as undercover spy Sydney Bristow on Alias, which wrapped more than a decade ago.
For the 46-year-old actress, Camping was a departure and a reprieve. Not only was she being asked to play a character so completely opposite from the good-natured, lady-like women she’s portrayed in the past, but Garner had also just finished filming the emotionally and physically exhausting vigilante movie, Peppermint, and had a desire to cleanse her palette with lighter fare. Camping came through at just the right time.
“I had just finished this action movie and it was so brutal and sad, and I cried all the time. I was so happy at the thought of being in an ensemble comedy with words. I just wanted words, words, words and this definitely provided,” Garner says. “Once I was on [board], it just kept getting better and better as the cast was rolling in.”
Garner and Tennant were both offered the parts of Kathryn and Walt, respectively, but their Camping characters are far cries from what they’ve been established in Hollywood to be. For Garner, the all-American sweetheart; for Tennant, the chameleon-like Scotsman deeply embedded in high drama (and some sci-fi — hi Doctor Who!). So much so that they admit they were, at first, surprised they were Dunham and Konner’s picks for their roles in the comedy.
“It wasn’t the sort of character I usually end up doing. I do spend a lot of my life pretending to be suave or somewhat entitled or powerful, so it was quite a relief to not have to. I have to fake that,” Tennant, 47, says with a laugh. “It was quite nice to fall into someone who doesn’t have any of that self-confidence. He’s a slightly dorky dad, which is probably quite close to who I really am. It’s always thrilling when someone offers you the part. ‘Why did they think of me for this?’ You better accept it before they change their mind and say, ‘I think they got the wrong person.'”
“Producers I was shocked would come to me with an offer. It really never occurred to me that I would work with Lena and Jenni, and I was thrilled to have been asked and titillated,” Garner says, calling the Camping experience”off-kilter” and “surprising.”
Because the character of Kathryn, who deals with chronic pain, is undeniably unlikable, Garner recalls a moment where she had to look inward to understand why Dunham and Konner would believe she could transform into the Instagram-obsessed L.A. mom who operates life with an iron grip. “I felt like, ooh, what is out there? What is it about me? I was a little nervous in that way. What does this say about me that they would think that I should do this?” Garner says. “I think you always feel that way as an actor.”
“But also when it’s someone like Lena and Jenni, I feel flattered they even know who I am. Those people do that amazing work, sure, I’ll work with you!” Tennant adds. “That’s a huge part of the job, that the source material by [Camping creator] Julia Davis, who I’m also a desperate fan of… to be working with people like that, that’s what you do it for.”
And Garner makes it clear she’s not at all like Kathryn, though her believable performance certainly blurs that line.
“I don’t know that I see so much of myself in Kathryn. I think Kathryn really struggles with her maternal feelings. I think she’s really driven by selfishness and I think she deals with a great deal of pain and, knock on wood, that’s not something I walk through life with, so I can’t understand her journey,” Garner says. “I think anyone who’s living with chronic pain day in and day out and is still trying to make life work for their family, even if it’s imperfect, then they’re their own hero.”
Over the course of the series, the cracks in Kathryn and Walt’s marriage begin to deepen. By the midway point, it becomes alarmingly clear that Walt has had enough.
“You’re seeing a relationship 20 some years in,” Garner explains. “This isn’t a couple that’s just started out. The way that two trees grow next to each other and they become intertwined and mess with each other’s growth, that has happened here for sure.”
“It’s fractured,” Tennant says. “They’ve let the communication… They’ve not kept on top of that, but that’s coming to a head. It’s fracturing by episode four. The fault lines are getting harder to hide. That’s the joy of the show. That’s why you take people out of their comfort zone and you watch them unravel. That’s certainly happening to Walt and to Kathryn. They have once been happy.”
“But it’s been awhile,” Garner jumps in. “It’s become all about managing Kathryn’s body and managing her pain, and I think she takes that out on Walt.” “He’s had to subsume himself for that… maybe for a little bit too long,” Tennant hints.
If there is one piece of dialogue that encapsulates the absurdity of Camping, Garner’s choice is Kathryn’s memorable line from the first episode, “Do you honestly want me to have a dysfunctional pelvic floor the whole of your birthday weekend?” Why? “Because it’s selfish,” Garner says. “It should be his birthday weekend. Instead, it’s about her and involves her pelvic floor.”
“That sums it up, yeah,” Tennant agrees, nodding. “It absolutely cuts to the heart of where Walt must always surrender. It can no longer be about him.”
“They keep showing that clip on any chat shows I’ve done,” Garner mentions, chuckling at the thought. “I think it’s my favorite scene I’ve ever been in. I normally don’t watch those clips and instead, I’m like, ‘I love this scene so much!'”
Camping premieres Sunday, Oct. 14 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.