What Jennifer Garner Learned About Toxic Relationships from Being in One on TV
This fall Jennifer Garner makes her much anticipated return to television with Camping, a comedy series about long-time friends who go on a four-day trip to celebrate the 45th birthday of Walt (David Tennant), the husband of Garner’s character, Kathryn. The woods quickly become a microcosm for all kinds of relationships – marriages, friendships, rebounds and more — on the show which premieres on HBO on Sunday, October 14. We chatted with Garner and Jenni Konner, who wrote and directed the series alongside her Girls partner, Lena Dunham, about how the hilarious relationships on the show reflect real life. And how, at least in Garner's case, some of the characters' less-desirable qualities have stuck around.
This show feels like a study of different phases of adult relationships. I'm guessing when Walt and Kathryn were young, her role as the alpha and his as the submissive husband were probably not quite that defined. Do you think we just fall into that?
Jenni Konner: You harden into those roles as you age, right?
How does that happen?
JK: I wish I knew. I think I worry that people can't change, and I worry that people harden into the roles that we've known them for, but you gotta hope. You gotta believe. I mean, I have seen people have transformations, I truly have. I don't know, I wish I could answer that question for you.
When you see Walt and Kathryn, what do you think of their relationship dynamic?
Jennifer Garner: I think they're pretty codependent on each other. I think that she has beaten him down to the point where he doesn't even know that he doesn't have a voice anymore. And then that's not attractive, and she feels like she has to do everything, and that's not attractive, and she's a nightmare and doesn't have sex with him, and that's not [good]. So they're definitely in a bad cycle, and there's no reason for them to get out. But my mom always says when you're cleaning out a closet, it has to get a lot worse before it can get better. And this weekend is them cleaning out a closet, whether they know it or not. And it gets pretty bad.
There seems to be one couple on the show that appears fairly normal.
JK: Give it some time. No one escapes unscathed.
To make a real-life analogy, does anyone escape? Is there such a thing as an adult, normal, happy, long-term relationship without fodder for dark comedy?
JK: I think there is hope. I actually do. I think it goes a lot of weird and insane ways, but there is hope and there is love, and it's a testament to people doing the work. And everyone knows that a long-term relationship takes so much work. And even though this happens over four days, you see the beginnings of the work, the middle of the work, the end of the work. And people in all different phases.
What is the situation with Kathryn’s relationships with the women on the show?
JK: Well, Lena [Dunham, who is co-producing] and I really wanted to talk about woman-on-woman crime. Girls was very much women their 20s who were friends by default by having been in school together. And we were exploring the idea, do those relationships continue? [On Girls] they would fight, but there was always this sense that they would be together and there was more kindness toward each other.
These are two strangers who meet [on Camping], and what happens when you have opposite personalities? So, there’s toxicity in that relationship. And also, the betrayal that Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo) has had with Kathryn, and just the darkness and ugliness that can be in adult, female relationships. I don't think that's around that much in television.
These are things that are happening in our real lives. What's it like to kind of poke fun at and fictionalize those things?
JG: It's very freeing. It's really fun. It’s great to have a laugh at yourself. That's the best, to have a laugh at yourself.
JK: We try to find the humor in the dark places.
What did you love about Kathryn? She's very funny, but she's also that person I'm afraid I'm going to turn into.
JK: That's the perfect reaction. I want everyone to see some of themselves in Kathryn.
JG: Yeah. Since we finished, I'll talk to my kids and I'll think, "I'm having a Kathryn moment." I love that she is so un-self aware. I really adore her. And I think she's hilarious.
When do you see yourself slipping into her?
JG: I'll hear myself talk to my kids when I'm trying to herd them together to do something, and I realize I've just gotten shrill. I just become really controlling and not caring what anyone says, I'm just trying to push through my agenda because I've decided it's what we need to do. That's when I'm Kathryn.
I feel like she just wants to be appreciated for her hard work.
JG: But she's aggressive about her hard work, and that's another Kathryn thing: I will plan something for people, that nobody's asked me to. My daughter has called me on this before where she'll say, "You want us to appreciate it, but we didn't want it in the first place. It's on you to have done all this work."
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How did you come to know each other?
JK: This is so Jen. She made time for us to meet at 9AM the day she was presenting at the Oscars. That's what she does, she does it all. And we met that day and we just connected, and we had so much fun. The great privilege of doing my job is being able to have these great actors and say, "Let's try to go to this place," and they're just game for it. It's literally the greatest joy of a creative person's life, in my opinion.
JG: I've worked with some great writer/directors, but the best is when they've written something but aren't married to the version that they had in their head when they were writing it, and they are open to whatever is happening in the room and then seeing that and saying, "Now, flip it over this way. Now do this." But in the most emotionally articulate, creatively collaborative way. So I would say the whole cast would just sit at Jenni's feet and do anything. I know David and I would.
JK: I was really intimidated because I've been a showrunner for a long time, but a director for a short time. And also, everyone was pretty brand new on Girls. So, to then walk into the room with these consummate, longtime professionals, I was like, "What if I actually don't know how to tell them anything and I just had trained those girls to listen to me?" To hear you say that, it relaxes me a lot.
Is it different to be in an environment with strong, articulate women after working on very male dominated sets?
JG: These people are not messing around the way they see equality on set. Almost every department was headed by a woman. And because the people that they hired were so incredibly talented and competent, it just felt like, "Oh, of course these people would be heading the departments." If I had had a baby and was pumping, the way I have on so many sets, this would have been the set to do it on. Because it would have been handled seamlessly and with common sense.
JK: Except for, there was so much dust. I really would not have wanted you to be pumping on set. I pumped a lot of terrible places, but not in the woods.
JG: I've pumped everywhere.
Any fun behind the scenes moments?
JK: David and Jen were the biggest gigglers I've ever met. I've been on sets where people get annoyed that people are giggling. This would start with them, and then just spill out through the crew and everyone would be giggling. It was completely contagious. It was the cutest thing you've ever seen in your life. And there was a lot of pushups in between takes.
JG: Yeah, we did do pushups. Early on the cast was hanging out and somebody said, "Oh my trainer told me if you did 10 pushups and 10 squats between setups, by the end of the day, you will have done 100." And so somebody else said, "Well, let's do that." And David and I committed to it. And I think we're both people that once we commit to something… We really did. We called them century days. We really had century days more often than not — if we were together. I didn't do it if he wasn't around; I was lazy.