Jennifer Garner

School drop-offs, diaper changes and the occasional love scene—all the while being stalked by the paparazzi. Jennifer Garner masters the art of motherhood, Hollywood-style.

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Jennifer Garner wears Miu Miu's nude silk tulle dress with crystal and paillette embellishment, at select Miu Miu stores, 888.977.1900. Dior Fine Jewelry necklace; From top: Eddie Borgo, Lanvin and Rachel Leigh bracelets.

Jennifer Garner

School drop-offs, diaper changes and the occasional love scene—all the while being stalked by the paparazzi. Jennifer Garner masters the art of motherhood, Hollywood-style.

Jennifer Garner is not someone you’re likely to catch pitching a “Do you know who I am?” fit on tmz.com anytime soon. Widely known as an antidiva, the West Virginia–bred mother of two makes her own baby food and isn’t above flying coach (en route to her W photo shoot, she was accidently booked in economy and declined the gate agent’s offer of an upgrade). It turns out, however, that the 37-year-old actress does occasionally leverage her fame to get what she wants—it’s just that her desires are a little different from those of her Hollywood peers. Lately, for example, she has been attempting to procure an introduction to Ina Garten, the cheerfully rotund television cook better known as the Barefoot Contessa. “I know somebody who is a friend of hers, and she says she’s going to get us together,” says Garner, an enthusiastic home cook who seems to have a history of obsessing over celebrity chefs (she owns a Labrador retriever named Martha Stewart). “I tried to get on Ina’s show. I tried to use my, well, you know…I say, use what you have to make the world better or for yourself! But eventually she just said, ‘I’m sorry, I only use my real friends on the show.’ I felt like, What are you saying? That we’re not friends? I know everything about you!”

If Garner­—who is dressed today in worn jeans, a gray sweater and running shoes, with her hair pulled into a ponytail—sounds more like a desperate housewife than a big-time movie star, that’s partly because lately she has spent more time dealing with diapers and dinner than filming love scenes or posing on red carpets. With her husband, Ben Affleck, and their daughters, Violet, four, and Seraphina, who turns one in January, she has been living for the past seven months in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while Affleck has been filming back-to-back movies in Boston. For a few weeks in the summer, Garner and the girls did return to Los Angeles, where she shot the romantic comedy Valentine’s Day, out in February. But for the most part her schedule has consisted of “getting the kids up and fed, getting one to school, getting the other down for a nap, going to the grocery store, picking one up from school, getting the other one down for another nap, cooking dinner,” she says between sips of tea at her favorite Harvard Square coffee shop two days before Halloween. “I live my life at these two extremes. I’m either a full-time stay-at-home mom or a full-time actress.”

To hear Garner tell it, the actress part of the equation happened sort of by accident. Growing up, the profession wasn’t even on her radar. “I mean, I didn’t ever watch Gilligan’s Island and think, Those people are actors,” she says. “I lived in West Virginia. Hollywood just felt like this total other universe.” She enrolled at Denison University with hopes of going to medical school, something she still fantasizes about. “When my daughter has a fever, I want to be able to look in her ears myself and not have to call someone,” she says. “I want to be able to tell, Is that spot on her leg ringworm or a dry patch?” But instead, she found herself spending most of her college days onstage. After graduation she moved to New York to give Broadway a go, signed with a friend’s agent and in 1998 landed a small role on Felicity. The hit series not only launched her career but also led to a relationship with castmate Scott Foley, who became her first husband. The marriage fell apart after less than three years; the career, happily, has had a longer shelf life.

Onscreen, Garner embodies the beautiful-yet-approachable ideal that makes casting directors see dollar signs: Girls want to be her friend; men want to be, well, more than that. “She’s very elegant, as a woman and as an actress,” says Matthew McConaughey, who starred opposite Garner in the forgettable Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, an update of A Christmas Carol that hit theaters last May. “But she’s also a country girl, and that’s a nice combination. She knows who she is and she’s not trying to be anything different.”

Felicity producer J.J. Abrams, who turned Garner into a household name by casting her as the ass-kicking Sydney Bristow in the long-running spy drama Alias, says he knew almost immediately that she had leading-lady potential. “She has incredible charisma, a wonderful smile, she’s gorgeous without being phony-looking, and she has a great, smart sense of humor,” he says. “My wife was always saying, ‘Oh, my God, she’s going to be a star. You better do a show for her.’ And when I came up with Alias, she was pretty much the only person I had in my head. Before we cast her, there were people who questioned: ‘Is she tough enough? Is she sexy enough?’ Two minutes later she was on the cover of every magazine, and no one was saying those things anymore.”

Meanwhile, on the big screen, Garner was showing off her range with a diverse string of projects, playing a tween magically transformed into a grown-up in 13 Going On 30, a call girl in Catch Me If You Can and a black-leather-clad superheroine in Daredevil, which also starred Affleck. There was no love connection at the time—she was married to Foley and he, dating Jennifer Lopez, was half of the tabloid supercouple known as Bennifer—but two years later, when they reunited to film the spin-off, Elektra, both were single, and friendship turned into something more. They were married on Turks and Caicos in June 2005, with Garner three months pregnant. “We were together a year, and we just started breeding,” she says. “We were like, ‘Let’s have a baby!’ And eight days later…”

The couple are clearly doing their best to prevent their relationship from turning into Bennifer, Part Two. They refuse to walk the red carpet together, and Garner says she doesn’t expect to work with her husband—who, thanks to 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, is now a promising director—again anytime soon. “I think he’s brilliant at what he does, but why rock the boat?” she says. “It works between us pretty well the way it is. I don’t know if I want to go to work with him. I’d be like, ‘Okay already, you got the shot. Let’s go home!’”

But despite her attempts to keep their marriage out of the public eye, not mentioning one’s spouse over the course of a two-hour interview is not a realistic goal, at least for Garner. Affleck, to her mild annoyance, seems to find it easier. “Ben asks me, ‘How come when I do an interview I manage to keep you out of it completely?’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Either because you don’t think about me or because boy magazines don’t care about what I make you for dinner. But they should!’”

And then there’s the matter of the paparazzi. Photos of the Garner-Affleck clan—cheering at a Red Sox game, leaving the pediatrician’s office, hanging on the playground—are going to end up on the Web whether they like it or not. The situation is somewhat better in Boston, where “there are fewer of them, and they hide behind things, so my kids aren’t aware of them, which makes all the difference in the world,” Garner says. But in L.A., “if I try to go to the supermarket, the police come. We talked forever about leaving Los Angeles, but anywhere you go some dodo is going to buy a camera and start following you.”

If being married to a fellow celeb has taken some getting used to, motherhood seems to have come naturally to Garner. She calls breast-feeding “the coziest feeling in the whole world” and has bonded with the other moms at Violet’s school. “You feel so close to them so quickly because you’re going through the same thing,” she says. And then there’s the homemade baby food. “It’s a little over the top,” she admits. “And I tell myself, Just give her a jar of food and forget about it! Don’t be so precious! But it’s so easy—I just puree and freeze.”

According to Bradley Cooper, who played Garner’s best friend on Alias and also appears in Valentine’s Day, Garner was the mothering type long before Violet and Seraphina entered the picture. “She was one of the first people I met when I stepped onto Los Angeles soil,” he recalls. “And she was very maternal, even then. She wanted to take care of me, make sure I was okay all the time. The first time I saw her, I was in the production office when we were shooting the pilot, and this girl comes in, glowing. She had just baked cookies, which she was offering to me, and I was like, That is who’s playing Sydney Bristow?”

The most challenging part of parenthood, says Garner, has been balancing kids with career. It’s not a unique challenge, of course, and Garner is the first to point out that she has help—though she follows the admission with “Does that sound snotty, to say I have help?”­ But most working mothers aren’t required to relocate for months at a time whenever they land a job. That’s getting harder, now that Violet is in school. As they prepare to head home to Los Angeles in November, her elder daughter is “a little nervous about whether the girls at school will already have friends,” Garner says. “We thought we could take them anywhere until they were six, but I don’t know if that’s going to work out that way.”

Still, Garner has managed some impressive additions to her résumé since becoming a mom. This past fall she starred opposite Ricky Gervais in his slyly thought-provoking directorial debut, The Invention of Lying. In 2007 she won praise for her portrayal of a woman desperate to be a mother in Juno and proved she could still deliver a beat-down as an FBI agent in The Kingdom. That year she also starred opposite Kevin Kline in Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway, managing to pull off the screen-to-stage transition more gracefully than most. “Ms. Garner…makes Roxane a girl worth pining over,” Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times. “The latest in a series of boldface film and television actresses to test their stage legs (including Julia Roberts and Claire Danes), Ms. Garner seems by far the most comfortable.”

Garner describes the production as “just my favorite thing I’ve ever done.” But she doesn’t plan to tread the boards again in the near future. “It’s hard on my family,” she says. “You can’t tell your kids, ‘I’m exhausted. Wake up with someone else today.’” For now at least, light, low-stress ensemble pieces like Valentine’s Day seem more up her alley. With a star-packed cast that includes Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Biel, Jessica Alba, Taylor Swift, Jamie Foxx, Patrick Dempsey, Shirley MacLaine and Queen Latifah, the film weaves together a handful of interconnected love stories. “I got to work at home in L.A., which never happens, and it was a fun job that wasn’t all on me. There are a lot of things that made it an easy yes,” Garner says of her reasons for signing on to the movie, which she describes as “similar in feel and design to He’s Just Not That Into You. There’s nothing that’s not satisfying about it.”

For her next project, Garner hopes to produce and star in one of the movies she’s developing through her production company, Vandalia Films. First, however, she’ll take the fall off. “It’s hard because I’ve taken so much time off already,” she admits. “But I have this internal battle between, I need to work, I need to work, I need to work and I need to be home with my kids. And the kids win.”

Despite her dread of the life-under-a-microscope aspect of Los Angeles, Garner is looking forward to settling back in at home. “I miss my girlfriends!” she says. “That’s the hardest thing about being on location when it’s not for your own project. When it’s for you, you’re on set with everybody you know, but if not, it’s lonely. I can live with Ben working crazy hours. But I can’t live without girlfriends around to talk about men with!” she says with a laugh. “It’s fine if he’s not there; I just need someone to bitch about it to!”

But before she heads home, there’s a house to pack up and, of course, Halloween costumes to deal with. Violet—who has lately discovered the Disney princesses—will be Ariel from The Little Mermaid; Seraphina, whom everyone calls Sera (pronounced like Sarah, not as in “Que Sera, Sera”), will be her friend Flounder; and Ben, who texts Garner midinterview to check on his ensemble, will be playing the role of Triton, King of the Sea. Last year the family was in New York for Halloween, and Garner, seven months pregnant, let Violet talk her into a mother-daughter costume: Fred and Ted, the dogs from a children’s book series of the same name. “I just was so fat and huge and ugly and in a furry dog costume. And of course there were tons of paparazzi outside and I couldn’t escape them!” she says, laughing. “So I feel like that bought me a pass this year. I’ll take pictures.”