In the fall of 2019, when Julia Garner walked into the Albion Correctional Facility, near Buffalo, New York—past the towering fence topped with chill-inducing loops of razor wire—she knew, on some level, what to expect. In preparation for meeting the incarcerated pseudo-socialite Anna Sorokin (aka Anna Delvey), whom Garner depicts in the upcoming Shonda Rhimes series Inventing Anna, she’d read and reread the viral New York magazine story on which the show is based, and watched hours of footage of the Russian-born faux heiress, who was recently released from prison after serving nearly four years for conning high-end New York hotels and banks out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Shonda was able to shoot interviews of Anna the first week that she got into jail,” says Garner, “so I’d already spent a lot of time looking at things like how she moves her eyes and how she talks, how her accent changes based on who she’s with. And I’d also been told that she was really smart. But when you meet Anna, you realize she’s actually kind of a genius, and she’s incredibly charming and really hilarious—a very dangerous combination. That wasn’t something I could have predicted.” And then there was the biggest surprise of all: Despite Sorokin’s apparent psychopathy, Garner could, on some level, relate to her.
“We’re both young women, and I know that sounds like a really general, basic thing to have in common, but it’s not,” Garner says on the phone from Atlanta, where she’s filming the fourth and final installment of the Netflix smash hit Ozark, a two-part, 14-episode season. “In your 20s, you’re finding yourself, your identity, and your purpose in life. Anna was going about it the wrong way, obviously, but that search is something I recognize.”
For Garner, self-discovery didn’t involve criminal duplicity. She did, however—in a manner far healthier than Sorokin’s—find her voice by slipping on a series of identities. The 27-year-old, who grew up in Riverdale, an upper-middle-class section of the Bronx, enrolled in acting classes as a teen, mostly because her older sister was doing it, and her parents needed something to fill her Saturdays. What she quickly discovered, though, was that acting freed her from the crippling shyness that had defined her childhood. “I had really bad reading problems and learning disabilities, and I was also very sick as a child, with epilepsy,” she says. “I felt like everything that I said was stupid, so I just shut down. But when I took acting, I discovered that I could use someone else’s lines and still express my own feelings. I loved that, because I felt like I was being heard. And not only that, I felt like I could hear myself for the first time.”
Because she was so uncomfortable conveying her emotions with words, Garner developed an almost preternatural ability to communicate on-screen without them. Though she’s best known for her double-Emmy-winning role as Ruth, the fierce and fearless hillbilly scene-stealer on Ozark, her ability to project a complicated inner world while barely opening her mouth is most apparent in 2019’s The Assistant, a whip-smart meditation on the Me Too era. As Jane, the junior aide to a lecherous film producer, she broadcasts her conflicted mental state not only through tortured facial expressions, but via the proudly efficient cadence of her typing and the resigned stoicism with which she makes coffee, microwaves sad frozen dinners, and unpacks bottle after bottle of her boss’s erectile dysfunction medication. “Julia is able to telegraph her thoughts and feelings in a way that’s very unique,” says Kitty Green, who wrote and directed the film. “An audience can understand what she’s going through without her saying a thing.”
Garner first landed on Green’s radar via the long-running FX spy drama The Americans, in which Garner had a recurring role as the unwitting daughter of a CIA agent. Green thought of her for the role of Jane, she says, because she was “looking for an actor who had just the right combination of strength and vulnerability, and who was watchable even if stuck under the drab fluorescent lights of a midsize office.” In casting Garner, she ended up with all of that, and more—the project evolved into a full-on collaboration. “We developed the character together through lots of intense discussions and role-play. As most of the film is shot from Jane’s point of view, it was those sessions with Julia that informed the way the entire film was directed,” Green says.
Garner, for her part, describes the extensive preparation she puts into each role as “kind of a hocus-y pocus-y process,” a mash-up of method acting and spirit channeling centered on the belief that the subconscious mind is the wellspring of all creativity. “I kind of just relax my body and try to take myself out of it and put the character inside,” she says. “And then I ask questions and let the character answer them. ‘What was your biggest fear as a child? What was your greatest trauma?’ She becomes a person to me, someone I know inside and out.”
The six-month break in the middle did have one upside: The quarantine, which she spent at home in Los Angeles, functioned as an extended staycation-style honeymoon. In December 2019, Garner married the musician Mark Foster, best known as the lead singer of the band Foster the People. The couple met at Sundance and got engaged at Flathead Lake during an RV trip to Yellowstone National Park in the spring of 2019. (He wrote a poem. They camped out under the stars. It was all very dreamy and romantic.) They had planned to marry in June 2020, but, says Garner, “the previous fall, my Spidey senses must have been tingling, and I said, ‘Let’s just get married on the Christmas break, because who knows what’s going to happen between now and June?’ ” They ended up tying the knot at New York’s City Hall, just as her parents—Tamar Gingold, an Israeli comedic actor turned therapist, and Thomas Garner, a painter and teacher originally from Ohio—had done four decades earlier.
Of all such people, Garner says that Sorokin was the most difficult to inhabit. The role involves multiple layers of pretending—essentially acting like someone who’s trying to act like someone else. The accent alone nearly broke her. “Anna’s posing as a German heiress, but actually she’s Russian, so first I had to learn to speak in English with a proper German accent, and after that learn a slightly Russian accent to add underneath,” Garner says. “Then you have the element that she probably learned English from the Brits, because she’s European, but she’d also lived in America and loved to watch Gossip Girl. So the musicality of her speech was American.”
Rhimes knew Garner was up to the task after admiring her work on Ozark. “I was struck by what a chameleon she is,” the powerhouse writer-producer-showrunner says. “For Inventing Anna, the audience sees Anna through the eyes of many different people in her life. That required Julia to constantly change who Anna is, based on which character’s point of view we are following. At the same time, she had to allow a true core to simmer throughout, so that we have a three-dimensional person whose journey we can understand.”
Garner’s work on the Sorokin project kicked off at the end of 2019, just a couple of weeks after wrapping season 3 of Ozark, with a proposed schedule that included stops in Morocco, Paris, and Spain, following Sorokin’s trail of deceit. Suffice it to say, things didn’t proceed as planned. In March, Garner was filming a scene on the New York subway when word came that the shoot, along with the rest of the city, was shutting down. She spent the next six months in creative limbo, not knowing which of her pending projects would pick up again first. “One day I would practice a Ruth accent, and then the next day an Anna accent, so I wouldn’t lose those two muscles,” she says. In the end, she squeezed in a few months of Inventing Anna before filming season 4 of Ozark, then hopped back into Shonda-land to wrap things up in November 2020. “That whole year and a half was just back and forth on those two roles,” she says. “And both of the women I was playing were very intense!”
These days, Garner is preparing for another major milestone: the end of Ozark. She has, on multiple levels, grown up on the show, which was the most watched original streaming series of 2020, according to Nielsen. “I started coming to Atlanta to film in 2017, and it was the first place where I actually lived on my own,” she says. “The fact that Ozark is ending hits me in waves. I met some of my best friends here. It’s almost been like my weird version of a college experience.”
Production is scheduled to wrap in October, after which, says Garner, she could do with a little break from the small screen. She’d love to do another movie, “maybe a period piece, because I’ve never done one,” and take an actual honeymoon that doesn’t involve alternating between faux-German and Missouri mountain accents every day. And having spent the bulk of her adulthood thus far immersed in dramatic characters, she’s also eager to get back to that universal 20-something quest of discovering her true self. “I’ve been so busy playing other people that I can answer questions about them quicker than I can answer questions about myself, which is sort of sad,” Garner says, laughing, when asked what she likes to do when she’s not working. “I guess maybe I need a hobby?”