Award-winning actress Jennifer Garner brings warmth to her role as Dr. Eve Saks, a compassionate immunologist, in Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee’s character-driven drama, Dallas Buyers Club. The film is based on the captivating real-life story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) a womanizing, macho Texan who was one of millions who saw AIDS only as “that gay disease” until he was blindsided by being diagnosed as H.I.V.-positive. In 1985, at the flashpoint of America’s growing awareness of AIDS, he was given 30 days to live, but against all odds, he not only survived but thrived and saved lives. Opening in limited release on November 1st, the film also stars Jared Leto.
At an entertaining roundtable interview, Garner talked about the recent McConaughey reconnaissance and why she felt he was the perfect actor to play Woodroof, what it was like working on a fast-paced, barebones shoot with Vallee, how she found it disturbing to watch McConaughey and Leto’s dramatic physical transformation, the most surprising thing she discovered about her character, what she hoped to accomplish with the role, her reaction when she first saw the completed film, how she balances her work life with husband Ben Affleck, and her upcoming film Men, Women & Children with Jason Reitman. Hit the jump to read the interview:
JENNIFER GARNER: It’s so exciting, but it’s not a surprise to me at all. Probably the best thing that happened to a lot of us is that romantic comedies have finally been dug and put into a hole in the ground. They were a great job and really fun to do. This [film] is not one. They just aren’t available in that same way anymore. Anyway, what Matthew is in the middle of, I heard somebody say this yesterday. What’s it called? A reconnaissance.
I like that.
GARNER: Yes. How’s that? You heard it here first. I stole it from someone yesterday. It’s his reconnaissance. He was as prepared and as committed and had the same crazy work ethic when we did Ghosts of Girlfriends Past as he did for this film. And so, it was no surprise to me. No one works harder for a movie than Matthew does. I think because that’s been true across the board, now that he’s doing these different kinds of roles, he’s still the same guy. There’s a reason we’ve been watching him all these years. He’s a fantastic actor and he’s a real personality and he’s charismatic as hell. So, it’s great that he actually [got this part]. No one else could have played this role. The reason it sat on the shelf for 15 years and didn’t get made was that it was waiting for Matthew to play Ron.
What surprised you most about the story? It’s something we might have heard of in the headlines but it’s definitely something that got under the radar.
GARNER: Well, to play this doctor, I went back and read everything I could find from ’81-’82 to about ’88-’89 –- all the medical journals, everything fed to the public, everything I could find having to do with H.I.V. and AIDS. With medical journals, it’s like reading something in Greek. It’s a whole other language. I don’t know how much went in, but after enough hours, I did start to be able to say, “Okay. This puzzle piece wasn’t here back then. They hadn’t found this yet.” In all the research I did, I never saw Buyers Club mentioned once. So I think it’s pretty cool that there’s history happening around us all the time on the fringes or right in front of us or wherever it is, and we don’t always have the full story.
What was the one specific thing you wanted to make sure you accomplished when you set out to do this role?
GARNER: It sounds so corny, but I wanted to stay grounded so the boys could fly. I wanted to be the quiet one that was with them but not trying to match them or not trying to compete with them. Just be there to be kind of a quiet throughline so they could give these performances of their lives. That’s what I wanted to do. And honestly, every day I just wanted to never screw up a take because I didn’t want to waste any of their energy. They were putting a lot out there and not giving themselves a lot back. So the last thing I wanted to do was joke around or not know my lines or flub a mark or anything. I just wanted to be good.
What was it like with Jean-Marc? I heard it was an accelerated shoot with a smaller amount of days than you would have expected.
GARNER: I just finished a family movie with Steve Carell, Boopidy Boop (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day). It was really funny. We had such a great time. We had double the amount of time that this movie took and that is totally normal. To do a film in five weeks is…I mean, I think we had more days on Dude, Where’s My Car, and we definitely had a bigger crew. This is the smallest, leanest crew I have ever worked with in my life. The camera department was three guys. The grip department did not exist. The electrics did not exist. They never lit anything. We never stopped shooting. We just shot as fast as we could all the time.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered about your character?
GARNER: My character is an amalgam of several people. They did not tell me that. And so, I spent a long time trying to find her on the microfilm at the library, and Googling, and looking her up, and reading all these journals, and saying, “Gosh, they talk about this specific journal in the movie and she’s not in there anywhere.” I finally called them and said, “I am so embarrassed. I cannot find Eve Saks,” and they said, “Oh, we forgot to tell you she’s made up.” That never occurred to me. I thought it was really true. So, Eve Saks as such did not exist. But imagine the pressure the medical industry was under at that time to come up with something, an answer, just answers at all, any kind of cure, any kind of explanation, anything to help prevent it. Reading even Time Magazine from that time period, you’re reminded of the huge fear and the incredible bigotry that showed its ugly face, that was probably already there, but it reared its face because of that fear and loathing, and how much people were isolated who had anything to do with the disease. It was a huge thing to be a doctor working with H.I.V. and AIDS patients because you didn’t know. You used to go in in hazmat suits. You didn’t know if you could catch it from being in the same room. It was a big deal.
What was your experience like the first time you saw the film? Did you see it at one of the festivals?
GARNER: I saw it at home on my computer screen sadly. (Laughs) But I was so proud of Matthew and so proud of Jared. That was how I felt. I knew that Jean-Marc was doing a good job, but I was really thrilled for him when I saw the film. In order to shoot it that quickly, and to make the kind of sense that he made from this really big story that crossed years and years and years, Jean-Marc had to be decisive. He had to be specific. He had to have all of this in his head the way any director does, but moving at warp speed. And he did. I mean, there were huge areas and things in the movie that if it had been a bigger movie, we would have had them in there. They kind of leaned it towards the possibility that maybe there were romantic feelings between my character and Ron. Jean-Marc said, “You know, we do not need this. This is not this movie. This is too sentimental. Let’s take it out. Let’s not shoot any of this. No. We will not.”
There was a little hint that in a different time and place these two people might have become involved with each other. It would have been a very different movie.
GARNER: It’s a very unlikely couple, but yeah, I think that they got to know each other well enough to see beyond who they presented themselves as being.
So how’d the weight loss go for you because that’s what everyone is talking about with the other guys?
GARNER: Well, I had a new baby. I had lost more than either Matthew or Jared before we ever started the movie, so I’ll shove that in their face. But no, I was so happy to be eating. I didn’t do it in front of them, but I was glad to be eating.
When did you first see Matthew and Jared lose all that weight and what was your reaction?
GARNER: Well Matthew, we’d all been seeing him lose weight in pictures before he ever got the job. And then, I went down to New Orleans to do a camera test and I saw him. I knew he was in there. I chatted with him and was totally normal, and then I went into another room and went, “Uhhhh” [took a deep breath] and collected myself because it gave me the shakes to see him look so ill. And then, the amount of weight he lost from that day over the next five weeks was just alarming. Whatever you see on screen, it was so much worse in person. And as gaunt as he was in the movie, that’s how he was all the time. He just put plumpers in his jeans and in his cheeks when he was trying to look more healthy and tanned himself. So he was that thin all the time. We would all feel better when he was wearing his plumpers, but we knew that they were fake. Jared, on the other hand, got the job and just stopped eating. And Jared, you just couldn’t look at him, because as another human being, all you thought was, “I need to get some chicken broth in this boy.” I just wanted to feed him. That’s all. I kept saying, “You know, my daughter has a cold and I made some homemade chicken soup and there’s nothing in it. Do you think…?” and he’d go, “Nope.” I just left it alone because it was really their journey and they didn’t want me pushing food on them. They were really trying to do something. They never made a big deal about it. They both felt like this is so not the big part of this job, and it wasn’t. I mean, I have to say I feel like as much credibility as the weight loss gives their performances, their performances transcend the weight loss in my opinion.
Was it disturbing to have to deal with this daily?
GARNER: Awful. I hated it. I actually hated making this movie – and I never say that – because I was so disturbed watching these boys do this to their body. I just wanted it to be over.
Was it a hard movie to leave at the end of the day and go home?
GARNER: It’s different for women. Not to condescend to men, but we have to multitask on a whole different level. I had three kids there with me. So the second I had a minute, I was nursing. I was pumping. I was trying to arrange what was going to be for dinner that night and telling teachers, “Okay, the kids will be back Tuesday with their dad and I’m still going to be here until Friday. This is what you should expect. When is Show and Tell day? I want to make sure we don’t miss it.” So it was very different.
Is it still a pretty even balance when you’re working and Ben’s not or Ben’s working and you’re not? Does he come with you as well when you have to travel?
GARNER: Yes. I mean, we try our best. It doesn’t always work out that way. This fall we’ve both been working, which I can see why we fought so hard to have that not be the case in the past. It doesn’t work that well. It’s tricky. We make it work. We do it. And our kids are so great. We have great grandparents. His mom has been in town a lot. My mom has been here a lot. We have really close friends that are godparents for our kids. We’re lucky we have that. That’s not a problem. But you need parents. My jobs just aren’t as intense as his. I make it home for bed and I make it to drop them off at school. And I have days off. But our kids are used to seeing us a lot. We’re actors. We’re unemployed a lot of the time. Ben was home for a year. I’ve been home most of their lives. So they’re used to fresh cookies when they walk in the door and that kind of stuff. I got home last night and there was a note from my 7-year-old, “Mama, please make my favorite brookies.” It’s these brownies that are cookies. So it was 9 o’clock and I made the flippin’ cookies so she could have them in her lunch today because that’s what you do.
Do you have the recipe?
GARNER: I can tell you right now. (Laughs) Chop up 2-3/4 cup of semi-sweet chocolate…
Is Ben practicing the voice at home? Is he working on the Batman stuff?
GARNER: He’s in Missouri making Gone Girl.
Have you talked with him about your role in Dallas Buyers Club?
GARNER: I talk to him about everything. Yes, of course.
Did you ask him for advice?
GARNER: He’s just always telling me, “Simple is better. Simple is better, Jen. Just keep it simple. Don’t get seduced by what they’re doing. Keep it simple, keep it simple.”
What are you working on next?
GARNER: I have one more movie before I really am taking a break and that’s Men, Women & Children with Jason Reitman.
GARNER: Yeah, I know! I love him!