Jennifer Garner is as unfailingly sunny on screen as she is off it. Born in Houston, the 48-year-old actor made her name as the resilient CIA agent Sydney Bristow in ABC’s rip-roaring thriller Alias (2001 to 2006). The part earned her a Golden Globe and led to her charming lead role in 13 Going On 30 (2004), the romantic comedy which cemented her status as America’s sweetheart.
Since then, she’s given sensitive turns in everything from Juno (2007) to Dallas Buyers Club (2013), but unfairly, her career has often been overshadowed by her personal life. She married Ben Affleck in 2005 and the pair had three children—Violet, Seraphina and Samuel—before their divorce in 2018. It was dissected by the tabloids and the family hounded by paparazzi, but Garner remained composed, continuing her work on set and as an ambassador for the charity Save the Children.
Her latest project is particularly close to her heart: an exuberant comedy based on Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s picture book Yes Day!, which tracks a child whose parents say yes to all of his requests for one day a year. The story is a favourite of Garner’s own kids, who have done annual ‘yes’ days since they were young. In the big-screen adaptation, also co-produced by Garner, she plays Allison, a stressed-out mother whose three children (Jenna Ortega, Julian Lerner and Everly Carganilla) call her a “fun killer”. Determined to prove them wrong, she and her husband Carlos (Édgar Ramírez) agree to give them a ‘yes’ day but, through a series of spectacular set pieces, all hell breaks loose.
Ahead of the film’s release on 12 March, the actor discusses going through a carwash with the windows down, facing her fear of heights and her tips for those planning ‘yes’ days of their own.
You and your kids have your own tradition of doing ‘yes’ days. How did that start?
“I started reading [Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s children’s book Yes Day!] when my middle daughter was three years old and she just became fixated on the idea of a ‘yes’ day. So, I started doing ‘yes’ days with the three of them. They were always a little kid-friendly and not fancy at all. For my family, it ends with us sleeping in the backyard in a tent—we have s’mores, we have a pool so we’ll go for a late-night swim and we’ll play flashlight tag until way later than I would usually let them.”
This project began after you posted on Instagram about a tiring ‘yes’ day. What happened next?
“If you’ve ever slept in your backyard in a tent with three kids, you’re going to look wrecked and I did [in that photo]. [The producer] Ben Everard’s wife, Mary, saw the post. She told her husband and he works with [producer] Lawrence Grey, who has Grey Matter Productions. I’m not sure if they already had the rights to the book or if they quickly got them, but they called Nicole King, my manager. She and I thought, ‘This is a really good idea. It should be a movie!’ So, we kicked it off.”
You were a producer on Yes Day—what did that role involve?
“I was passionate about making sure that the script had the relationships [in the family] right. For example, early on, in the writer Justin [Malen’s draft], the relationship between the mum and the teenage daughter was very fraught and there was a lot of nastiness. I said, ‘It’s not about that—it’s about the natural heartbreak of someone growing up and how you have to recalibrate your relationship.’ He knocked it out of the park because those moments in the film just kill me.”
“It’s not about spending money or doing something permanent like getting a puppy or piercing your ears—it’s about being in the moment. Help your kids think about the fun things that they hear ‘no’ to all the time”
There’s a beautiful scene in the tent when you’re all playing together, which you mentioned is inspired by what you do at the end of your ‘yes’ days. What else is taken from real life?
“The tent scene was improvised. We’d been doing a scene and then at the end, we laid down and started playing, and they said, ‘Roll camera.’ We went back and dubbed in the character names because we were calling each other by our own names. In terms of other moments [that were taken from life], my kids as part of their ‘yes’ days love making me do things I’m scared of. On Alias, I jumped off buildings, but as I’ve gotten older I’m a little more scared of heights. My kids make me climb to high places, but in this movie, I’m on a rollercoaster. I cried after the first take and they couldn’t use it because I kept forgetting to call Jenna [by her character’s name] ‘Katie’. I kept screaming: ‘Jenna! Jenna!’”
There’s also a scene where you go through a carwash with the windows down. How was that?
“For kids who think they want to do this, just be warned that we had clean water and generally the water is pretty gross. We had goggles and were prepared so it was fun for Édgar, Jenna, Julian and I, but for little Everly, it was a bit shocking. She was very brave but we didn’t have her do it again.”
I’m sure lots of people will plan ‘yes’ days after seeing the film. What tips do you have for them?
“Pre-plan a couple of things. It’s not about spending money or doing something permanent like getting a puppy or piercing your ears—it’s about being in the moment. Help your kids think about the fun things that they hear ‘no’ to all the time. If your kids are little, you don’t even realise how many rules you have in place that they’d love to be in charge of. I also make sure my kids eat enough real food that they aren’t sick, but always start the day with ice cream, end it a little later than you’d like to, remember to put your phone down and say yes to everything you possibly can.”
Did you manage to have a ‘yes’ day during the pandemic?
“We did and it took some planning. One of the things we always do is go to a place where the kids can decorate a cake, so I got a takeout version and we did it at home. I had a tent ready to go and they did my hair and makeup, made me look goofy and [made me do] a drive-through. Then we watched episodes of The Office and stayed up late. It felt great to say ‘yes’ in the year of ‘no’.”
What has this past year been like for you and your kids?
“We’ve been in Los Angeles and I feel lucky because we’ve stayed healthy. There have been silver linings: once you have teenagers and they’re so busy and gone from morning to night, just to have them at home has been a blessing. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how special this year has been for that reason, even though they’re all desperate to get away from me now [laughs].”
You’ve done a lot of great work with Save the Children. What are you most looking forward to doing when lockdown is over?
“This year, people have really seen us as a resource with boots on the ground for children in rural America. We’ve been able to reach nine times as many families and we’ve been feeding kids. Now, I’m eager to get back on the road, do some site visits and see what’s happening.”
Up next, will we see you in the sci-fi film The Adam Project and the comedy Family Leave?
“I’m starting The Adam Project—it’s beautiful, I love the role and I get to work with [my 13 Going on 30 co-star] Mark Ruffalo again, and with Ryan Reynolds. And then the same team that made Yes Day will make Family Leave. It’s [adapted from] another Amy Krouse Rosenthal book called Bedtime for Mommy. It’s so much fun and something we’ll shoot for Netflix hopefully this year.”
Yes Day will be streaming on Netflix from 12 March