Jennifer Garner Goes ‘Camping’ and Gets to Be Delightfully Unlikable

Jennifer Garner Goes 'Camping' Anne Marie Fox/HBO

Set up your pup tent and plop yourself in front of your TV: Jennifer Garner returns to television in HBO’s Camping. “I always said I’d come back to TV,” the dimpled actress grins, but since Garner’s high-octane spy drama Alias ended in 2006, she has been in big demand on the big screen. She’s starred in Hollywood blockbusters ranging from charming rom-coms like 13 Going on 30 and Oscar-winning dramas like Dallas Buyers Club to family flicks like The Odd Life of Timothy Green and butt-kicking action flicks like September’s Peppermint.

“I love the ongoing nature of TV,” she tells us. “I love the familial feeling on set. I love getting a new script every week. But it has to be something that is written well, and Camping is.” The eight-episode comedy is based on Julia Davis’ British series of the same name, but with a fresh Americanized twist, courtesy of the writing/producing team of Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. “I didn’t hesitate because the writing was so smart, and because it was Jenni Konner directing, and because I laughed my head off when I read it,” Garner reveals. “And it was shot in L.A. — I’m a mom, I have to figure that stuff out.”

The satire follows uptight suburban mom Kathryn (Garner) as she leads an ill-fated group camping trip to celebrate the 45th birthday of her husband, Walt (David Tennant). They are joined by a ragtag group that includes Kathryn’s meek sister (Ione Skye), her drug-addicted boyfriend (Chris Sullivan), a married couple consisting of Walt’s best friend and Kathryn’s ex-best friend (played by real-life couple Brett Gelman and Janicza Bravo), the group’s recently separated pal (Arturo del Puerto), and a bizarre free spirit (Juliette Lewis) who has crashed the party and is along for the adventure.

“It’s definitely a group of fish out of water,” Garner laughs. “These people do not really belong in the woods, and they’re part enjoying it, part tolerating it for Walt, and also just breathing through the fact that Kathryn has insisted on this weekend. I mean, it’s one thing to go camping with your friends for a night or two, but it’s four days. At the Groupon rate!”

Garner describes her character as “a lot to handle” and admits that when she watched the U.K. version of Camping, she was intimidated by her. “The British version is unflinching, and she is relentlessly shrill and controlling,” Garner shares. “The British are unafraid in this way. They don’t give her a moment where you see why, or who she is underneath, or any sense of humanity.”

Garner recalls that she told Dunham and Konner that she didn’t know if the role was right for her. She told them, “I don’t know that I can play that. I appreciate her bravery in her unlikability, and I think it is funny, but I don’t know if an American audience would get that.” But when Garner saw the satirical but sensitive scripts delivered by Konner and Dunham that were filled with biting wit but also with depth and humanity, she was overjoyed.

“They are so facile in their use of language to expose the emotions of a person,” she gushes. “Jenni’s ability just to articulate the emotion of a moment is just so … oh, it’s just so fun, and so rich.” And while Dunham spent most of the L.A.-based shoot on the opposite coast, Garner tells that her presence infused the production. “Lena’s just funny. She was in New York for a lot of it, but everything she sent our way, it was just so incredibly funny, and they’re also just not afraid to turn over the rock and see what’s underneath.”

And under Kathryn’s rock of pseudo-perfection and aplomb hides a seething pile of ill will. “Kathryn’s one of those people who, when she’s doing something for you, it’s aggressive,” explains Garner. “It has nothing to do with what you want. It has nothing to do with the group dynamic. It is what she’s decided, and she’s aggressively making you do it, and then making you feel like @#$% for not being as appreciative as she thinks you should be at all times.”

In her drive to facilitate a perfect, Instagram-worthy weekend, Kathryn insists on adherence to a hyper-regulated schedule of events. Her rigidity is quickly kiboshed by her much less enthusiastic fellow campers, who aren’t as interested in having fun on a timetable. As Kathryn’s best-laid plans crumble around her, she falls apart spectacularly and lashes out at everyone around her.

While recalling the vitriol that she got to spew as Kathryn, Garner shares, “It was fun to play someone who was so complicated, and who said such hateful and ridiculous things. And to commit to them, I mean, I can’t tell you how often I would try to soften it, and Jenni [Konner] would say, ‘No, no. Go hard! She is not apologizing. This is really how she feels about it,’ and then to look for the moment where you see why she is the way she is, and what is going on in her mind, and who she was back when she was fun. To find those moments, it just made it really a rich experience.”

And for Garner, playing a woman who is completely out of control and out of her league allows her to deliver some eyebrow-raising lines. “It is so funny and so ridiculous,” laughs Garner, “to run around and say, ‘Do you want me to have a dysfunctional pelvic floor for the whole of your birthday weekend?!’ I got the giggles so badly saying that. I could not look at David Tennant and say that with a straight face. There are many, many times that David just had to be very patient and wait for me to get my act back together, because it was just so funny.”

Tennant, known for playing villainous roles in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Marvel’s Jessica Jones, and as the Tenth Doctor in the Doctor Who franchise, shines as the mild-mannered antithesis of Kathryn. “It was lovely to play someone who’s so sweet and open-hearted and long-suffering and possibly most like the real me that I’ve ever done,” he reveals. “It was hugely appealing to kind of get into that head space and bucket hat.”

While Garner feels that the characters on Camping are ill-suited for the great outdoors, she admits, “I’m a very good backyard camper. A very committed backyard camper.” She enjoys camping with her kids’ Girl Scout troop and reports that she and her fellow castmates thought about going camping in real life — as long as the location was snake-free. “When we were there ‘camping’ on set, we had a rattlesnake wrangler going through the set first,” Garner recalls. “And I can tell you, almost every day there was a big rattler in his bucket!”

Camping, Sundays beginning Oct. 14 at 10/9c, HBO