It may be hard to accept, but the real Jennifer Garner is in stark contrast to her kick-ass on-screen persona on Alias, the American TV drama which has rocketed her to stardom. The 32-year-old actress is the first to confess she has practically nothing in common with her character, the secret agent, Sydney Bristow. I did almost imagine Garner greeting me with a tae kwon do manoeuvre, but fast learned that the Hollywood tough-girl image is merely an act, and that she feels more at home in the kitchen baking cakes than fighting with an enemy. The fact that her idol is Martha Stewart speaks for itself - Garner even named her pup after the (now troubled) homemaker turned millionaire entrepreneur.
As she relaxes in her LA hotel suite, from where she's promoting her new film, Elektra, Garner falls into a fit of girly giggles and assures me: "I'm not as brave as Sydney." But her role as Elektra also involves action. It is based on the Marvel-comic-book character who made her first appearance in the Daredevil issue 25 years ago.
"The women I play are incredibly physically adept and they can absolutely take care of themselves, but they are also still in touch with their feminine and vulnerable sides. They are beautiful, but not vain, and are a little dark, never really thinking that their lives are in danger."
She leans forward. "I think with age comes strength. I think when I'm 40, I'll be pretty strong and pretty cool. I'm getting there." Garner laughs again. "I definitely feel I am making choices from the right place and that I am learning when to trust myself, when to question my decisions and that's just the great thing about growing up."
In the flesh, the dimple-faced actress looks like she wouldn't hurt your pet caterpillar, let alone karate-chop you in half. Casually dressed in an old pair of denims and a grey T-shirt, with hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, stray wisps falling over her cheeks, she is more schoolgirl than movie star. Her cheerleader-like enthusiasm can be so overwhelming at times that some might interpret it as insincerity, though I don't. "You should have seen me before I went through hair and make up this morning," she looms, rolling her eyes.
"I wasn't the popular girl in school," she says primly. "I was separated by an inability to dress, and I kind of possessed a natural geekiness. I think playing the sax in a marching band at 13 was a bit of a stigma, but I wasn't unhappy about it. All of my friends thought we were cool, and that's all that mattered."
Garner continues to play down her natural beauty. "It never occurred to me that the way I looked had changed until one day I was doing a play in college," she offers, convincingly. "I was all done up, and there was a picture in the paper comparing me to Geena Davis. And I did look so much like her, it made me realise that I clean up rather nicely, which is a really empowering thing to know for any teenager, let alone a woman." Shaking her head, she practically whispers: "I can't tell you how many times I've walked the red carpet and felt completely out of place."
Although she's relatively new to UK audiences, Garner is so famous in America that gossip-column-inches are dedicated to her on a daily basis. She has endured cover after cover headlining her "sudden split" from her actor-husband of four years, Scott Foley, (whom she met on the TV show Felicity); her "hot romance" with her Alias co-star, Michael Vartan; and now she's having to cope with the gossip columns describing her as the "love interest" of Ben Affleck.
"You'd be hard pushed to find any dirt on me," she quips, as if reading my thoughts. But surely Affleck's cynicism and deprecating humour has rubbed away a few layers of her sugar-coating. But this is a subject she refuses to entertain: "I have a boyfriend? Do I? Well, news to me." Guilt sets in later, when Garner sighs apologetically: "I've learned to keep my mouth shut about my personal life. I mean, that is the bad part of the job that you learn how to handle after a bit."
What's so intriguing about Garner's meteoric rise is that she has never considered herself to be particularly driven or a great performer, compared, say, to the do-or-die ambitions of Jennifer Lopez. "I've never had a drive for stardom," she smiles, as though without a care in the world. "I wanted to act for a living, then go home, make dinner and be with the kids."
Tucking some strands of hair behind her ears, she continues: "I never even watched the Academy Awards. I was one of those children that if you asked me what I wanted to be I would have told you something different everyday, like a librarian, an author, or a doctor. As far as I was concerned, Happy Days was made on another planet.
"I've liked every job I've ever had," she chirps. "I like to work. Having a job makes me feel strong and independent. I was looking for jobs when I was small and my mum would be, like: 'Okay, your job is to rake the leaves and you get a quarter' or 'pour coffee every Sunday after church.' I mean, she got me to do anything just by telling me it was a job."
The second of three daughters, Garner was born in Houston and moved with her family to Charleston, West Virginia, at the age of three. In high school, she was a competitive swimmer, played the sax and dreamed of becoming a ballerina. Both her parents had been poor and became successful. They instilled a strong work ethic which Garner has found invaluable on set.
"It's so funny that everyone assumes you wanted to be an actress from an early age. That's just what I did on the side and I loved it so much that I couldn't get enough of it. I just liked being on stage performing ballet, and in the chorus. I even liked being backstage. Then I did plays in college, and I just had the bug," she explains.
"I became sucked in. I found myself working in the summer for free just to build sets in some weird part of the country. Then I visited a friend in New York, went on an audition and got it. It was understudying a play on Broadway, with Helen Mirren. I began auditioning for TV jobs to buy acting lessons, so I could have a better chance of getting roles on stage. It just kinda snowballed for me."
Garner secured her first leading film role, as the black leather-clad Elektra, in Daredevil, opposite Ben Affleck and Colin Farrell. Despite mediocre reviews, the film earned more than $100m. Other big-screen parts include a high-class call-girl, who dupes Leonardo Di Caprio, in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can; a nurse in Pearl Harbor, and, one in last year's sleeper romantic comedy, 13 Going on 30, opposite Mark Ruffalo.
Gushing like a star-struck teen, Garner remembers the call from Spielberg. "It was so unexpected that I was giddy about it for weeks. I kind of held it close to my heart and couldn't tell anyone for a while in case it was some big joke."
Directed by Rob Bowman (The X Files), Garner now returns as Elektra, a lethal synthesis of grace and strength with a mystical power known as kimagure: a limited ability to see the future. We last saw her apparently fatally stabbed at the hands of Bullseye (Farrell) in Daredevil, but she is now alive and kicking, and training under the tutelage of the mystical, blind, sensei named Stick, played by Terence Stamp. Driven by the suppressed rage she harbours for the brutal murder of her parents, she is a killing machine living only for her next assignment.
"I really felt like I was Elektra and so I trained pretty much night and day: 10 hours at weekends and before and after going to the set. It was obnoxious how much I trained!" she laughs. "I was such a disciplined machine." She continues: "The only big bummer was the wind generator. I had this waist-length wig on and the director loved the effect of wind in my hair. I'd be fighting and there'd be so much wind in my eyes that it was only because I was so well-rehearsed that I knew where to hit!"
'Elektra' is released on 21 JanuaryReuse content