In the new HBO series “Camping,” Jennifer Garner plays a mom, but Kathryn Siddell-Bauers isn’t maternal — she’s militarized. Kathryn is a hyper-organized Type A personality who is brutally focused on making sure everything goes according to plan, even if it means being consciously or unconsciously cruel to the people in her life — a role that plays with Garner’s well-known public persona as a caring mother.
So making that performance happen, according to director/co-creator Jenni Konner, wasn’t easy. “It’s really hard to take the sweetness out of Jen Garner,” she told IndieWire.
And according to Garner, “I was really terrified. A lot of the time… I loved having people so clear in their vision, but it also took a lot of trust.”
In order to push the ensemble cast featured in the series based on Julia Davis’s British comedy out of their comfort zones, Konner and co-creator Lena Dunham put David Tennant, Janicza Bravo, Arturo Del Puerto, Brett Gelman, Juliette Lewis, and Ione Skye through weeks of rehearsal prior to filming.
It was a process that allowed each actor to develop not just their character, but their characters’ relationships with each other, and the time spent breaking down the scripts and playing theater games was essential given the premise, which tracks what happens when an eclectic group of adults meet up in the woods to celebrate the 45th birthday of Kathryn’s husband Walt (Tennant).
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“I felt pushed to be brave than I felt,” Tennant said of the experience. “I felt empowered by the sense that it was a safe environment where nothing was wrong and that actually, these characters could go wherever you wanted to take them. That was scary and exciting when it worked.”
Garner, once filming began, said that a lot of the direction she received during early episodes involved being asked to “take it farther.” “I would do something that felt very right to me and they would say, ‘stop doing that. You’re being you and we don’t want you, we want Kathryn ,'” she said. “I would try to soften a moment and they would say, ‘no.'”
The way Konner explained it was that Garner “wanted to find humanity in this character, and we kept being like, ‘It’s too early. You’re gonna, but just don’t do it yet. Don’t get emotional in this scene, don’t be too connected to David in this scene.’ Like, we’re getting there, but we have to pace it out.”
“There was a moment with Ione [Skye, who plays Kathryn’s sister Carleen], where I’m so mean to her, and I tried to soften it,” Garner said. “I couldn’t help it, I just wanted to end it with a smile or something. And they were just like, ‘nope. Don’t let your eyes fill with tears. You are not allowed that.'”
Garner said that the trust in Konner which led her down those paths was a “had me at hello” situation. “I mean, Jenni’s such a strong director and such a serious leader. And it’s all there in the words. They know what they’re doing,” she said.
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Added Tennant, “Yeah, and I like their taste and therefore, I find, if you feel you like the taste of the creators then you’ll trust them to be wherever they push you is to a tasteful place. However uncomfortable it may feel.”
“We love Jenni,” Garner said. “Obviously she’s articulate, but she’s emotionally articulate. And she is not afraid to mess with her own work and to say, ‘I wrote this and you guys are playing the intention that we talked about all along. Now try it this way.’ And completely screw everything that we’ve done leading up to that.”
“She has a real sensitivity, I think, in her writing and that also in her directing,” Tennant continued. “It just, you felt very safe. I know she can be very direct at times too. But just at the right moment. She has no problem in just going, no, you need to be there now.”
Konner noted that her resume as a director, prior to “Camping,” was just limited to a few episodes of “Girls,” and while she had plenty of experience with giving actors notes on set, directing the first two episodes of a new show wasn’t at all the same. “There was a huge difference, because ‘Girls’ was like I was literally like family with the crew, family with the cast. Everyone was friendly and really, really rooting for me to succeed. Which is of course the case on this, too, but it wasn’t like someone I had gone on vacation with. It was like, let’s see how this goes.”
In addition, unlike “Girls,” Konner was working with new and “much more experienced actors — they’ve had about a billion directors, you know? And so I was pretty nervous about it, and creating the look for a show — I’d never done that.”
“But,” she added, “it’s good to be scared.”
“Camping” premieres Sunday, October 14 at 10 p.m. on HBO.