Jennifer Garner's Southern Roots

The megastar introduces us to the most important women in her life and tells us why she wouldn’t trade growing up in the Mountain State for anything. 

Story by Stephanie Granada
Jennifer Garner
"I would not trade growing up in West Virginia for anything." -Jennifer Garner
Photo: Miller Mobley

Jennifer Garner wears many hats—actress, mother, producer, activist, wife—but the role she identifies with most is being a Garner girl, along with her mother, Patricia, and sisters, Melissa and Susannah. Like many Southern women, the actress, who stars alongside Al Pacino and Annette Bening in the upcoming film Danny Collins, grew up with Southern Living. It’s no surprise that Jen, as she is known at home, would want this shoot to be a family affair.

On set, the women were laid-back and friendly. No entourage or demands. No gripes about the wardrobe or unflattering angles. lt’s a reflection of their upbringing in Charleston, West Virginia, where Patricia pushed humility over vanity. The sisters didn’t wear makeup as teens and got $400 a year for clothes. (“That had to buy everything from our underwear to our shoes,” Jen says.)

Even without their natural rapport, there would be no denying the Garners’ kinship: The almond eyes and big smiles are prominent shared features. “We are doing this shoot so people can finally stop asking if my lips are real,” Jen quips when the photographer points out their resemblance. That trademark, relatable sense of humor also comes from her mother, who entertained the crew with stories of favorite Southern Living recipes and a road trip to Auburn, Alabama, last fall for the Texas A&M football game.

After the shoot, we chatted with Jen and her mom about what Patricia taught her girls about food, life, and family.

On Sisterhood
“Being the middle sister of these three girls is the relationship that defines me more than anything else,” Jennifer says. “More than being my kids’ mother, more than being my husband’s wife, I’m first and foremost the middle Garner girl.” Their mom is the central point that keeps them connected. “We all talk on the phone a lot,” Patricia says. “And they all talk to me. If they miss each other, I get them caught up.”

On Cooking 
“If you grow up eating good food, you want to make good food,”  says Patricia, who credits Southern Living for teaching her to cook. “I got my first subscription in 1981 and bought the Annual Recipes book every year until my bookshelf got filled.” Jennifer is also an avid cook, known for making what she calls ‘mom foods’—roasts, mashed potatoes and gravy, and her best dish, Grandma Exie Mae Garner’s sweet potato pudding.

On Style 
“What my mom did that I valued so much was to not place beauty high on the list of priorities,” Jen says. “It was a shock when I got to college to hear people say I was pretty.” She still likes to keep things simple when it comes to clothes, saying, “Although I adore it on others, you won’t see me wearing many one-shoulder, asymmetrical, cool things. I can’t feel like I’m wearing a costume.”

On Hard Work 
Raised on a small subsistence farm in Oklahoma, Patricia learned the value of sweat equity early on. She passed that tenacity on to her girls. “I always had a job,” Jen says. “In high school, I worked at a men’s clothing shop and babysat. In college, I worked at a summer stock theater for free, building sets and cleaning toilets.”

On Community 
“We weren’t raising a celebrity; we were raising a daughter, Patricia says of Jennifer’s childhood. The actress says she wouldn’t trade growing up in West Virginia for anything. “I feel so fortunate to have grown up in a place where people look out for each other,” she says. “Community is the one thing people crave most, and it’s hard to come by. I grew up with such an excess of it that now wherever I go, the first thing I do is build my group.”

On Home 
Jen lights up talking about her home state, where her mom and younger sister, Susannah, still live. She visits often to see family and work with the nonprofit Save the Children. “I’m happy to be anywhere in the state,” Jen says. Among her favorite local treasures are the Vandalia Gathering, where “bluegrass plays from under every tree”; artisan Barbara Lantz, an accomplished quilter who made blankets for each of Jennifer’s children when they were born; and the New River Gorge class V rapids. “There is nothing better,” she says. 

On Individuality 
“We let the girls do their own thing,” Patricia says. “I have one daughter who has an MBA, one who is a CPA, and one who is an actress.” Jennifer switched majors from chemistry to theater after reading Beth Henley’s play Crimes of the Heart in college, a move she thought would concern her parents. Patricia recalls “I think my husband worried that she would be poor her whole life, but bless his heart, he never told her not to do it.” 

On Performing 
Jennifer’s family encouraged her craft from an early age—letting her sign up for every play and musical she could find. “Being the middle child, she was the clown,” Patricia says. “I thought Jen would be a writer because she was always making up these little stories. She inherited that trait from my side. My mom was a good storyteller, and my brother was a pretty good liar. He’d tell me ‘Oh, Pat, there is no story that can’t be made better!’ ”

On Raising Children 
“It’s really important for my kids to see that everyone doesn’t have the lives they see in Los Angeles,” Jennifer says. “That doesn’t reflect the rest of the world. I want them to grow up with the Southern values I had—to look at people when they say hello and to stop and smell the roses. If I could do half as good a job as my mom did, I’d be pretty happy.”