If you devoured Laura Dave's novel "The Last Thing He Told Me," you're not alone. The book spent 65 weeks as a New York Times Best Seller and one of those readers who couldn't put it down was Jennifer Garner.
"I read it with my middle child. We kept pushing bedtime later and later because we were just compelled to read one more chapter, two more chapters, three more chapters," Garner said. "I can't even explain how much I loved it."
Her great read turned into a " dream role " when Julia Roberts — who was originally attached to star in a TV show based on the book had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. Dave co-created the series, which debuted Friday on Apple TV+, with Josh Singer, her Oscar-winning husband, and wrote the adaptation. Reese Witherspoon, who chose the book for her Reese's Book Club after its May 2021 release, is also an executive producer.
Garner plays Hannah Hall, who marries a man named Owen (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) after a whirlwind courtship. Hannah is not just a new wife but a stepmom to Owen's teenage daughter, Bailey, played by Angourie Rice, who regards her as a rude interruption to her family of two. One day Owen disappears and leaves Hannah a note instructing her to protect Bailey, with no other information. Hannah and Bailey are left to figure out what happened.
The idea of playing a person "growing into becoming a mother" intrigued Garner. As a mom of three, she gravitates to children and describes herself as a "natural caretaker." Garner co-founded the children's fresh produce-centric company Once Upon a Farm and is a board member of Save the Children. She's also acted in a number of family friendly films including "Yes Day" and "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day." Garner was curious about a character who learns "how much parenting comes from doing it."
For Rice, she adjusted to play someone who "doesn't know how to have a mother.
"Bailey has only had one person in her life, and that's her dad. That is the first and only person she goes to for anything," Rice said. "They really form a team, so when that goes awry, I think Bailey is resistant to Hannah because she is everything that her dad is not. She doesn't understand Bailey and Bailey is so used to being understood."
Garner and Rice found their off-screen relationship also progressed throughout filming in a more organic way, than becoming an insta-mother and daughter.
"Sometimes you play a mom in a movie and you are thrust in the role of motherhood. You're being a mom and then the actual relationship under it has to catch up," Garner said. "In this case, you're watching us grow closer and closer and more and more trusting of each other into a really cool partnership in the way that Hannah and Bailey experienced as well."
Garner also had to still her own energy to match Hannah's, who is more reserved.
"Hannah and I are incredibly different," she said. "I have kind of Labrador Retriever energy and Hannah is more a sphinx of a cat who wants to be left alone."
The actors also had the benefit of staying true to the book with Dave as writer, with the guidance of Singer.
"How Josh likes to work is we have a backyard with this old 100 year old pine tree, which you can sit under. Before we even started shooting, Jen would come over and we would go through the script again and again. Josh wanted to hear how the words sounded. Then Angourie joined us and some of the other cast joined us," Dave said. "The script was so lived in by the time that we got to set."
Dave spent 10 years writing the book and says for someone who loves the process of writing, this one was "painful." Working on the screenplay swung the other way and was so positive, it made her emotional. "There were a couple of times when we were in my backyard where I had to casually say, 'Excuse me' and I went inside and I was like a puddle. And then I'd go back outside and Jen would be like, 'You're not fooling anyone. I see the tears.'"
Of the couple working together again, Dave says, "I should be so lucky."
"Josh taught me so, so much," she said. "There is not a note that this guy gets that he does not think about or want to talk about and it created an atmosphere where everyone felt included, which I loved watching. I like to be by myself in a room and talk to nobody. There's no plans that can be canceled, that I'm not happy they were canceled. He's the opposite."
Singer is equally as complimentary. "I've been a Laura Dave fan for a long time now," he said. "She has such a stirring, unerring compass for emotion, for character and for story. There's nothing better than working with someone who has a true compass."