Camping, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s follow-up to Girls on HBO, is the latest entry in a now-familiar genre: limited series anchored by major film stars who, in earlier decades, never would have graced the small screen with their presence. In Camping’s case, that star is Jennifer Garner, returning to TV more than a decade post-Alias and putting her notorious charm to the test as a thoroughly uncharming woman.
Garner’s Kathryn is not Hannah Horvath, but as a protagonist, she shares many of the same intrigues and obstacles. She browbeats her husband Walt (David Tennant), whose birthday they go on the titular trip to celebrate, over-parents her son Orvis (Duncan Joiner), and tells anyone who will listen about the unending complications of her hysterectomy. Such outspokenness has made her a minor celebrity in the Instagram chronic pain community; it does not make her an ideal vacation organizer, especially not when an uninvited hippie played by Juliette Lewis threatens to shake things up. The role is a chance for Garner to show off her abrasive and humorous sides, as well as Konner and Dunham to expand their universe of dysfunctional women beyond 20-somethings in New York. As the meek and unassertive Walt, Tennant, too, is a far cry from the genre roles and detective dramas many in the States know the Scottish actor from.
Over eight episodes, Camping—adapted from a 2016 British series of the same name, written and directed by comedian Julia Davis—ricochets its cast off one another, stripping bare the cracks in Kathryn’s friendships, sexless marriage, and sense of self. At a recent press event in Los Angeles, The Ringer sat down with Garner and Tennant to talk Girls, family vacations, and camping stories of their own.
What was your experience with Lena and Jenni’s work before this? Were you Girls watchers?
David Tennant: Yeah, of course!
What appealed to you about that show?
Jennifer Garner: For me, it felt like an insight into—my kids have had an incredible nanny who’s much younger than I am, and I felt like I was watching her life when Girls came on. She was introducing it to me and saying, “This is how this is now.” And I would say, “I can’t imagine that!”
DT: There was something fresh and honest and true and funny.
DT: It was just one of those shows that you had to watch, wasn’t it? You just felt a new voice, and a clear voice. And also a good show, with characters that you believed and a world that you might not know, but you absolutely felt like you were looking through a very clear window into. Then if they approach you with a new project, you think, “Well, obviously.” You want to work with people who can produce that. You want to work with people who understand human beings, who can tell stories about the minutiae of human interaction. Those are characters that live and breathe.
How did the original influence your performances?
JG: It’s so good, and it’s so different from what we ended up doing. I was reminded—Jenni and Lena were very clear with me about this as well, to not give in to softening Kathryn too much. To hold on to the rigidity of her, and letting that just be who she was. Not trying to make her more likable or more human.
DT: They are recognizably the same show, and yet they’re very different. They have such a different feel to them.
JG: I mean, Orvis had a fishbowl over his head!
DT: It’s fascinating that Lena and Jenni could have taken that show, which is so vivid and so brilliant, and created something equally brilliant and from the same building blocks, and yet very much its own show.
JG: Very American!
This is a question for Jennifer—there’s been a steady recent migration of film actors to TV with shows like True Detective and Big Little Lies. Did any of those influence your decision to return to TV?
JG: I really had not thought of it in that way. I don’t see the barrier between film and television. I had the best working experience of my life on television, so of course I was always sure I’d go back, and I’ve said that in any interview I’ve ever been asked. But it was more just the job itself, that this job made sense. I wanted to be in something funny, I wanted to be in something wordy. I was excited that this came my way. I loved the idea of an ensemble, and the ensemble came together with a better, more interesting, more fun group of actors than I ever could have imagined.
Are either of you outdoorsy types? Do you go camping when you’re out of town?
DT [to JG]: You’re a bit better at that than I am.
JG: I mean, I don’t, like, seek out camping. But every now and then, it presents itself, and when it does, I face it bravely.
JG: And I do enjoy it. I’m always glad when something has put my kids and me in the great outdoors.
DT: I don’t rush to it. And I think my kids, they’re a variety of personalities. There’s one of them who would hate it so much it would almost not be worth trying, whereas another of them I can imagine would love it. It’s not something I would rush to do, or have rushed to do, if I’m being frank.
Did this bring up any traumatic memories of vacations past?
DT: When I was little, we used to go ‘round in a caravan that my parents would tug behind their car. One of those almost round, tin things. Myself and my brother and my sister would be put in these stacking bunk beds, and you could only access them when you’d finished with the kitchen, because it folded. I was so young, I don’t have particularly vivid memories of it. I can’t imagine doing that with my kids. We’d all go insane.
Kathryn and Walt are in a pretty dysfunctional place now, but what do you think they were like in their honeymoon period?
JG: I think you see glimpses of it here and there. I don’t know how much of it ended up on the air, but I think they really had fun playing football together, and they brought out something fun in each other there. I’d like to think that was a glimpse into their past.
DT: I think they’ve been through a lot of rough times. And they’re still together, so they must have started from a good place. I feel like, even through the dysfunction, there’s love there. They do care for each other, even if they’re not expressing it particularly well at the point that we meet them.
Do you think a character like Kathryn has the capacity for change?
JG: We see her change throughout the course of this show. Maybe the change accelerates towards the end. Or maybe it’s just the promise of change, and you feel like maybe there’s hope. But yes, I think she can change. I think it’s really important to remember that she is someone who’s living with pain that’s unseen. It’s chronic. It’s something that’s misunderstood, been misdiagnosed. She’s been cut open a billion times, and no one has really gotten to the bottom of it. So that has changed her. That’s fundamentally changed who she is, and her capacity for dealing with other people, and how much she thinks about herself. It’s made her much more brittle and shrill.
I was wondering how much of that you thought was psychosomatic, and whether or not you think that matters.
JG: I think it’s everything, at least from my point of view. Also, it’s the fact that people would automatically think it was psychosomatic that is so tricky. Because I have to believe that it’s real, at least for myself. I think she really has been in pain, and she’s focused on it so much, maybe she’s made it worse. But that’s not even fair for me to say, because I’ve never dealt with it.
DT: I think Walt fears that they’ve gotten to a place where it’s not real anymore. He fears that it’s become a behavior rather than a fact.
JG: Like where she says, “My pipes are inflamed!” Is that emotional? Are they really inflamed? Can she really, physically not have sex at this point, or is she just so scared to try that …
DT: He doesn’t want to hurt her, clearly, but he also doesn’t want to unleash her, and he doesn’t want to unleash the fury that he sometimes gets thrown on his head. So I think he’s gotten very nervous about how delicate the situation has got, and that they’re maybe not coming back from that. I think that’s his fear—that things are broken, and they can’t be glued back together.
Is Walt more of a passive participant in that marriage, or is he responsible for enabling Kathryn?
DT: I’m sure there’s a bit of that going on; any relationship develops between two people, doesn’t it? I think there have been some genuinely difficult times, and he’s been so keen to make that OK. He may well have created a situation for himself that he now can’t get out of, day to day. It can be sometimes unhelpful to be too analytical about that as an actor, because the scene is what the scene is, and the situation is what’s happening that day.
How much therapy do you think Orvis needs in the long run?
JG: [Groans] Oh, no …
DT: Doesn’t bear thinking about, does it? It’s just him, too. Poor kid.
JG: That poor kid! I hope he goes to boarding school. He needs to be reparented.
DT: And summer camp for the whole summer every year.
JG: But he’s very good at keeping himself busy and occupied, Orvis.
DT: And he’s got his Auntie Carleen. She’s gonna look out for him.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.