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In the opening scene of the Apple TV+ series The Last Thing He Told Me, an adaptation of Laura Dave’s best-selling novel about a woman who teams up with her stepdaughter to track down her missing husband, Jennifer Garner’s character smashes her cellphone. Just before the screen cracks, we see the date: April 14, the exact same day that the first episode premiered. “That was a true coincidence,” says Dave, who served as executive producer. “Someone randomly chose April 17 as the day the story would start, but 17 is my bad-luck number, so I moved it up to the 11th, which made the date on the phone during that flash-forward scene April 14.”
It was a sign of the kismet that has blessed the show from the get-go. The presence of Garner herself is another happy accident; Julia Roberts originally was set to star in the limited series produced by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine but had to pull out because of scheduling conflicts. “I fell in love with this book as a reader, and I was just like, ‘I can’t wait to see it,’ ” says Garner. The actress joined her co-stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Aisha Tyler, along with EP Lauren Neustadter, Dave and her husband/showrunner Josh Singer, to discuss the show’s fortunate beginnings and what it was like to bring the massively popular book to life. (Watch part of the interview below, and see more here.)
I imagine the popularity of this book made it highly sought-after for adaptation. Laura, did you have any requirements in order to say yes to inquiring production companies?
LAURA DAVE My trusted film agent Sylvie Rabineau, who I’ve been with since the beginning of my career, was only going to give the manuscript to a few people, but I did request that one of those be Hello Sunshine.
LAUREN NEUSTADTER I remember exactly where I was standing when I got the call from Sylvie. I thought it was the best pitch I had ever heard for a book. I called one of our executives and said, “I don’t mean to create a fire drill, but is it possible for you to clear your day and start reading a book right now?” She dropped everything, and at the end of the day she said, “It’s perfect.” I then read it through the night; I don’t sleep very well anyway. I felt in my heart and soul that we had to make this.
Jen, you read this book well before the job opportunity came your way.
JENNIFER GARNER I read this book with my kids. They make fun of me because I’ve read Charlotte’s Web and all the Harry Potters to them and no matter how many times I do, I start crying. And with this, my kids were like, “You got awfully crackly there, Mom!” I was such a huge fan of it, but someone else was attached and [starring in it] was really not a possibility, so I was just excited to see it. Then I heard early on that the role became available again and thought, “There’s no way the women in town will just let me waltz in and have this role. And nor should they!” The only shot I had was to go right at it right away. So I put my kids to bed, brewed a pot of coffee, and stayed up all night to make my case.
Have you ever pitched yourself that heavily for a role?
GARNER: I remember maybe 12 years ago, being in a Save the Children board meeting and writing a letter, not paying any attention [to the meeting] and then getting called on. So I know I’ve done it at least once. But it was never to this extent.
NEUSTADTER: I don’t know that we would have needed the letter, because Jen possesses so many of the Hannah Hall qualities — her strength, vulnerability, leadership — but it made the conversation go much faster.
What was the dynamic like for everyone getting to know one another?
AISHA TYLER Jen and I hadn’t actually worked together, even though we must have crossed paths at some point. I just had a vibe that we were going to have a great time together. And I had never worked with Nikolaj, but my old makeup artist did his hair on Oblivion and spoke very highly of him.
NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU The first time Jen and I met, Olivia [Newman], one of the directors, had the idea to do an intimacy session. We had to get to know each other by smelling each other. If it had been anyone else it might have been awkward, but it was perfect.
GARNER We took it completely seriously and we knew that, “Boy, we are going to have a really good laugh about this.” I knew the minute it started that we were going to be fine co-workers.
SINGER: You’ve never met a number one [on the call sheet] who takes being a number one more seriously. She’s the most prepared, the most excited, she’s getting food trucks every other day.
GARNER: You’ve gotta feed the people!
Does that kind of leadership energy come naturally to you?
GARNER: Well, I’m not a very good Girl Scout leader. Fifth-grade girls intimidate the heck out of me. And if I’m volunteering at the school I’m more of a worker bee; I don’t want to be in charge of anything. But I do love to marshal a cast and crew on set. I think Alias was the first project where I really felt that. I became a de facto helper to the first AD.
Josh, you’re an experienced filmmaker, but this is your first time working with your wife.
SINGER Laura’s my favorite writer. I met her not far from where we’re filming this, down at Book Soup, when she was doing a reading for her second book. This isn’t necessarily my genre for filmmaking, but I offered my help on it, and, before I knew it, the two of us were in it together.
GARNER I have to say it was a major deal to get to work with the two of them together. It would have been huge to get to do a show for just Josh — I remember begging for a role during his era of The West Wing; apparently I’ve gotten better at advocating for myself. (Laughs.) But the two of them took it to a whole new level. After every single take of a close-up shot, Laura was there to give me a high five. And Josh’s love language is consistency. Every single day, he brought me a perfect homemade cappuccino in hair and makeup.
The story takes place in Sausalito and Austin, Texas — what kind of location work did that require?
NEUSTADTER: Whenever we’re working with a lead actress who has kids we make sure she’s able to stay close to her family, so we shot the majority in Los Angeles. So the challenge was to make the Fox Lot look like Sausalito. We shot some exteriors in the Bay Area, and then we built the houseboat on a soundstage.
SINGER: There’s a scene with the bats in Austin in episode five, where we had to get the bats coming out from under the bridge at the exact right moment. Most of the crowds in those shots are the real people who come to watch.
I would be remiss not to ask about the virtuosic phone acting that was required of you all on this show.
TYLER It’s apparently a favorite in the industry. I think it’s a third term at Juilliard now. I’ve done so much phone acting in my career because I’m always playing, like, a government agent. I’m walking and talking, or walking, talking and solving a crime. You really have to create an environment for yourself to imagine your relationship with the other person. The really big trick to phone acting is not to look at the person who’s standing in to read the lines that are supposed to be on the other end.
GARNER Geoff Stults and I only had scenes over the phone, and I had one enormous scene and he showed up and read off camera for me on location in San Pedro. He spent hours there following a moving camera around, and it made a huge difference. I was really grateful to him for that.
Nikolaj, coming off of Game of Thrones, were you attracted to the fact that this was very specifically a limited series?
COSTER-WALDAU Doing a limited series doesn’t feel that different from doing a movie, and it’s great that there’s very clearly a beginning, middle and end. On that other show, after the first three seasons I never knew where we were going, and it would drive the controlling part of me crazy. I like to know how to play things, what story it is that I’m telling.
At this point in your careers, what does everyone look for in a new project? How do you know something is right?
TYLER The first thing I look for is an emotional response and a connection to the material. Sometimes you just need to pay the rent and you take work because you need work. I’m not out here like, “Let me call Steven Spielberg and see what he’s up to.” But I always ask, “Can I turn in a performance that I can be proud of and will be excited about?” If not, it’s usually better to let somebody else take a crack at it.
GARNER I changed everything about how I take jobs once I had kids. Now, I look for jobs where I can be home at the end of the day — over the last year, it just happened that projects I loved, like Party Down and then this, filmed in L.A. and allowed me to work here at home. Reese is a big part of that shift. She said to me a few years ago, “It’s time for you to start thinking about what you want to produce for yourself because men at the studios aren’t sitting around thinking, ‘What should I give to 40- and 50-year-old women who want to stay in L.A.?’ ” She’s been pushing for women across L.A. to make this move for a long time. I mean, look at Aisha, she’s a director.
TYLER: Yep, I’m doing my best. You bring up a side issue that I think is so important. I’m developing a movie right now, and it didn’t even come up to shoot in L.A. because the conversation is, “Where is the cheapest place we can shoot this?” I would’ve been laughed at if I had asked to shoot this at home, where all of our principals could sleep in their own beds.
Speaking of shooting in L.A. — you were able to nab Victor Garber to come shoot a guest role. How did that come about?
GARNER Josh is a big theater fan, so we started conspiring about what role would make sense to offer Victor. My relationship with Victor has only deepened in the 17 years since we left Alias. We speak every Sunday. He really thinks he’s my dad — and that’s not a joke.
Interviews edited for length and clarity. This feature was produced and curated by THR editors and is presented by Apple TV+.
a version of this story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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