After spending the past decade starring largely in sentimental flicks, Jennifer Garner was ready for action again — the film genre, that is. But finding the right butts to kick took some searching.
“I’d wanted to do something physical, but the roles that came my way didn’t have high enough stakes to make me believe in them,” the actress tells EW. “The drama has to be real, and the reason for risk has to be the highest imaginable.”
Enter Peppermint’s premise: Riley (Garner) witnesses the brutal murders of her husband and young daughter, but is denied justice by a court too corrupt to take on the cartel responsible. “Jen gives you exactly what you want from the role,” says director Pierre Morel (2009’s Taken). “She’s America’s most loved mom, so she sells the part as the relatable, sweet mother at the beginning, and then allows you to embrace her journey as she becomes a woman who knows there’s no happily-ever-after for her and takes things into her own hands to get revenge.”
In the film, Riley goes off the grid for five years to transform herself into a merciless vigilante — complete with hooded cape and scarred, sinewy biceps — ready to dole out punishment. But in reality, Garner had only three months to prepare physically. She threw herself into daily dance cardio and weight training, boxing workouts, artillery sessions with Navy SEALs, and stunt work with her longtime double, Shauna Duggins (who was recently nominated for an Emmy for her work as stunt coordinator on Netflix’s GLOW). “It was full-on,” says Garner, 46, who reunited with members of the stunt teams she worked with on Alias, Daredevil, Elektra, and The Kingdom. “It was the greatest fun. Plus, no working mom is ever going to say to her kids, ‘Pardon me while I do my second workout,’ so the fact that it was my job allowed me to really indulge in that experience.”
Getting the physical aspects right was just part of the process, and Morel (a director best known for “a very particular set of skills”) agrees that without the script’s emotional intensity, the relentless action sequences wouldn’t be justified. “I’m labeled as doing action stuff, so I was looking for something with a soul,” he says. “Having a mother as the lead helps the audience understand that need for retaliation after great loss that is embedded in us.”
It was the awareness of Morel’s reputation for plausible action movies and Garner’s ability to sell the role that made producer Gary Lucchesi (Million Dollar Baby, Primal Fear) quick to snatch up Peppermint as a project. “Casting is everything,” he says. “There are a few actors you can put in these roles and make them believable; Jennifer is one of them. Then you have Pierre, who grounds it all in reality and makes sure the action scenes don’t just become set pieces — they move the story along.”
Part of Morel’s motivation for keeping the action realistic and connected to the plotline was to avoid gratuitous violence. “There’s movies where the violence becomes a spectacle,” he says. “Real violence you see on the street — gunshots and blades — is bad enough, but there’s truth to it.” Garner, for one, is glad the gore doesn’t blot out the story’s heart. “I’m very easily grossed out, but this isn’t that,” she says. “It’s a woman-friendly action movie, and I think they’ll connect to the idea of doing anything for your kids. You don’t even know how deep your rage is or who you are until the motherhood part of you is tested.”
At a time in Hollywood when women are breaking into male-dominated genres, Garner hopes that all audiences embrace the movie’s narrative and don’t question its legitimacy because there’s a woman (or her specifically) at the fore. “I’ll be interested to see if people can separate their idea of me as the girl next door to accept me in this heightened reality,” she says. “Obviously we’re not condoning this kind of action in real life, but if it were a man doing it, would it be an issue? We’ll have to see.”
Peppermint is in theaters now.