Jennifer Garner and David Tennant’s characters on the new HBO comedy Camping may live in a torturous bubble of passive aggression, but the actors couldn’t be more comfortable together on a September afternoon in Los Angeles.
While chatting about their dysfunctional small-screen counterparts, Kathryn and Walt — the married couple at the nexus of a weekend trip run wild — the pair are so in sync that they constantly nod in agreement, finish each other’s sentences, and playfully obsess over the same harem-pants-wearing costar. (You’ll see.) Garner even twirls in her heels on her way out — a perfect farewell gesture, considering how…
This project’s a heel-turn for both of you. Neither of you are exactly known for ensemble comedies. Did Camping scratch an itch to do something different?
DAVID TENNANT: It certainly did. It was unlike any job I’d ever been involved with before. Working with the writers on set, you would read a scene and sometimes there would be a bit of improv, sometimes they would come in with a new line. I didn’t know if I could do it, surrounded by people who are proper comedians.
GARNER: I would say there are things about TV that I love — the expectation of getting a new script and figuring it out as you go along — and I was just really hungry to do something funny. This was a nice way to go back to that.
What did you find appealing about Kathryn and Walt? They’re, to put it lightly, a little hard to swallow.
GARNER: [Laughs] I don’t see Walt as hard to swallow. He’s just doing his best in a tough situation.
TENNANT: So is Kathryn, isn’t she?
GARNER: Poor Kathryn. She has chronic pain…
TENNANT: In all sorts of places! [Garner laughs.] Yes, in many ways it’s a nightmare relationship to witness, but you can see where it came from. You get a sense of there being a very real history to that relationship that was once tender and loving, and it’s all just gone a bit…
TENNANT: Yes. It just needs a bit of moisturizer.
GARNER: You know parents who are in their 70s or 80s, and they’re craggy with each other, and you think, “How is that? Were you once nice?” This is a case where you’re watching that happen in process.
TENNANT: Walt loves his son, he loves his wife, he’s slightly tortured by who she’s become, and he…
GARNER: Takes the path of least resistance.
These characters could easily come across as caricatures. What did you find in them that grounded your performances?
TENNANT: I found a hat and Birkenstocks, and I was pretty much done. [Turning to Garner] Jen?
GARNER: Yup, that did it! [Laughs] I first watched the original [British] version, which is brilliant and unflinching in its portrayal of people who do not ask you to forgive them, and I just thought, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know that I can do it. I feel like I would have to give the other side of the story.” [Creators Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner] were constantly saying to me, “Nope, don’t tear up, don’t smile, and don’t button it with some apology for the scene.” That was really hard for me. There were many times I walked deep into caricature, and I would ask, “Please tell me if this is too much?” But they would say, “Go further.”
Like — tiny spoiler alert — in the episode in which Kathryn takes Adderall in the middle of the night?
GARNER: Yes. I’ve never taken Adderall or anything altering like that in my life, so I had no concept of it. People told me crazy things like, “It’s all about your mouth, and you’re just like, ‘Bleh!’” [Squishing her face with her palms and sticking her tongue out] I was like, “I can’t do that!”
TENNANT: [The show] gets crazier as it goes on, so we were sort of required to get crazier, and we all struggled with how far we could go. [Camping as an activity] is a great petri dish for characters. We were all drawing from our own experiences of dysfunction.
Kathryn is an Instagram mom, cresting 11,000 followers and proud of it. Jennifer, you’ve had massive success with putting together clips and snapshots for your Instagram recently, but, David, you’re not on social media at all. Why not?
TENNANT: I set myself a position which I’m clinging to probably out of stubbornness.
GARNER: Oh, the mighty will fall. I did the same, I believed in that position.
TENNANT: Social media sort of arrived just as I was losing a bit of anonymity at home, and the two things did not seem to sit very well with each other. I wanted to cling onto whatever anonymity I had, I don’t want to have a place where everyone can find me. That’s really why I’m not on social media. And social media has developed now as a thing over the last 10 years, but my position hasn’t developed. So I don’t know, there probably will come a time when I will give in.
GARNER: You know what will happen? A job will —
TENNANT: Will demand it, and I’ll have to look to my principles. And flush them quickly down the toilet. [To Garner] But you own it, right? Like, you actually own Instagram.
GARNER: Yeah! [Laughs] No, I went into it kicking and screaming, but then I really feel like I’ve learned to find ways most of the time to make it creative for myself, and make it an outlet, and make it fun.
So aside from Jen learning what it’s like to take Adderall, what would you say were your biggest takeaways from working on the show?
TENNANT: You know what I discovered? There’s something lovely about being in an ensemble cast of people that are all sort of the same age. [Laughs]
GARNER: That was so nice.
TENNANT: Quite liberating.
GARNER: Another thing is how good it is for your soul to work outside. Did you feel that way? I felt like we were the only two.
TENNANT: Oh, I loved going to that set. A lot of people didn’t. People kept complaining about the dust.
GARNER: Every time we drove out there, it was prayerful for me. I loved it.
If you had to choose, which character would you say you’re most like?
GARNER: Oooh. Maybe Ione [Skye, who plays Kathryn’s timid sister, Carleen]? Or Walt?
TENNANT: There are bits of Kathryn that you very much identify with.
GARNER: [Nods] The organization. My life requires it, and I overcompensate.
TENNANT: I’d like to think that I’m like Chris Sullivan’s character, that I’m as cool as him.
GARNER: Yeah, but you’re thinking of Chris, not his character. [Sullivan, who also stars on This Is Us, plays cocky, booze-soaked Joe.]
TENNANT: I want to be Chris Sullivan.
GARNER: I do too, desperately. What if we just go right now and get a pedicure together in some big harem pants? We all went to dinner in New York —
TENNANT: I wasn’t invited.
GARNER: You were sorely missed. But seeing him out in the world? Ahh, I will never be that cool in my whole life.
TENNANT: So cool. [They both sigh.] I love him.
Camping premieres Sunday, Oct. 14, at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.