Jennifer Garner and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau Take the Sniff Test
Nearly two decades after the final episode of Alias premiered, Jennifer Garner is once again starring in a small screen thriller alongside a dashing, enigmatic leading man. The Last Thing He Told Me, Garner and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s new series on Apple TV+, is a sleek, emotionally-charged nail-biter, adapted by Reese Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine from Laura Dave’s bestselling novel. Swap Michael Vartan for the Danish Game of Thrones alum (and shadowy espionage for an independent mother-daughter gumshoe duo investigating his mysterious disappearance), and The Last Thing He Told Me seems fairly similar to her breakout role. But Garner and Coster-Waldau agree on this project is like nothing they’ve worked on before, starting with their very first meeting—a sensory-rich session with an intimacy coach in Garner’s Brentwood living room. Before heading off to the show’s premiere at LA’s Bruin Theater, Garner called up Coster-Waldau to reminisce about bonding via partner yoga, their shared love for their TV daughter, and how smelling each other made them better actors.
GARNER: Hi, Nikolaj.
COSTER-WALDAU: Hi, Jennifer.
GARNER: You’re a sight for sore eyes. How are you doing?
COSTER-WALDAU: I’m good. We got in yesterday, and now I’m here.
GARNER: Are you in L.A.?
COSTER-WALDAU: I’m in L.A. I’m going to this premiere tonight, it’s this thing happening.
GARNER: Oh my god, I’m so happy. I was told it was just me. You must have been a surprise for me. [Laughs] I’m so happy, I’ll see you there.
COSTER-WALDAU: You will see me. I’m very excited to watch the show in the cinema. Have you been traveling? I thought you were in New York.
GARNER: I got home this morning, I was on that crazy early flight from New York and got home feeling a little dazed and confused. But we’ll get things revved up, shine her up and put her out there.
COSTER-WALDAU: I’m remembering the first time I met you, which was interesting.
GARNER: So the first time we met was here at my house…
COSTER-WALDAU: Yes. I got to this project kind of late. I got into town just the week before we started shooting. I met Josh [Singer], the wonderful writer, and Liv [Olivia Newman], the director. And then they tell me, “Tomorrow you’re going to meet Jen, and we are going to have a session.” And I said, “Okay, fantastic.” “And there’s going to be an intimacy coach [Rie Katagiri].” And I was like, “Oh, I have no idea what that means.” And I was very excited. I assumed it was just something for a sex scene or something, right? I thought it was something that you requested. And then I went to your house to do that and it was the funniest thing. And it was actually the best way to meet a person I think I’ve ever had on any project. We quickly found out that we have the same sense of humor. I just remember we had to close our eyes and smell.
GARNER: Yes! Well, I’ll say that, I was so dreading this whole thing, and so nervous to meet you this way. And there we were, and she had us stand right up against each other, kind of facing each other, close our eyes and sniff, right? And the moment we sniffed, I knew we were okay because we had the same sense of humor. And we both just said, “All right, we are doing it.” And when I felt you go into it with the same spirit that I would naturally bring to it, I knew we were totally fine. We could have stopped there as far as I’m concerned. But we didn’t.
COSTER-WALDAU: No, no.
GARNER: No, no, we sniffed.
COSTER-WALDAU: We sniffed and we did the weird thing with the ball. I can’t remember all of it.
GARNER: I can’t either.
COSTER-WALDAU: I just remember it was a lot of fun.
GARNER: She told us to taste each other.
COSTER-WALDAU: That’s true. Which was…
GARNER: How does one do that with someone?
COSTER-WALDAU: I don’t know.
GARNER: So that’s what we did, we just went with it.
COSTER-WALDAU: Oh, yeah. It could have gone sideways so quickly, that one. But the great thing was that it just made everything so easy because we got a sense of each other, which was really, really helpful. In the show we don’t have many scenes together, but they’re so vital. It’s the whole foundation.
GARNER: You are not in every scene of every episode, sure. But you define so much of the show. Well, you define the entire show. And you loom so large over it that we felt like you were there all the time, whether you were or you weren’t. But you just bring that to anything that you do. Angourie [Rice] and I were just both besotted in the same way, we just had so much fun having you as the guy for us to adore in common. And I talk about when you were coming to set, we would say, “Daddy’s home.” Then we did some partner yoga, which was a whole thing.
COSTER-WALDAU: I know, I’m the least flexible person in the world. But you’re very good at all that.
GARNER: I think it did help us jump to a place of intimacy—just the comfort, the ease in each other’s presence and with each other’s bodies that you need to have to play two people who love each other so much.
COSTER-WALDAU: Yes, exactly. Well, obviously we have to talk about this. How did you get involved with [The Last Thing He Told Me]?
GARNER: I read the book before it was a project, just for fun. My middle child and I read it together, because we love thrillers. We just couldn’t put it down. And the more we read it, the more I identified with Hannah. And I fell totally in love with it. And at the time it wasn’t like, “I wonder if I could play that.” I kind of knew it was being made. I kind of knew Julia Roberts was attached. And anything Julia wants to do, she should do. She’s the gal. She’s top dog, it’s all for her. But then I heard that she had fallen out of it for scheduling, and I was hearing it maybe a beat before the rest of my peer group. And I just knew I had to go for it and make this happen before all the other actresses in town knew if I even a whisper of a chance. So I put my kids to bed the night that I found this out. I just brewed coffee and stayed up all night and wrote Zach [Van Amburg], the head of Apple [TV+], and wrote him a really long letter about why I connected to it, why I felt like it wasn’t crazy for me to be asking him to consider me, and then to Reese. Then I did it again the next night, and eventually I guess they got tired of me because they gave it to me. Did you know that story?
COSTER-WALDAU: No, I didn’t. Wow.
GARNER: I don’t think I’ve advocated for myself like that before.
COSTER-WALDAU: It was obvious that you really wanted to do this show. People always talk about the atmosphere on set, and I think passion is always key to anything to make it joyful. You want to be around people who are passionate. You want to taste it. And you clearly believe in this show. You wanted it to be as good as it could possibly be, and that just infected everyone. It was so inspiring. And what a great story and that it actually works. God, I’ve got to write some letters.
GARNER: Write some! I’m going to write more letters. But I hope I don’t have to do that for every job. [Laughs] Well, I need to ask you some proper questions. But I don’t know what to ask!
COSTER-WALDAU: What about our daughter in this show? Because what a treat.
GARNER: Yes, let’s talk about Angourie. What a treat!
COSTER-WALDAU: How did you meet her? Because you guys were attached before. How did that play out?
GARNER: We did a Zoom casting. Lots of talented young actresses. But when Angourie read, she was just Bailey. There was never a question. I felt two things at the same time when I was Zooming with Angourie. I remember looking at her, I knew she was Bailey and I was looking at her and thinking, “This could be someone that really could be my partner in crime and my buddy, and somebody I could fall in love with.” Because you need that. She really was my other half on this project.
COSTER-WALDAU: I was so impressed because she’s much older than she plays. And I remember when I was a young actor and I was doing a part where I played someone younger. And when you’re 24, playing someone 16 seems absurd. It feels like so long ago. But she just nailed it. She just has amazing instincts. Because it’s not easy what she does.
GARNER: Do you know what she did that kind of blew me away? She was so much more disciplined than I, because I wanted to jump into loving her and her loving me. I just wanted to leap ahead and have the intimacy training and have her be my little buddy. And she did not let that happen. The first couple of episodes, she literally never looked at me. She hardly spoke to me between things. She was polite. But she can be very contained.
COSTER-WALDAU: Yeah. Because one of the things that most actors have, or I do anyway, is the pleasing gene. And she’s so nice, but she’s also good at holding onto what she’s actually there for. And to see that in a young actress is impressive.
GARNER: Yeah, she’s more disciplined about what she wants to do and she sticks to it. And then she’s quietly this amazing singer and by the way, she can play piano.
COSTER-WALDAU: Now I’m starting to hate her.
GARNER: I know.
COSTER-WALDAU: It’s too much talent!
GARNER: She bakes and knits, and what a little peanut. I had a weird thing when we finished where I was so teary about her. For a while I felt like I missed her so much, like more than you miss a kid that you’ve worked with. You have these relationships, you play a parent all the time. But it really broke my heart to say goodbye to her.
COSTER-WALDAU: It’s such an intense story. Of course, this mystery thriller. But it’s really about two people falling in love with each other. And that’s why it’s so powerful and that’s why it works. And of course, you guys were in it every day and you fell in love every day with each other. It’s funny. When people say, “Is it difficult to leave a job?” I will always say, “No, it’s not. It’s the easiest thing. It’s just a job.” Of course, that’s a lie. I just find it embarrassing to be like, “Oh no, I carry the trauma of the character with me.” But of course there are leftovers.
GARNER: How did you come to this? What about Owen made sense to you, or was attractive to you?
COSTER-WALDAU: I loved the script. The tricky part of it didn’t occur to me until we started shooting. With Owen, so many of his scenes are these flashbacks and they are obviously someone else’s flashbacks. And so it’s someone else’s memory. There was a moment when I got stuck on that whole thing. Like, “Hang on a second, if this is your memory of Owen, then what would Owen’s memory of this scene have been? What was going on in his mind and how much can we show of that?” And then it becomes this weird mathematical thing that kind of got in the way of my work a little bit.
GARNER: The editing is what shocked me. When I was first watching and it would be us cuddled up in bed, and then it would cut to just your face and you’re thinking something other than what is just happening between the two of us, I definitely was just like, “Oh my gosh, you sneaky little minx.”
COSTER-WALDAU: My thought was, “Oh, man. Owen, you could write a little more in that note. You could have done a little.” [Laughs]
GARNER: A little. I keep saying that. There’s no “XO.” There’s no “I love you.” No “sorry.”
COSTER-WALDAU: Yeah. Just like, “Do this.”
GARNER: “Do this. Risk everything.”
GARNER: Okay, we can’t talk about the ending. But I can ask you, why do you think Owen and Hannah, clearly they’ve met later in life, they have this one-in-a-billion connection that’s just like, “We have to be together. I’m going to move across the country for you. I’m going to change everything. I’m going to include you in my family of two and make it a family of three against my daughter’s wishes.” What is it about their connection that is so strong, that it transcends common sense?
COSTER-WALDAU: There is just a deep, deep connection between these two people and they feel it instantly. Hannah knows who she is, so they’re grounded enough, they can allow the other to be whoever she is and I think that’s a real strength. For him, I think if there had been any way out, he could have chosen that way, because clearly what we find out is that it’s not an easy choice and there’s a reason why he’s been a single dad for 12 years at this point. But I think it was inevitable. I think it’s just a true love story and they get each other. They connect in a way that goes beyond just having the same tastes or beliefs or whatever. What do you think?
GARNER: Yeah, I think it’s a soul-to-soul kind of connection. I think they connect on every level, both physically and emotionally, in a really soulful way.
COSTER-WALDAU: And then it’s the fact that she can do some stuff with wood. Tell me about this. How much time have you spent learning how to do this? Because that was another impressive thing. Is that your work? That one right there?
GARNER: Yes. You can tell because there’s not supposed to be a hole right there and it shouldn’t be this shallow, but I clearly screwed up so I kept having to make it more and more shallow and then there’s a hole. So yes, this is my work.
COSTER-WALDAU: How much time did you spend honing that craft?
GARNER: Months and months. But man, I’m so glad that I did. It’s one of those things about our job that if you really take advantage of what it has to offer, it’s like a lifelong education. Is that kind of goofy to say?
COSTER-WALDAU: No, it’s true.
GARNER: It makes you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do, read things you wouldn’t otherwise read. It’s an ongoing liberal arts education.
GARNER: Maybe you never go all the way deep. If you played a doctor a couple of times, you can listen in a stethoscope and you can rattle some things off, but it doesn’t mean you actually know anything. At first, it was just a couple hours at a time on the weekend and then you get more and more engrossed in something, and then it was five or six hours on Saturday and the same on Sunday. I was so into it. It told me a lot about who Hannah is. There’s a meditative quality to it that made sense to me since she’s someone who’s solipsistic. She’s a loner, she lives in her head, and that makes sense. You can just disappear inside your own mind when you’re just following a ring of wood on a lathe for hours and hours. Well, I want to know something. Did you get the whole story by reading the scripts? What was it like for you then to go back and read the book after reading the scripts?
COSTER-WALDAU: No, the mystery is still the mystery for me, because I was looking to Owen, right? What was the plan? Where was he? Where did he try to come up with these stories? I also think that this is so interesting, because you’ve seen stories like this before, but you’ve never seen it like this. Because the instinct usually would be, okay, now we’re going to cut over to see what that guy is doing. And the fact that we would never do that is so cool, I think.
GARNER: It’s cool, but it’s also torture. I would’ve been happy to go check in on Owen.
COSTER-WALDAU: That’s the beauty of it. Well, let’s wrap this up. Let me see if there’s anything that Interview suggested.
GARNER: Do we have behind the scenes moments? I can never remember anything behind the scenes, can you? I remember I sniffed you and then all of a sudden it was done.
COSTER-WALDAU: That’s it. Well, I’ve got a fitting in 15 minutes, so we should wrap this up. We’ve got a premier tonight! I can’t wait to see you.
JEN GARNER: Yes, me too. I can’t wait to see you. Is your wife with you?
COSTER-WALDAU: She is, yes.
JEN GARNER: I get to meet her?
COSTER-WALDAU: Yes! She’s the best.
JEN GARNER: I’m so excited.
COSTER-WALDAU: At long last!
JEN GARNER: I’m going to sniff her. I hope that’s okay.
COSTER-WALDAU: Please, you have to sniff her.