In “Butter,” Jennifer Garner sheds her easygoing, good-girl image to play an uptight, unhinged, power-mad woman going up against an adorable orphan (Yara Shahidi) to keep her husband’s Iowa State Fair butter-carving championship title in the family. It was a role she chose for herself, serving as producer on the project before joining the cast, but that kind of inside track doesn’t mean she made the job any easier for herself.
As an actress, this is a great role for you. A safer choice would’ve been Alicia Silverstone’s part as the warmhearted foster mother.
Why would I do that? I’ve played that role.
So it didn’t take much to convince the producer to cast you?
Yes, I cast myself. [Laughs] But I did prepare more for this role than I’ve prepared for something in a long, long time. I always work hard, but this I kind of went a little nuts for a few months because I knew what a responsibility it was.
What kind of preparation are we talking about?
Working with the dialect coach a lot, listening to people from Iowa a ton on my iPad, going through the script word by word and watching a lot of different things — everything from Blanche DuBois to former beauty queens to first ladies of all the Midwestern states giving speeches from the ’50s to now to Muhammad Ali giving press conferences back when he was floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.
How did you shield your young co-star from the more mature dialogue in the film?
Well, there was no shielding her. She was right there, so we would just talk very frankly. But I would talk to her mom: “Have you spoken to her about all of this? How does she feel about it?” Her mom would say, “Oh, she’s going to cover her ears. She doesn’t really get it, she doesn’t care.”
Although the story is loosely modeled on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary race, you’re getting comparisons to Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin. How do you deal with that?
It’s kind of more fun because we weren’t going for those women. … We did this long enough ago that I wasn’t trying to be Michele Bachmann. I didn’t know who she was. I wasn’t after Sarah Palin. But that’s so much a part of what’s out there that I played it close enough to what you would think of them that you can’t help but draw that comparison. That’s what’s fun to me, the serendipity of it. We don’t think of this movie as a political movie first, by any stretch.