Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Owen and Jennifer Garner as Hannah in The Last Thing He Told Me; photo courtesy of Apple TV+
“I still read to my kids—I have 11, 14 and 17-year-olds,” said actress Jennifer Garner from the main stage at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC on Saturday, April 22. “This was an unlikely bedtime tale!” Garner recalled how she read Laura Dave’s novel The Last Thing He Told Me aloud with her 14-year-old and whipped through the pages.
“Laura finishes every other chapter on a single sentence that changes everything you thought you knew, and you are compelled to keep going!” she said of Dave’s thriller—a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick and instant #1 New York Times bestseller, published in May 2021 by Simon & Schuster. In the sixth novel by Dave (Eight Hundred Grapes), a woman (Hannah) is left to decipher the sudden disappearance of her husband (Owen), while caring for her difficult teenage stepdaughter (Bailey). Garner loved it and recommended it to friends, but being involved in the TV adaption of the book—which Dave wrote with her husband, Oscar-winning Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer—didn’t even occur to her.
“Somebody else was attached and I just didn’t even think of it, because the someone else was Julia Roberts,” Garner said. “It’s not like I’m going to take on Julia Roberts…No, no. Respect! Anyway, when scheduling snafus got in her way, I kind of went bananas and just stayed up all night and tried to write one good, literate letter to the head of Apple.”
Los Angeles Times TV critic Lorraine Ali, Jennifer Garner and Laura Dave at the L.A. Times Festival of Books
“Zack Van Amburg, he read that letter and the very next day, Jen was our Hannah,” said Dave, who noted that so much of the challenge for her was writing the book. “It was a 10-year process,” she said, recalling 97,000 words of an initial draft that she’d had to trash. “I put the book down so many times that I wrote two additional books that were published over the interim of writing this book.” Dave had always been interested in true crime, and garnered inspiration from the Enron trial—and particularly Linda Lay, the wife of Enron CEO Kenneth Lay. In an interview Dave saw, Linda had stated, “My husband has done nothing wrong.”
“I was captivated by that moment,” Dave said. “And I started then, in 2013, to imagine a woman who found herself in the position where she thought her husband was someone categorically different from who the world was telling her he was.” Dave also found inspiration in another interview—by the show’s eventual executive producer, Hello Sunshine’s Reese Witherspoon—referencing Gloria Steinem in talking about how important it was for women to watch other women be the heroes of their own lives. Dave married the two concepts: “I wanted to look at a woman who believed something, but was not the victim of that belief, but rather, the hero of that belief. … And that’s when I put pen to paper.”
Garner and Dave describe the plot in a sentence.
Dave started writing this book with the question, “Can we ever know the people we love?” “And all I knew going in was that a woman was answering the door to an unlikely messenger, who was going to deliver a message to her that changed everything about the man she loved the most.” The woman, Hannah, opens the note, and it says, “Protect her.”
“What did you have the note say before you settled on ‘Protect her’?” Garner suddenly thought to ask Dave during the panel. “It was always, ‘Protect her,’” said Dave, to which Garner exclaimed, “That’s so crazy! Laura! Okay, your turn,” Garner said, returning the microphone to moderator and Los Angeles Times TV critic Lorraine Ali.
Garner interjects as moderator
Garner hadn’t seen roles like this come up too often. “I loved watching Hannah become a mom—and I loved watching her earn that, and how brutal it is,” Garner said, noting how “mean” 16-year-old stepdaughter Bailey (Angourie Rice) could be to “this person who’s entered her life, who she doesn’t want,” and how Hannah, who “never expected to be a mom, didn’t have a mom,” is “clunky as hell” at motherhood. Together, the two set out to discover the truth about their missing husband and father, Owen (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau)—in a journey that unwittingly forges them closer together. “I love the idea that…you become a mom by parenting,” Garner said.
After Garner signed on, she and Dave would read dialogue together in the backyard. “Jen was so smart about Hannah that when she would make a suggestion, it was almost always correct,” Dave said. She recalled how, in the initial draft of the pilot, the first exchange between Bailey and Hannah looked somewhat different. “And after Jen read through it a couple times, she’s like, ‘I think that Hannah would really wait… She’d wait it out in a different way. It would be more about looks than it would be about aggression.’ And that totally altered the scene, and how we found our way into it.”
Dave credits Garner with knowing what needed to be different and what had to remain true. “I think Jen is the best, period,” said Dave, noting that it was her first experience adapting something that has gone into production. “But Josh has been doing this for 20 years, and he says, ‘There is no one like Jen.’ … Every step of the way, she was the most excited, the most exuberant and the smartest person in the room.” The letter Garner wrote Apple petitioning for the role ended up being useful: “In the letter, Jen says two things that stick with me and I think about all the time,” Dave said. “One is how important it is to be the grownup in the room, and that she related to Hannah because Hannah was the ultimate grownup in that room, from the first moment you meet her. … And the other thing she says in that letter is that she wants this character to earn the right to be as optimistic as she is. And I thought, ‘Wow, I never thought about that.’ That we’re going to walk outside into this thriller, into this terrible circumstance, and she’s going to end up on the other side of it optimistic and hopeful. … And that completely influenced the way we chose to tell this story for the screen.”
The end of the show—currently streaming on Apple TV+—doesn’t mirror the book, however. “It’s a very different ending,” Dave hinted. “But I trusted [Owen], and I will say that. So the arc of the writing for me was about leaning into that trust, even when he didn’t necessarily deserve it.”
Next up, Dave is working “slowly” on a sequel. “And because I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t know if I’ll make it to the end. But that’s the hope.”
Garner is hopeful that there will continue to be much better roles for women. “I think we have to really call out Reese Witherspoon as a huge reason that it’s getting much better,” she said. “Reese has championed books for a long time. I’ve known her for almost 20 years—she’s had a book in her hand pretty much every time I’ve ever seen her, and has been shoving them my way. ‘Girl, you need to read this!... ‘You need to be out there buying books and trying to make them yourself.’” Witherspoon told Garner that no one is sitting around thinking about how to make something for a 45-year-old mother in Brentwood, so she should get out there and come up with it. “Because there are women who want to see it,” Garner said. “We just have to help the powers that be know what those stories are, and keep showing that they will get an audience.”
Garner on how roles are improving for women
Photography by: Courtesy of Apple TV+