Seven years on, the tables have turned for the 29-year-old former hostess, who now puts the hurt on rogue spies as Alias's double agent Sydney Bristow. Not only is Alias one of the few rookie hits of the past season (it recently cracked Nielsen's Top 30), but Garner beat out established stars like Edie Falco and Sela Ward to pick up a Golden Globe for best actress. This doesn't surprise her husband, actor Scott Foley, 29. "The whole world is coming to realize what I found out years ago," he says.
Garner says she's a little overwhelmed by the attention, but she swears, "I'll never get cocky." She can, however, get quirky. Most actresses, for example, don't show up with a half-dozen pans of blueberry crumb cake for cast and crew. "I bake as a stress reliever," she says. If the comfort food doesn't work, says costar Michael Vartan, "she'll start doing these crazy little dances."
Maybe not so crazy. Garner, the middle of three daughters of Bill, 62, a chemical engineer, and Pat, 63, a teacher, both retired, studied ballet while growing up in Charleston, W.Va. "I wasn't naturally talented, just really, really driven," she says. "My parents never said anything except, 'Go for it.'" Armed with a performance degree from Ohio's Denison University, she moved to New York City in 1994 and a year later nabbed a small role in the mini-series Danielle Steel's Zoya. More TV and film work led to a 1998 guest role on Felicity as Hannah, the ex-girlfriend of Foley's Noel. Sparks flew almost immediately, and the pair wed in October 2000. "I was definitely attracted to him at first sight," says Garner, who will return to Felicity for a few episodes this spring. "But I didn't realize I was going to marry him until a while in. It grew really gradually and sweetly, and it was a real courtship."
Meanwhile, Felicity co-creator J.J. Abrams was increasingly smitten with Garner's acting. "She had this spark," he says. "She could be tough, but she was also vulnerable and funny." Three years later, when he sold the Alias concept to Touchstone Television, he made Garner his Sydney. To handle the show's martial-arts action sequences, Garner hit the gym "every day for a month" and began studying taekwondo. Now "I do all the fights myself," she says proudly. "And the other night I came down 100 feet on a wire. That's high!"
In fact, Garner may be taking Sydney's smackdown demeanor home from work. When a family pet triggered the burglar alarm at the couple's L.A. home recently, she and Foley crept down the stairs to see what was up. "He had a baseball bat," she recently told Esquire, "and I was behind him thinking, 'What can I do first? Elbow? Knee to the crotch? Backspin hook kick?'" Most nights at home are quieter, with Garner and Foley hanging out with their cat Wesley and two dogs—Maggie Mae, a beagle mix, and Charlie Rose, a Maltese—and helping each other rehearse. "I'll pass him my script and he'll pass me his," Garner says. "But sometimes I come home after work and he's asleep—so I'll run my lines with my dogs."
Michael A. Lipton
Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles