After graduating college with a performance degree, Garner moves to New York City to pursue acting. "I wasn't naturally talented, just really, really driven," she says to PEOPLE. "My parents never said anything except 'Go for it.'"
While landing a small role in the Danielle Steel miniseries Zoya, the aspiring actress pays the bills by working as a hostess. Years later she recognized a familiar face at an ABC party. "I said, 'Hi, I'm Jennifer Garner. I'm on Alias,'" she recalls to PEOPLE. "He said, 'Hi, I'm Steven Weber. I'm on Once and Again.' I said, 'You recognize me, don't you?' He said, 'Yeah, I'm trying to figure out where.' I said, 'I used to seat you on Sundays for brunch at Isabella's.'"
Working steadily in TV and film, Garner lands a guest spot on Felicity as Scott Foley's ex-girlfriend Hanna, and an offscreen romance follows. "I was definitely attracted to [Foley] at first sight," said Garner to PEOPLE. "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." They marry on Oct. 19, 2000.
Impressed by her acting, Felicity cocreator J.J. Abrams seeks Garner to play the prime role of grad student-turned-CIA agent Sydney Bristow in Alias. "She has this spark," Abrams says to PEOPLE. "It was clear she was the one." PEOPLE critic Terry Kelleher says Garner "has an appeal that transcends implausibility."
To handle Alias's action sequences, Garner hits the gym every day for a month and begins studying tae kwon do. Now "I do all the fights myself," she says to PEOPLE of the show. "The other night I came down 100 ft. on a wire. That's high!"
Although Alias has not completed a full season, Garner's performance as Sydney Bristow beats out Sela Ward and Edie Falco for the Best Actress Golden Globe. "When I won I was so horrified I was going to have to talk that I fell on my way to the stage," Garner tells Entertainment Weekly.
Garner begins shooting Daredevil, playing assassin Elektra. She makes a different kind of impression on costar and future husband Ben Affleck. Besides kicking him in the head, "I took a divot of skin out of Ben's nose. I was doing this move called the praying mantis," she recalls to PEOPLE. According to Garner, her friend Affleck is "your basic tall, dark and handsome."
Garner shows up solo as a presenter at the Oscars, fueling talk of a rift with Foley. Ten days later the couple separates after 2½ years of marriage. In October, after months of speculation, Alias costar Michael Vartan puts an end to questions of a romance with Garner: "She's my girlfriend. End of story."
Garner escapes her butt-kicking heroine persona, taking on her first starring comedic role as a fashion magazine editor magically transformed into a teenager in 13 Going on 30. The movie earns a solid $57 million at the box office.
Garner settles reports about a breakup with Vartan, telling an Australian radio station, "I am single. I am single and boring and home on Saturday night all by myself." The actress is then spotted with her Daredevil costar Affleck over Labor Day weekend. She tells the Sydney Daily Telegraph, "I did miss him. I missed his advice."
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Classmates Yearbook Archives ; Janet Gough/Celebrity Photo; NORMAN JEAN ROY/Touchstone/ABC; Tammie Arroyo/AFF; Zade Rosenthal/AP; Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images; Globe; Mike Segar/Reuters/Landov