Her TV show is ranked a measly 74th among prime-time network series. Her most momentous big-screen turn has been a supporting role in 2003's mediocre Daredevil. And she won't even prove whether or not she can carry a starring vehicle on her ripped deltoids until April 23, when the romantic comedy 13 Going on 30 opens. But when it comes to Jennifer Garner, the kick-butt star of ABC's Alias, nobody seems to care. Already, the 32-year-old is mentioned in the same panting breath as box office sweethearts Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston, and Reese Witherspoon. While their asking prices (for Roberts and Witherspoon it's in the $15 million range) are far ahead of the nascent star's reported $3 million pay for 13 Going on 30, the comparison is hardly a stretch: Witherspoon, for example, reportedly earned $1 million for 2001's Legally Blonde, then $5 million for 2002's Sweet Home Alabama, and $15 mil for Blonde 2 last summer. So what's working so well for Garner -- whose sum is truly greater than her parts?
THE SALLY FIELD SYNDROME People like her. Not only is Garner praised by coworkers and press alike, but that aura of likability translates to the screen. Explains Alias creator J.J. Abrams, ''She's a beautiful girl with an ugly girl's personality.'' We're not sure what that says about beautiful and ugly girls, but we do know that Garner's charm can beat movie-star muscle: Ben Affleck toplined Daredevil, but Garner walked off with the sequel, Elektra, which begins filming in May. And, while the tabloids threw ''husband stealing'' at Roberts when she began dating then-married Danny Moder, they treated Garner with kid gloves when she left her husband, actor Scott Foley, amid rumors she was involved with Alias costar Michael Vartan.
SHE WORKS IT ''I don't think I've seen anybody as engaged in the process [from beginning to end] since Arnold Schwarzenegger was young,'' marvels Tom Sherak, a partner at Revolution, which produced 13 Going on 30. And unlike most TV stars, Garner strays beyond the Emmys and Golden Globes (which honored her for best actress in 2002) during awards season. She's made it a point to attend the Oscars, giving her prime coverage in fashion, teen, and gossip mags. Stylist-to-the-stars Phillip Bloch says that Garner's perfect poise is ''no mistake.... She's worked with several stylists and dropped them along the way.'' That decision, Bloch says, is paying off: ''She was my second-best dress at [this year's] Oscars. And Garner's a TV star.''
PASSION BEATS POPULARITY Garner's ''Q'' rating -- or recognizability -- is 33 percent, compared with Julia Roberts' 87 percent. (Have to wonder about the 13 percent who have never heard of Roberts, but that's another story.) Here's the interesting part: 25 percent of those who know Garner say she's their favorite actress, while 35 percent say the same of Roberts. In other words, Garner's fan base is almost as rabid.
SHE'S A RANGE ROVER Each week on Alias, Garner plays an assortment of characters, from superspy Sydney Bristow to a German punk rocker and a high-society partygoer. It's a flexibility that has earned her a unique reputation as an actress who can deliver both punches and punchlines. Although Alias provides Garner with a small platform to vamp -- it consistently ranks third in its time slot, with 8.2 million viewers -- the series' low viewership could actually help her as she transitions to film. As Ron West, partner of the management firm Thruline Entertainment, speculates, moviegoers have no preconceived notions about what to expect of her.p> HOLLYWOOD'S DESPERATE At the ripe old age of...36, Julia's hangin' with her hubby in New Mexico. Reese is younger (28) and can do charming, but a leatherette catsuit? Not so much. And Jennifer A., well, one woman can only do so much. Which leaves Garner with the pick of the litter. Says a production exec, ''People really want her to be a big name. Garner fills a niche. Or, perhaps more accurately, everyone hopes she [does], because it's turning into a wide, gaping hole.''