How Ghosts' Jennifer Garner and Matthew McConaughey competed

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Mark Waters, director of the upcoming supernatural-themed romantic comedy Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, told reporters that co-stars Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner shared a competitive streak that enhanced their collaboration on screen.

"The thing I liked about the two of them, just meeting them separately, was they were both athletes," Waters said in a news conference last week in Los Angeles. "I thought that boded well for the two of them as romantic partners, as well as acting partners. They had that kind of competitive streak that they both kind of want to outdo each other."

In Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, McConaughey plays Connor Mead, a lothario who tries to rekindle a relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Jenny Pirotti (Garner), after being visited by ghosts who force him to revisit some of his past relationships.

Waters talked about the movie alongside McConaughey and Garner at a press conference last week. Following is an edited version of that interview. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past opens today. (Spoilers ahead!)

Mark, when you have two stars like these who didn't audition for their roles, how do you know they will have chemistry?

Waters: ... I generally like actors who have an athletic background or used to be on teams, because they don't have a diva attitude. They're like, "Give me the ball, coach. What do you want me to do?" This kind of team approach, and most of their scenes have this quality of "OK, you have the ball now, and you're trying to take it from here, and the scene is the competition, and I'm going to challenge both of you to try to win the scene." Oftentimes we would say, "Let's do a version of this in rehearsal where we're not even doing the dialogue; let's just do it purely like you're trying to win, and now let's go back and do the dialogue with that in mind." I think they just got into that, and there's a fun of play and competition that they really did well with.

Matthew and Jennifer, how do you create chemistry between one another when you haven't spent a lot of time acting opposite one another?

Garner: I think it's luck. I mean, you can work together, and we spent a lot of time with Mark [Waters] and with each other going over scenes and trying to make them more organic. Just being together, you kind of start to build a real, actual relationship—which was necessary for this, because these characters had been the most important people in each other's lives for a lot of their lives.

McConaughey: [to Garner] I had a sense of who I thought you would be, but met down there and started working on the script. One thing that I liked and thought "This is really going to work" with you and I is that she doesn't bring any riff-raff, fizzle-fazzle, extra BS drama from the outside, and she's a complete pro and still fun and coy and keen and jokey. I may have felt like I knew what she was up to, but most of the jokes that I tried to pull on her, she flipped and said, "I saw that."

Garner: We kind of approach work the same way: We have a good time with it, but we show up to work.

McConaughey: She's not competitive in a non-creative way. And some people can be. ...

Do you think the film is more designed for women, in the sense that it might teach them not to be drawn in by douchebags?

McConaughey: You thought Connor was a douchebag? Come on.

All of the bridesmaids want to sleep with him, and they know he doesn't seem to have much respect for women.

McConaughey: I think he has a lot of respect for women. They just want a wedding shag.

Garner: I mean, right. What does that say about them? It's not just [him].

McConaughey: That they were young and having fun.

Garner: No, it's more for men to say, "You have to risk love and commitment. Otherwise, you're going to end up alone with old-age makeup and sad, and the beautiful woman is going to go off and marry someone else."

How tough were the scenes in which you were both acting but Jennifer was not seeing you?

Garner: I liked it. I felt like it informed the scene to perform them for him, in a weird way. Just having his character witness what was happening just gives it a little more depth.

I was just wondering if it was hard to ignore him.

Garner: Oh, I had no problem ignoring him.