As a college student, Garner did summer stock theater. In addition to performing, Garner helped to sell tickets, build sets, and clean the venues. She worked at the Timber Lake Playhouse in Mount Carroll, Illinois in 1992, the Barn Theatre in Augusta, Michigan in 1993, and the Georgia Shakespeare Festival in Atlanta, Georgia in 1994. Garner moved to New York City in 1995. During her first year in the city, Garner earned $150 per week as an understudy for a Roundabout Theatre Company production of A Month in the Country, starring Helen Mirren and F. Murray Abraham, and made her first on-screen appearance as Melissa Gilbert's daughter in the romance miniseries Zoya. In 1996 she played an Amish woman in the television movie Harvest of Fire and a flirtatious shopkeeper in the Western miniseries Dead Man's Walk. She appeared in the independent short film In Harm's Way and made one-off appearances in the legal dramas Swift Justice and Law & Order. She met Stephen Colbert while filming an episode of Spin City and became an occasional babysitter for his children. Garner also supplemented her income by working as a hostess at Isabella's restaurant on the Upper East Side.