As a college student, Garner did summer stock theatre. 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 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 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. Garner also supplemented her income by working as a hostess at Isabella's restaurant on the Upper west side.