Zach Braff: Zach of All Trades

Movies Features Zach Braff
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It’s 112 degrees just north of Los Angeles, and the sun is beaming off both the rocky desert floor and the ancient, gutted Airstreams littering this RV graveyard, every ray soaking into the black button-down shirt that singer/songwriter Cary Brothers, the star of this video shoot, is wishing he hadn’t decided to wear. With only a pair of EPs to his name, Brothers is new to music videos, but he’s making the most of his $10,000 budget. In southern California, that modest sum will get you a crew of about 20, a low-cost location and—if you happen to be a close friend—Zach Braff to direct.

Wearing a straw Japanese fishing hat and sweating through his dark-blue T-shirt, Braff stays focused despite the heat. The footage he’s filming will be intercut with scenes from his upcoming film The Last Kiss, and he seems to know exactly what he wants. Unlike Garden State, which transformed him from “that goofy actor on Scrubs” to award-winning screenwriter, director and music supervisor, Braff didn’t write or direct this one. But when he accepted the role, he made sure he’d get to pick the songs for the movie.

In many ways, The Last Kiss is a natural extension of Garden State, and the new soundtrack is a sequel to the last one. The role of The Shins is played by Snow Patrol this time, and Cary Brothers, Coldplay, Remy Zero and Frou Frou’s Imogen Heap all make encore appearances. Braff and Brothers were friends at Northwestern University, and they reconnected when each moved out to L.A., Braff scrounging for acting gigs and Brothers playing open-mic nights around town.

“A big part of our friendship has always been music,” says Brothers. “It’s funny when I look at the Garden State soundtrack and I think in that year prior he called me up and said, ‘You gotta go see this band Remy Zero,’ which was a Viper Room show. And then I called, and I was like, ‘You gotta go and see Colin Hay play a show at Largo.’ There was a lot of that.”

Braff is a music fanatic—constantly talking up his favorite bands on his website and MySpace page—and revels in helping his aspiring musician friends like Brothers and another Northwestern alum, Joshua Radin, who’s also on the new soundtrack. Braff was recently a guest DJ on L.A.’s Indie 103.1, and is talking to the station about hosting a regular show highlighting emerging artists and having them play acoustic sets in the studio. It’s easy to imagine him as the kid in high school making piles of mix tapes, heading into the city from his South Orange, N.J., home to catch shows at CBGB’s and The Bitter End. But when we meet up two weeks after the shoot, I find that’s not the case at all.

“I wasn’t as into music in high school,” he says. “I mean, I had what I liked, I listened to a lot of Cat Stevens; Crosby, Stills & Nash, but I didn’t really find my musical taste until my early twenties. When I moved out here, I developed a good circle of friends who were all recommending good music to each other, and I started to really find out—I think late in life—what kind of music I like.”

We’re in the café of a hip but subdued hotel on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, and I’ve just done two very un-L.A. things to get here—walk from my own accommodations, a few blocks away, and show up early. I was reviewing my list of questions when Braff was suddenly staring down at me, clad in jeans and a T-shirt and attracting absolutely no attention. He’s affable, energetic and looks very, very normal—not the perfectly sculpted face of a typical Hollywood leading man, but the expressive, pliable features that make all of Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian’s quirky neuroses charming on Scrubs.

His passion for music may have come late in life, but Braff knew early on that he wanted to act and make films. His father was a lawyer, but was very involved in local theater and loved movies. Before the family had a VCR, he would host dinner parties and show 16mm prints of Woody Allen flicks on the living-room wall. Zach’s oldest brother Adam eventually got a Super 8 camera and began filming his own James Bond movies in the house.

“Adam and all the other kids would be in the movie,” Zach remembers. “I was three or four, so I would be the evil midget, my sister was Moneypenny and my brother was [almost] always James Bond. He took it very seriously. I remember we weren’t allowed on the set if we weren’t in the scene; it was all very cool. So those were two big influences in my life early on—I realized, wow I have more fun acting in my brother’s James Bond movie than doing anything else.”

“It’s really funny,” says Adam, recalling one of Zach’s “killer midget” performances. “My friend was James Bond, and I remember they had a wrestling match, and this was on an upper floor in our house. It was one of our best special effects … I guess we stole it from The Man with the Golden Gun. James Bond got Zach into a suitcase—he finally warded him off and shoved him in a suitcase. And then we cut and took Zach out of the suitcase and threw the suitcase out the window. When it hit the ground we cut again, and put Zach in and he came out. They’re really funny. We’re coaching him all along—he’d kinda brush himself off and get out of the suitcase.” The wealthiest families in South Orange, N.J., live at the top of South Mountain in the Montrose neighborhood, and the poorest live at the bottom. Somewhere in between, Braff grew up the youngest of four siblings (his other brother, Joshua, is a novelist). The town should be easy to picture for anyone who’s seen Garden State; it was ?lmed just a few miles away. Curiously, his alma mater, Columbia High School, has graduated an inordinate number of celebrities—from Alfred Kinsey to Lauryn Hill, who was at Braff’s bar mitzvah and used to ride up to the city with him for auditions.

“It definitely has something to do with growing up in the shadow of Manhattan,” he says. “You’re not in it, but you go out and you see it; you sort of point and say, ‘One day I’m gonna take it on,’ you know?”

After studying filmmaking at Northwestern, that’s exactly what Braff did, quickly landing a role in Macbeth opposite Alec Baldwin and Angela Bassett at New York’s Public Theater. But Gotham can fight back hard, and the next year brought very few acting opportunities. Deciding to try his luck elsewhere, he followed a girlfriend to L.A. and began auditioning for TV and film.

Unfortunately, Hollywood is known for breaking the hearts of as many (if not more) aspiring actors as New York, and Braff found himself working in a Vietnamese restaurant, an experience that made it directly into Garden State. At one point during our lunch, Braff trails off mid-sentence before apologizing. “I’m sorry; I’m watching this poor guy get reprimanded. It brings me back to when I was waiting tables. I was miserable and I was trying to move back to Manhattan, or and a way or reason to move back to Manhattan. My agent insisted I go through one more pilot season, and I auditioned for Scrubs.

“I really liked the idea that he was kind of a new discovery,” says Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence, “someone who was in way over their head in real life—a young actor who was a waiter a couple of weeks before being asked to carry a comedy. I liked that he would play a young doctor in way over his head, being asked to take care of people the first couple of months in his career. I think the fear you see in Zach’s face in that first season, that was probably real.”

Braff had gotten so used to rejection that the role came as a shock. “I felt pretty confident in my abilities as a filmmaker, that I would be able to direct movies at some level, even if they were zero-budget movies. But I never really imagined I’d have the success that I’ve had working as an actor. I thought that was like winning the lottery—I might as well play and see if I can roll the dice. But I’ve been so lucky, and I never really imagined that it would be like it’s been.”

As soon as he landed the lead role of J.D., Braff quit his job and spent the five months before filming finishing the screenplay for Garden State. Even with his budding TV stardom—and getting early commitments from Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard—raising funding for the film proved difficult. All the studio heads he and Danny Devito’s production company, Jersey Films, approached rejected the project—until financier Gary Gilbert, who’d never produced a movie, put up the entire $2.5 million budget. At the Sundance festival, Miramax and Fox Searchlight bought Garden State for $5 million. It went on to gross over $26 million at the box office and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature.

If landing the TV role was winning the lottery, Garden State tripled the jackpot. To make sure he wasn’t about to transform into the prima-donna auteur deigning to slum in the sitcom ghetto, his friends at Scrubs took preemptive action.

“Zach had all the ingredients to turn into a diva,” says Lawrence, “a burgeoning film career, a Grammy. The one time we thought he might be coming close to having a swelled head, he came back from Sundance having sold Garden State for record numbers. The very first scene he had to shoot when he got back, we put him in a clown suit and had the janitor spraying water into his face. It wasn’t really in the script beforehand, we just thought he needed a dose of reality when he got back from there. He probably really didn’t—it’s a testament to him—but we did it anyway.”

Besides select episodes of Scrubs and music videos for Brothers, Joshua Radin and Gavin DeGraw, Braff has stayed out of the director’s chair since Garden State. Along with his role in The Last Kiss, he’s provided the voice of Disney’s Chicken Little and stars in an upcoming romantic comedy tentatively titled Fast Track.

“It’s a really funny movie,” he says. “I just saw a cut, and it’s hi-larious. I move to Ohio with my wife and our newborn baby, played by Amanda Peet—the wife, not the baby—and I go to work for my father-in-law, Charles Grodin, at a New Age ad firm. My nemesis in my office, who has won Ohio Advertiser of the Year, is Jason Bateman, who plays a guy in a wheelchair who’s infatuated with my wife and does everything he possibly can to sabotage me with the company and with my wife. It’s like Office Space meets Meet the Parents.”

The biggest challenge, though, has been finding something he can pour himself into the way he did with Garden State. “After Garden State, I was looking for something that was unique,” he says. “I got so much crap—I mean the only reason I made Garden State was I felt like movies I like to go see are so few and far between, even this year. When I set out to make Garden State, I wanted to make a movie that I would love to go see, and that would affect me, and I read The Last Kiss. And [I thought], ‘With an awesome cast and a great director and good soundtrack, this movie could be really cool. I would go see this movie.’”

If Garden State was a coming-of-age-at-25 film, The Last Kiss is a coming-of-age-story for 30-year-olds. Braff celebrated his own 30th birthday while making the film, a milestone his character Michael has also just hit. In one scene, Michael, sits in a treehouse with Kim, an attractive college student played by Rachel Bilson. As a father-to-be, Michael is depressed by the loss of possibilities in life; the sense that there are no surprises left. Kim says, “The world is moving so fast, we all start freaking out way before our parents did … Our metabolism’s sped up. Everything’s sped up.”

But if life has sped up, Michael and his friends are doing everything they can to slam on the brakes or at least get off the main road, even if it means careening into the ditch. “Everything used to be pretty set,” Braff says. “You went to college, you found a wife, you got married, you had kids, you climbed the ranks in your job … I just think the possibilities of lifestyles are so much more open now that it’s almost like anxiety—’I could do almost anything. I don’t have to get married, I don’t have to live in this country, I can go live in Stadt, and rent bikes.’ I don’t know. I feel like with our generation there’s a little bit more of a sense of the possibilities being in?nite, and in a weird way that makes us freak out.”

Director Tony Goldwyn knew he needed someone who came across as likeable and sympathetic to play Michael, who makes some despicable choices in the movie. He quickly dismissed the more typical romantic-comedy leading men, but when Braff’s name came up, he saw a perfect fit. “What I needed for this part,” says Goldwyn, “was someone who had a unique comic ability [but could also] really go deep as an actor, and those are a rare find. I wanted a young Tom Hanks, and I feel like Zach is that guy. The movie suddenly made sense to me because he’s a real guy; he’s the guy you want to hang out with, who you feel could be your friend. I didn’t want a guy who’s too beautiful or felt like just another movie star.”

Three days after our lunch, Braff returns to the set of Scrubs for what may be his final season. The show has a passionate cult following and was nominated for an Emmy this year for Outstanding Comedy Series, but hasn’t gotten much love from NBC, getting slotted as a mid-season replacement the past two years. It’s evident, though, that if they’re going out, they’re doing it with a bang. The premiere is packed with Lawrence’s trademark bells and whistles, including Braff in prosthetics, and the sixth episode will be a musical by the composers of Avenue Q.

“We aren’t really approaching it like it’s the last year,” says Lawrence, “but I think the show did really well [last season] partially because we stopped trying to please really anybody but ourselves and loyal fans. We’re doing the same this year, just doing stuff that cracks us up—and hopefully the people that kept the show alive will be appreciative.”

If this is indeed the end of Dr. Dorian, Braff has plenty on his plate to keep him from getting bored. He recently developed the story for the Doris Burn book Andrew Henry’s Meadow, along with his brother Adam, who adapted the screenplay.

“It’s wild, because this is a book that we both grew up with when we were little kids,” says Adam. “It was a book that I had when I was little and it just made its way through the family. By the time [Zach] got it, it was pretty banged up. He saved that stuff through divorce and multiple house changes; somehow he still has the damn book. It’s always been an important book in our lives; we always loved it very much. It was his idea to transform it into what it is now.”

“It’s a giant kids-save-the-world movie,” says Zach. “We describe it as ‘if Terry Gilliam had directed The Goonies.’ Or ‘Brazil for kids.’ [Adam is] a really, really, really talented writer, he has a very amazing Charlie Kaufman-esque imagination, but the stories are really accessible. It’s kind of like an episode of The Simpsons, where kids will get it on one level, but parents will get the total political commentary that we wove in there.”

Terry Gilliam seems like the biggest touchstone for Lionel On a Sun Day, the short ?lm Zach wrote and directed while at Northwestern. But, though he and Adam will stay involved in the production of Meadow, he’s looking for someone else to direct. “This is a giant movie, and I don’t feel at this point in my life that it’s what I want to do. I’ll go see Pirates of the Caribbean and have a fun time, but there’s not a single part of me that goes, ‘Oh, I wish I had spent six months shooting a pirate movie.’ I’d love to be a part of creating something epic, but if you ask me if I want to go to New Zealand and shoot 12-year-olds, it’s not what I want to do. Now, if the movie’s amazing, I’d love to help put it together and be a part of it, but it’s not really the story that makes me so psyched to get up in the morning and go create. Those are more on the scale of Garden State and The Last Kiss—smaller movies that I can retain full control over, about real things, real emotions that everyone can relate to. Real experience in the movie theater is where film affects you and has you talking the next day or thinking the next day.”

Braff’s next directing project will be Open Hearts, an adaptation of Susanne Bier’s 2002 Danish film, Elsker dig for evigt, about the dissolution of an engaged couple’s relationship in the wake of the man’s tragic paralysis. He’ll also likely play one of the four lead roles. “It’s about some of the things I’m interested in writing about,” he says, “and the dialogue was so great. It needs to be Americanized and tweaked a little, but it was a great vehicle to explore some of the themes I’m interested in exploring.”

He’s also been talking to Harvey Weinstein and Bill Lawrence about playing Fletch in the upcoming prequel, Fletch Won. Lawrence joked that Braff “would be dead to him” if he didn’t accept the role made famous by Chevy Chase. “I know there’s always backlash with people that play those kinds of classic parts where people have something pictured in their heads,” says his Scrubs boss. “[But] Zach Braff is the last actor to be typecast as the silly, naive, goofy J.D., because he can do so much else. I think it’d be a great part for him and would surprise people with his ability to do dry, less goofy comedy. Fletch is a dialogue-driven comedy, and there’s nobody quicker on his feet than Zach Braff. In Scrubs, you’ll see a lot of jokes that seem like people riffing, improvising because we allow it here, and nobody gets into it more than Zach and Neil Flynn, who plays the janitor.”

And, of course, there will always be musicians who need videos. It’s a lot to juggle, but unlike Michael in The Last Kiss, Zach is embracing the new speed of life. Other than Scrubs’ Donald Faison, most of his friends are people he knew before the TV show. When he does go out, the tabloids write the most ludicrous things—the latest rumors have him chasing after Jessica Simpson. But mostly, he pours himself into his craft.

“Eventually I want to have a wife and kids. I imagine that will happen sometime in my mid thirties, I hope. Scrubs will end, and I think I’ll become a filmmaker fulltime and act in people’s movies, but I really want to focus on starting my own movies. I’m a workaholic. I love working. Most of the time when things are good, I don’t consider what I’m doing work.”

“I also think everything comes down to a fear of dying. I’m very aware of how fast life is moving, and it’s always in my mind everyday—am I doing something today? Am I on the right track for appreciating how quick and short a time it is that we have on earth? I don’t really believe too much in the afterlife; I believe this is it. So from that perspective, you’ve got to constantly remind yourself, going crazy about nonsense and bullshit, like that scene in American Beauty where the wife’s mad that he’s about to spill a beer on the couch as he’s trying to kiss her, and he’s like, ‘It’s a f—king couch!’ It’s hard being alive and constantly reminding yourself of that, but I think I’m really trying to be respectful of how lucky I am to be alive and how quickly it all seems to be going by.”