Interview: Zach Braff, writer, director and star of All New People
The Scrubs and Garden State star discusses his new theatre production
‘I’m still Jenny from the block,’ says Zach Braff after a moment’s reflection. ‘Even now I feel a bit underground in the acting world.’
For those who enjoyed Braff (and 20 million viewers around the world did) as the lovable JD in US comedy drama Scrubs, or as the star (not to mention writer, director and soundtrack organiser) of 2004’s bittersweet indie hit Garden State, it’s the actor’s self-confessed aversion to the mainstream that is most appealing. While J-Lo dusts off her diamonds, Braff continues to fly in the face of expectation. He’s unapologetic. ‘When the award seasons happen, you think, “Sure, it’s cool to be in that cool kids’ club.” But, you know, some years you get in, some years you don’t …’
Scots audiences can judge Braff’s iconoclastic output for themselves as the New Jersey-born actor makes his UK stage debut, in Glasgow, with self-penned comedy All New People this month. Getting his writing onto the stage was a ‘life dream realised,’ he admits. The play landed off-Broadway faster than he’d anticipated last year and Braff has spent the last six months honing the script while The Hangover’s Justin Bartha took the lead part of Charlie. For the UK leg of the tour Braff himself will step into the role, alongside Torchwood actress Eve Myles and RSC stalwart Susannah Fielding.
Set in real time, Braff’s play focuses on a 35-year old man who has hit rock bottom and whose life is changed forever following a random meeting with three strangers, at a Long Island Beach house. The piece showcases Braff’s deft comedic touch (something of which he’s clearly proud), and while the critical response to the play hasn’t matched the Garden State raves, overall feedback has been positive. ‘It means a lot,’ admits Braff, ‘particularly as writer and star of the show. I love being the conductor of the orchestra, so to speak, and getting actors to give the best of themselves through the words; then as an actor, I just get in there and enjoy it.’
Describing the work as ‘a comedy with a complicated life view’, Braff insists he’s not out to make things easy for his audience.
‘I guess there’s a common theme in my work,’ he laughs. ‘In Scrubs [which was largely set in a hospital] you were laughing at the brilliant slapstick one second, and the next you turned a corner and were dealing with someone dying. In Garden State, there was comedy, sure, but really it’s a guy coming off anti-depressants and finding himself again. Charlie in All New People has come to a point of despair too. I like looking at people who are living through something – but doing it with a smile on their face.’
When asked to explain the appeal of his work, whether in TV, film or theatre, Braff points to two strands: his fans relate to what his characters are going through and also feel they somehow know him through his character in Scrubs. ‘I feel very reverential about Scrubs,’ says Braff, which finally went off air in 2010 after nine years. ‘It came into people’s houses and JD was like a friend to them, someone they wished was a buddy.’
Despite such early mainstream success, when it comes to his career, Braff has largely ploughed his own furrow. Flying high on the international success of Scrubs and Garden State, some of Braff’s subsequent choices have raised a few eyebrows. In 2005, he was the voice of Chicken Little in the animated movie. A stint in sitcom Arrested Development followed, then two fairly forgettable film offerings, Paul Haggis’ The Last Kiss and slacker comedy The Ex. More recently he starred in Canadian flick The High Cost of Living, about a women who loses her child following a hit and run. Another of his films, set for release this year, is Tar ‘a poetic look at American poet CK Williams’ life over 40 years.’
While none of these projects is likely to smash box office records, Braff seems genuinely uninterested in moving into the blockbuster league. Asked about his inspirations he remembers fondly watching his older brother Adam – a Sean Connery obsessive – make mini-Bond movies in his bedroom as a child, and being transfixed by his world of make believe. His father, Hal, a lawyer by day and an amateur theatre actor by night, encouraged the young Braff to sit in on rehearsals at the community theatre he ran near his family’s suburban home. ‘I just remember thinking as a kid, this is what I want to do, I want to create things. Thanks to the blessing of Scrubs and the financial security that’s given me, I have the freedom to pursue some of the things I want to do.
‘If you want to do something you believe is good you sometimes have to give up other things; so I just try to go with things that interest me.’
For all his eschewing of stardom Braff retains an energetic cult following. He’s said to be less than impressed by an entire blog devoted to men who look like him (John Travolta and Shia LaBeouf are both believed to have ‘Braffian’ features). In 2008, following internet rumours that he’d died, he was forced to make a YouTube video proving he was still alive and kicking [watch it below - it's pretty funny]. Only last year someone hacked his website, erroneously outing him as gay.
He seems unfazed by the fuss: ‘If you’re going to use the web you’ve got to be willing to go along with it. The web is really the same as the world: there are assholes out there, and there are Mother Theresas.’
Meanwhile, Braff’s moment in the mainstream spotlight might just be fast approaching. The actor appears in next year’s much hyped Oz: The Great and Powerful, Sam Raimi’s Hollywood re-imagining of the origins of L Frank Baum’s trickster wizard. ‘It was pretty crazy filming this huge blockbuster in Detroit,’ Braff admits, with a certain undisguised glee. ‘Sam’s an amazing director and just the sweetest guy.’
So, does the idea of all the attention that comes with appearing in such a huge production fill him with horror or excitement. ‘Sure, yeah I’m excited by the Oz thing … but you know there’s some talk of All New People being adapted into an indie film, and I’m working on a remake of this great Danish film and looking to do another original film of my own … so, you know, I’m pretty happy where I am.’
All New People, King’s Theatre, Glasgow, Tue 14–Sat 18 Feb.