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Shmoozin' with Zach Braff

by Hillel News | Nov 14, 2005 |
Zach Braff.By Caroline Kepnes

Zach Braff, age 30, proves he's very un-Hollywood by calling right on time. "Carolyn?" he asks. I try not to freak out that the star of NBC's "Scrubs" and the writer/director/star of award-winning romantic quirky comedy "Garden State" is on the other end of the line. After all, Zach is the poster boy for multi-talented Jewish gents in the entertainment industry. And in spite of a busy schedule—wrapping his fourth season as kooky medical man JD on "Scrubs," gearing up to star in "The Last Kiss" and marketing musical mezuzahs— Zach made time for JVibe.

Scrubbing Up

You and Donald Faison, who "Scrubs" fans know as "Turk," play best friends on the show and are best friends in real life. How much of your off-screen relationship works its way into the show?

Just like in real life, we're best buddies. He's black and I'm white, and not only is it not an issue, but, well, on the rare occasion it is an issue, we just talk about it and joke about it. Neither one of us is uptight about the East Coast Jewish stereotypes or the black stereotypes. We are from totally different backgrounds and have the same sense of humor.

Now that you've directed and starred in your own movie, "Garden State," do you get to the set of "Scrubs" and tell all the writers they can head home?

Oh no, no. I can't write like those guys. They can write one of those a week. I'm not nearly that prolific or funny. They're really good. I've directed two of them, and we improve jokes and stuff, but I've never written one.

Zach comes of age...again and again

"Garden State" is packed with wisdom for teenagers. But a lot of kids couldn't see it because of the R rating. If you were a kid, how would you convince your parents to let you watch it?

Well, I don't think that there's a kid above the age of 12 who couldn't see this. It's really only R-rated for curses, and I think it's ridiculous to keep kids from seeing a movie because of curse words. They've all heard them already. There are a couple of quick little drug usages but it's nothing worse than a kid would see on cable TV.

It seems like you're really in touch with your roots. Did you set out to write a movie about your heritage?

Yeah, I didn't know what my first movie was going to be, but I think in the back of my mind I always knew I wanted it to be something about Jersey. I also think your teenage years are your body's puberty, while your twenties are your mind's puberty—my mind's puberty. It was a real time of growing and learning. Just like in puberty, there were some really painful growing pains of figuring out who I was going to be, and I wanted to make a movie about that.

Man of la Mezuzah

You have a scene on the DVD version of the movie "Garden State" where your father in real life plays your dad in the movie. Apparently that did not make it into your film. Was it tough to leave your dad's scene on the cutting room floor?

It was a great scene, and it is on the DVD. While sitting shiva, he delivered a speech about how he was furious at having to pay for his son's bar mitzvah theme, which was Broadway musicals. It was a very funny thing. All that had to get cut. Did you see the electronic mezuzah?

Oh yes. Do they really make those?

No. But everyone keeps telling me I should make them because people would buy them. So might you go into the mezuzah business? No, I got my hands full, so I can't really stop and focus on marketing electronic mezuzahs.

On being Jewish

Your blog (www2.foxsearchlight.com/gardenstate/blog/) is full of Jewish references. Was there ever a time when you weren't so into your heritage?

What I love about Judaism are the traditions and the family aspect of it and, most importantly, the humor. Because I think my sense of humor is totally based on a Jewish sense of humor, from Mel Brooks to Woody Allen and all the others. I think that's how I learned humor, from my father, from my family. I have great memories of the traditions of it, but I'm not a huge organized religion guy.

Let's talk bar mitzvahs. Did you get teased for having a bar mitzvah that was all about Broadway show tunes?

No. No one at that age really paid attention. At the time I thought it was so cool, and now, in hindsight, I'm like, "oh, I was such a nerd".

You've always known you wanted to make movies. But still, you went to college. Did you ever consider skipping out on it?

No. I was never going to skip college. You can't be a kid in a Jewish family and not go to college. But I always wanted to go to college. It wasn't even a question.

The Working Vacation

I've heard that during your next break from filming "Scrubs," you're starring in a movie and adapting a kids' book into a screenplay. A lot of work, no?

Well, I'm probably not gonna direct it because it's a really, really big movie. I'll probably just be the executive producer. It's an adaptation of "Andrew Henry's Meadow." It's a big fun "kids save the world" movie in the spirit of "The Goonies."

Did you read this book over and over when you were younger?

It was one of my favorite books growing up as a kid, and my brother Adam is a really talented screenwriter. I optioned the book and asked him to write it with me because he has this tremendous sense of imagination. It involved creating a new world from scratch. He was the perfect person to partner with. He's been doing most of the writing, and it's been great being partners with him.

Staying the course

It would have been really easy to forget about making movies once you became the star of a hit TV series. How did you stick to your guns?

When the show was taking off, I thought, "Oh, this is great, this is gonna help me make a movie." Yeah, I always knew that I wanted to make a movie. It was an incredible amount of work. You have to put everything, all your friends and family, on the backburner, which is hard on all your relationships. It was intense, and I worked on it nonstop. It was three years of my life. I definitely made a lot of sacrifices in terms of time. I loved it so much, though. When you're so passionate about something, and you can't believe that people are actually gonna let you have your dream come true, you appreciate it. And even though it's hard, you work.

You know, Natalie Portman was on the cover of JVibe last month.

She was? Oh, that's hot.

Did you write "Garden State" with her in mind?

Well, when you're writing, you can't help but daydream about who the characters will be, and I think in the back of my mind I was thinking, "imagine if this was Natalie Portman." Even though it's funny that Natalie gets to ask, "What's the Wailing Wall?" She was born in Jerusalem.

Psst. He's Talking to You!

On your blog you give a lot of advice to aspiring filmmakers. Got any advice for Jewish teens?

I guess the best advice is that you can't give up. The easiest thing to do is to give up when you get rejected. As an actor I've been auditioning since I was fourteen years old. I got a couple things here and there, but I didn't really get a substantial part until I was 26 years old. And in terms of "Garden State," every single person in Hollywood passed on it. It was only when a man named Gary Gilbert paid for it out of his own pocket that the film could get made. I think the biggest lesson for younger people is that you have to keep going in the face of rejection. Because if you stop when one person or 50 people or 100 people say no, then... well, if I had done that, my dreams wouldn't have come true.

Talking about showbiz

You made your first major acceptance speech at the IFP Independent Spirit Awards. During your speech you stuck to the movie, but how do you feel about celebrities who treat the podium like a soap box and share their politics?

I always hate it when people do that. I think it's self-serving and makes the experience really awkward. I'm all for celebrities being politically active and charitable and speaking their minds, but it's always weird at an awards show when people do that.

Well, we should probably let you go get back to work. You've probably got a million things to do.

All I have to do today is eat lunch. But I am very hungry!

This article originally appeared in the September/October issue of JVibe magazine, the national magazine for Jewish teens.
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