Mr Zach Braff Is Exactly The Man You Think He Is
“Don’t meet your heroes,” they say, because they’re never quite who you want them to be. They’re not the characters they play on TV or in the movies – the hot young lover, the neurotic genius, the super-intelligent civil rights lawyer. They’re certainly not Batman or Spider-Man; they’re not even Bruce Wayne, more like Peter Parker. And that can be disappointing. But then there’s Mr Zach Braff, who’s exactly who you think he is.
We meet for lunch in London’s Notting Hill, on a warm, early autumnal afternoon. On the way to the restaurant, he pauses to feel sad for a limping pigeon, which is textbook stuff for a man who comes across as sweet and sympathetic as many of the characters he’s known for. Mr Braff’s big break came in the hospital-based comedy Scrubs, one of the great sitcoms of the early 2000s. It turned him into an international star, while also introducing us to a new kind of leading man.
In the show, the portrayal of the friendship between dopey doctor John “JD” Dorian (played by Mr Braff) and surgeon Dr Christopher Turk (Mr Donald Faison) was a pivotal part of the series. At the time, Scrubs was groundbreaking. JD and Turk hug, they say “I love you” to each other, they compete with girlfriends for each other’s affection. “The pilot wasn’t setting out to be a treatise on masculinity,” he says. “But the show became that because Don and I are like that – we are, I guess, what was traditionally considered more feminine in a lot of ways. The show began to question all that.”
Mr Braff says he’s been approached by fans who claim that the friendship between JD and Turk helped them be more genuine. He admits it had the same effect on him: “I didn’t know how to be in the world where, if you were into theatre and you weren’t into sports and you were a little bit nerdy and you were a little bit feminine and you love hugging people… you were ‘gay’, and that was considered negative.”
Whether they realised it or not, Scrubs was helping to turn that narrative around. “I think what we tried to do is create this environment, create this friendship that was like, hey, you can be all these things and you can also be straight. You can also not be straight, but who gives a fuck?”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Messrs Braff and Faison started a weekly podcast. Fake Doctors, Real Friends sees the two friends and former co-stars methodically review episodes of Scrubs, calling on fellow cast members to weigh in and share stories. The theme song of the podcast is, well, catchy – as it should be, given it was written by the pop star Mr Charlie Puth and performed (complete with harmonies) by the two hosts.
“I’m friendly with Charlie,” Mr Braff explains. “We had done a spoof thing for James Corden, ‘Boyz II Menorah’, a spoof of, like, Boyz II Men. I said we gotta do something, like a dope-ass theme song. And we said, well what’s the greatest theme song of all time? The Jeffersons! So, I hum something, Donald hummed it back to me better and we gave it to Charlie and he came back with that.”
Listening to the podcast is like being in the room with two friends as they trade ribald stories about their college days – and not particularly cool college days. They swap inside jokes and pepper the conversation with personal anecdotes about their families and friends. (How Mr Faison met his wife, for example, or drunken conversations they accidentally had with TV executives.)
“I think one of the reasons it’s a hit is that it feels like eavesdropping on our friendship,” says Mr Braff of the podcast, which has been a dose of freshness and fun during a pandemic that has been defined by a lack of new culture. On a more serious note, it must have also offered some much-needed light relief after the shadow of the pandemic encroached on his own life.
A few years ago, while starring in the Broadway production of Mr Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, Mr Braff became close with his co-star, Mr Nick Cordero. Tragically, in July, Mr Cordero died of complications from Covid-19. He was just 41, and left behind a wife, Ms Amanda Kloots, and one-year-old child. At the time that Mr Cordero got sick, he was staying in the guest house of the LA home Mr Braff shares with his girlfriend. Though he doesn’t speak too much about this when we meet, other than to acknowledge his friend’s passing, the pain of the loss is written on his face – as well as on his arm. In August, Mr Braff commissioned the famous tattoo artist Dr Woo to ink a portrait of Mr Cordero as his character in Bullets Over Broadway.
Mr Braff’s love of music is longstanding, and found an outlet in his 2004 directorial debut, Garden State, which he also wrote, a surprise hit that made $36m worldwide on a $2.5m budget. The story of Andrew Largeman, a depressed twentysomething returning to his hometown includes several memorable scenes – the three main characters screaming into an abandoned rock quarry comes to mind – but it’s the music that makes the most striking and lasting impression. The soundtrack included songs by Coldplay, Iron & Wine and Mr Nick Drake, but perhaps most importantly, The Shins. Each was handpicked by Mr Braff.
“[Selecting a soundtrack] is my favourite thing to do,” he says. “I think musical theatre is great training for knowing how to place music. When someone’s in a musical and they no longer have the words, they break into song and when you’re designing a soundtrack, it’s like that,” he pauses to find the words. “The emotion peaks into song. This might sound cheesy,” he says, “and I might fucking cringe when I read it in print, but really the best way to get to know me, is to watch the things that I’ve written because they’re like journal entries.”
Mr Braff’s next project is a bit of a departure. In The Comeback Trail (out next month), he stars alongside Mr Robert De Niro, who plays his uncle, Messrs Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones and Emile Hirsch. The film, which is set in LA during the 1970s (come for the stacked cast, stay for the stacked heels), follows Mr Braff and Mr De Niro as they fumble their way through a half-cocked producing scam. Mr Braff’s clueless character is reminiscent of JD and Largeman.
“I don’t mind being typecast as the wide-eyed funny guy,” he insists. “I would never cast myself as, like, the heavy. I couldn’t believe that I got it,” he says of the part, for which he was not required to audition. The director, Mr George Gallo (Midnight Run) asked for him specifically. “I guess he’d seen some of my work,” he says. “Garden State probably and maybe some Scrubs. And he said, ‘I need someone who’s not going to be intimidated by Bob [De Niro] because Bob is such a big presence.’”
Mr Braff is in England with his girlfriend, the actor Ms Florence Pugh. The backlash the couple experienced when it was first revealed they were together was, frankly, absurd. Ms Pugh, who is 24, was at the height of her popularity, fresh off of the remake of Little Women, and her electrifying role in Midsommar. She was young, she was bright – so internet trolls came out of their caves and focused in on her relationship with Mr Braff. It is to her credit that she responded with characteristic fire, chastising the critics in an Instagram video. Mr Braff chose to stay silent. “She literally sat down, hit record on her phone and said that,” he tells me. “I thought: how could I possibly follow anything as intelligent and articulate as that? So, I chose not to.”
The couple are here to visit her family and have just returned to London from the countryside, where they’ve left their dog in the care of Ms Pugh’s family. Though they’re only here for a few weeks (two of which were spent in quarantine), they flew their dog over from Los Angeles, where they live together. Mr Braff is still despairing over the pup’s journey in cargo, but it turns out there was a silver lining. “She flew next to a tortoise,” he informs me. A dog and a tortoise fly from LA to London together? He thinks it would make a good children’s book.
It turns out that Mr Braff, now 45 years old, is very much like JD, who he played for nine seasons in Scrubs. Despite the greying hair, he also closely resembles the brooding, slightly neurotic Largeman, his character in Garden State. Then there’s the romantically confused, quarter-life-crisis-experiencing Michael from The Last Kiss. He probably played most off-type in his recurring cameo for the HBO series Arrested Development in which he portrayed a fictional likeness of Mr Joe Francis, the notorious creator of Girls Gone Wild. But he never strays too far from home. To wit, he voiced Famous Actor Zach Braff in Netflix’s brilliant BoJack Horseman.
Though it feels like maybe we’re friends, like maybe we know him because we watched his films, listened to his podcast, perhaps even because we’re here having lunch together, we don’t know the real Mr Zach Braff, not really. We’re still several semi-autobiographical films away from that. But until then, we’ll settle for this guy, who is a pretty good facsimile of the man we wanted him to be.
The Comeback Trail is out 18 December