LOS ANGELES—People had just seen Zach Braff’s film in LA. And who waited on them in a restaurant they went to afterwards? Zach himself.
“Only in Hollywood,” the actor unintentionally mentioned this column’s name as he talked about his life and career in a recent interview at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.
He’s had his share of struggles. Now, he’s starring in a Broadway musical, “Bullets over Broadway” and has a new film, which he also directed, “Wish I Was Here.”
“Hello, good morning!” exclaimed Zach, a cup of coffee in his hand. He is exuberant, hyper even. The actor, beloved by many as JD Dorian, an offbeat intern on TV’s “Scrubs,” and noted for his indie films, especially the acclaimed “Garden State,” which was his feature directorial debut, wore a brown sweater, blue shirt and gray pants.
The New Jersey native was in the mood to look back on his start in show biz. “My first audition was when I was 14 years old,” he began. “I didn’t get ‘Scrubs’ until I was 25. I almost gave up a bunch of times. I did a movie called ‘The Broken Hearts Club.’ It was at Sundance in 2000. I was waiting tables in LA and the film was showing in LA. I was waiting tables at a French-Vietnamese restaurant on Beverly and Robertson.
“People would come from the movie to the restaurant and I would be waiting on them. They would do a double take and they would say, ‘We just saw your movie!’ I would go, ‘Oh.’ They would go, ‘It was great.’ I would go, ‘Thank you. Let me tell you about our specials.’ I thought, only in Hollywood can you go see a movie, and have one of the leads wait on you for dessert in a restaurant.
“[I]t’s so hard and there are so many nos,” admitted the 39-year-old. “You have to survive. I was waiting tables to be able to eat. Or working as a production assistant on music videos. Eventually, I got my break. But it’s very hard for people.”
He brought up “another great story” of an actor having a second job— Nick Cordero, who’s singing and dancing as Cheech, a mobster, in “Bullets over Broadway.”
“Nick is up for a Tony (award). He is astonishing and a discovery and yet he was just starting to get his real-estate license. He had enough; he couldn’t get arrested. Now he’s the talk of the town. Everyone thinks he’s going to win. He brings down the show with that big gangster tap dance number. That’s just the way our field is. You are one audition away from your life changing.”
Making his Broadway debut in “Bullets,” an adaptation of Woody Allen’s 1994 film, is also a life-changing experience for Zach. He shows his singing and dancing skills in the musical, directed by Susan Stroman, which is playing at the St. James Theater.
Zach played Woody and Diane Keaton’s son in 1993’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” In “Bullets,” Zach plays a playwright who makes compromises to see his play mounted on Broadway.
“They asked me to do a reading of this (musical),” Zach recounted. “I did a week-long reading. You essentially just rehearse for a week and then just do it at music stands for investors and the creative people, Woody and Susan Stroman.
“I knew that the reading was like a ‘wink-wink’—my week-long audition— even though no one was saying that it was for the real show. So I just worked so hard on it. When it was over, Woody came up to me and said (imitating Woody’s voice), ‘Be seeing you soon.’ I knew that was Woody’s way of saying I was going to get the part for real.”
He said, “I saw the movie when it came out because I see all of Woody’s movies. It ended up being one of my favorites because, as someone who works in the business, I loved that it was about behind-the-scenes of being in a play.”
“It’s exhausting,” Zach said of being virtually onstage throughout the show. “It’s the hardest job I have ever had. Eight shows a week. It’s not like it’s ‘Our Town.’ By the time we come up for the curtain call, everyone is dripping with sweat. You have to lie down for a second because you have left everything you have got on the stage.”
Trying to get “Wish I Was Here” done, was also quite a saga. The drama-comedy, which Zach wrote with his brother Adam and which also stars Kate Hudson, Josh Gad and Mandy Patinkin, centers on Aidan Bloom (Zach), a struggling actor, father and husband in LA who is trying to find his identity and purpose in life as he copes with challenges.
“No one would make it,” Zach said of his debacle trying to get the film financed. “I know people are shocked to hear that, but that is the truth … Ten years later after making a movie (‘Garden State’), you get a little cold. I could have made any movie I wanted a year after ‘Garden State,’ but I had gone off and done other things.”
“No one was rushing to make the film,” he said. “I had a couple of financiers who nibbled around but they said things like, ‘You are going to cast from this list of actors, we are going to shoot in Vancouver, we are going to cut those fantasies, we are going to cut X, Y, Z, you are not going to have final cut.’ I am not going to hand off a movie to essentially a banker and just give him final cut.”
“There were a lot of people who said, ‘Why doesn’t Zach Braff do this? You can get a movie made.’ But the truth is, I couldn’t get this movie made. I could have changed this movie into a way more commercial movie. Obviously, Kate Hudson is a star and Mandy Patinkin is a star, but these money people weren’t necessarily on the same page with me. They weren’t who the money people wanted. So I was very frustrated … I was humbled by that.
Loyal fan base
“To be honest, I almost signed the deal thinking I just want to make the movie. Fine, I will cut that; fine, I will shoot in Vancouver; I will cast a couple of people who aren’t my first choices; I will make it work. Then the ‘Veronica Mars’ thing (successful Kickstarter campaign) exploded. And because I have such a loyal Internet fan base, I couldn’t help but not take a step back and go, ‘Okay, this might ruffle some feathers, but I have to give it a try.’ I didn’t imagine it would happen in 48 hours. That was a shock. And validating.”
He was referring to the Kickstarter campaign in April last year to raise funds to make “Wish.” Zach was amazed that the goal of $2 million was reached in record time. “The goal was $2 million dollars in a month. You can select your time but most people select a month. A lot of people were saying, ‘It’s not going to work. It worked for ‘Veronica Mars’ because it was a known entity. People wanted to see a ‘Veronica Mars’ movie.’
“I was not saying I was going to make ‘Garden State 2.’ I had the audacity to go out there and say, ‘If you liked my stuff before, I have something else for you.’ So in 48 hours to have it like that, we were all like (he demonstrated his jaw dropping). We couldn’t believe it. Then it kept going and going.”
Real and fictional
Zach said “Wish” was semi-autobiographical. “Just like ‘Garden State,’ there are parts of it that are completely my life and then some from my brother because I cowrote this one with him. Then there’s stuff that we totally made up.”
Asked if he did in real life what his struggling actor character did in one scene—offered acting tips to a fellow actor—Zach said, “Sitting there in a fluorescent-lit waiting room, waiting to audition for something you have no respect for but you just have no money and you are desperate, I can totally relate to that time in my life. You make friends with these other actors that you are competing with but I never would have given one advice.
“My character is nicer than I am because I won’t exactly tip someone off to do a better job than I did. But yeah, that scene, you definitely would sit next to someone who was reading the part out loud horribly and you are looking like, ‘Oh my God, that’s my competition?”
With such a devoted online following, Zach is active on social media. “I just joined Instagram,” he said. “Yes, that was a picture of me in drag. People like to cut pictures of me in drag on the Internet. They dress me up like a girl so I thought that was funny. For some reason, maybe because JD, my character in ‘Scrubs,’ had all these fantasies. I can only guess that’s why.
“People take my head and put it on the weirdest pictures. You can go look up my name in Google Images. You can see the weirdest stuff that they Photoshopped me into. But I would be a hot chick. Heather Matarazzo, they say. I micromanage all my social media accounts because I like to have a conversation with my fans. I enjoy it.”
As for the occasional weird individuals stalking the Internet, he said, “What’s great about the Internet is that you can block crazy people, unlike in real life. Don’t you wish you could sometimes block people in real life? Like they can’t come near you— ‘Sorry, you have been blocked.’ I know how to manage it. I don’t tweet anything that I don’t want people to know. I don’t take a picture. I am not like my buddy (James) Franco taking naked pictures of himself.”
(Email the columnist at email@example.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)