Zach Braff: Off to See the Wizard

These days, Zach Braff splits his time between Los Angeles and New York, but the actor is forever linked to New Jersey thanks to his starring role in the 2004 cult classic, Garden State, which he also wrote and directed.

Zach Braff
Courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.

“I love New Jersey and I’ll keep setting my films in New Jersey as long as they let me,” says Braff, 37, who grew up in South Orange. Next for the star of TV’s Scrubs is Oz The Great and Powerful, Disney’s depiction of the origins of The Wizard of Oz. The Sam Raimi-directed film, which also stars James Franco and Michelle Williams, opens March 8.

New Jersey Monthly: In Oz The Great and Powerful, you play two roles: you’re on-screen as Oz’s assistant, Frank, and you’re an animated monkey, Finley, in the land of Oz.

Zach Braff: The premise is it’s the prequel to [The Wizard of Oz] and, like the original, there were people in Kansas that worked their way into the magical land of Oz. I’m [Oz’s] much-put-upon assistant in Kansas, and I really want to be his friend so bad, but he says he doesn’t need friends. And then in the land of Oz, it becomes very clear pretty quickly he needs the help of friends, so I manifest as this valet monkey, who is his sidekick.

NJM: You look pretty friendly, not like the flying monkeys we associate with the original.

ZB: I’m not to be stereotyped…. Don’t judge all flying monkeys the same.

NJM: Was it strange to be onscreen for part of the movie and then be a voice-over for the rest?

ZB: Finley is a voice, ultimately, but I was fully acting out the role. They were videotaping everything I did, then the animators took the videotape and animated the monkey to that. Then there were times, because he’s 36 inches tall, where that wasn’t possible: I couldn’t squat down in the right position or get into the tree or what have you.

NJM: Long Beach Island is the setting for your new play, All New People, which recently wrapped a Miami run after playing Off Broadway and London. Did you go there as a child?

ZB: Yeah. I grew up in South Orange and went to Columbia High School, and my family would always rent a house on LBI. I really loved it. We always try to get the family together in August on [my father’s] birthday when we can. I had the idea that I would rent a big house to accommodate us all in Loveladies. The way it works is you go down in the dead of winter to pick which one you want to rent. It was so spooky and surreal and covered with snow and not a person in sight. As a writer, I was so taken. The woman is trying to talk to me about the details, and I’m just sitting there thinking about this play—and start writing it in my head. I knew I aspired to write a play and I knew what some of the themes were, but it all didn’t click until I was in this freezing cold beach house in the dead of winter.

NJM: Will All New People have a New Jersey run?

ZB: I would love it to be done at the Paper Mill or something like that. It’s a little R-rated, so I don’t know that it’s going to be done in community theater. It’s a very New Jersey story, and in light of what’s happened at the Shore, it’s a story about the Shore.

NJM: What gives you the most pleasure: acting, directing or writing?

ZB: I just love doing all of them. Writing is the hardest for me and the one I dread the most because it really is you alone in a room staring at a computer questioning yourself every 10 seconds. It’s isolating and it’s humbling. The other two I get more pleasure from and I can’t wait to act. I’m in talks to do another play and I have a new screenplay that I’ve written with my brother Adam.

NJM: How often do you get asked about doing a Garden State sequel?

ZB: The amount of love that film gets and the place that it holds in people’s hearts—I never would have imagined that people would have such a strong and fond response to it.

NJM: But no sequel?

ZB: I don’t like that so much. My own personal feeling is, when you love a movie and then someone goes back and tries to rekindle that magic that happened, I think it was lightning in a bottle and I wouldn’t want to touch it.

NJM: Do you miss your Scrubs character John Dorian?

ZB: I do miss the laughing every day with your friends. That’s what the best part of that job was…If your job is seeing how hard you can make each other laugh, I can’t imagine a better job than that.

NJM: Are you looking for another TV series?

ZB: In terms of being an actor, I wouldn’t sign that contract just yet. It’s for seven years, and I just have so much I want to do in terms of theater and making films. But in terms of again in my life, maybe later, when I want to be a little more settled down, I would totally do it. I love television.

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