Zach Braff is in a period of transition. And loving every minute of it.
Last year, Garden State, his first film as a writer and director, became an unexpected critical and commercial hit.
The film, about a troubled (and medicated) son returning home and discovering he's not nearly as messed up as he's been told, garnered largely positive reviews and pulled in $26.7 million at the U.S. box office - a figure 13 times more than it cost to make. Braff says he's still shocked by the film's success.
He's about to begin work on his sixth season as the appealingly zany Dr. John "J.D." Dorian on NBC's Scrubs, one of the few remaining bright spots in TV comedy. Braff hasn't decided whether to sign on for a seventh season but delights in the knowledge that, with his contract about to expire, the decision will be totally his. He may very well, Braff says, decide to leave Scrubs and devote all his energies to movies.
And next week, he opens in director Tony Goldwyn's The Last Kiss, a remake of the Italian film L'ultimo bacio. In it, his thirtysomething character is torn between remaining faithful to his beautiful, understanding girlfriend, with whom he's about to have a child, or taking a chance with an entrancing college student who reminds him of the commitment-free youth he's about to leave behind.
If Braff does decide to make movies full time, this is the kind of movie he hopes to make. And in an industry where young actors are often forced to accept whatever script comes along, the 31-year-old New Jersey native realizes how lucky he is to be able to call his shots. Finding an acceptable follow-up to Garden State wasn't easy.
"I was looking for something that was different, that was the kind of movie I wanted to go see, that I responded to," says Braff, calling from Boston, where he's promoting The Last Kiss. "After the success of Garden State, I got sent so many scripts that all were the kind of movie I would never go see, these big, broad, cookie-cutter romantic comedies. And then I found this. It was just so real and so raw and honest, and it didn't pull any punches. I didn't believe the studio was going to release it."
Not only is Paramount releasing the movie, which was budgeted at about $16 million (compared to Garden State's $2 million) but the studio's giving Braff top billing (other stars include Jacinda Barrett, Rachel Bilson, Blythe Danner and Tom Wilkinson), suggesting the film will sink or swim based largely on his drawing power. This is pretty heady stuff for a guy who was relatively unknown until just a few years ago.
"I'm doing better things than I ever thought I would," says Braff, recalling his early days as an actor, when his credits were restricted to independent films few people saw (Getting to Know You, Blue Moon, Endsville) and a small role in Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery.
"I imagined I would be doing whatever I could to survive," he says. "I've been so lucky that I actually get to do things I believe in, and are good. It's a dream position to be in as an actor."
What made The Last Kiss so appealing to him, Braff says, is that it read like a movie script he could actually have lived, with its cast of characters who all are reluctant to commit to major life decisions.
"I have a group of friends I hang out with," he says, "and I just felt like some of the stuff they were talking about [in the movie] is stuff me and my guy friends could easily have been recorded saying."
Braff has another film coming out early next year - Fast Track, a comedy in which he plays alongside Jason Bateman and Amanda Peet. "It's a workplace comedy," he explains, "me vs. Jason. And Jason's in a wheelchair."
He's also in negotiations to star in Fletch Won, featuring the journalist character created by Gregory McDonald and played in a 1985 film by Chevy Chase.
In the meantime, Braff's committed to Scrubs through April and says he has yet to decide whether he'll re-up if the series goes beyond this season.
"It all depends on whether [series creator] Bill Lawrence stays on, whether the commitment would still be for 7 1/2 months," he says. "There's a ton of things."
Not that he's complaining about where he is. As fans of Scrubs might suspect, it's a fun set. "I go to work and act goofy with my friends all day long," Braff says. "It's a pretty dream job."