Life & Culture

Interview: Zach Braff

Laughter helps with the pain


Zach Braff begins by wishing me a hearty "Shalom!"

The American actor-director, well known for his role as Doctor J D in the award-winning television series Scrubs, is in London ahead of making his UK stage debut in his first penned play, the comedy All New People. The work was originally staged in an off-Broadway run last summer without Braff - he explains that he was advised "to sit it out the first time because I was the writer and the play needed to be workshopped and rewritten".

Glad of the advice, he says the experience allowed him to get the play to a place where he felt confident enough to appear in it, even though he will continue to "tweak and work on it".

But will a work that has been performed to an American audience make a smooth transfer to the British stage? Braff is confident. Apart from needing to alter a pop culture reference or two, he says: "The themes are pretty universal; it is a story that could happen in the UK, just as easily as in the US".

Braff plays Charlie, a man in his thirties who has hit rock bottom. Alone, in the depths of winter he escapes to a desolate beach house in Long Beach Island, New Jersey, only to be interrupted by a group of misfits who show up and change his plans. From the synopsis there is little to suggest that it is a plot with jump-off-the-page humour. In fact, he says, that "if you try and talk about some of the issues that are raised in the play, without comedy, it becomes quite maudlin".

But he is attracted to a style of comedy in which drama bubbles underneath. "I think it's how we always dealt with drama in my family, as do a lot of people. I can remember coming home in the limo from my grandmother's funeral, on the way to sit shivah, and someone making a joke and we all just started laughing. I've found that, especially with my family, even the darkest of subject matters or in the most twisted of situations, we always find a way to smile to get through it."

The inspiration to write All New People came after he had gone to visit Long Beach Island in winter to choose a summerhouse to rent for his father. "It was so haunting. There were thousands of houses but not a person in sight, and the whole place was covered in snow. It was this spooky ghost town and I was just so taken with it. I thought this is a powerful setting for a story about loneliness and isolation."

An additional influence was the play, God of Carnage, in particular the real-time aspect of it. All New People is 90 minutes long and the events that unfold between the four characters take place in real time.

Braff says there are aspects of Charlie's character that are based on his own. He too has dealt with feelings of isolation, and although Braff has a tight-knit group of friends, "there have been times in my life when - and I'm sure many people can relate to this - being surrounded by lots of people can feel even more lonesome".

In the past he has talked candidly about suffering from depression. Uncertain as to why so many creative people battle with the illness, he quips that he thinks it makes for good art, but then offers a more serious explanation. "Maybe some people's depression comes from a realisation that this life is it. What am I doing with it? Am I using my time wisely? And that's an incredibly intimidating thought process."

Perhaps this is why he ensures that his career is never static. He admits to having a lot of ideas. "I was so blessed to have the TV show for so many years and now I want to explore these ideas and ways of performing that I wasn't able to do before."

As well as acting, Braff has worked as a director, directing episodes of Scrubs, various music videos and the 2004 film Garden State, which he also wrote and starred in. He has been involved in other film projects such as Chicken Little and The Last Kiss, and recently filmed Oz, a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. After the play, he says, his main goal for this year is to direct another film - a project he is hoping to secure during his stay in the UK.

But it is writing that he describes as being "by far the most challenging. Mostly because acting and directing involve collaborating with people, whereas writing is so isolating. For someone who battles with feelings of loneliness it means sitting in an empty room, staring at the wall, at a blank screen. But when I do create something that I'm proud of, it brings me a lot of pleasure."

He explains that where he "relates to being Jewish the most - because I am not very religious - is through humour and comedy". Judaism has been influential in shaping characters he has played or written. Raised on a comic diet of Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Jackie Mason, he says: "I think that when I write, the star is a sort of secular Jew, one who identifies with something culturally Jewish, which, for me, is humour".

He jokingly refers to himself as a "nerdy Jewish kid" and says that as a child he had little interest in sport but loved performing. "I used my humour and my writing to make people laugh. I needed friends, not through being the handsome quarter-back on the football team, but rather by being the funny, wacky class clown."

This is the first time he has lived in London, although he has visited the city as a tourist. "I love walking the streets and I love theatre in the West End. Nothing moves me more than a great play and I have such reverence for the performers here. There's such unbelievable talent," he enthuses.

Braff joins a host of other Hollywood stars that have come to tread the boards in the West End. Although intimidating, he says: "It's such an honour. I have dreamed of doing a play in the West End for many years, but I never dreamed it would be my own."

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