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With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense of how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood’s writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.
Zach Braff has been holed up in his L.A. home, which he shares with his girlfriend and puppy, moving between his next screenplay and his just-launched Scrubs podcast, Fake Doctors, Real Friends with former co-star Donald Faison. In between, the actor/director cares for the wife and child of Broadway star Nick Cordero, who are living in his guest house as Cordero remains unconscious at Cedars-Sinai care of COVID-19.
Earlier this week, Braff opened up about his new normal, which includes sandwich making for Midnight Mission, flower runs for his house guests and a new project that’s provided a much-needed reprieve.
Let’s start easy: How are you doing?
Well, I am OK, but I’m very close to this because one of my best friends in the world, Nick Cordero, and his wife and baby have been living in my guest house for seven months as they were house-shopping in L.A. to make the move out here. Nick’s a big Broadway star and Amanda, his wife, is a trainer and they fell in love with L.A. So, they went home to pack up their things and he got COVID-19 when they did that, and he has it worse than anyone I’ve heard of who hasn’t passed away. He’s 41 and he’s unconscious at Cedars — he’s on a ventilator, he’s lost his leg due to complications, and every day we don’t know what will happen. So, his wife and baby are living in my guest house and thank God they’ve been joined by her amazing brother and sister who are taking care of her and helping her with the baby. And we help them in any way we can, too. We obviously stay social distanced from them, but we bring them food and wine and flowers. And then there’s this amazing community around them: you can look online and see the hashtag, #WakeUpNick, and there’s a GoFundMe [for Cordero’s medical expenses]. My point is that most people are lucky enough to not have this land in their backyard and also I think a lot of people are still under the impression that this is only really dire for seniors, but I’m here to tell you that a very, very healthy 41-year-old friend of mine is fighting for his life.
May I ask, how is his wife doing?
She’s amazing. She’s a motivational trainer, so she’s gone into full on bad-ass crisis dealing mode. If you look at her Instagram, she tells stories about him and she motivates other people — she’s literally trying to motivate other people. In addition to being an actor and a musical theater star, Nick is also a songwriter, so she has people singing [his song, “Live Your Life.”] The Waitress company, including Sara Bareilles, posted a video of them singing it. [Cordero played Earl in the 2016 musical.] I could cry talking about it. He’s a very beloved man, one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet, and he was on Blue Bloods, too, so all of these different communities that he’s touched are coming together. Every day at 3 p.m. she does this thing where she plays his song and people all over the world play it, too. It’s all very, very moving. And my neighborhood has rallied around her as well. There’s just a non-stop stream of people dropping things off. And he was in Rock of Ages, the show that they were doing out here, and his Rock of Ages cast literally takes turns taking the baby on stroller walks.
That’s incredible. I hope it’s alright to turn back to you.
Where were you at, professionally, when the pandemic hit?
I’ve been writing and I just did George Gallo’s latest film, an action comedy [a reboot of The Comeback Trail], where the cast is Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones and Zach Braff. [Laughs.] I was No. 4 on the call sheet, which I’ve saved and am prepared to frame. So, that was a big highlight of my career because, and I know I’m not unique in saying this, Robert De Niro is one of the reasons that I wanted to be an actor. George cast me in this part, which I would have done if I had two scenes, but I’m literally in every scene with De Niro. And I’m screaming at him in every one because he’s the ne’er-do-well and I’m his nephew trying to keep him on the good path. So, that was huge. And then I was about to do an episode of The Morning Show, which I hope I still get to do.
As an actor or a director?
Ooh, I hope they ask me to direct but this was to guest-star. Then I have some shows that I’m going out with as an actor/director/producer that I’m attached to, and it may get to the point where we pitch them on Zoom. And then one of the benefits to quarantine, if there are any, is if you’re a writer who procrastinates like me you’ve really run out of excuses, so I’ve been cranking away on a screenplay, an original. There’s not a part for me in it, so I’ll write and direct it.
You’ve referenced a project with a female protagonist on your podcast. Assume this is that?
Yeah. I’ve been writing it for a while. And what happens with me as I write is that I have things in lots of places — on the backs of business cards, in highlighter on a newspaper, just all over the place. And it takes a force majeure to get my ass in the chair to sit down and write. But I’m excited about making it better and better and, in a few weeks, I’ll start showing it to people.
So, what does the day look like for you now?
Well, we do the podcast twice a week. And really, the podcast is the greatest thing that’s happened. We got approached about doing it months before the quarantine. Really, about doing anything Scrubs because the fan base is amazing and international. So, we were going to do it, and I didn’t know what it would be. And then I heard the gals who do the Office Ladies one [featuring The Office’s Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey] and I saw why it was popular and I thought, “If Donald and I just do it the way we talk on the phone, where we’re sharing anecdotes and we’re laughing and we use the episodes of Scrubs as a rough spine to dance around and then just kind of riff, it could work.” There was a lot of interest and we presented it to the top people who do that sort of thing, and we went with iHeart in the end because they really know what they’re doing. Then the self-isolating thing happened and we figured we’d have to wait, and iHeart was like, “No, no, we can do it remotely.” It’s become the thing twice a week that I genuinely look forward to because, amid the drama with Nick and the drama of the earth, I know that twice a week I’m going to sit with my best friend and we’re going to crack up and tell old stories. And that would have been fun, period, but the fact that so many people are enjoying it, it’s given Donald and I both a dose of serotonin. People write these comments like, “Oh, this bit of nostalgia is the thing that’s cheering me up.” And when you feel so helpless — I mean, I have this family in my guest house and I’m not even allowed to go hug the woman — at least this is something. I remember watching them setting up that hospital in Central Park and I felt this bizarre envy, like, “Those people are lucky, they get to do something.”
I think that’s a natural feeling right now.
Yeah, and Donald and I are like, “My god, if we can make a handful who are listening to this — or more than a handful at this point — laugh once or twice a week, at least we’re doing something. So, it makes us feel a smidgen useful. But it’s been interesting. Like, we have John C. McGinley on [the April 28 episode], and it just so happens that we discuss the episode that we shot during 9/11. The episode [of Scrubs] is super weird and you can feel the energy of it, so it was really interesting having the three of sitting around talking about it. There are still some laughs, but understandably it’s a slightly less jokey episode as we talk about how insane that was. We had to go back to work and do broad comedy. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe we’re doing this. This is wrong that we’re being silly.”
I imagine those same conversations are being had in comedy writers rooms right now.
Yeah. I’ll never forget back when Giuliani was a sane person and he was on SNL [after 9/11], you remember that? Lorne Michaels said, “Can we be funny?” And he said, “Why start now?” I can tell you that I think people really need it. The response that we’re getting to this podcast on social media is that people go for a walk or they walk their dog or whatever the hell you’re allowed to do, and they listen to it and it’s a respite from the sadness and the monotony. So, I don’t think anyone who is attempting to be funny should be holding back at this point — I think people really need it. But you asked me about my day … [Laughs]
On a non-podcast day, I get up, I try to exercise most days in the morning because the endorphins really help me with my sanity and then I have lunch, I write this screenplay for a few hours and then I try to check in with Amanda and her family in my guest house. We just got a puppy, too, which is the greatest thing that ever happened. We thought we were going to foster this dog, but we did this thing that I didn’t know was an expression called “foster fail.” I’ve learned and love the term. A lot of shelters are looking for people to foster — and in the spirit of, “I want to do something, what the fuck can I do?” we thought this is something we can do. And of course, within like 30 seconds of having this puppy, we were like, “We’re never giving this puppy back.” I joke that we should have named her serotonin because she just brings so much joy to me. On Wednesdays and Fridays, I do the podcast at 1 with Donald. And then on Saturdays, my friend Cary Brothers organized it so that we can make sandwiches for Midnight Mission because Midnight Mission needs food. So, on Saturdays, we’ve been making 150 lunches for the Midnight Mission. It gives us a little project and also helps us feel like we’re being proactive in some way. If anyone else is interested in that, they’re dying for people to help — with money, obviously, but also with meals.
What’s been the easiest adjustment in all of this? And the hardest?
The hardest is social contact. I’m a very affectionate person and I have a friend who’s grieving and I watch her cry and I can’t hug her. It’s beyond comprehension that you can’t console someone who’s upset. And on the much lighter side, it’s the camaraderie of my friends — you can’t go out to dinner and commune with friends. That’s what I really miss the most.
What have you learned about yourself in this period?
I learned that you get very clear on who the most important people in your life are because they are who you’re missing most and longing for and wanting to FaceTime. I guess I’ve also learned that you can put anything into your work in the sense that the movie that I’m writing was already a pretty dark film but this can’t help but inform it in some ways — not directly a pandemic or anything but the aspects of isolation and the temperature of my mind feels like it’s going into what I’m writing.
You mentioned that you had other projects, too. Curious if and how the pandemic will influence them, plot- or tone-wise?
Well, I have a project that we’re going to go out with and it was already about that near, dystopian future, so we were working on this thing before this all happened and now when we have calls about it, it’s spooky. The piece has a lot of elements that dovetail with what’s happening right now, like the isolation and loneliness that we’re all feeling now.
As someone who has run sets, do you have a sense for what the path back might look like?
I just saw the weirdest article about Tyler Perry secluding people in, like, a theater camp [scenario]. By the way, as someone who went to theater camp, it sounded glorious. I hope I get cast in a Tyler Perry movie so that I can go live at his theater camp. But I’d heard rumblings of that. Someone else had told me about a new normal where, at least if someone was going to try to make something this year, the cast and crew would be secluded in a sleepaway camp type thing. Is that what people are going to do?
It’s hard to know what will happen and where people’s comfort levels will be until we have better testing and, ultimately, a vaccine.
Yeah. When the testing is really reliable, maybe. I don’t know …
What’s the best advice you’ve given or received about staying sane right now?
Just gratitude — gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. Other than my tragically ill friend, I have no right to bemoan anything: I have food, I have a house and I have loved ones who are OK.
Have you found yourself watching, reading or listening to anything as a reprieve?
It’s not a reprieve because it’s actually the darkest book ever, but I’m reading Dopesick about the opioid crisis because there’s an element of bad Pharma in my film. I love riveting non-fiction like this, and it’s brilliantly written. I mean, I’m reading it as research for what I’m writing but I’m also finding it to be an incredible page-turner. But as I say this out loud, I’m realizing it is by no means an escape. [Laughs.] On TV? Like everybody, we’re streaming everything we can get our hands on right now. We just finished Narcos: Mexico; we just watched the Waco thing on Netflix with Michael Shannon and, actually, we did just watch Pleasantville — that’s probably a better genre [for the moment]. But I gravitate toward darker shit. As someone who was on a TV comedy for so long, I don’t often watch them.
Once the world returns to some version of normal, will you keep up the podcast?
Yeah, we’d eventually love to be in the same room. But Donald’s on Emergence and he’s waiting to see if it gets picked up again and I have a handful of things I’m doing, so if we’re both back to work, we’ll probably go back to once a week. What happened was that iHeart loved the reaction and said, “Look, if you guys are open to doing it twice a week…” and we said, “Sure, sounds fun.” But we’ve only committed to doing the first two seasons — we’ll see how it goes and if people are still enjoying it by then. We don’t want to overstay our welcome.
Final question: what’s moved to the top of your To Do list once this is all in the rearview mirror?
Make this movie that I’m going to spend the whole pandemic writing. I think that would be the ultimate punctuation mark at the end, to set this movie up and go make it.
I hope that happens for you. Is there anything else I should be asking?
Maybe, if you wanted to, and I don’t know if you do this kind of thing, you could let people know about the GoFundMe for Nick. That would be really great. I can assure people that no matter what happens that that woman and her child will never want for anything — I’ll make sure that they’re taking care of, but I think a lot of people, including my parents, wanted a gesture and anyone who is interested in a gesture — because in any scenario they’re going to need a lot of help — there is a GoFundMe page.
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