At the moment, there’s something Zach Braff wants so much that he can practically taste it.
It’s not television success. He already experienced that when he starred on NBC’s Scrubs. And it’s definitely not becoming an acclaimed filmmaker. That happened when he wrote, directed and starred in the 2004 feature Garden State. It’s not even scoring a big TV comeback. His new ABC comedy Alex, Inc. (bowing March 28) checks off that box.
No, what Zach Braff really wants right now is that chocolate chip cookie sitting in front of him as he begins a phone interview.
“It looks really delicious but…,” he says, holding for a very long beat, “I’m going to be good. I’ll wait.”
There’s no reason to doubt him. If there’s anyone in Hollywood with decent impulse control, it’s Braff. After all, since Scrubs ended in 2010, he could have had his pick of any starring role in a sitcom but, he admits, he “wasn’t even entertaining the idea” of a return to network television until Alex, Inc. crossed his path.
The single-camera comedy is based on the podcast StartUp, which tells the story of former NPR journalist Alex Blumberg’s attempts to start his own podcast company. Braff stars as Alex Schuman, a father of two with a cautiously supportive wife (Tiya Sircar from NBC’s The Good Place) who is launching a podcast business with his cousin (Michael Imperioli). This family oriented fare may seem like a departure from the quirkiness of Scrubs and the intense introspection of Braff’s feature films, but that’s precisely why he wanted to do it.
“Like most actors, I was thinking that when I do come back to TV, it’d be something cool on a streaming channel where they do these amazing shows I binge just like everyone,” says the 42-year-old native of South Orange, N.J. “But when you have a piece of content that’s as broadcast-friendly as Alex, Inc. is, there’s no need for it to be anything but PG. We all agreed this is what there’s more room for on TV.”
Alex, Inc. doesn’t let his character bask in the frequent flights of fantasy that his J.D. enjoyed on Scrubs, but as far as Braff is concerned, there’s still something very familiar about Alex Schuman. That’s because “he overlaps with J.D. and the truth is, both of these guys are really a version of myself. I feel most creative when I’m riffing off what I’d really do and say in the same situations they’re in.” Hence, he sees Schuman as “a perfect fit” since “I enjoy being the guy who is in over his head.”
That continuum between J.D., Alex and Braff is also obvious to Matt Tarses, a friend of the actor’s who wrote on Scrubs and executive produces Alex, Inc.
“There are definitely those parallels,” he explains. “There’s that combination of broad humor and real emotional moments they all have in common. Zach has this ability to be wacky and funny but ground everything in this amazing pathos. His switch between them is effortless. That’s what makes him so amazing to watch.”
Still, if it weren’t for a puppet, people may never have had the chance to see any of that. When he was 11, his parents enrolled him in a theater camp where, in addition to putting on shows like Carousel, he learned how to be a puppeteer.
“I had this walrus puppet,” Braff recalls with a laugh. “I will never forget being behind the puppet stand and getting huge laughs for whatever I was doing. There was something about being this little kid and getting belly laughs from strangers that I just loved. And I hoped it wasn’t just the walrus getting those laughs!”
While a lot of kids his age were spending their spare time on baseball or soccer fields, a young Braff wanted nothing to do with sports. Rather than adorning his bedroom wall with pictures of a New York Yankee, he hung up posters featuring everything from the Broadway show Big River to Lamborghinis to Stephanie Seymour. Oh, and “this Phantom of the Opera beach towel someone gave me, which hung on my wall like a precious tapestry.”
Whether it was because he “was scared or intimidated about not being as good at it as everyone else,” his athletic avoidance left him feeling “quite alienated, like this bizarre weirdo.” However, his trial attorney father dabbled in community theater as a hobby, and Braff found solace watching his dad perform and he became “like the mascot for the theater.”
It wasn’t long before he went from bystander to star performer, first at a theater camp called Bravo in upstate New York. That was where his family began to realize he’d taken to acting the way his peers were joining Little League teams.
“I saw him perform at the Artful Dodger in Oliver when he was 10, and I remember feeling prideful in his ability to own the stage,” says his older brother Josh, an author. “I was leaving for college the next day and when I approached him after the show, I choked up a little as I told him how amazing I thought he was. He thought I was kidding, pulling his leg, pretending to be emotional.”
Braff may not have realized his brother was genuine but within a couple of years, he got even more serious about his acting by attending the Stagedoor Manor theater camp, which was known for other famous alums like Robert Downey Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh and his eventual Garden State co-star Natalie Portman. While doing shows there, Braff was spotted by a talent agent who got him started auditioning for television roles. At 14, he was cast in a failed TV pilot alongside Gwyneth Paltrow and Craig Ferguson, and four years later, he landed a role in Woody Allen’s 1993 film, Manhattan Murder Mystery.
Instead of capitalizing on this early success, though, Braff opted to take a break and attend Northwestern University’s film school so he could study writing and directing. Not long after graduating, he found himself in Los Angeles trying to make it as an actor. Which meant he was waiting tables at a local restaurant most of the time. However, he was starting to build a career making corporate videos and happened to be in New York working on one when he was asked to audition for a new NBC medical comedy called Scrubs.
“I’d gone out the night before the audition and it didn’t go well,” he recalls. “I wasn’t prepared at all. They sent it out to the producers but I didn’t get a call back and thought that was that. Then I came back to Los Angeles and my agent told me they still hadn’t found the right guy. I assumed hadn’t even noticed me before because I’d done such a bad job. So, why not go in and try again because they won’t even know. This time around, though, I actually read the script and memorized my lines.”
Luckily for him, Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence hadn’t even paid attention to that first audition tape. Or the second, for that matter.
“I thought he was the right guy right away once I saw him in person.… I ignored his tape because casting is frenetic and crazy,” Lawrence explains. “He was instinctively funny and perfect for the role of a young, caring doctor in way over his head because Zach was a young, sensitive actor in way over his head when it came to being the lead of a show.”
As it turned out, the Scrubs set was perfectly suited to Braff’s personality. Tarses recalls it “feeling like college all the time, where we were constantly trying crazy stuff just to see what we could get away with.” That included J.D.’s intense bromance with best buddy Turk (Donald Faison), something the show’s fans still love to talk with him about.
“When I was doing a Woody Allen musical (Bullets Over Broadway), guys used to actually wait by the stage door and want me to hug them like J.D. and Turk,” Braff explains. “I think we showed men you can do the long hug and not have to do the back tap.”
His unabashed expression of emotion wasn’t just limited to Scrubs. It was also on display in Garden State, his feature film writing and directing debut. Released in the summer after Scrubs’ third season on the air, the coming-of-older-age movie followed a struggling TV actor (Braff) who comes home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. The script was rejected by studio after studio, even though Braff had naively assumed that getting the film made would be easy because of his TV star status. Fox Searchlight eventually took a chance and released the film to critical acclaim, and Braff even picked up a Grammy Award for the Garden State soundtrack.
“The first I even knew of the movie was when Bill [Lawrence] said, ‘Come see this movie Zach made. He wants us to give him notes,'” says Tarses. “I knew all along that Zach was a smart, funny and thoughtful but when I saw the movie that first time, I thought, ‘Where did this guy come from?’ It was so stylish, I remember being a little annoyed because he was treading into our writing area!”
His post-Scrubs TV appearances have been limited to one-shot appearances in shows like Undateable and Community. Instead, he’s been focusing on filmmaking for the past several years. He wrote, directed and starred in 2014’s Wish I Was Here and helmed the 2017 remake of Going in Style. The latter was such a positive experience for him that “my agents weren’t even bringing me TV projects.”
In fact, he was planning his next movie when he stumbled upon Alex, Inc. Braff was working with producer John Davis on a project at Fox when Davis broached the idea of a possible return to television. Davis’ company was trying to turn the story of NPR’s Alex Blumberg into a series. Blumberg had been a producer on the radio series This American Life but left that gig to start the podcast company Gimlet Media despite having zero experience in running a business. That journey was captured in Blumberg’s podcast StartUp, which Davis urged Braff to listen to.
“I started binging on it and found it so interesting and heartfelt and funny and relevant,” recalls Braff. “It was all about going after the American Dream, about what it means to be a mixed-race couple, about this new world of podcasting. It was so relatable and perfect as a family comedy.”
He wanted to be a part of this project somehow, but had just one request before jumping in. Since Alex, Inc. was set up at Sony Pictures Television Studios, and he knew Tarses had a deal there as well, he told Davis, “If you get Matt to write and run the show, I’ll do it.”
After listening to StartUp, Tarses had the same reaction as Brand and decided to climb on board. “Zach was a big part of my decision to do this,” he says. “There are so few people out there who are real TV stars, so few who always know exactly what to do. Zach is someone who knows how to make your life easier as a showrunner and writer. He knows what to do it and does it. He knows how to modulate himself, which saves me a lot of time. And he makes me laugh.”
There aren’t a lot of immediate similarities between Scrubs and Alex, Inc., particularly the fact that the latter is much more a traditional family comedy. Still, it’s the “family” part that Braff is very much looking forward to with his new gig. He doesn’t have any children of his own but admits he “aspires to have kids someday,” a life change his friends figure should happen sooner rather than later. Lawrence’s kids already call Braff “Uncle Zach” while Tarses says Braff “already has what you need to be a good dad — his heart is in the right place.”
And for the moment, that heart belongs to Alex, Inc. Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have a soft spot for Scrubs even all these years later. The chances of any sort of on-air cast reunion are slim. Still, Braff says the notion of a reunion movie like of USA’s Psych telefilm last year is “something we could all do.” His former boss is slightly less encouraging.
Explains Lawrence, “Right now, it’s a joke we all have because it’s all anyone asks any of us about. It’s flattering but right now we are all thankfully working on other things. That said, this whole group is still close and we would obviously take any opportunity to spend time together again so who knows?”
Whether or not the Scrubs band ever gets back together, Braff is confident the same thing that drew his fans to that show and his movies will be what also draws them to Alex, Inc.
“Comedy with heart, that’s what ties everything I do together,” he says. “My favorite entertainment is the kind where people say, ‘You had me laughing and just when I was doing that, you had tears welling in my eyes.’ I love that whether I’m doing film, TV or theater. What I do isn’t for everybody but I’ve been able to find a wonderful group of fans that have similar taste and feel the same way.”
Speaking of taste, while Braff has certainly done a lot of impressive things in his career, he freely admits there’s still one accomplishment that has remained tantalizingly just out of reach. Until now.
“Thanks, this has been great,” he says, politely bringing this interview to an end. “But now I think it’s time to eat that cookie.”