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'Scrubs' star writes what he knows

Zach Braff's big-screen success

By Stephanie Snipes

Zach Braff in "Garden State," a film he also wrote and directed.
New Jersey
Zach Braff

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- "Garden State" isn't "Scrubs" star Zach Braff's first turn on the big screen. But if he had to do his feature film debut again, he'd, well, do it again.

Braff made his debut opposite Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Allen's 1993 film "Manhattan Murder Mystery," playing the couple's son. He was 18 years old and "intimidated," he says in an interview.

"I was so wide-eyed and terrified. I would love another shot at it," he said. "I was only in one scene but it was in a scene with Woody Allen, Diane Keaton and Anjelica Houston. ... When I play it back now I look like I'm a deer in headlights."

For the past three years, Braff has charmed audiences as quirky doctor John "J.D." Dorian on NBC's Emmy-nominated medical comedy, "Scrubs." His latest effort is the indie flick, "Garden State," a film he wrote, directed and stars in.

It's by far his most personal project, based on stories he collected while growing up. The film, which garnered huge buzz at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is the story of Andrew Largeman, a lithium-ridden wannabe actor living in Los Angeles.

When his mother dies, Largeman must return home to New Jersey for the funeral. While there he faces his disapproving father (Ian Holm), a psychiatrist and provider of his mood-enhancing drugs, and reconnects with an old high school friend (Peter Sarsgaard).

As he's dealing with the loss of his mother, and facing the realities of his tragic youth, he makes the decision to come out from under his lithium haze and come to terms with his unmedicated self.

One of Braff's goals was to create a film filled with humor, even though the main story line is riddled with sadness and tragedy.

"I think the saddest moments in life have humor in them. I have a memory of coming home from a funeral with my family in the back of a limousine and someone cracking a joke and us just hysterically belly laughing. It's how we always dealt with tragedy in our lives and I think it's such a healthy way to deal with sadness," said Braff.

'Seize the day'

Braff directing on the set of "Garden State."

After years of writing bits and pieces of a screenplay, and battling self-admitted procrastination, Braff got the nudge he needed. In 2001, upon receiving the news that he'd been cast in "Scrubs," Braff promptly quit his real-life job waiting tables, only to find out he still had four months before taping on "Scrubs" would begin.

He used the time to write the first draft of "Garden State."

When finished, Braff sent the script to Jersey Films, the Danny DeVito-founded production company. The group agreed to finance the film. (Ironically, "Garden State" is the first film made by the now defunct Jersey Films about the state from which it got its name).

From day one Braff knew he wanted Sarsgaard, Sir Ian Holm and Natalie Portman (as Sam, his love interest) in his film. To his surprise, all three actors agreed. He cast himself in the lead.

Speaking from a hotel suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta, his fifth city in nine days, Braff commented on why he took the lead role.

"I just felt that like an actor it's really hard to get a really good role. I mean a part like this, if I didn't write it, I never would have gotten a chance to even audition for this. ... So, I felt like I wanted to give myself a break in the movie world. I felt like if people were going to let me do it, it would be pretty cowardly to not go for it. So I wanted to just, in the spirit of the movie, seize the day," said Braff.

Family ties

Garden State
In "Garden State," Braff meets up with an old buddy (Peter Sarsgaard) and strikes up a relationship with Sam (Natalie Portman).

Creativity runs deep in the Braff household. Josh Braff, Zach's brother, is currently on tour for his new novel "The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green" (also based in their home state of New Jersey). Their father, an attorney by day, dabbled in stage work at night.

With a solid upbringing in the arts, Braff continued the tradition by studying filmmaking at Northwestern. It was there that he enhanced his writing and acting skills and caught the directing bug.

Out of the three -- acting, writing and directing -- Braff says if he could only pick one to do for the rest of his career it would be directing.

"For me that's the one that's the most challenging. And I say that not that the other two are easy by any stretch but the one that I feel like requires every aspect of myself. It requires me to be an actor, a writer, an organizer and a leader and I really enjoy it," says Braff.

Currently filming the fourth season of "Scrubs," Braff's next big-screen challenge is an adaptation of the children's book "Andrew Henry's Meadow," the story of a kid who builds a playland in the woods. He is writing the film with his brother.

Ultimately, Braff, who appears exhausted despite his upbeat attitude and multitude of wisecracks, hopes to keep his projects going in multiple directions so he can get the most out of his career.

"I'd love to do more theater in New York City. And I'd love the chance to do a big movie with a great director -- you know, the Coen brothers or Woody Allen or Steven Spielberg," said Braff. "I'd love a shot at that."

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