It's not enough to work hard in a show business career, nor be as dedicated as you are talented. Zach Braff has been there, done that, for the past three seasons as J.D., the intern-turned-resident on the hit show Scrubs. A peek at his resum & eacute; reveals that he's also flirted with movie acting -- he played the son of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Manhattan Murder Mystery, he portrayed a slightly campy gay character in The Broken Hearts Club. But with the dramatic comedy Garden State, he's taken a huge leap -- writing, directing and starring in the film.
And with the leap, he's shown that beyond hard work and dedication, he's ready for commitment.
"You know you're committed to a movie and you're committed to having your dream come true when you stuff meat in your hands and have Dobermans go after it. But that's how you get them to jump up on you," says Braff of a comic scene in the film. "That was one of those scenes that came from real life."
Garden State tells the story of Andrew Largeman (Braff), a semi-successful L.A. actor who returns home to New Jersey for his mother's funeral, then has to contend with the anger of his pent-up father (Ian Holm), the plight of his loser friends (Peter Sarsgaard among them) and the possibility that the odd young woman he meets (Natalie Portman) could be turning into a love interest.
Braff freely admits that there's plenty of autobiographical business going on in the film, and not just about dogs (some of which provide pricelessly funny bits). Before he landed the Scrubs role, Braff was a waiter in a French-Vietnamese restaurant in L.A.
"Just like [my character] in the movie," he says. "I exaggerated a little bit with the eye makeup. But I really wore a black tunic and had a manager who would yell at me and show me head shots of the people who wanted my job."
Of course, he made up plenty of stuff, too, hoping to hit upon some universal situations.
"The movie is about a guy who's long overdue for a new chapter to start in his life," he explains. "And I think a lot of people can relate to that feeling."
Braff admits that he readily identified with what he was writing about.
"One of the main themes of the movie," he says, "is how short life is, and to take action and go for whatever it is you're going to go for. But you have to do it now. It was therapy. And hopefully other people will find it therapeutic."
Although Braff is best known for his acting, he's been wanting to direct, he says, since he was a little kid. During college at Northwestern, he spent most of his time making his own short films and working on other short films.
"When I graduated, I started working as a production assistant on music videos and commercials," he says. "That's what I set out to do. But I had a little success in acting as a kid, and I loved acting. I had a couple connections in New York, so I went on auditions."
Braff moved to Los Angeles, got turned down left and right and became homesick for New York. Then his agent insisted that Braff should go through just one more pilot season before throwing in the towel. And it paid off.
"I auditioned for Scrubs six times," he says, slightly shaking his head at the thought. "And I kept getting called back."
He goes completely silent, as if reliving the experience. "Getting cast on a network television show is the most grueling process an actor could ever go through. It's amazing that you ever get a part. It's like going to the Olympics. I've never been in the Olympics, but I imagine you have to do it so many times perfectly. Let's say you just nailed it three times. Then you've gotta do it again. And then each time you come back, there's more and more people in the room. There are so many cooks in the kitchen on a TV show."
But it's all been a positive experience for Braff, from fans walking up to him on the street saying, "Hey, you make me laugh each week," to the fact that he'll be directing his first episode in the upcoming season.
Braff is actually still laughing about another of those real-life experiences. But this one didn't make it into his movie. Last year, he was a guest on the TV show Martha Stewart Living.
"Martha Stewart doesn't often ask actors to come on her show," he says shyly. "I'm not really sure how it came about. At the time, I had a really new dog -- a Norfolk terrier named Roscoe P. Coltrane, after The Dukes of Hazzard -- so we made a doggie feeding station together. It was one of the more random, surreal moments of my life. But there I was, using a jigsaw next to Martha Stewart."
Braff is currently working on the new season of Scrubs, but he knows it won't last forever. So what are his post-Scrubs plans?
"To do more of this," he says. "To make more movies and act in other people's movies. I don't know. Again, life is short. I want to do a lot of things. I'd love to do some theater, write a comic strip -- everything."