Interview: Zach Braff

Zack Braff Zack Braff - © Rob Greig
Posted: Tue Feb 21 2012

The 'Scrubs' star talks about his love of London and bringing over his off-Broadway hit 'All New People'.

You've got to admit that Zach Braff has done all right - massively popular star of America's coolest medical comedy, director of 2004's beloved indie romance 'Garden State' and now, at 37, acclaimed creator of New York stage hit 'All New People'. An impressive strike rate by any standards, but it seems that success doesn't really count for this New Jersey boy unless it happens here in the old country. Swapping rehearsal space for pub, Braff applies his ebullient humour to our warm beer and crisps and gets passionately enthusiastic about his London stage debut.

How would you sell us your play?
'This play is in real time… a rollercoaster that takes off and never stops. That's my pitch for people to see it: it's 90 minutes, have a laugh and you'll be in the pub before you know it! And it's a great date, too. Come, make your girlfriend laugh, it's a little bit sexy, you'll get laid that night… or your money back!'

You've brought your play here after its success in New York, but its inspiration actually came from London…
'I saw the original cast and production of “Jerusalem” when I was here for my thirty-fifth birthday, and I was so taken with it. It moves me so much and it's not even anything to do with my story, or what I can relate to. It's so different from who I am and the friends I have and what I know, but I found it so powerful and I thought: God, I would love to do something like that. Obviously in a very different style and a very different tone. My play's a comedy, although it has plenty of drama in it, but that was sort of the seed of the idea. I had been stewing on it.'

You had your birthday in London?
'I was about to have a big party, and I said to my girlfriend: “You know, I have a girlfriend. Why do I need to throw a big party and spend all my money to entertain everybody else?” It would be one thing if I was single and looking to, you know, charm the ladies, but I'd much rather do something else. She said, “Well, what do you want to do?” My best friend is Joshua Radin, the musician, and I'd just heard he'd sold out Shepherd's Bush Empire. So that's what we did for my thirty-fifth birthday.'

You had other musical connections to the UK…
'Yes, Chris Martin and the guys in Coldplay put their song [“Don't Panic”] on my soundtrack. “Garden State” was, you know, this little movie, and they just said yes because they liked the movie and not for, at the time, for any dough, because we couldn't offer them any. I first met Chris right when they [Coldplay] were on the cusp of breaking, in LA. I don't think that he had seen many celebrities before. We had a friend in common and were in a bar with a group of people. Chris turned to me and said, “Is that the bad guy from 'Karate Kid'?” And I looked over and I was like, “Fuck yeah, that is the bad guy from 'Karate Kid'.” And Chris said, “Do you think I could meet him?” And he wasn't taking the piss, he wanted to meet the guy and shake his hand, and it was such a cool experience. Now he's become this mega huge stadium rock star, and I remember hanging out with Chris Martin when he was excited about meeting the bad guy from “Karate Kid”.'

You've made a key change in the cast for the London production of the play - you're playing the main character yourself.
'The play is still a work-in-progress but the theatre in New York liked the script so much that they wanted to put it on really quickly, which bizarrely meant workshopping while we were on Broadway. It was a crazy adrenaline ride. And as this was my first play, I felt it best [in New York] to sit it out and just be the writer, because that was enough to take on. When I've directed film and TV in the past, I have always been able to stop and watch playback, but there is no such thing as playback in theatre. You need to sit at the back of the house and experience it to realise what is and isn't working. I'm still tweaking it now and trying not to be precious; it's not Shakespeare.'

Have cultural differences between the US and UK had an effect on the play's transfer?
'Not at all. The female lead, played by Eve Myles, is a British woman and, in a lot of ways, the play is the intermingling of a British woman's sense of humour with an American man's, so I think a lot of it worked out well. Carey Mulligan was generous enough to do the first reading of “All New People” in New York. I was floored by her performance in “An Education” and I reached out to her and said, “I'm your new biggest fan.” She read the play and loved it. She was so cool - not only did she come in but she had made notes in the margin next to American expressions I had naturally written. So I should say my first dramaturge was Carey, who told me what a British woman would say. After talking to her, I added a whole load of “bollocks”.'

What about your personal reaction to the differences between us?
'In New York we don't use the word “quite” nearly as much as Brits do. Everything is “quite”. “Oh, you look like you're quite knackered,” or, “Oh, are you having quite a good time?”. And “whilst”. I love that “whilst” is used here. “Whilst” is gone in America. And we don't call humps “humps” - we call them speed bumps. Humping is just pretty much, you know, sex, so I took a picture of a sign that said “Humps 500 yards”. Fortunately, I love humping. And there's a lot of “mind the gap”, “mind your head”. You've got to mind yourself around this town. It's very polite. In New York, someone would sue because of the fact that you even have the gap.'

Now you're living here, what is the most obvious readjustment you have had to make?
'In New York, we tip everyone. We tip doormen, we tip cab drivers, and we tip bartenders at the bar. You'll get quite an evil eye if you don't leave a tip at the bar. I know you tip waitresses here too, but we tip 15 per cent. That's normal, and 20 per cent is like, “You did great,” and 30 is like, “You're awesome, and I'm drunk.” '

You're not a strong supporter of the London system of a 12.5 per cent discretionary charge?
'Well, a waiter would consider it an insult. What you have to understand is that they're only making the tip money. I was a waiter - in the year 2000, that was the last time. Hopefully it's the last ever. They pay you even below the minimum wage salary, because there's an understanding that all your money is tips. But I would wait in a restaurant with a lot of foreigners who didn't read the tip guide, or the tour book, or the Time Out tip guide, and they would leave you nothing. I remember once it was a $500 or $600 tab, and I was like, “Was there something wrong with the service?” and he says, “Oh, I'm so sorry,” in some nondescript accent, and gave me two bucks, and I was like, “You don't understand. I waited on you the whole night.” It's a totally inconsistent system. I always encourage overtipping if you can afford it because… share the wealth. The service industry is an underappreciated art form, and I think actually Britons do it amazingly well. The best service you can find is in London.'

Unless you want to get somewhere…
'But I like the whole idea that your taxi drivers go to school for like three, four years. I think if you have a pulse you can get a taxi driver's licence in New York City, and it's a harrowing ride. There's absolutely no concern for safety. The cabs notoriously smell horrible. I talk to the taxi drivers here: relative to New York, you don't feel like your life's in danger. And they're licensed.'

It seems to be very important to you to have a play on in the West End.
'Ever since I was little it was programmed into me that London is where great theatre occurs and all the big shows you love start there. My father did what you would call “am-dram” and was a big theatre fan. As a kid who wasn't into sports, at school I felt almost alienated at times, whereas in the theatre community there was this amazing sense of camaraderie. Early on, we would go to rehearsals with my dad and I was like the mascot for the backstage crew. That was a big part of my childhood, so I dreamed of one day doing a play in London. There's such a tremendous amount of respect for London theatre from American actors and I feel very lucky and honoured.'

'Garden State' travelled well - is that because you write situations that ring true anywhere?
'My favourite tone is one that can shift back and forth. In “Garden State”, you're talking about tragic events of this man's past, but you've hopefully got a smile on your face because it's a romance. Humour can be a good way to engage people in serious subjects. It's just writing what you know; when we face really dramatic things in my family, we often find a way to laugh about it and I guess that's what I put into my writing. We all have drama in our past and I think this play is about people who are trying to use humour as a way of sorting their pain. I think that is my specialty - Michael Jackson had the moonwalk, mine is sad Jews in New Jersey.'

So would you say the play comes from a similar place to the movie?
'What they both have in common is this idea of being rescued by love. In the case of “Garden State” it was romantic love, the idea of the right person coming along and rescuing you from yourself, whereas the play is about being
rescued by love and friendship. If there's any theme to some of my work, it's that we're all individuals that have to figure out life on our own. As I said that, I just realised it's part of the theme song for “Scrubs” - “I can't do this
all on my own.” '

People here and in the US mainly know you for 'Scrubs'. Is that a disadvantage?
'There was a DJ on BBC radio the other day who told me that he used to store porn on his parents' computer in a file labelled “Scrubs” because it was his favourite show so he knew his parents wouldn't go in there and look! But I think people here are very kind and polite. People will come up to me and say, “I'm so sorry to bother you - I know you must be annoyed - I never normally do this.” It's different from New York, where people are like: “Hey, guy from 'Scrubs'! Sign this for my daughter!” '

Will you be taking in the London sights?
'There's like a waterway, right? Within Regent's Park, or something? You can get canal boats? That looks cool. Can you drink on those boats?'

Yes, you can.
'I definitely want to do that.'