You probably recognize boyish leading man Zach Braff as Dr. “J.D.” Dorian, the rubber-faced leading man in the TV medical comedy Scrubs, which recently ended its run after nine seasons. Or maybe you know him as Andrew, the overmedicated shoe-gazer of cult flick Garden State, which Braff also wrote and directed. You may even recognize him from the tabloids, during stints in which he dated pop star Mandy Moore and actress Shiri Appleby. What you probably don’t associate him with is theater—which is a shame, since the Golden Globe nominee and Grammy Award winner (his soundtrack for Garden State took the trophy in 2004) has shown off his stage smarts in the Public Theater productions of Macbeth and Twelfth Night. After an eight-year break, Braff is back, starring opposite Tony winner Sutton Foster as unsatisfied rich man Harry in Paul Weitz's dark new comedy Trust at Second Stage. We checked in with the actor to get the details on his New York return, the trials of personal success and where he finds those Grammy-winning tunes.
You've been away from the stage for eight years. What attracted you to Trust?
I really wanted to come back to New York theater with something I liked. It didn’t matter if it was in a 99-seat theater or a Broadway house, I just wanted to find something I related to. I read a bunch of stuff and felt there was a lot out there that was entertaining, but not much that related to me as a 35-year-old guy going through what 35-year-old people think about. When I read Trust, it finally felt like a perfect match. Not only was it funny and dark—which clearly I like—but it was young, sexy and smart. Most of all, funny. If you’re going to do something for months, it’s good to pick something you personally respond to.
There’s some kinky content in the show. Did anything make you uncomfortable?
None of it made me uncomfortable at all. If you think about movies, dark, twisted things happen all the time. The things in Trust are risque for theater, but it’s not like I was intimidated by it all. And it’s all handled by [playwright] Paul Weitz so carefully—the [kink] is more of a metaphor. People will understand when they see the show that there’s a motif of S&M, and not much else.
What’s the most uncomfortable thing you’ve ever had to do onstage or in front of the camera?
Oh my God—I did nine seasons of embarrassing things on [Scrubs]. There’s no one thing that sticks out.
Has anything about your return to the stage terrified you?
Of course. It’s scary—I haven’t memorized a whole play in a long time, so that was daunting. Luckily I’ve got it now. You never know how an audience is going to respond, which can cause anxiety. Fortunately Trust is a comedy, so you can tell pretty quickly how they’re responding—so far, our responses are amazing. You know, you do nine seasons of a comedy, but you never hear the laughter because it wasn’t shot for a live audience. You know people like it because it runs a long time, but you rarely hear laughter. To have the instant feedback of laughter or silence in theater is so gratifying.
Besides the obvious, what’s changed for you personally since you left New York for TV?
I finally have more confidence. When you first start out you have no idea who you are or what you’re doing. After you work successfully for a certain amount of years, you can’t help but go, “Oh…maybe I am doing the right thing." Or, "I do deserve to be here.” My first play [Macbeth at the Public in 1998, as Fleance and Young Siward] was with Alec Baldwin, Angela Bassett, Liev Schreiber, Michael C. Hall—it was directed by George Wolfe. There were all these amazing talents. I was so intimidated. But now I feel maybe a smidgen more confident.
Any intimidation in working with the cast of Trust?
Oh no. This is a lovefest. We really clicked. You’re always nervous going into something like this, wondering if there’ll be someone you don’t click with. That wasn’t the case at all. We hang out after the show. We go on field trips. [Co-star] Sutton Foster has a country house, and we all hang out there together. We're cast bonding all the time.
You and Sutton Foster have some pretty intense scenes together. What’s it like going head to head with her?
Anyone who loves acting and actors should always be challenging themselves—that’s the fun of it. The second you get pigeonholed as something all the fun goes out of it, and you have to challenge yourself. Sutton is known as a Broadway darling of tame musicals. Now here she is doing the polar opposite. We were talking about her for the role back before the play was cast. I had seen her a couple times and thought she was just extraordinary, I mentioned her to our director and now we’ve got her. I have to say she’s a perfect fit. It takes a lot of courage to do those scenes, and she’s going for it. She pushed herself. There are people who’ve seen the show and said later they can’t believe it’s her. I think she’s a chameleon.
You talk about taking on challenges—what would challenge you now?
This play is a big challenge. It’s drama, but it’s comedy. There’s a few moments of broad comedy, which I’m comfortable with, but only a few. And it’s live. When you’re doing TV or film you can try something 10 times until you get it right. With live theater it’s just you up there. That’s very challenging. But I’m loving the adrenaline rush I get from it.
Do you feel you get pigeon-holed as a specific type?
I’m sure sometimes. Most people only know me as J.D. from that show Scrubs, and think I’m that guy. Fortunately I did some films during the run of the show that were a bit darker, The Last Kiss in particular. I’ve done Shakespeare in the Park, which I hope helps. But ultimately the onus is on me to show that I can do more than just broad comedy.
Did you make films like Garden State and The Last Kiss for that reason specifically?
Look, I love broad comedy. I’d love to do it again. But as a performer you want to do lots of different things. So, yes, the appeal to me was that they stretched me. I did a small indie film called The High Cost of Living that just got into the Toronto Film Festival, and it is by far the darkest thing I’ve ever done. I loved that. The blessing of Scrubs was that it’s allowed me to take breaks to do indie movies or try off-Broadway theater.
You character in Trust is ultimately uncomfortable with his own massive, overnight success. Do you relate to that?
Pretty much. I’ve been working at this since I was 14 years old, so my success didn’t happen overnight like his did. But I can relate to a character that has a lot of success and then is looking for whatever meaning there is in life after that. This character has $300 million but still feels numb and lost. A lot of the richest people I know are the ones searching the hardest for meaning. Our society is built on getting rich. So it’s interesting when someone does make a ridiculous sum of money and then goes, “Well. I have this. But I still don’t have what I want.” What do you do then?
Have you come into what you consider to be a "ridiculous sum of money"?
I mean, I was on a hit TV show for nine years. So yes.
You’ve done a great deal of work as a music consultant and go-to guy for soundtrack compilations [like the award-winning Garden State]. Where do you find your tunes?
It goes in waves with me. I have a lot of musician friends. My girlfriend [British model Taylor Bagley] is so knowledgeable of music. I have a group of friends that regularly turn me on to new groups. I search iTunes constantly for new stuff. There’s a lot of stuff out there that's popular that I’m not into—I tend to like things that are cinematic and set a scene. I know a lot less about music then people think! It’s just a combination of listening to a lot and the success of previous works bringing the music to me. It feeds itself.
So if your character Harry were to make a mix tape for Prudence in Trust, what’s one song that would have to go on it?
That’s so hard! The first one that comes to mind is “Sweet Jane” [by the Velvet Underground]. It’s sexy and naughty on the surface but full of other stuff underneath—very Prudence-esque.
See Zach Braff in Trust at Second Stage Theatre.