September 22, 2018

Braff an ‘Übermensch’ in Return to TV Comedy

Best known as the star of the medical sitcom “Scrubs” from 2001 to 2010, Zach Braff has branched out as a writer, director and producer, with films such as “Garden State,” “Wish I Was Here” and, most recently, “Going in Style.” A new ABC comedy series, “Alex, Inc.,” which debuts March 28, brings him back to television as its star, executive producer and director of four of its 10 episodes.

In the workplace and family comedy, Braff plays Alex Schuman, a Jewish character based on “StartUp” podcaster and Gimlet Media co-founder Alex Blumberg. “He’s an übermensch. He’s a very sweet guy who’s a great husband and loves his kids more than anything,” Braff said, explaining why the role and the show’s premise appealed to him.

“I didn’t think I was going to go back to broadcast TV,” he added. “I thought if I did do TV, it would be something edgy, on cable. And then this came up, and it was so entertaining to me. It’s a family show that parents and kids can enjoy together, like ‘Modern Family’ or ‘Black-ish.’ An 8-year-old can watch it, but a parent won’t cringe. I’m hoping people who grew up with ‘Scrubs,’ who are now parents themselves, will love the tone.”

Braff and executive producer Matt Tarses “both came from ‘Scrubs,’ and there were things we wanted to [replicate] that we both loved — that mix of heart and comedy — but without the fantasies and stuff that went too broad,” he said. “ ‘Scrubs’ was pretty risqué.”

Braff said he sees himself in Alex and relates to his TV alter ego’s risk-taking ambition and tenacity.

“I wear so many hats on my projects,” he said. “It reminds me of me, jumping into something I might not know how to do yet and figuring it out, come hell or high water. With ‘Garden State,’ I’d never made a movie before. But I was going to write, direct and star in this movie even though everyone in town had passed on it. When I commit to something, I go all in.”

“I’m hoping people who grew up with ‘Scrubs,’ who are now parents themselves, will love the tone.” — Zach Braff

Nevertheless, he found his latest project “harder than everything I’ve ever done,” because he was acting, directing, supervising post-production and working on story ideas in the writers’ room, he said. “It demanded more than anything I’ve ever done before. It became 100 percent of my life.”

Braff, 42, grew up “kosher and Conservative” in South Orange, N.J. His mother, a clinical psychologist, had converted to Judaism before marrying his father, a trial attorney, but they divorced and married others. His bar mitzvah had a Broadway musical theme.

Today, he describes himself as “culturally Jewish, pretty secular. I appreciate the culture and humor, and I love the traditions and the holidays. I identify as a Jew.”

“Garden State” and “Wish I Was Here” — which he wrote, directed and starred in — have Jewish protagonists and themes. “Garden State,” with co-star Natalie Portman portraying his love interest, earned Braff an Independent Spirit Award, and a Grammy Award for its soundtrack album.

Braff said he gets equal pleasure from acting and directing. “You spend a lot more time on a project if you’re directing it, maybe three years if it’s a feature. When you’re just acting, you have more time to do different things. But whenever I’m directing something I’m not in, I wish I was in it.”

“Alex, Inc.” has been his sole focus this year, but he looks forward to his next endeavor. “I’m going to wait for it to air, and then I’ll sit down and write something,” he said.

Braff’s resumé also includes theater, most recently a starring role on Broadway in “Bullets Over Broadway the Musical” in 2014. “It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done,” he said. “But it was a lot of fun.”

He’s not one to run from his fears.

“I got my pilot’s license because I was afraid of flying,” he said. “Do one thing every day that scares you — I aspire to use that as a mantra.”

“Alex, Inc.” premieres at 8:30 p.m. March 28 on ABC.