February 27, 2020

‘Wish I Was Here’: Zach Braff on love, his new movie and being a Jew

Actor Zach Braff was ensconced on a terrace at the Four Seasons Hotel, decked out in striped pants, red shoes and a brown shirt adorned with a button inscribed with one word: “Love.”

“A friend gave it to me when I was going through a tough time,” said Braff, who is best-known for his Emmy-nominated turn as the quirky Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian on NBC’s offbeat comedy “Scrubs” (2001-2010).  “I wear it every now and then when I’ve got a lot on my plate — to remind me, ‘Don’t get stressed; just be loving to everyone you come across. Amen!’ ” he declared, as if intoning a prayer.

With the debut of his new film, “Wish I Was Here” — the story of a 35-year-old man struggling with his identities as a father, a son and a Jew — Braff was in the mood to dish on his own relationship to the divine. While he was raised in an observant, kosher home in South Orange, N.J., he said the religion didn’t stick, leaving him with an existential malaise that he has only begun to come to terms with in recent years. “I have to pretend that all is normal as I walk around on this spinning rock in the middle of infinity,” he said. “That’s why religion has soothed a lot of people, but I didn’t have that soother. I didn’t believe there was an almighty bearded man in the sky who was going to make sure everything worked out for the best.”

Ten years after “Garden State,” his 2004 hit directorial debut, Braff has poured some of that angst into his new comedic drama, “Wish I Was Here,” in which he plays Aidan, a struggling actor with two children, whose wife (Kate Hudson) supports the family by working at a job she loathes.  

Because the couple can’t afford to send their children to private school, Aidan’s father, Saul (Mandy Patinkin), an observant Jew whose dog is named Kugel, has stepped in to pay the tuition at the school of his choice: an Orthodox yeshiva.  But initially, Aidan remains secular and sarcastic about Judaism, referring to his kids as “indoctrinated matzah balls.” He even scoffs at his daughter’s love for the religion, and her dream one day to wear a sheitel (wig) as a married woman.

The change comes when Saul reveals that he has terminal cancer and can no longer afford to pay his grandchildren’s yeshiva fees. Aidan, previously an indifferent parent, then takes on home-schooling his kids as he copes with his father’s impending death. Along the way, he embarks upon his own spiritual journey as he turns to rabbis for advice and ultimately learns to nurture his children.

Braff, 39, who wrote the film with his brother, Adam, 49, said they were raised by a father who was often strict about the family’s Judaism; Shabbat dinners were mandatory and “a very serious affair,” he said.

In a telephone interview, Adam Braff recalled attending a yeshiva where rabbis yelled at the students and conducted mandatory tzitzit inspections.

Young Zach escaped the yeshiva but was forced to attend a Conservative religious school that he found “ludicrous,” said the director, who at 18 played Woody Allen’s son in Allen’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery.”

“One thing I try to touch upon in the movie is that I didn’t feel I was successfully indoctrinated into my religion. [Eventually] I wanted to find my own connection based on what makes sense to me, not believing literal interpretations of the Old Testament or that anyone in the sky cares if I eat bacon.”

Those arguments are hashed out in the film in scenes in which Aidan visits two contrasting rabbis: One, the elderly head of the yeshiva, “is condescending to Aidan and has no idea about how to talk to a secular person,” Braff said.  Meanwhile, a younger rabbi represents “the sort of fantasy rabbi I’ve never met.  He’s someone who says, ‘Forget studying Torah and keeping kosher; let’s talk about the spirituality you do have and build off of that.’ For my character, it’s the concept of the infinite sky, the idea that we don’t know if our universe ever stops, and that’s something I myself can tap into. And the rabbi says to him, ‘If you want to call that God, then let that be God.’ ”  

Braff said he was an anxious child — he was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder at age 10 — but he found acting provided him with a place that felt safe and where he belonged.  

In “Wish I Was Here,” the fictional Aidan learns to find spiritual solace by recognizing the awe-inspiring beauty that abounds in life, which reflects Braff’s own struggle “to be in the now, to appreciate the present moment,” he said.  “It’s the struggle to be here, sitting with you, enjoying this balcony.” 

To make the film, Braff raised funds, in part, with a controversial campaign on Kickstarter that left some critics wondering why a rich TV star needed to raise money from fans. In response, the filmmaker said that he wasn’t able to gather the required budget based solely on his reputation and that he wanted ultimate creative control of the project. “I was allowed to make a Jewish movie because of my fans,” he said.

“Wish I Was Here” opens on July 18.