Zach Braff: “James Franco and I really click”
It’s 10am on a Monday morning, and while the rest of the working world is slowly climbing out of e-mail hell, Zac Braff is already onto his eleventh interview of the day. Who has done eleven anythings – aside deliver complaints – by that audacious hour?!
Clad in a modest navy three-quarter shirt and non-branded jeans, the lauded – though ever modest – Scrubs lead come Garden State originator was in good spirits by the time our interview rolled around – despite the barrage of press experienced before us plebeians had even downed our morning coffees.
For the famed slashie (Braff has impressive theatre, writing, music production, movie and television credentials to his name) it was all work and no play (well, besides a Sunday crash-course of Sydney’s premier sites) on his most recent trip down under. Breaking into the dazzling world of Hollywood blockbusters, the once-indie darling was here to promote his latest project, Sam Raimi’s $35 million Wizard of Oz prequel, Oz the Great and Powerful.
Starring James Franco as the film’s title character, the imminent blockbuster sheds light on how L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz came to be. The film, which is set to hit theatres on March 7, features Braff as Franco’s sidekick (a man named Frank, and his Oz incarnation as a monkey called Finley). On the surface, Frank/ Finley appear disparate to characters Braff has previously invigorated, but a second glance at the film shows Braff injecting that famous self-deprecating (though ever-relatable) sensibility into Disney’s latest juggernaut.
Great and powerful projects aside, Braff was (unsurprisingly) a pleasure. Just as affable and engaging as you’d expect J.D. to be, minus those Dr Cox-induced babbles and that ill at ease accidentally-pregnant awkwardness. As I put a two spare recorders down to ensure our chat would forever remain on the record, Braff committed my name to memory and recounted an anecdote of how a journalist he knew had forgotten to press record at the start of a three-hour Barbra Streisand interview. I did not intend to make the same mistake.
Hey Zach, I believe I’m you’re eleventh interview for the day, so I’ll try keep things fresh!
So were you a big fan of the Wizard of Oz growing up?
Yeah! It’s the most watched film of all time, they say, so you can’t escape it, and I think it’s amazing that it stands the test of time. Obviously when preparing for [Oz the Great and Powerful] I watched it again and it’s so special.
This prequel was a really fun way to be able to say, look, its 2013, look at this amazing technology that we have, let’s revisit that wonderful world.
So do you think Oz complements the original Wizard of Oz story or can it stand on its own?
I think it’s a great companion piece but it’s [also] the story of how Oz became Oz – you know, at the end of the Wizard of Oz we find out he’s just a regular guy behind this curtain – well, that’s pretty interesting! How was this guy in charge of this whole bizarre world?
There’s a series of books by L. Frank Baum and [the producers] went back to those and put together this story, which is sort of the origin story. You see the witches and how they ended up who they are.
Robert Stromberg has two back-to-back Oscars for production design, for Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, [and he] was hired to create this world, so it’s really special, it’s just mind-blowing how pretty it is.
What attracted you to doing the Oz the Great and Powerful movie?
Sometimes when you get an offer you weigh the pros and cons, and there were no cons [with this]! It was just this dream team, these amazing actors, you know – James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weiss; Sam Raimi, who is just an amazing filmmaker, Robert Stromberg who I mentioned; and of course Disney. I mean, [I did] Chicken Little with Disney, and I loved being a part of that world, so it was a no-brainer.
The cherry on top was that Sam Raimi wanted me to do a lot of improvising and make jokes up with James [Franco] and just sort of riff, so that’s not something you normally hear on a movie of this scale, like, “Come onto our giant movie and improvise”, so there was no question in my mind.
The film has already generated a lot of hype. Is that something that makes you nervous, given that some of your most famous work – like Scrubs and Graden State – started as kind of ‘underground’ projects and then later gain cult status?
No, I think that’s over thinking it. I’ve never done a huge movie, I’ve never been a part of anything this massive, so I do try and – because I have this amazing fan base, a really wonderful, loyal Scrubs and Garden State fan base here in Australia – I do try and pick things that I believe in and I hope that they’ll like. So there are giant movies that I haven’t done because I didn’t really like them, but this was so cool and something that I’d die to be a part of, so I don’t over think it like that.
What was it like working with James Franco?
He was so dreamy! (laughs) He’s fun, you know, James and I really clicked, which is important, because most of my stuff [scenes] is with him – we go on this quest, this journey together. And he was really fun to kind of riff with and make up jokes, and sometimes we’d go off on long, non-sequitur tangents and it was great. He’s a wonderful actor and he did a fantastic job.
You play two characters in this film - how would you compare the two? Is Finley the monkey sort of an incarnate of Frank in some way, or –
Yeah. Just like in the spirit of the Wizard of Oz, how people in Kansas manifested as different creatures, Oz does that too. So I’m as myself as a human being in Kansas, [James’] much put-upon assistant, he’s sort of a selfish guy, he doesn’t want friends, he’s sort of grumpy, and when we get transplanted to this world, he doesn’t necessarily recognise but the audience will, at least adults will, realise that it’s his assistant, manifesting as this flying monkey bell-hop, and I become his valet along this journey. And he can’t help but by the end, we’ve struck up this friendship, a friendship that they both really wanted but didn’t know how to form in the land of Kansas.
How do you feel about playing these sorts of sidekick characters who spend a lot of their time being made fun of or pushed around?
I love being funny. The fun sidekick is a lot of fun for me, because I love to just be silly and wacky, and if a filmmaker like Sam lets me come in and do whatever comes to my mind – sometimes it works and sometimes there are just non-sequiturs – it’s a great assignment, and I love doing stuff like that. And you can tell, when you look around and the crew’s laughing, or the director’s covering his laugh, you know you’re doing a good job.
Do you think one day you’ll make a big blockbuster like this?
I’d love to. I didn’t know anything about making a movie on this scale, but as a filmmaker I totally geeked out and sat next to Sam Raimi even on the scenes I wasn’t working on, just because he and I became friends, and [I] learned from the greatest. So it was fun to watch how a movie of this scale is put together and it was like grad school for me, as a filmmaker I learned a lot.
Awesome. On a slightly different note, which movie do you think should win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars?
I liked so many movies! This was a great year for movies. But I have to say, I think Argo was my favourite.
And what are your favourite TV shows at the moment?
Homeland, Breaking Bad, Mad Men…that’s what I’m watching. I’m here working my way through Season 5 of Mad Men.
So is that what you do on tour?
That’s what I do when I have down time, yeah. I love getting addicted to a good show and I’m a little behind on Mad Men, so I’m catching up.
Oz the Great and Powerful will be showing in cinemas nationally from March 7.