Breaking into song for an episode of “Scrubs” was easy for Zach Braff. Learning to smoke for his latest movie, “The High Cost of Living”? Not so much.
“I never smoked cigarettes before and my character chain smokes,” Braff, 35, reveals. “And I hate it in movies when people clearly look like they have never smoked before.
“I didn’t want to become addicted, so I got these herbal cigarettes on line that have no tobacco in them. And for like a month before, I was walking around New York pretending to smoke. I have seen smokers my whole life, but I never really watched them and their gestures. So you can watch the film and see if I look like a believable smoker.”
In the dark drama – which premieres before its release in theaters as one of the six movies from the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival starting April 20 on XFINITY On Demand – Braff stars as a drug dealer who causes a pregnant woman to lose her baby in a hit and run accident, then later falls in love with her. We sat down in Los Angeles recently to talk about “The High Cost of Living,” his old TV series “Scrubs”, and his possible return to the New York stage.
Q: How did you find this movie – or did it find you?
My manager found the script. I was looking to do something dramatic after finishing my run on “Scrubs” for eight and a half years. So I wanted take on something completely different — as a lot of actors do when you finish a long run doing one type of thing. And I was blown away by the script. And it was dark and challenging and moving. It was everything I was looking for in a project.
Q: The story deals with an accidental collision that sets off a series of subsequent events. Have you had anything like this – hopefully not as dark – happen in your life?
No. Thank God. I think the movie is about how much your life can change in a split second. And I think most people can relate to things in their life that have happened, that had they been one minute later – had they not gone back to get their keys, had they stayed a little longer at the office — something major in their life would have or would not have occurred. So I think I can relate to that, how life can change so drastically in a split second in one decision.
Q: Can you give an example?
I was up for a small play in New York and I wanted it so badly and I didn’t get it. And I was really disappointed I didn’t get it. But had I gotten it, I wouldn’t have been in L.A. at the time to audition for “Scrubs”. So the thing that changed my career and my life so much – had I gotten this play that I was so passionate about getting – my life wouldn’t have taken this crazy journey.
Q: Where do you think your life would be without “Scrubs”?
I would like to think I would be still successful. I have been working at filmmaking and acting for a long time. But “Scrubs” was such a blessing. It was the most fun job ever and it also provided me with avenues to getting my own films made.
Q: And it afforded you the luxury to do these smaller films without having to worry about the cash…
Well said. It gave me the opportunity to go do little tiny movies that mean a lot to you as an artist. They certainly don’t pay you any money. The budget for this movie was like the snack budget for “Scrubs”
Q: This film is very dark. Where you in a dark place personally while making it?
I think the whole time we were making this movie, I was in a kind of a dark place. I was alone in Montreal in the winter, living in a rented apartment. So it wasn’t like there were lots of distractions. I didn’t have my friends and family with me. Montreal in the winter is a cold, dark place. So I think that helped. If we were shooting the movie in Bora Bora I think it would have been harder. Like anything, the environment informs how you are feeling. And that really helped me.
Q: How is your French?
Not good. At the time I had six expressions really down. The crew was all French. So I was able to communicate. But I am not a language guy.
Q: Favorite scene?
There is a scene that takes place on the rooftop of my apartment. It was very cold and it is sory of silly because we are barbecuing. And it just started to snow. The movie was not the kind of movie that could afford fake snow. It really started snowing and it was quite beautiful. But everybody thought the continuity it would be hard to edit this together if it stops and starts snowing. But wonderfully, it snowed evenly and perfectly the whole night. It was hard for the crew and hard for us, but when I saw the scene, it was so beautiful and a really special thing because that element of the really light snow is not something we could have afforded or planned and it made the scene really special.
Q: Could you give us a few things to look out for in the film? Things we might miss…
Well one thing I will tell you is I never smoked cigarettes before and my character chain smokes. And I hate it in movies when people clearly look like they have never smoked before. I didn’t want to become addicted, so I got these herbal cigarettes on line that have no tobacco in them. And for like a month before, I was walking around New York pretending to smoke. I am 35 years-old. I have seen smokers my whole life, but I never really watched them and their gestures. So you can watch the film and see if I look like a believable smoker.
Q: How hard is it to fake smoking?
It is not hard if you think about it and focus on it. . I have seen smokers my whole life, but I never really watched them and their gestures. People who smoke all day long or smoke a lot have little gestures that they do subconsciously. So it was about trying to do that without looking like I was trying too hard.
Q: Was it hard to fake quit?
No. It was easy to quit because I chose to not have real tobacco.
Q: Who will really enjoy this film?
I think the audience is people like me. I am one of the types of people who watches these movies both on DVD and VOD. They are movies that won’t make it to the multiplex. “Art movies” sounds pretentious. But that is kind of how they are classified. Small films that are really about character and dialogue and are not about big action. It is really about people. That is what interests me. If you are the kind of people who like independent movies. It was made on the super cheap and has a moving story.
Q: You are also a play write?
I wrote a play called “The All New People.” It is the first play I have written. And to my shock and amazement, The Second Stage Theatre, which is an amazing theatre company in New York City, read the play and decided to produce it this summer. I think I am going to be in it — if the schedule works out, I am going to play the lead in it. It is a big thing for me. I am very excited. I think people who liked “Garden State” and “Last Kiss” and me as a performer will really like it.