SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. – The Baird Community Center holds sentimental value for Zach Braff (search) -- it's where he saw his first play, when his father performed in Neil Simon's "The Prisoner of Second Avenue."
It's also surrounded by a park that exemplifies the leafy, idyllic beauty Braff finds so emblematic of the Garden State (search). He finds nothing ironic in the nickname of his much-maligned native soil, which also is the name of the new film that Braff stars in, wrote and directed.
Shot in and around his hometown, "Garden State" is an auspicious dramatic debut for a 29-year-old filmmaker previously known as the star of the NBC sitcom "Scrubs." (search)
"Most people who come in and out of New Jersey go through Newark International Airport," Braff said. "And they see the environment around there, and people make jokes and it (creates a perception) that it's a gross place to live. But anyone who goes south of Exit 14 (on the New Jersey Turnpike) knows that it looks like this."
It's hard to argue with Braff after spending a day in South Orange (search) and neighboring Maplewood, where he would introduce two free screenings of the movie. The communities are close-knit, friendly and dotted with well-manicured parkland.
"Garden State," however, is hardly a valentine to Braff's hometown. He stars as Andrew Largeman, a struggling actor who returns home for his mother's funeral. In the four days that "Large" spends at home, Braff explores the complicated ways in which people in their 20s relate to the places they grew up.
"I remember going to college, and a lot of my friends had left town, and my mom had moved houses, and my memory of home was completely gone," Braff says, "but I was really homesick, so that's where I first had the feeling that I was homesick for a place that didn't even exist."
The movie follows Large as he avoids his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm (search)), strikes up a friendship with a vivacious young woman (Natalie Portman (search)) who's constantly lying to him, and hangs around with his old buddies, many of whom are stuck in dead-end jobs.
There's plenty of drinking, recreational drug use and general suburban angst, including a chillingly matter-of-fact conversation about which high school friends had committed suicide.
"That was my own experience, coming home and hearing who had killed themselves and being upset by it," Braff said. "It's just horrifying in a way, and I think it really shocked me, so that's why I wrote about it."
Braff is serious and studious throughout the interview, a marked contrast from his goofy "Scrubs" persona. He rarely cracks jokes or even smiles, in part because he was weary after a month on the road promoting the movie. But it's also because he takes filmmaking very seriously.
Braff is the rare sitcom star whose first love isn't performing or making people laugh. Although he's had little trouble finding work as an actor -- his first movie was 1993's "Manhattan Murder Mystery," in which he played Woody Allen (search) and Diane Keaton's teenage son -- directing was always his goal.
After graduating from Northwestern University's film school in 1997, Braff moved to New York and got a part in a New York Public Theater production of "Macbeth." (search) But he was forced to do grunt work on music videos and commercials to support himself.
He moved to Los Angeles, living in apartments much like the one Large lives in at the beginning of the movie -- undecorated, with hardly any furniture and a pile of scripts in the corner of the bedroom. He worked in a few independent films but wasn't able to make a living until he landed "Scrubs" in 2001.
But after quitting his job waiting tables, he found out it would be four months before the "Scrubs" pilot was shot. So he spent the downtime writing the first draft of "Garden State."
Although he had just gotten his big break, the script was informed by the depression and frustration of life as a struggling actor. He sums up his feelings about the soullessness of Hollywood in a scene set at a Vietnamese restaurant, where Large waits on a snide film-industry type and four vapid beauties who order "Ketel Red Bulls" and become livid when they find out the restaurant doesn't serve bread.
Braff said the scene was taken verbatim from his own conversations with customers. "They want to know what celebrities were there and what drinks the celebrities drank. It's always specialty cocktails. And I'd pick the most expensive one and say, 'You know, Beyonce loves the Mai Tai."'
Large walks around in a haze, reacting to news of his mother's death by falling asleep. That's because his father has prescribed him lithium along with a host of antidepressants. He leaves the drugs in L.A., however, when he goes home for the first time in nearly a decade.
This is where "Garden State" strays furthest from Braff's own experience -- he's not medicated and says he has a great relationship with his parents, who have both divorced and remarried. But he thinks it speaks to his generation.
"Every other person I meet is on some sort of medication," Braff said. "Being a 20-something in 2004, it's not hard to find."