From writer/executive producer Matt Tarses and director/executive producer Zach Braff, the ABC comedy series Alex, Inc., based on the podcast StartUp, follows Alex Schuman (Braff), a radio journalist, husband and father of two, who decides to quit his job and start his own company. He quickly discovers that success is going to be a lot harder than he thought, and that he needs the help of his overenthusiastic producer, Deirdre (Hillary Anne Matthews), and his second cousin, Eddie (Michael Imperioli), if he’s going to keep his marriage and family (Tiya Sircar, Audyssie James and Elisha Henig) a priority while he’s figuring it all out.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Zach Braff talked about why Alex, Inc. got him to return to network TV, his decision to be heavily involved with the series, how the approach to comedy for Alex, Inc. is different from what it was for Scrubs, what he finds most challenging about directing while he’s acting, who cracks him up on set most often, why following your dream is always inspirational, bloopers, and why he has to put feature film directing on hold for now.
Collider: I’ve seen the first few episodes of Alex, Inc. and I thought it was a lot of fun.
ZACH BRAFF: Oh, thank you so much! That makes me happy.
I especially loved the family dynamic. It seems like it must be a lot of fun to get to do this, with this cast.
BRAFF: It is because you’re laughing all day, and the kids are so cute and so good. With a show like this, you really are going to be at a dead end if the kids aren’t good, and these two kids are so special. We searched everywhere in the world for these two kids, and we found them.
When you do a TV series that’s as long-running as Scrubs was, does it excite you about jumping into another one or does it make you more nervous about being as creatively fulfilled?
BRAFF: That’s a good question. When Scrubs ended, I was so exhausted. It was just the point where I felt like, “I’m gonna start phoning this in,” and you just take a break from it because it’s very demanding and the schedule is such that you just get burned out. And so, I went off and did a whole bunch of things and wasn’t even planning on coming back to TV, especially network TV, but I just heard this podcast and I got lit up by it. I loved Alex Blumberg and I thought it was so interesting. I thought it was a unique take on a family story. It was about going after the American dream, and they were a mixed race couple. They just felt so 2018. And so, once I was back in the space that is working with comedy writers and directing and being back in the environment where you’re basically laughing, all day long, with your friends, I felt so happy to be back because the environment is just so challenging. It’s hard, but fun, and I realized how much I had missed it.
Did you immediately know that you wanted to be an actor, producer and director on this, or did those things fall into place, as it went along?
BRAFF: I think because I have 10,000 hours in network comedy, I felt like I had a vision of how to make it mine and how to direct from my voice. And also, it’s more toned to Scrubs. Obviously, we’re not doing broad, surreal fantasy. There’s some physical comedy, but mostly, it’s that mix of comedy and heart, which is the style of comedy that I like. Also, I click with our showrunner, Matt Tarses, who was one of the main writers on Scrubs. The Venn diagram of what we find to be funny and heartbreaking totally overlaps, perfectly. So, we really wanted to find a way to do a similar thing we did on Scrubs, in terms of tone, but have it be more of a family. We hope that there’s plenty of people that are our age, that grew up with Scrubs and now have kids. Scrubs was a pretty risque show. You can’t really watch it with a 9-year-old, whereas with this, you can. It was, what can we do at 8:30 on ABC, that was in the spirit of our sense of humor?
Scrubs was on awhile ago and it was a bit ahead of its curve, in what you could get away with on a comedy series. Does it feel like things are more open, in that sense, now and that you can get away with things that people don’t necessarily expect from a comedy series on a network?
BRAFF: Yes and no. Scrubs had a lot of sex in it, and we pushed the envelope for what you could do, but we were on at 9:30, which makes a difference, believe it or not. At 8:30, kids are still awake and you’re looking for programming that the family can watch together. That’s what we aspire to do with this. A 9:30 comedy can be more sexy and more provocative. In some ways, like with race, I think we were more provocative than maybe you could be today. I don’t know. Because Donald Faison and I are best friends, in real life, and Bill [Lawrence] really wanted to mine what it’s like for a white guy and a black guy to be best friends, and what stuff comes up with that, in the pilot, there was a conversation about, if I’m listening to a rap song and they say the N word, am I allowed to sing along? Donald was like, “No.” That’s how the series launched. In a lot of ways, I’m not even sure some of the stuff we did, you could do today.
What have been the most surprising aspects of taking on all of these things at once, at this point? Does it feel any different now, for you to be actor, producer and director?
BRAFF: On Scrubs, I was just the actor, and I would occasionally direct. From making student films, all the way up to making my first Warner Bros. studio film, two years ago, I’ve never worked on anything harder. One thing that’s never been in my life is that, while we’re shooting and I’m directing, we’re also working on next week’s script, and also editing the previous episodes because they have to be turned into the network to get notes and the scripts have to be shot the next week. Whereas when you’re starring in a show and occasionally directing, there is downtime, where you can lie down for a second and watch TV. There is zero downtime in this ‘cause your day is literally scheduled to the minute. During lunch, I’ll have a costume fitting and then I have to go to editing. And then, I have to go to the writer’ room and back to editing. It’s a high class problem, but I love it. It’s definitely, without a doubt, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Matt and I both turned to each other after 10 [episodes] and said, “If they ask us to do 11, I would collapse on the floor.”
What do you find most challenging about directing your own acting, and keeping the director hat on while you’re acting in scenes with your co-stars?
BRAFF: The big important thing with being an actor is being present. What we all aspire to do is to trick ourselves to forget the camera crew, forget the boom mic and forget the light in your face, and genuinely look at the other person and be listening. That’s what we all aspire to do, as actors. When I’m directing the scene, I have to be present, but I also have to be going, in my periphery, “Oh, man, the camera did not make it to the right place on the dolly track,” and, “Why did that gel just fall?,” and, “Oh, my god, that boom is definitely in the shot.” With all of that stuff, my brain is split. I will say that, as a director, the hardest thing in the world is when you’re not on the same page with your actor, particularly, your lead actor. If you don’t find the same thing funny and you’re not on the same page with the tone for whatever it is, whether it’s drama, comedy or action, it’s not gonna work. It sounds like a joke, but I really get to take that out of the equation because the director and the actor, in this situation, really get along and really find each other hilarious.
Do you find that when you’re directing your co-stars that you ever have to do anything to keep them in line? Do they give you a hard time, or do they take you seriously, as a director?
BRAFF: No, they’re amazing. Actors don’t like to get line readings because a line reading is saying, “Just say it like this.” Oftentimes with kids, you have to do that, and kids welcome it. But when you’re working with Michael Imperioli, you’re not saying, “Just say it like this.” With each actor and every single person that you work with, you have a different way of communicating. I might have inside jokes and experience and references with my cinematographer that I have with no other crew member. I’m going to direct the amazing Michael Imperioli in one way, and I’m going to direct a really precocious 13-year-old boy in a different way. So, it’s about remembering all those different skills to try to get the performance you want whilst being in the scene with them. It’s a lot.
You’ve talked about the level of exhaustion doing something like this brings. Because of that, do you have to put feature film directing on hold for a bit while you’re doing this show?
BRAFF: Yeah. I can’t fit it in. It’s funny, I once had an executive say to me, “I really like messing up people’s five-year plans,” and I will say that John Davis, the producer, definitely messed up my five-year plan. After Going in Style, I thought I would focus more on studio directing because I had a really good experience with it and I liked it. I had a great experience with (executive producer) Toby Emmerich and I thought, “I like this. I’m going to make more bigger budget studio fare. And then, of course, hopefully I’ll also make my own stuff that I’ve written.” But then, this came up. If the stars align and we get a second season, I wouldn’t have time to make a movie, in between, but I’m fine with it. Career wise, I never really follow any plan, I just go where the wind takes me.