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‘Garden’ helps Braff bloom

Indie feature, 'Chicken' toon prove thesp well-seasoned to make bigscreen jump

It seems only fitting that in four seasons of “Scrubs,” Zach Braff’s character, John “J.D.” Dorian, has gone from wide-eyed intern to experienced, if not quite all-knowing, physician. At the same time, Braff went from waiting tables to becoming the writer-actor-director of 2004’s indie fave “Garden State.”

“Things have changed, and they haven’t changed at all,” says Braff, 30. “What’s changed is the opportunity to make more movies, and for me that’s the best thing in the world.”

He’s clearly taken advantage of that opportunity: voicing the lead in “Chicken Little,” recently filming two features and juggling several more projects. But all this activity hasn’t changed Braff’s love for his medical laffer, and he’s thrilled at the arrival of the show’s 100th episode, (one of three episodes he has directed).

“Doing 100 of anything is incredible,” he says. “I don’t think any of us imagined it would go this far.”

“Scrubs” creator Bill Lawrence says it was precisely because of Braff’s greenness that he cast him at the start of the series in 2001 as J.D., the naive intern just starting to work at a loopy hospital.

“I thought it would be really cool for a guy with basically no experience to be expected to carry this giant burden of being the centerpiece of a television show, when he’s basically playing a guy with no experience,” he says.

For Lawrence, this has made Braff’s success all the more exciting.

“It was fun watching Zach’s meteoric rise” and to witness the development and output of his writing and directing talent, he says, “because he has remained such a good guy and such a gentleman and certainly hasn’t let it go to his head.”

The people who know Braff through his film work are also amazed at what he’s accomplished.

“He has so much energy,” says Mark Dindal, director of “Chicken Little,” adding he knew the second Braff began reading for the animated role that they’d “found our voice.” Braff’s ability to complete “Garden State” between just a few recording sessions for “Little,” impressed him, as did the fact that in the wake of the Fox Searchlight film’s success, Braff “got very busy, and he was all over the place, but we were still always able to get him when we needed him.”

Gary Gilbert, who, as a producer of “Garden State,” witnessed Braff’s multitasking firsthand, says working with him on the film — which was also Gilbert’s first — greatly exceeded his expectations. From the start, Braff “was so crystal clear with his vision, and it was coming from such a deep place, the passion really got to me,” he says. “I was sold before the first meeting was over.”

Braff spent his last hiatus making the most of his new opportunities. This summer he wrapped both “The Last Kiss,” written by Paul Haggis (“one of the best experiences I’ve had making a movie,” Braff says), and “Fast Track,” a workplace comedy co-starring, among others, Jason Bateman and Mia Farrow.

One of the things he’s most excited about is “Andrew Henry’s Meadow,” a screenplay adapted from a children’s book and recently sold to Fox that he wrote with his brother Adam Braff, whose imagination “is unlike any person I’ve ever worked with.” He’d also like to tackle more directing work, and says if had to choose one thing to do, that would be it.

“I feel like directing asks everything of you,” he says. “It challenges your mind so much.”

At the moment, though, he’s concentrating on his favorite sitcom.

“We’re finally doing what we always wanted to do, and that is having the freedom to really write the show for our core audience and just make it really silly and fun.”

With NBC’s haphazard scheduling of the show, Braff very much wants to get the word out that the sitcom is still vibrant.

“I think people should enjoy it now, because this might be it,” he says. “I hope people give it a shot, because it would be sad to see it go away, this show that’s so much fun to watch and to do.”

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