Inside the actors' studio, with Zach Braff

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Zach Braff

Northwestern alum, actor and director Zach Braff leads an acting class in a workshop at the Mussetter-Struble Theater on NU's Evanston campus; walking by is Mary Poole of NU's theatre dept. (Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune / May 9, 2013)

Braff is less enthusiastic. He climbs slowly out of his chair:

“Really good guys, but if we can go back and take some notes, you can try again. … We learn later that (Charlie) is totally infatuated with (Emma) and in love with her, so there is a total chess match between Charlie and Myron! (To the student playing Myron:) I thought you were a little too comfortable too quickly, and he's more of a cocky bastard and sort of sizing this Charlie guy up. … Also, you guys are doing the same thing, you're not waiting for laughs, you're going on to your next line. Then again, if you let it get too light. … Who likes ‘30 Rock'? ‘30 Rock' was hilarious. I think it's hilarious. What ‘30 Rock' chose to do was stay way up on the farce, so they didn't have the choice to be dramatic. As much as I love the show, I think one of the reasons it never had the audience was because it never made the audience feel (the characters) were real. They were these amazing characters, but they were these farcical characters, so — yes, Mary …”

Poole lowered her hand: “Can I say that I think that ‘Scrubs' actually did both?”

Light applause.

“Thank you, Mary,” Braff said, head lowered. “I can take that compliment because I didn't write that show. One thing Bill Lawrence, who created the show, was a genius at doing was that: You could be as crazy as you wanted, but it was grounded in reality. The American Medical Association said it was the most accurate medical show! So when it dropped into reality, it was 100 percent straight. Which meant you earned your crazier moments. Which is some of what I was trying to do in this play: You can have a fireman drug dealer if you don't lose the grounded nature of ‘Holy (expletive), there's a suicidal, homicidal murderer in the room!'”

The students returned to their marks and began again. The student playing Charlie said to Myron: “Are you a firefighter?” And the student playing Myron replied, brusquely: “I'm a gay stripper. What's with the noose?”

Braff jumped off his seat: “OK, the laugh there should have come on ‘gay stripper'! Which I think is funny …”

The student shrugged.

“Well,” Braff said, “I promise you, big laugh there.” Throughout the class, he spoke this way, quickly, earnestly, with self-deprecation; he received C's at Northwestern in screenwriting and acting, he said, apologizing that “All New People” — sitcom-y, unfocused, with nuggets of fun — was “all over the place.”

New students stepped in.

There's another doorbell ring. This time, it's a beautiful blonde. We learn she is a prostitute with a heart of gold and that Charlie's stockbroker friend sent her to Charlie, to cheer him up. Myron asks how much she costs. She costs $15,000 a night, which sends Myron into an extended speech about Wall Street fat cats.

And end scene …

Braff's expression went from a cringe to a quick smile. He walked onto the stage

“Great, great job. Couple of notes: You guys are moving on punch lines. Which is something I learned (not to do) from David. You will instantly dissipate a punch line if you are walking while saying it. I don't knowwhy it is so but it is so. (Turning to the new Myron:) I hate to say, but you're playing the jokes a little too much. The lines are there. You're a funny actor but you're winking at the audience. … I can be as hammy as anybody, but when the line is there you have to trust it. And that monologue about stockbrokers, that's real! The real Myron drops in! He's a blue-collar guy, it's something that infuriates him — his taxes bailed out Wall Street! Mary, how much time?”

“Fifteen minutes.”

“For the whole thing? (Expletive)! I want to end on words of wisdom!”

And so he did.

He walked to the side of the stage and located an image of his iTunes artist page that the school had enlarged for him. He held the cardboard in front of him and he read the reviews: The first review was a one-star review (“garbage”), the second review was a five (“wonderful”), the third was a one (“I wanted to jump off a cliff”), the fourth was a five (“classic”). Braff waited for the laugher to die down, then he said, more coherently than anything in his play: “I am a little used to this by now. I read a comments section and it says I should be deported. Then someone writes that they proposed to their girlfriend after seeing ‘Garden State.' That's fine. There are people who will hate what you do and people who will love what you do. You're going to be in plays and you're going to be in movies, you're going to have reviewers say you're a genius and you're going to have reviewers say you should quit. But now more than ever, you have to be yourself and be fearless and not be stopped from being your true selves by the ones and threes of the world. Thank you.”

And end scene.

A e-book collection of selected Christopher Borrelli articles, “Artists, Obsessives and Chicago Originals,” is on | Twitter @borrelli
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