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Zach Braff scuffs up his nice-guy image

In ‘The Last Kiss,’ the ‘Scrubs’ star tries playing a cad for a change.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Zach Braff is the adorable puppy dog on "Scrubs," the NBC sitcom in which he plays a goofy, ever-lovesick young doctor just about anyone might want to hug.

Now Braff's happy to play a young architect so in lust that even his own mother might want to punch him out.

In "The Last Kiss," Braff stars as a man whose unease over settling down with his beautiful, pregnant girlfriend leads him into a fling with an enticing college babe.

"I have reporters all the time saying to me, `I really love the movie. I wanted to slap ... you,'" Braff told The Associated Press at the Toronto International Film Festival, where "The Last Kiss" premiered in advance of its theatrical debut Friday. "I say, `That's great, that's awesome. You had a reaction to it.'"

Adapted from an Italian film, "The Last Kiss" makes a few concessions to American audiences. The lead player in the Italian version is a bit more of a cad, Braff said, but the remake generally retains the character's ambiguous nature as someone to love and hate at the same time.

"I think it's sort of refreshing to have a protagonist that isn't always doing all the right things, and the only bad things that happen to him are a result of negative outside forces as opposed to something internal," Braff said.

"It just felt very human, and I couldn't believe the studio was going to make the movie. I got them to promise me they weren't going to change it when I signed on. You can see all the opportunities where they could have wimped out and softened it and made it more mainstream. There'll be people who'll have a hard time with this movie."

After writing, directing and starring in the hit "Garden State" and scoring with the lead voice in the animated comedy "Chicken Little," Braff is looking to maintain a career as one of those rare stars able to jump from the small screen to the big one.

Braff, 31, co-stars with Jason Bateman and Amanda Peet in next year's workplace comedy "Fast Track," and "Scrubs" creator Bill Lawrence is working on a movie adaptation of author Gregory McDonald's crime romp "Fletch Won" in which Braff may star. The actor also plans to return to directing with a remake of the sober Danish drama "Open Hearts," a story of tragic twists that follow a traffic accident.

Back to ‘Scrubs’?Meantime, Braff remains busy on "Scrubs," the show that broke open his career, which had a promising start with the 1993 Woody Allen comedy "Manhattan Murder Mystery" but had languished with little-seen indie films through the rest of the 1990s.

Braff has not decided whether to return to "Scrubs," saying he will put the decision off until March when production wraps on the sixth season.

Another decision he faces is whether to appear in his version of "Open Hearts" or stick solely to writing and directing the film, which is based on Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier's tale.

Foreign-language flicks are a handy source of material for filmmakers too busy to develop a story from scratch, Braff said.

"I don't really believe in remaking American movies. I think that's sort of silly. There's something about an American audience, the masses don't tend to watch subtitled foreign films in this country, so I think they are a great source for adaptations," Braff said.

"It's nice for me when I can't write an original screenplay, because they're a hard thing to do and you don't always have the time to dedicate to it. So where can you go? You can go to a book, obviously, or you can find a great foreign film nobody in this country saw. With `Open Hearts," I was so taken by it, this story really resonated with me. I bet it would resonate with a lot of people."

A graduate of Northwestern University's film program, Braff began writing and making short films while growing up in New Jersey. His father was a film buff, running 16-millimeter prints of movies projected on the family's living room wall, so Braff developed an early love for cinema.

"Garden State" drew on elements of his Jersey upbringing, though the subdued, depressed lead character and his torn-asunder family was not based on Braff's own experiences.

After Braff was cast in "Scrubs," he quit the job he'd had waiting tables, then learned there would be a five-month lull before the show began shooting. Braff said he had been through a rough patch in his life and felt a bit depressed, so he used the time off to examine where he was at.

"When I got `Scrubs,' which was like my dream come true, and that depression didn't really subside, I thought, OK, there's something going on here if my dream just came true and I'm still bummed out," Braff said. "Let me sit down and write about it. Really, what came out of that five months was the first draft of `Garden State.'"

The film showed a darker, dramatic side that fans had not seen in the lovable character Braff plays on "Scrubs." Braff is counting on "The Last Kiss" to further stretch audience expectations.

"I hope so," said Jacinda Barrett, who co-stars as Braff's pregnant girlfriend in "The Last Kiss." "He's incredibly witty and intelligent in it and still likable considering the despicable acts he commits in this movie. I hope people see what he's capable of."

Other TV actors often find their movie careers fall flat. But Braff has chosen wisely so far, saying he deliberately avoided the easy path of romantic comedies that came his way after the success of "Scrubs."

"I think I had enough knowledge of the business to know the importance of what that first movie is," Braff said. "I want to have a long career, and I don't want to always be doing broad comedy, physical comedy, slapstick.

"I think it's also wise that it be a very small movie and not something that can get written about as a box-office disaster. `Garden State' cost two-and-a-half million dollars. It would have been pretty damn hard for it to be a box-office disaster. I didn't think of it as the ultimate strategy. I think I was just aware the dumb thing to do would be to take a big romantic comedy payday."