NEW YORK – Zach Braff had to leave New Jersey to become a TV star – but he had to come back to become a filmmaker.

Braff, 29, of NBC’s hit hospital comedy "Scrubs," wrote, directed and stars in Garden State. It’s an eccentric but affectionate look at a familiar suburban landscape.

"I wanted to make a movie about going home, and I wanted to make a movie about New Jersey," says Braff. "I wrote about what was personal and real to me, and what’s real for a lot of my generation.

"I made something about what I’ve experienced. I guess I’m lucky there are no explosions in my life, so it could be cheap to make," he adds with a laugh.

"But there are scenes in the film that are verbatim conversations I’ve had with friends. It’s all largely true."

Braff’s character in Garden State – struggling, depressed actor Andrew (Large) Largeman – returns from Los Angeles for his mother’s funeral. Staying for a while to rouse himself, he connects with old pals and meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a beautiful, free-spirited girl.

Braff was born in South Orange, N.J., and attended Columbia High School in Maplewood (where he was a classmate of singer Lauryn Hill). As a teen, Braff took a train into Manhattan for auditions, eventually playing Woody Allen and Diane Keaton’s son in 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery. He attended film school at Northwestern University, did Shakespeare in the Park after graduation, and moved West three years ago when he won the role of Dr. John (J.D.) Dorian on "Scrubs."

"I actually set out to be a director," Braff says. "Lots of actors say they want to direct – but I studied to be a director and then said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to act again?’ When I got ‘Scrubs,’ I felt like I won the lottery."

One element in Garden State that came from Braff’s life was trying to explain to family and friends the bit roles he played while trying to hit it big.

"Everyone in my hometown has this warped idea of what Hollywood is like," he says. "I did a movie called Broken Hearts Club, in which I played a bleached-blond, gay drug addict, and I went home and no one knew what to make of it. They had heard I was in a movie, but no one had seen it and they didn’t get what it was about.

"But I did an ‘ABC Afterschool Special’ called My Summer as a Girl, which was like Tootsie set in high school. It was me in drag. I was just a struggling actor, and it was a good paycheck. But everyone I knew saw that.

"Then when I would see everyone in Jersey, there was this idea that I was a star – like I was in Hollywood and living the life, smoking stogies next to a pool with Jack Nicholson!"

© 2004, New York Daily News.

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