By Caroline Howard
Updated July 28, 2004 06:00 AM

Scrubs star Zach Braff is no longer just the goofy character J.D. from NBC’s medical sitcom. He’s also a rising star behind the camera, thanks to his directorial debut Garden State, costarring Natalie Portman, about a man who returns home after his mother’s death. The film, which he also wrote, scored serious attention at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The 29-year-old actor-writer-director recently talked about giving props to his home state of New Jersey and his abundance of twentysomething angst.

How did you convince Natalie Portman to come aboard?
I kept saying when we were in meetings: Let’s find a Natalie Portman kind of girl. When we’d make a list of people who we thought were like Natalie Portman. Then we’d debate who could be a good Natalie Portman. Then I wrote her a letter. She read it and we met and had lunch. On her way home from lunch she called her agent and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ I was in shock.

Why her?
There a lot of actresses in Hollywood that are beautiful. There’s a handful that are good actresses. There’s a smaller group that are both. And of that group, there’s a couple that have that X factor where you can’t take your eyes off them. What is it about her? There’s this charisma, this energy, this special thing that’s very rare and she has it.

So, how much of Garden State is true to your life?
As far as what’s real and what’s not, about 75 percent is stuff that definitely happened, although not necessarily to me. I drew from a collection of stories, things that I read about or someone would tell me a story late night and I would write it down on a matchbook. I come from a family of storytellers. We’d sit around the table and try to crack each other up with funny stories.

Give us one of your tales that made it in the film.
The guy shooting the arrow in the air: I had a friend who thought that was the funniest thing in the world. He would shoot arrows in the air and make us all run around, terrified.

What about the medication?
A lot of the stuff the characters were going through is stuff I was going through in my 20s, and I’m still going through – I’m 29 now. I’d describe it as a lost malaise, a time post-college when people are getting married later and there’s this period of self-exploration. And for me, a lost loneliness.

What about the drugs?

I’m never in a room where if a joint were to go by, I’d be surprised. Even with adults. One of the things in the movie is that drugs are a part of our life. Not just illegal drugs, but pharmaceuticals. When I’d go home, I can remember thinking, Wow. This is like Brave New World. Everyone has their drug that makes them right. Whether it’s an illegal drug or a mental health pharmaceutical or large doses of Advil.

And you? What makes you right?
Heroin. (Laughs) No, I don’t really have anything. Writing is something that’s really cathartic for me. I try to stay away from anything that’s addictive.

Why’d you change the name of the movie?
The film was originally called Large’s Ark. Problem is … I’d have to explain: It’s kind of like Noah’s Ark, but the main character’s nickname is Large. I wanted to find something that was more memorable. Every time someone would come over they’d say, “Hey, what’s the movie called?” I’d say Large’s Ark. “What?” So finally I said Garden State. “I like that. Garden State. Like Jersey, right?” So that’s how we chose it.

What do you want people to take away from the film?
Love, for lack of a better term. And it’s a movie about awakening. It’s a movie about taking action. It’s a movie about how life is short, go for it now. My character says, “I’m 26 years old and I’ve spent my whole life waiting for something else to start.” Now I realize that this is all there is and I’m going to try to live my life like that.