How Zach Braff Found 'Humor in Life' After Losing His Sister, Father and Best Friend

While mourning several loved ones, former Scrubs star Zach Braff wrote the new dramedy A Good Person, starring his ex-girlfriend Florence Pugh, Oscar winner Morgan Freeman and Molly Shannon

Zach Braff Rollout 4/10
Photo: Dominik Bindl/WireImage

Zach Braff's new dramedy A Good Person was inspired by his own personal pain. His sister Shoshana died of complications from an aneurysm in 2018 at age 46, and a few months later he lost his father, Hal, to cancer at 84. "I knew I wanted to write about grief," explains the actor, director and writer. "Then the pandemic hit."

Shortly after Braff started putting pen to page in 2020, Nick Cordero, his close friend and former costar in the Broadway show Bullets Over Broadway the Musical, caught COVID-19 and was hospitalized with severe complications.

Cordero had just moved into the guesthouse of Braff's L.A.-area home with his wife, Amanda Kloots, and their newborn son Elvis, so Braff had a horrifying front-row seat as his friend's health rapidly deteriorated because of the virus.

"I was watching his wife, with her brand-new baby, deal with this tragedy and deal with him eventually dying," Braff, 48, continues to PEOPLE. Kloots, now a cohost of The Talk, became one of his storytelling inspirations. "I was like, 'God, how does she start over?' " he says. "This is what came out of me."

The poignant movie (in theaters now), stars Braff's ex-girlfriend Florence Pugh, 27, as Allison, a New Jersey pharmaceutical rep who develops a painkiller addiction after she's the driver in a car crash that kills her fiancé's sister.

When she finally seeks treatment, she forms a tentative friendship with her would-be father-in-law Daniel (Morgan Freeman), a recovering alcoholic. Instead of adapting what his loved ones went through, Braff chose to focus on addiction, because, he says, "it's such an American story."

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And also a serious one. But comedic moments provide plenty of levity in the film. "I don't want anything to be too maudlin," explains Braff, who spent nine seasons making millions of viewers laugh as Dr. John "J.D." Dorian on the NBC/ABC 2001-10 comedy Scrubs.

Previous films he's made, including his 2004 breakout Garden State, also mixed comedy and drama. With A Good Person, he adds, "what I try to say is, 'There's still humor in everyday life. And that's what keeps a lot of us afloat.' "

Much of the humor comes courtesy of Saturday Night Live alum Molly Shannon, who plays Allison's cheerful mother, Diane. In one scene, Diane rambles on about an idea to pitch to Shark Tank while Allison, unbeknownst to her mother, is "as high as a kite," says Shannon. "Zach knows that addiction is a heavy subject, but he also knows when it's time to give the audience some relief and make them laugh. He can strike that balance."

The tone is similar to Braff's own experience. "I remember being in the ICU waiting room for my sister, and everything was touch and go, and my whole family's packed into this room with a half-full fish tank and bad art and a puzzle with 20 missing pieces," recalls Braff, who has been open about his own battles with depression and anxiety. "And someone in my family says something a little bit funny, and then we all just guffaw, because we so needed a release."

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Karwai Tang/WireImage

The movie is also personal to Braff since he wrote the role of Allison for Pugh. The two, who began dating in 2019 and broke up amicably in 2022, were together throughout the writing and filming. He was working on the script while they were at home during the pandemic, and Braff recalls consulting her often: "I would say, 'Hey, I figured this cool thing out today. It's this . . .' And she would ask questions that would make me brainstorm more. She was the ideal person you want to be bouncing stuff off of."

He also was keen to lean into Pugh's particular set of talents. A singer-songwriter who plays the piano, Pugh showcases her skills in several scenes featuring Allison performing music that Pugh composed herself. "It's her hobby and something she aims to pursue one day," says Braff. "So I wrote that for the character."

Like Garden State, the new movie was filmed in South Orange and Maplewood, N.J., where Braff's dad, a lawyer and community-theater actor, and his mom, Dr. Anne Brodzinsky, a psychologist and author, raised him and his three siblings.

"It's the ultimate 'write what you know,' " says Braff of choosing to set the movie there. "I just wanted to be as authentic as possible." They even filmed in Braff's former high school (which he attended in the 1990s with musician Lauryn Hill).

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Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman in A Good Person (2023). Jeong Park / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

During production in the fall of 2021, he and Pugh rented a house in Maplewood, where they'd host their assistants and friends for dinner after long days of filming. "Whereas I would want to collapse in the fetal position, Florence would just start whipping up a giant meal for everybody. That's what calms her down," says Braff. On the menu: butternut squash soup, roasted potatoes—"and other amazing concoctions," he adds. "She's a next-level chef."

Braff speaks about Pugh lovingly, and it's clear he's still protective of her. Asked about the hate they faced from people on social media who criticized their 20-year age difference, Braff is polite but firm. "I don't want to talk about that if that's okay," he says. "Enough's been written about it, and I don't want to participate."

Indeed, Braff is not one to dwell on negativity. "I'm really happy," he says. He'll be directing more episodes of Shrinking, the Apple TV+ series starring Harrison Ford, and he's open to more musical T-Mobile commercials after the success of his Grease-themed Super Bowl ad with his Scrubs costar and best friend, Donald Faison, and John Travolta, whom Braff calls "so cool and humble."

He and Faison tackled West Side Story in a previous T-Mobile ad, so what could be next? Evita, perhaps? "I love Patti LuPone," says Braff. "You had me at Patti LuPone."

But for the moment, he's most excited for people to see A Good Person and hopes they can identify with its themes. "I was writing it [thinking], 'This is how I feel. There's got to be some other people that feel this way,' " he says. "Seeing people's reaction to it—that's where you feel the community of 'Oh, I wasn't crazy. People can relate.' "

A Good Person is playing in theaters nationwide.

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