If you want to find Zach Braff's dressing room in the defunct Hollywood medical facility that houses the set of Scrubs, just look for the pint-size scooters parked on the third floor. ''You can really tear through the hallways on these things,'' raves the actor, looking collegiately grungy in cargo shorts and a black T-shirt. Braff opens the door to his hospital room–turned–holding suite and a tiny tan terrier, Rosco, scampers out and yips at the strange man with the tape recorder. ''My mascot,'' says Braff. ''Very protective.'' The college-dorm-cozy digs reflect a high/low eclecticism: An Italian movie poster for The Graduate hangs near the door, a blown-up cel from the animated film Chicken Little is framed above his desk (he voiced the chicken). Braff's MySpace page is up on his computer screen; he's been blogging about his new film The Last Kiss, opening Sept. 15. ''I'm full-on addicted to 'approving' friends,'' says Braff. He gives Rosco a good scratch and kicks his feet up. ''Welcome to the place where I live.''
Not for much longer. Hoping to transition into films full-time, Braff says the sixth year of Scrubs (debuting midseason) will be his last. Probably. ''It's not 100 percent, but I'm really feeling like it is,'' says Braff, 31, who's entering the final year of his contract. ''I'm ready for the next chapter of my life to start.'' TV Star Becomes Movie Star isn't a new story, but Braff's bid is especially charged. Thanks to 2004's Garden State, the cult-spawning, emo-shaded movie he wrote, directed, and starred in, the self-professed ''wacky guy from Scrubs'' developed a following of twentysomethings who see him as one of those deep-thinking, deep-feeling voice- of-a-generation types. Alternately self-serious and self-deprecating, Braff feels ''a real sense of responsibility to my audience'' but is keenly aware of the delicate position he's in. ''I have to be honest with my fans: Not everything I do is going to be some 'seminal discussion of life,''' he says with a wry chuckle. ''I thought my first movie was going to be a practice piece. Now I don't know if I'll ever live up to it.''
He'll give it a try with Kiss, in which Braff plays a guy with a great job, great friends, and a great girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett), who is nagged by a profound sense of ennui that expresses itself rather calamitously when he meets another woman (The O.C.'s Rachel Bilson). Braff, who added bits to the script (including the poignant last scene) and compiled the soundtrack (as he did for Garden State, which won him a Grammy), was drawn to Kiss because ''it was raw, honest, and genuine.'' Nope, he has no problem playing a cad, and he hopes the audience won't either. ''Haven't we all had days where we're an a--hole? This guy's an idiot, but he's real. I was really drawn to him because of that.''
The roots of Braff's angsty artistry reach back to his Jersey youth, one of four kids to parents who divorced when he was 8, then remarried and gave him three stepsisters. He was a class clown who wrote stories and made films that made the kids laugh. He liked that. Acting intrigued him too. When he was 18, he scored a role in Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery and went to film school at Northwestern University, where he credits a severe case of freshman-year homesickness for inspiring Garden State. After a promising postcollege gig a role in a Public Theater production of Macbeth Braff went to Hollywood in 2000. But a year later, the esteem-shaking grind of the fame-game rat race had him beat: ''I was working as a waiter, not doing well at auditions, and wanted go home. My agent talked me into one more pilot season. I went into that first audition with this 'I've hit rock bottom, f--- this' attitude. And that's how I got Scrubs.'' Bill Lawrence, the show's creator, recalls a ''naive, flustered'' young man who ''could bridge the gap between slapstick and emotional depth. Zach could do that in a heartbeat.''
The sitcom has given Braff fame, and with it, some challenges. Such as: How to answer questions about dating, then reportedly splitting with, Mandy Moore? Answer: With a gracious no comment. ''Living in the public eye has taken a smidge getting used to,'' he says. ''Part of the growing pains. Not the Kirk Cameron TV show.''
Next year he plans to shoot his directorial follow-up to Garden State, a remake of a dark Danish drama called Open Hearts, and he's interested in starring in Lawrence's planned reboot of the Fletch franchise. While he sorts out his future, Braff is learning to fly. Literally. Getting his pilot's license has always been a dream. ''It's like Garden State stop waiting for your real life to begin,'' says Braff. ''It may take a while. It doesn't look like I have much in the way of free time.''
Zach Braff's Must List
The Daily Show ''I watch every night before I go to sleep. It's my source for news. I think Jon Stewart should be president.''
Lost ''I met Evengeline Lilly and [I told] her my Lost theory: purgatory. She shook her head: 'That is the most common theory. You don't think everybody has thought of that?''
Regina Spektor ''She's kinda Fiona Apple-esque. I appreciate people who play their own instruments and have voices that are real.''
Borat ''I must watch that trailer [for the upcoming film] once a day. It puts me in a good mood. Sacha Baron Cohen is a genius.''
The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green (2004) ''I'd pimp that book even if my brother [Joshua Braff] didn't write it. It's my sense of humor.''