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Zach Braff on fatherhood and spirituality in his new movie 'Wish I Was Here'

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TORONTO - Zach Braff says he's fascinated by life's "chapter changes."

While 2004's "Garden State" was a coming-of-age tale for adrift 20-somethings, his new drama "Wish I Was Here" tells the story of a 35-year-old struggling actor who must face his responsibilities as a parent when his father is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

"'Garden State' was about one's first romantic love. It's kind of about a guy, who, in feeling this true love for the first time, kind of comes into his own and realizes this exists on Earth: 'Oh wow, I didn't know that was possible, feeling this way for another human being,'" Braff said in a recent interview.

"This is about familial love… We can all go on our individual quests for all our dreams to come true, but ultimately the most fulfilling thing this man finds is the love of his family."

Braff, 39, stars as Aidan, a pot-smoking slacker whose wife (Kate Hudson) supports their two children with a humiliating office job. Aidan's father Saul (Mandy Patinkin) pays the tuition at the kids' Orthodox Jewish school, until he reveals he is suffering from terminal cancer and can no longer foot the bill.

Aidan begins home-schooling his kids as he faces Saul's impending death. The journey leads him to confront his own beliefs and decisions as a father — he has long been pursuing his dream of becoming an actor, but his last major role was the "before" guy in a dandruff shampoo commercial.

"The idea of a dad who wasn't really showing up for his kids being called upon to first try and home-school them, unsuccessfully, and then try and figure out a way that he could teach them something — I just thought that was really interesting," said Braff. "I thought... a father trying to figure out how to be a good dad was a movie I wanted to see."

Braff was just shy of 30 when he wrote and directed 2004's "Garden State," which drew praise for its quirky visual style and strong performances from Braff, Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard. Made for just $2.5 million, the film earned $26 million in North America alone.

The actor was still starring in hospital comedy "Scrubs" at the time and struggled to find film projects that would work with his rigorous TV schedule. When the series wrapped after nine years in 2010, Braff said he needed to "exhale" before embarking on new projects.

But inspiration struck for "Wish I Was Here," which he wrote with his brother Adam J. Braff, when both began to confront their spirituality. They were raised in a religious home but didn't feel a strong connection to Judaism as adults, said Braff.

"In both of our friend groups, we had a lot of people who realized the organized religion of their parents didn't really work for them. And so all of a sudden, (Adam) has two young kids, and he's like, 'I have to teach my kids something and I don't really know what I believe,'" he said.

Braff also admitted he's a "sucker for father-son stories," with both "Garden State" and "Wish I Was Here" exploring troubled paternal relationships.

"I love my dad a lot. My dad's the reason I became an actor. He's 79 and the idea of him not being around is just unfathomable to me, so I think that's a good place to write from," said Braff.

"Write from what you're scared of. Write from what causes your heart to hurt. I think interesting stories come out of the extremes: what makes you laugh hardest and what makes you cry."

Braff said he cast Hudson as his wife Sarah because he's admired her dramatic chops and beauty since 2000's "Almost Famous." Sarah is a strong, practical woman growing into her role as the family matriarch — in many ways a counterpoint to her aimless husband.

"I think I have this fantasy of the strong woman coming to rescue me," said Braff. "'Garden State' is sort of a fantasy about a really funny girl who is smart and silly and saves this troubled guy. In this more mature story, (there is) this idea of a very strong woman who is holding the whole family together."

Hudson's performance is already attracting critical attention, especially for a stirring scene with Patinkin.

"She's sort of fighting the old guard of the old weathered patriarch who's still clutching to his ways. She's the new guard. She's the new person in charge of this family," said Braff. "I think that's very relevant today. A lot of gender roles are flipped. The women are in charge, the women are the breadwinners and the women are running the show."

Braff famously raised $3 million on Kickstarter to help fund "Wish I Was Here." The campaign sparked controversy, with critics charging that a successful actor with access to Hollywood resources shouldn't be turning to crowdfunding.

But Braff said had he relied only on traditional financing, he would have had to make too many sacrifices and compromises.

"It (would have meant) casting actors who have large, international box office, who may be good actors but weren't right for my film, or cutting elements of the script that might seem bizarre on the page but I think are integral and crucial to the movie I wanted to tell," he said.

"Most importantly, (it meant) trying to tell a pretty personal story whilst handing over final editing of the film and approval of that to someone who is essentially a banker. So I would have just not made the film."

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