Zach Braff reveals how he pushed 'A Good Person' star Morgan Freeman to deliver his best performance in years: 'He's not doing this part for money'

The director says that he coaxed the Oscar-winning actor to go deeper throughout the 26-day shoot.

Zach Braff on the set of A Good Person. (Photo: Jeong Park/MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Zach Braff on the set of his latest film as a director, A Good Person. (Photo: Jeong Park/MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection)

After decades of delivering acclaimed and award-winning screen performances, no one would blame Morgan Freeman for resting on his laurels. But the now 85-year-old Oscar-winning actor can still bring the heat when the right role comes along. That's what Zach Braff discovered on the set of his new drama, A Good Person, which stars Freeman and Florence Pugh as recovering addicts who share a tragic backstory and a similar desire to heal.

"I'm his number one fan, and I think this is one of the best performances he's given in years," the director tells Yahoo Entertainment. "He knew he's not doing this part for money — he's only doing this part because he wanted to be there."

Written by Braff at the height of the COVID pandemic, A Good Person stars Pugh — who he was living with at the time he penned the script — as Allison, a Jersey girl whose comfortable life is upended after a car crash where she was behind the wheel. That accident claims the life of her soon-to-be sister-in-law, Molly (Nichelle Hines), devastating her fiancée, Nathan (Chinaza Uche), as well as their father, Daniel (Freeman).

One year after the crash, Allison is hooked on painkillers and plagued by intense depression. When she walks into a recovery meeting, she comes face-to-face with Daniel, a former alcoholic who still blames Allison for the death of his daughter, but also recognizes a lost soul desperately in need of help.

Braff previously directed Freeman in the 2017 heist comedy, Going in Style, which was made on a major studio budget with all the perks — and the paycheck — that entails. But the director and his producing team made A Good Person independently, which meant a shorter, more demanding production schedule. "It's not an environment that [Morgan] is used to working in, moving this fast," Braff admits, adding that the movie had a tight 26-day shoot.

Freeman's own health issues added to the pressure. The actor has spoken about his ongoing battle with fibromyalgia, which he developed following injuries sustained in a 2008 car accident. To this day, his left arm remains immobile and he wears a compression glove to combat what he's described as "excruciating" pain. He had that glove on during a rare public appearance at the 95th Academy Awards earlier this month where he and Margot Robbie presented a tribute reel celebrating the 100th anniversary of Warner Bros. Studios.

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 12: (L-R) Morgan Freeman and Margot Robbie walk onstage during the 95th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on March 12, 2023 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Freeman and Margot Robbie present a tribute to Warner Bros. at the 95th Annual Academy Awards. The actor wore a black compression glove on his hand to relieve symptoms of nerve damage. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Braff says that his previous collaboration with Freeman was positive enough that the actor took the leap with him on A Good Person despite the challenges the production presented. And, in turn, he felt confident in their working relationship to "push" the actor outside of his comfort zone.

"He's Morgan Freeman, you're always going to be intimidated," Braff says. "I would have to give myself pep talks in the mirror every morning! But it gave me the courage and it gave him the trust to let me push him. And whereas he might have wanted to move on after a certain take, I would say: 'No, let's go again — let's go deeper.' And he would do it."

Braff points to one scene in particular as an example of the dramatic riches that were yielded when he pushed Freeman to go deeper. As their friendship evolves, Allison comes to learn that Daniel is a model train enthusiast who has constructed an entire replica of their New Jersey hometown in his basement — a replica that contains mementoes of an alternate, and happier, version of his life. "That scene was very hard," Braff remembers. "In a normal-budgeted film, you'd want to build that set because it's so tiny ... but that was an actual New Jersey basement!"

But the size of the room didn't diminish Freeman's commitment to the scene as written. "That's one of [Morgan's] finest scenes in the whole film," Braff raves. "And I love it because it starts off jovial — he's sharing something that's very personal to him, but he's so proud of it, and you get the sense that he doesn't show it to many people, but he's sharing it with his new 'friend.'"

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

"[Allison] is very smart and inquisitive, and she starts to ask questions ... she's dipping her toe into the personal," Braff continues. "No one's probably ever asked him to share very openly, and [the conversation] becomes very raw. Then he tries to turn it back on her, and she's like 'Nope,' and shuts it off. It's a bit like a chess match in that scene and it happens as they circle around this table. I think they're both wonderful in that scene."

The process of writing A Good Person became Braff's own outlet for dealing with grief and loss. Prior to the pandemic, he lost both his sister and his father within the span of several months. One of his best friends, Nick Cordero, was an early casualty of COVID, succumbing to the disease in July 2020. And in February 2022, another close friend, manager Chris Huvane, took his own life after long a struggle with depression. A Good Person is dedicated to his memory.

"We made the film with Chris's help," says Braff, who paid tribute to his friend in an emotional Instagram post last year. "[Chris] really battled depression and struggled and held on as long as he could ... In the spirit of what the film was about, which is struggling to stand back up after very painful times, I wanted to dedicate the film to Chris because I loved him very much."

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

A Good Person is playing in theaters now.