Zach Braff has done a lot in his career, from starring on the comedy TV series Scrubs to acting in films and writing and directing a hit movie, 2004’s Garden State.
But being in Oz the Great and Powerful was a very new experience for him -- because he had to play a magical monkey.
PHOTOS: Oz the Great and Powerful': How Sam Raimi Brought the Legend Back to Life
Braff, 37, who had done voice work before with Chicken Little, did much more than just lend his voice to Finley, a flying servant monkey who helps Oscar Diggs (James Franco).
“Sam really wanted me there. He didn’t just want to capture the voice,” Braff, 37, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “He wanted me to fully act this 36-inch tall monkey out.”
Not only did Braff act out his character on set, but he also plays a live-action character in the black-and-white opening of the film, which follows Diggs as he’s whisked away from Kansas to the magical land of Oz and tasked with saving the kingdom from an internal dispute involving three witch sisters (Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz).
THR spoke to Braff about becoming a tiny flying monkey, what’s so magical about Raimi and when he plans to make another film of his own.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did you become a part of this project?
Zach Braff: When someone says, 'Sam Raimi wants to meet you in his office,' it’s a pretty good phone call to get. We had a great meeting, and he showed me a really early animatic of the movie. I just started making up jokes and what I thought the voice of Finley would be and he started laughing. I looked over and he was cracking up and I thought that was a good sign.
THR: So you’d never met Raimi before? What made you want to work with him?
Braff: I just heard he that he was infamously so nice, and that he wore a suit no matter what time of day it was, like old school directors. And obviously that he knew how to make these epic movies but still give them heart. Some giant effects movies, they don’t feel grounded with emotion and heart, and Sam was known—especially with the Spidey movies—for grounding them in a way that was unique.
THR: So tell me about the work as Finley. Since you were on set rather than in a studio recording his voice, how did the process work?
Braff: There’s lots of different ways we did it. In its most basic form, we figured out that if I was on my butt, hunched over, I was 36 inches tall. And I’d be wearing a blue screen onesie. And then other times there was an actual life-size puppet of him that I would operate around and act out. And then the third way was a thing called "puppet cam." When he’d fly and do stuff I couldn’t possibly do, they would put this monitor on the end of a stick, and I’d be in the video booth and James had a tiny earpiece in his ear and we could kind of do it via the monitor.
THR: I heard that while a lot of CG and green screen was used, some of the bigger set pieces were actually built. What was it like working on this set?
Braff: It was really cool, very real. Basically, the big set pieces, there’d be about a football field sized set and then where the set ended, the green screen would take over. So for example, the circus was huge. It was the whole stage. And that first shot of the movie, that was all real. I mean hundreds of extras and choreography. It was awesome because I’ve never been involved in anything that big.
THR: As a director yourself, what did you think of Sam Raimi’s process on set?
Braff: I think of the SAT word aplomb. He’s just so calm. There’s so much on his shoulders, and 100 people an hour asking him a question, and he’s just sweet and kind. I just did a press conference with him and someone asked him, ‘There’s no magic in the world, so what’s it like creating a magical world?’ And Sam was aghast, he said, ‘There’s no magic in the world?! I was in my backyard and the apricots were blooming!’ He really is that guy. He’s the sweetest person you’ll ever meet.
THR: Have you figured out what you’ll be doing next as a director?
Braff: There’s something in the works. I’m finally ready to get in the director’s chair, but it’s a little too early to tell The Hollywood Reporter. But soon enough.
Email: Rebecca.Ford@thr.com; Twitter: @Beccamford