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My Mentor: Zach Braff

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The actor, writer and director nominates a lecturer who made sense of the Bard

I’d always liked poetry as a kid, and that was rare in my circles.

When, at the age of 19, I got into Northwestern University School Of Communication [in Illinois], I found this great professor who really tapped into my passion for poetry, and who also introduced me to Shakespeare. Up until I met him, that kind of poetry and drama might as well have been gibberish, really. He was the only person who managed to combine my love of acting with my love of poetry, as well as being able to break down what was so wonderful about Shakespeare’s work.

The professor’s name was David Downs and he worked in the Department of Theatre.

He’s semi-retired now, but I would say he was in his early sixties when I met him in my first year of college. He was definitely one of the most popular acting teachers at Northwestern – and, as it’s a big department, there are a lot to choose from.

I remember one assignment in particular...

He made us translate Shakespeare soliloquies into modern-day English, and then we had to deliver our own version of that monologue to the class. Then we had to go back and read out that same monologue as Shakespeare had originally written it. The exercise was just so illuminating. It meant that you really got behind the words to see exactly what was being said at the time. I just found it all so fascinating. You got to do your own version, which was sort of your interpretation of the situation being described, and then go straight back to Shakespeare’s genius poetry. I’d never thought about breaking down the language and the action like that before.

He’s definitely had a huge effect on my career.

I still invite him to everything I do – films, theatre or TV – and he still comes to see it all [Braff even cast Downs as ‘Mr Bolger’, the father of a dying patient, in a 2006 episode of Scrubs]. He continues to give me his thoughts and he shares notes and suggestions about my work.

Wish I Was Here is at cinemas from 19 September

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(Image: Rex Features)

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