Zach Braff And Gabrielle Union On Making A Modern Cheaper By The Dozen [Interview]

Families are like branches on a tree. They grow in different directions, yet their trunk and roots keep them together as one. But for Paul and Zoey Baker in Gail Lerner's new remake of "Cheaper By The Dozen," their family tree might as well be a small forest. Under one roof, this family has two parents, nine kids, one cousin, and two adorable dogs. On top of that, there's an ex-wife and an ex-husband who do their best to stay as involved as possible as well. With all that going on, Zach Braff and Gabrielle Union's characters certainly have their hands full in the latest Disney+ film.

Before the movie premieres on the House of Mouse's streamer tomorrow, we had the chance to talk to Braff and Union about this project. In this conversation, the stars touch on comparisons to the previous two versions of the movie from 1950 and 2003, the challenges of having such a large ensemble cast, how divorce is portrayed onscreen, and much more. We even get into the difference between dealing with Karens (or in this movie, Annes) in real life vs. in movies.

Family matters

Family dynamics have changed a bunch since the first "Cheaper By The Dozen" came out in 1950. What were some modern family problems or issues that you were excited to tackle with this film?

Braff: The genius Kenya Barris wrote the script and I think he did a great job. It's amazing that he wove so much into it. Every single one of these children has their own storyline, their own arc. The blended family. There's a child with a disability, there's a child a questioning her sexuality, there's an ex-wife with depression. I mean all of these very modern issues, but woven into a family Disney comedy. I mean, that takes a lot of skill as a writer. And I really was honored that he and Gabby Union asked me to do it because I just thought it was so smart, and, frankly, hilarious.

Union: Well, I don't know if family dynamics have changed so much. The families that we choose to allow on television and in films and who gets to be celebrated and represented has changed. So I wanted to make sure that we brought the most blended family that you could imagine, blended in every way, shape and form. Blended racially, culturally, different levels of ability, four sets of four parents, that co-parenting vibe. I want to talk about how you balance ambition and being a present parent. I want to talk about when you talk about "finding the best for your family" or "this town is better" or "this community's the best," is it really the best for children of color? Do those kids feel safe and welcomed and protected there? We get to explore all of that and keep it up to date. So every kind of family, no matter the configuration, shape, size, color will see themselves reflected in some way, shape, or form. And I think we did a pretty solid job.

I loved how the movie touched on things like the biracial twins wanting to play with guns and Haresh telling his bullies that if they're going to make fun of him, the least they could do was get his ethnicity right. I definitely said something similar to one of my high school bullies. Gabrielle, I remember reading in a "Bring It On" oral history that director Peyton Reed and the writers looked to you about making Isis more authentic. Did the creative team in "Cheaper By The Dozen" take a similar approach with you and the other cast members?

Union: I think with "Bring It On," there were no people of color at all in the writing process. Luckily for this version of "Cheaper By The Dozen," Kenya Barris and Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry are our co-writers, both L.A. natives. Obviously, Kenya has a large family that he has written about quite extensively. They were better versed to tackle a multiracial, very blended family dynamic. So I was not called upon in the same kind of way where at some point it's basically, "And then God created Black people. We are here, please include us." I didn't have those challenges. Just trying to make sure that our version of representation was as inclusive and equitable as possible, and that we weren't just focusing on the diversity and inclusion on screen, but also behind the scenes. We are truly empowering people of color in front of and behind the camera. That's where my expertise came into play.

Step by step

There are plenty of things to separate your version of "Cheaper By The Dozen" from the 2003 version, but Zach, did you feel any pressure following in the footsteps of the great Steve Martin as the patriarch of the franchise?

Braff: You know what, I look up to him so much, but I couldn't even watch it. I wasn't in the target demo when it came out. I thought about watching it [for this] and I was like, "I will be so neurotic in my head if I watch one of the greatest comics of all time do this part." So I didn't even take a look at it. And plus, Kenya's version was so different. I just thought I'd create my own character from scratch.

Gabrielle, thanks to your early roles like the characters you played in "She's All That," "10 Things I Hate About You," and "Bring It On," I think it's safe to say that you earned the title of "Teen Queen." Is that a title that you wear proudly? And how does it feel to be on the other side of the equation when you're playing the mom in a movie like this one?

Union: I don't know if that's the first time I've ever heard it, but it feels very good and I'll take it. Thank you, I receive this. It's just nice to know that the projects I did when I was first starting out [have lasted]. And I just loved every part of it. I loved my cast, I loved my crew. I'm still in contact with the DP from "10 Things I Hate About You." It was just a different time and a different level of closeness because we didn't have the distraction of phones and social media, we just had each other. It was a different time. Those experiences are standing the test of time for other teens ... and I think a lot of adults watch a lot of those teen movies. Like myself, I'm a big YA fan. But they're still standing the test of time and still being relevant.

To now segue into mom roles, it's weird. You know, I still post a lot of thirst traps. I am not going gently into this sweet mom good night. I'm a rep for the MILFs. I'm going to do my best to keep it spicy, keep it hot. I try to balance also the roles so I'm not pigeonholed into just being a long-suffering mom or wife. I still get to kiss boys and hurt people, so that's a nice blend of opportunity.

Zach, in the movie you play Paul, who's a dad. In the past, you've played dads in a few projects, including "Scrubs" and "I Wish You Were Here." Despite not having kids in real life, do you have a few dad jokes at the ready to help you get into the dad mindset?

Braff: You know, [Timon Kyle Durrett], who plays Dom Clayton, he's the dad joke guy. He would show up every day and the kids would surround him like he was Santa with gifts. They were like, "What have you got today?" On the way in, he'd Google a new dad joke for them. So that was really his world. I don't have any good ones. But I love the kids. I really had a good time with them. It made me want kids. Not 10, but maybe one or two.

Facts of life

Rather than including a traditional villain in the film, I feel like this story was more about the family overcoming the problems of life together. However, the closest thing to a villain to me was Anne, Paul & Zoey's neighbor in Calabasas. I'm sure that we probably didn't spend as much time with her onscreen since she brings down the fun family-friendly vibe of the film, but there are a lot of Annes out there in the world and I applaud Zoey for showing some great restraint in dealing with her because I don't know that I would be as gracious. Do you think that you would handle Anne the same way?

Braff: No. I'm not in those scenes and I think that Paul would've lost it on her. I think one of the things that Kenya's saying in that writing is that Gabby's character would've had to have dealt with that for years, so she knew not to blow her lid and how to handle it. Whereas if Paul had seen it, he would've lost his mind over it. And I think that's part of what Kenya's saying is, "You don't see it." Caucasian people are often blind to what you're not seeing behind the scenes when you're not there. If Paul had seen her disrespected, he would've lost his mind.

Union: I think all the Annes in my life would say, "Absolutely not." No, I don't play with that. I feel like I don't really give off the vibes where you can even try it with me at this stage of the game, but growing up, I just wanted to fit in. I wanted to assimilate in a way where I disappeared, the Blackness disappeared. So I would let all that crap fly.

Then as I got older, the rage set in. All that rage that you push down to "take the high road" and "handle things with grace," and whatever restraint, that's gone. I have none, so don't try it with me. This is not going to end the way that you think it's going to end. I only take the high road in movies. The high road is empty because it sucks. But the Annes that I have encountered in my life, either they got a knuckle sandwich or they got sued. I'm going to hurt you one way or another, your choice. Or you can just be a decent human being and don't be problematic. It's not that hard.

Modern family

Another thing that I found endearing about the film was the positive portrayal of divorce and how divorced couples with children can still be in each other's lives. Since that side of divorce doesn't get seen a ton in media, was it important to you to present the other side of the coin?

Union: Absolutely. When co-parenting is done well and you actually put the peace and needs of children before your own hurts, frustrations, pride, and ego, it can work beautifully. The kids feel the love quadrupled. But when you center your old hurts or you don't respect boundaries, like we explore in the movie with Erika Christensen's character, Kate, or if you believe you're bigger than the family unit, [like Timon Kyle Durrett's character] Dom, my ex-husband in the film, it doesn't work out so well.

We explore some of those challenges, but in a funny, age-appropriate way. And hopefully we model what great co-parenting can look like. It is a challenge. I'm not going to lie: It's not easy. But when you center the needs and peace of children at all times, it's easy to make the best decisions.

Braff: Yeah, I lived that life. I mean that's the most overlap with my own personal life. My parents got divorced, they both got remarried. We did joint custody. Every Sunday, I would switch homes back and forth and back and forth. I gained a stepsister on one side, two stepsisters on the other. I had an adopted sister. So in that regard, it really was my life that I was being raised by four parents. And they were doing their best to do it without us seeing the seams. We saw them argue, of course, but they did their best to try and do it with the kids not seeing them have trouble with it.

I really related to that and saw that Kenya had written that really smartly in this. It's hard. You have to check your ego a lot, but you also have to be humble. Like that great scene I have with Dom where he's explaining to me why a white parent of a [Black] stepson can't fully understand what he goes through. I think that's really important, and humility is a big part of it.

Full house

As the name implies, there's a huge cast in this film. As is the case with many ensemble stories, though we get a little bit of everybody, we tend not to get as much of some characters as we do of others. It's possible to explore more in a potential sequel, but are there any of the kids that you wish we got to spend more time with in this movie?

Braff: Leo Abelo Perry, who plays Luca. He is so talented. Luca and Luna could have their own movie. The two of them are the oldest souls and they're hilarious kids. I would say Disney should do a whole spinoff with Luca and Luna because they didn't get that much screen time because they're little and you can't really shoot them that long in a given day because of, obviously, the union rules. But every time they were on camera, they were hilarious.

Union: Gosh. I guess all of them just because you kind of get little pieces, right? So you see probably a little bit more of Luna than you do of Luca. You know what I mean? And Leo, who plays Luca, Mykal-Michelle Harris, who plays Luna, they're brilliant. In real life, they're Mensa. But I would love to see Leo get to do a little bit more. I'm not sure if you're familiar, but for over a year, 365 days, Leo participated in this fundraiser where he danced for Black Lives Matter for 365 days straight. And I do believe he extended it beyond the year. That kid deserves the world. I hope that he gets to do more in the next one.

Hopefully there is a next one. Maybe we get to go on vacation. But you get to see some of the other talents of some of the other kids that didn't get to shine as brightly just because in this new one, we had to establish who they even are, much less do deeper dives into all of their strengths and talents. That '03 one got [a sequel]? I'm open. Hopefully they'll give us another shot at this.

"Cheaper By the Dozen" arrives on Disney+ on March 18, 2022.