Benjamin McKenzie

The Austin-born star of the hit FOX drama The O.C. on getting his start, losing his privacy— and kissing in front of his mother.

What’s the biggest difference between Austin and L.A.?

The traffic, which is pretty darn miserable. Unless it’s changed in Austin since I left five years ago, it’s much worse out here. The air quality is quite a bit different too. And people’s attitudes: They’re less friendly and less open. The industry side of town has people in competition with one another—there’s backbiting and that sort of thing.

It’s been like that all along?

I don’t know. When I got out here, the experience of living in L.A. was different for me than it is now. I was trying to make it, so I crashed at friends’ apartments. It was a blander, quieter, less glamorous version of my life: no money, a boring job, frustrating auditions.

What kind of boring job?

I did all sorts of things. I was a waiter. I worked for a theater selling subscriptions, trying to get people to come to shows by giving out free tickets. I did data entry—I would sit there typing at a computer, entering names and addresses, thinking, “This is my life as an actor.”

Four years at the University of Virginia for this?

Right. “This is my $120,000 education?” I’m sure my parents were thinking the same thing. I’m an intelligent guy, hardworking and honest and motivated. Why would I spend four years of my life going through a somewhat challenging educational process to end up typing in numbers, which a monkey could do?

But it eventually changed.

It didn’t change eventually. It got there all of a sudden. My experience was not a slow, gradual rise. It was a whole lot of boringness and then—boom!—“Welcome to the show, kid.” Everything has moved so quickly that I haven’t had a lot of time to reflect. I was cast two weeks before we shot the pilot. Two business days after we wrapped, FOX picked us up for more episodes. They built the sets a couple of months later, and we’ve been shooting ever since.

What’s the one thing about your new life that you’ve had to get used to?

A lack of privacy. People recognize you, and you’re aware that people are recognizing you. And even if they don’t recognize you, you’re so used to it that you project it onto situations where you shouldn’t. One time a middle-aged woman came up to me at a party. She said, “I hate to do this to you, but I want you to meet your biggest fan.” When I turned around, I expected it would be her shy thirteen-year-old daughter. Instead, it was her mother—she was sixty plus, the most adorable little woman you’ve ever seen. And she was awestruck, like she had just met the queen of England. We took a picture, I signed something for her, and then I put my arm around her—and she was trembling and crying. It was gratifying, I guess, but odd.

So what’s it like to be on the network that gave us When Animals Attack and World’s Most Dangerous Police Chases?

Those are the classier shows on FOX. We’re actually the ones bringing it all down with our titillation and our drugs and alcohol.

Drugs and alcohol? Your parents must be so proud.

My mom was talking to me the other day, and she said, “It was weird watching you on TV tonight.” I said, “Really? Why’s that?” And she said, “You kissed on-screen.” And I said, “You’ve never seen me kiss on-screen?” And she said, “I’ve never seen you kiss.”

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