You couldn’t tell by looking at him, but Austin native Ben McKenzie has done a lot of growing up since lighting teenage hearts on fire six years ago as the brooding Ryan Atwood on The O.C., Fox’s wildly successful teenage dramedy. After a few movie roles, McKenzie returns to television on April 9, starring in the NBC cop drama Southland. Expectations are high. Southland was created and produced by John Wells, the man behind ratings powerhouses The West Wing and ER. And Southland will take over the Thursday night timeslot that ER, currently the longest-running drama on television, has held for the past fifteen years. Pressure? Nah. We chatted with Ben about his new show, Austin barbecue, and whether the thirty-year-old actor will ever play eighteen again.
Tell me about Southland. How is it different from every other cop show we’ve seen?
Well, a terrible way of describing it might be ER with cops. How are the doctors affected by what they see? Well, this is how the cops are affected by what they see. The show is about everybody in the LAPD below the command level, and how what they see on a daily basis—the tragedy, the comedy, the boredom—how all of that affects them on a personal level.
How similar is real-life Ben to police officer Ben? Other than your character’s name, of course. Was that coincidence?
(McKenzie plays cop Ben Sherman, a name quite similar to the actor’s given name, Ben Schenkkan. He decided to go by his middle name, McKenzie, after discovering there was another Ben Schenkkan registered with the Screen Actor’s Guild.)
Total coincidence. I kept thinking they might change it after they cast me, but it didn’t happen. This makes it easier to stay in character, though; I’m always, always Ben. The guy I play—Sherman, I’ll just call him Sherman—is fresh out of the academy. He’s been tested in the classroom but not in the field. He’s a very effective cop in his mind, but he doesn’t have any real world experience. So I think he’s got a dynamic that’s a little different from who I am. But the truth is, it’s kind of nice to play him, because I didn’t know much about police work coming into this, so it’s relatively easy for me to play the naive, young foot soldier.
So how much pressure do you feel, taking over ER’s timeslot the week after the massive George Clooney series finale?
Lots of pressure. We’re expected to run for at least fifteen years. No, you know, the truth of the matter is there’s nothing you can do about it. [Southland] is very good. The pilot that we’ve shot I’m very proud of. I couldn’t, in my wildest imagination, dream of having the fantastical success of ER. But there’s no way to predict a television show’s success one way or the other. We’ll just have to wait and see.
You’ve had some successful movies, including Junebug with Amy Adams. Do you prefer TV or film? Are you worried you’ll get stuck doing TV? Not that it’s a bad place to be stuck.
I wasn’t looking to go back to series work when I got the script for Southland. TV wasn’t really on my radar. But as an actor, unless you’re Brad Pitt or George Clooney, you spend an awful lot of time searching for movies like Junebug. And you could spend years trying to find a film like that again. Most of the time you’re doing projects that aren’t satisfying, and it’s also hard to make a living doing small, independent movies all the time. So when I got the script for Southland, it was a great fit, because it was truly the best script I read all year, film or television. It doesn’t seem like a show I’m going to get trapped into or bored of. It’s not, “Man, where’s the body?” It’s character development. The action that goes on around the characters is a nice benefit, but it’s not totally about the plot. So as an actor, it’s more creatively stimulating.
What’s your favorite place to go in Austin?
I love running around Town Lake—the hike-and-bike trail and Zilker Park. Food-wise, I’m a fan of Iron Works BBQ downtown, and there’s a ton of great Mexican food. It’s hard to pick just one.
What’s the biggest difference between Austinites and Californians?
We’re a little more relaxed in Austin, a little more polite. But there are some similarities—both are sort of artistic communities. L.A.’s a little more focused on making money than Austin, but both are not bad places to live.
You campaigned here in Texas last year for Barack Obama. How do you think he’s doing so far?
He’s in about the toughest situation he could possibly be in, with two wars going on and an economy that’s having its troubles. We’ll see what happens. I think in the long run, both the country and he will be fine, but I think we’ll be tested this year, and probably next. There’s a lot of stuff to fix, but he’s certainly going about it the right way. I wish him the best.
We heard you were going to be in The Stanford Prison Experiment. Is that true?
Well, if it ever happens, I would love to be in it. I haven’t heard whether that’s going forward. If anything, we’re in very deep pre-production. I’ve met with Chris McQuarrie, who wrote the script and is directing, and I’d love to be a part of it. It’s a fantastic story. But I have no word on whether it’s going forward, so don’t hold your breath.
Is there any truth to the rumors that you were set to star in Snakes on a Plane, but instead chose 88 Minutes with Al Pacino?
No, not really. They offered me a part in Snakes on a Plane, but I turned it down. I was never going to do the movie. And there was no scheduling conflict with 88 Minutes. That certainly wasn’t the reason I didn’t do Snakes on a Plane.
Does a little part of you wish you had? Be honest.
(Laughs.) Ah . . . no. I feel like if I wanted to do that, I would just buy a snake and play with it. Pretend like it was trying to eat me. I think Snakes on a Plane was a totally fun movie, but . . . I’m all right. Things come, things go. That rumor won’t go away, though. They’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that.
You’re not in the pages of Star or Us Weekly. You’re not even on PerezHilton. Is that a conscious effort, or did it just happen that way?
You know, I try so hard. I walk around Rodeo Drive with a megaphone, yelling at the top of my lungs, “Someone take a picture of me!” But they won’t do it. I guess I’m doing something wrong. No, I just don’t go for that kind of stuff. I’m okay with being less famous.
What have you learned about acting since The O.C.?
So many things. I’m very grateful for that experience. And it’s nice to have a second go at a series where you know so much more than you did the first time. I understand the pacing much better, how quick it can be, how slow it can seem at times. I’m far less intimidated by it than I was when I got The O.C., because I didn’t know anything back then. It’s a much more enjoyable situation because I can focus on the work and not have to freak out about any of the other stuff, which was new to me at the time—the recognition, the sort of pop-cultural thing The O.C. became.
And The O.C. had a much different audience than Southland will, which probably makes a difference.
Exactly. And the Sherman character I’m playing now is much closer to who I am in age and life experience, so it’s a better fit for me. And I’m working with better people. Not that I wasn’t before, but whenever you do a show with John Wells, the creators and directors, cast and crew, it’s just a terrific group of people. It’s the best possible working environment you could have, television or film.
Do you still talk to your O.C. castmates?
Oh, all the time. We have dinner every night. We reenact scenes.
That’s exactly what everyone wants to hear.
I know, isn’t it? I get asked that all the time, so I’m going to go full bore. Every now and then I run into people, but we don’t really hang out. I’m still very good friends with Adam Brody, but other than that, people’s lives go on.
Will we ever catch you playing a teenager again? You still could.
Not unless it’s a Stepbrothers-esque comedy. I’m thirty years old. I don’t think I’ll be playing eighteen anytime soon. Maybe if there’s a director who’s nearly blind, he might cast me, but I think those days are behind me now. I’ll play the father of a teenager, how about that? In the relaunch of The O.C. in 2020.