The Dark Knight

Ben McKenzie’s Journey From Reluctant Teen Idol on ‘The O.C.’ to Sheriff of ‘Gotham’

The actor sat down for lunch with Marlow Stern to discuss his moody Ryan Atwood days and new role as Det. James Gordon on Fox’s hit series Gotham.

11.04.14 10:45 AM ET

Ben McKenzie is contrite. I’m seated across from the brooding, compact actor at a swank eatery in Midtown Manhattan and we’re discussing his tenure on The O.C., Josh Schwartz’s zeitgeisty Fox soap opera that helped launch Death Cab For Cutie, Chrismukkah, and Peter Gallagher’s magnificent eyebrows into the mainstream. McKenzie, of course, played Ryan Atwood, the leather wrist cuff and wifebeater-sporting man-child from the other side of the tracks. He doesn’t so much regret his time on the series, but rather its legacy. The show’s success helped spawn the MTV reality series Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, which led to spin-off The Hills, as well as the Bravo reality show The Real Housewives of Orange County, which kick-started the Real Housewives television franchise.

“We’re horribly responsible for so much terrible reality television!” McKenzie exclaims. “I feel weird trying to explain it to people who don’t know. People always say, ‘Wasn’t Laguna Beach before The O.C.?’ and I’m like, ‘No! We were first.’ I remember reading the pilot script for The O.C. and thinking, ‘What the fuck is The O.C.?’”

These days, the 36-year-old is lording over a far darker fantasy world. On the Fox drama Gotham he plays James Gordon, a detective in the Gotham City Police Department who’s trying to solve the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Along the way, he bumps into numerous nefarious characters form the Batman universe, including Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot, Selina “Catwoman” Kyle, Edward “The Riddler” Nygma, Mafioso Carmine Falcone, and mobstress Fish Mooney, played by Jada Pinkett Smith.

Created by Bruno Heller, the origin series has become a breakout hit, earning a total multi-platform audience of 22.2 million, according to Fox.

The role of Det. Gordon on Gotham, a younger version of Gary Oldman’s character in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, was expressly written for McKenzie. He shot a pilot with Heller last season for CBS called The Advocates. It was a procedural about victim’s advocates starring himself and Mandy Moore, but wasn’t picked up. Still, the two enjoyed working together so much that in January, Heller sent him the pilot screenplay for Gotham, offering him the part of Gordon.

“The issue was how to conceive what the show was going to look and feel like,” says McKenzie. “It couldn’t feel like the Nolan films because you could never do that on a TV budget, and thank God it doesn’t look like the cartoonish Schumacher films. We decided to play it completely straight. The villains are a bit more colorful, but the world is very real, and no one has any superpowers in this world. All of it is grounded in reality.”

Gotham shoots at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, New York, and just aired its seventh episode of the season (they’re currently shooting No. 13). According to McKenzie, each episode takes 9 days to shoot—which is pretty grueling considering his name is at the top of the call sheet. He’s even got a pretty big scar on the right side of his forehead from running into a wall on the set a few months back.

It’s a bit strange that McKenzie is top-lining a DC Comics series. While he grew up watching the Adam West series and Michael Keaton’s turn as the Caped Crusader, he wasn’t much of a comic book nerd. Hell, in the (terrible, awful) fourth season premiere of The O.C., entitled “The Avengers,” his Ryan is busy cage fighting while pal Seth makes a comic book about Ryan, who he describes as a “young Russell Crowe”—one of many references to the physical similarities between McKenzie and the Aussie.

“At the time, in particular, I would see posters for A Beautiful Mind of [Crowe] everywhere, and even the way he parted his hair was similar to me,” says McKenzie, with a chuckle. “I’m still waiting for the younger brother/son role in a Russell Crowe movie.”

In fact, Austin native McKenzie grew up a jock, and even played middle school football with Drew Brees. “We played football growing up together, and then when we got to high school, he went to the rival school, Westlake High, and I went to Austin High, and they beat the crap out of us.”

While he was good enough to start at wide receiver and defensive back for Austin High, McKenzie knew his 5’8” frame wasn’t big enough for the pros. After graduating high school, he attending the University of Virginia, double-majoring in economics and foreign relations. During his sophomore year in college, he began to explore acting “out of boredom, curiosity, and a sense of feeling challenged,” he says.

His first theater role was as Friar Laurence in a UVA production of Romeo and Juliet. The play was controversial on the conservative-leaning campus since it was a commentary on race, with black actors playing the Montagues and white actors the Capulets. It was a big hit, and he’d caught the acting bug, taking acting classes during his final two years. He still graduated in 2001 with a dual degree in economics and foreign relations, but by that time thought, “Eh, I don’t want to work on Wall Street or go to law school,” he recalls.

Following graduation, McKenzie acted in the Williamstown Theatre Festival before moving to New York in Aug. 2001—just one month before 9/11.

“It was pretty crazy,” says McKenzie of that day. “We didn’t even have a TV or anything set up in our apartment, so I didn’t even know what was happening for a while.”

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He lived in Hell’s Kitchen on 47th St. and 8th Ave., and waited tables at a restaurant in the Theater District for the pre-Broadway crowd. After about a year of that, his uncle, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and screenwriter Robert Schenkkan, introduced him to actor Ernie Sabella, who offered to introduce the struggling 23-year-old to his agent in L.A. The agency didn’t sign McKenzie, but they sent him out on auditions.

“They were awful,” says McKenzie. “I auditioned for straight-to-video Olsen Twins movies to play the dumb piece of meat. Didn’t get those, thank God.”

McKenzie got so bored, he began acting in short films directed by USC students for practice, and without pay. After a year of failure, he auditioned for The O.C. with Adam Brody and the two exhibited such good chemistry they landed the parts of Ryan Atwood and Seth Cohen, respectively.

THE O.C., front row: Adam Brody, Rachel Bilson, Benjamin McKenzie, Mischa Barton; back row: Peter Gallagher, Kelly Rowan, Alan Dale, Tate Donovan, Melinda Clarke, (Season 3), 2003-2007. photo: © WB / Courtesy: Everett Collection

Everett Collection

In addition to serving as a springboard for a number of indie bands who performed at the show’s venue The Bait Shop, e.g. Death Cab For Cutie, The Killers, and Imogen Heap, to name a few, The O.C. also featured a number of future stars, including Shailene Woodley, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde, and—yep—Chris Brown.

“They just hired Morena Baccarin on Gotham to play my love interest, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, and she said, ‘Hey, I did an episode of The O.C.!’ and I was like, ‘What!?’”

Even though McKenzie turned 25 during the first season of The O.C., he was granted “teen idol status,” which he describes as “pretty surreal.”

When I spoke to Chris Pratt about his fourth season stint on The O.C., and he claimed that “the kids were checked out” and there was a “bad attitude” that became “contagious” on the show. Another O.C. actor, Cam Gigandet, also came out recently and said that during the fourth season, the main actors would show up to set and “not remember their lines on purpose.” 

“It wasn’t me,” says McKenzie. “I don’t want to get into pointing fingers, but I always showed up knowing my lines. It became a very difficult work environment where a lot of people weren’t happy. I thought, ‘Can people just be happier here please, and can we all just enjoy this more?’”

Between the second and third seasons of The O.C., McKenzie went off and shot his first feature film, the indie drama Junebug. He felt rejuvenated, and realized those types of projects were the ones he wanted to pursue. Still, he was locked into his rookie contract, and had to ride out two more dysfunctional seasons of the show.

“By the end, we’d graduated—kind of—and it was just like… Look, you take a job when you’re first starting because you need work, and you want it to be something that it isn’t,” says McKenzie. “I wanted to do stuff that was more like Southland, to be completely honest. That’s what I’m drawn to. I’m proud of The O.C., it’s just not what I’m drawn to.”

He pauses. “When it was over, it was great because I never had to do that thing again, and I could have more control over what projects I chose. But I’m still good friends with Adam and Peter to this day.”

On Southland, McKenzie played Ben Sherman, a patrol officer on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Despite critical raves, the gritty police procedural aired for only one season on NBC before it was canceled due to mediocre ratings. It was later revived on TNT for four more seasons before the network announced its cancellation on May 10, 2013.  

Southland was an incredibly functional show where everyone wanted to be there,” says McKenzie. “It was really the opposite of The O.C. because nobody really wanted us, we were never the ‘hot show,’ and it was everyone working hard and the best creative experience I could have imagined.”

Then came Gotham. As far as the show goes, McKenzie says that despite DC Comics’ recent reveal of a comprehensive 10-film superhero slate through 2020, including Justice League, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman, you probably won’t see Batfleck or any of these DC movie heroes pop up on the show, a la Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

“It’s a different strategy that DC has versus Marvel,” he says. “Marvel’s all about integration, and I think DC is separating their TV landscape from their film landscape. I’m certainly not against it, but since we’re an origin story, I don’t know how it could work for us.”

What you will see are several new characters emerge, including Nicholas D’Agosto as Harvey Dent, Nygma’s transformation into villain The Riddler, and—perhaps—Robin. “The Grayson’s may appear this season,” teases McKenzie. “I’m not 100 percent sure yet, but I think so.”

Since Gotham consists of a whopping 22 episodes, the first season will take approximately 9 months to film. During the summer, McKenzie says he’d like to sneak in an enticing film project. But overall, he’s grateful for his small screen success.  

“It’s tough out there,” he says of the film world. “It’s a lot of franchise films, and if you can get one of them, great, but without that, you don’t have much currency. If you’re not one of the 50 people who have that, then you’re nobody, essentially. So, I’ve pleasantly been a guy who’s doing his third TV show, but I’m really happy to have steady work—and work that challenges me.”