Fleeing ‘The O.C.’

Benjamin McKenzie (Foreign Affairs, Economics ’01) escapes typecasting.

By Stephen Schaefer

Frederick M. Brown/Stringer, Getty Images Entertainment

It’s a side of Benjamin McKenzie nobody knew: the serious actor.

Playing the bullying, frustrated, not-so-bright younger brother of a high achiever in “Junebug” (opening Friday), McKenzie has achieved his goal of getting as far away as he could from the hunky “O.C.” persona that made him a teen idol.

If there is one frustration of his fantastic “O.C.” gig, he said,  “It’s that, unfortunately, you can be typecast, particularly with a television show. And it’s gonna be long-running. You know, the trap. You’re committed for ...”

Seven years?

McKenzie laughed. “Exactly! For the rest of your life. Or that’s sort of the feeling anyway when you’re doing it. And you love it — and I do love it — but you need to be careful when you’re choosing other projects — to sort of push yourself to find other characters, to play them well and play them differently. To shatter that conception that people have of you. That’s my feeling anyway. There’s another school of thought that says, ‘Do it again.’ But that’s just not very interesting to me.”

“Junebug” tells of how McKenzie’s Johnny stayed home in North Carolina while elder brother George (Alessandro Nivola) went to Chicago with his new British-born bride (Embeth Davidtz). Johnny is married, but he’s afraid of being a father.

McKenzie has nothing but sympathy for angry, acting-out Johnny.

“He’s always both admired and loathed George because he could never be as intelligent and ambitious and worldly as his brother. George’s return really just brings up everything in Johnny that he hates about himself and that he finds frustrating with his life,” McKenzie said.

With “Junebug” as his film debut, McKenzie can see, at 26, how far he’s come.

“As a professional actor with a paying job, it’s been three years — since ‘The O.C.,’ basically,” he said. “I was a high school athlete, a football player. I was a foreign affairs and economics major in college, at the University of Virginia, and I stumbled into acting when I auditioned for a play, `Romeo and Juliet.’ Not for Romeo but the Friar. And I loved it. So I figured I’d sort of wait tables for a few years in New York and then go to law school like my dad did.”

Instead, McKenzie, who left New York in August 2001 after a frustrating year, stumbled into “The O.C.,” where he was turned into a teen sex symbol. “It’s not really who you are or what exactly you want to be,” he said.

Still, this is one TV star who comes and goes without worry — and without putting his personal life into the spotlight.

“I try to keep it a private thing — knock on wood,” he said, tapping the table.

“When I have dated girls, I’ve kept it as quiet as I possibly can, because it’s no one’s (expletive) business. I understand the desire to want to know about these lives that are supposedly more glamorous and amazing, but it only should be accessible as much as people want to make it accessible. If you walk down Rodeo Drive with your girlfriend, pictures are going to be taken. But I have found you can live your life outside of that.”

What about Mischa Barton, his “O.C.” co-star who can’t go a week without being in People?

McKenzie smiled.

“Well, she has a different way of going about it. To each his own, you know.”

Originally  published August 9, 2005. Reprinted with permission of The Boston Herald.