Talking Cop with Southland's Ben McKenzie

Ben McKenzie is where show business clichés go to die. No son of Hollywood, he grew up in Austin, Texas and came from a literary family: His mother is a poet and his uncle won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Smart, laid-back, introspective, and sure, I suppose, rather handsome, McKenzie is firing on all cylinders—having survived his overnight success and Teen Choice-style notoriety as Ryan Atwood on The O.C. and seamlessly moved onto meatier roles without losing fans along the way. Now on Southland, he plays rookie cop Ben Sherman, a boy from the right side of the tracks who's crossed over to work the mean streets of L.A.

With Southland’s unseen Season 2 episodes premiering tonight on TNT, we caught up with McKenzie for a one-on-one about the show. You’re from a literary family. Why did you choose acting instead of writing?

Ben McKenzie: Ego and laziness. Those were the main two reasons. I don’t know. I was attending the University of Virginia, majoring in economics and foreign affairs, and midway through I was pretty bored with my studies and searching for something else to do—to give me some enjoyment, some thrill. I stumbled over to the theater department, and started doing plays. And I kind of fell in love with it. Why I ended up there as opposed to writing, I couldn’t tell you. But I knew pretty quickly that I needed to give it a shot, because I got a certain thrill from acting that I didn’t get out of anything else.

So what do you get out of acting?

Good question. I should probably be better at answering it; it’s hard to express. It’s a way of looking into, without being utterly pretentious about it, what it is to be human and the kind of shared human experience that we can all relate to—no matter who we are and what we are. We’re all human, we all have our own talents and fears and accomplishments and loves and hates, and we all tend to go about this thing not really knowing what we’re doing, living moment-to-moment. I like portraying that, getting a view into other people’s worlds and experiences, trying to walk in their shoes for a minute. It’s slightly voyeuristic, in a way. You get to be somebody else.

Does that relate to what you do on Southland?

Absolutely. What attracted me was that it seemed like a very, very different world than where I grew up and how I grew up. I could kind of relate to the character, in that I grew up not in Beverly Hills, but in a middle-class or upper-middle-class household. I wouldn’t know much about what it’s like to be a cop on the street any more than Ben Sherman would. I could kind of get that. And there’s also that 13-year-old aspect where I thought it would be really cool to run around the streets with guns, jumping over trash cans and chasing bad guys. And driving cars real fast. It’s fun.

The gun and hunting culture in Texas seems to cross political and social lines. Did you have much experience with guns?

Austin is kind of the liberal town within Texas. It doesn’t have quite the fetishistic love of guns that the rest of the state does. I didn’t grow up with guns that way. I did grow up with shotguns, going deer hunting and dove hunting. But not a lot. I really hadn’t fired handguns at all, so that was a new experience for me. But I guess I have a middle-of-the-road thing where I understand why a lot of people love them and feel like they need guns to protect themselves, while I also understand the folks who would look at them as a real danger and the kind of thing that should be severely controlled. So I can see both sides of it. It really is fun to shoot a handgun on a firing range and learn more about them as pieces of machinery.

You did a lot of prep work with the LAPD. How important was that?

I think it it's incredibly important in terms of producing an authentic or near-authentic version of what’s going on. Otherwise—if the performances aren’t realistic and it doesn’t seem like the actors know what they’re doing in terms of playing cops—the whole thing is going to ring false. Because everything else looks real. We’re on location. The dialog is relatively realistic. If the performances aren’t up to par and the actors don’t know what it means to look and be like a cop, then the whole thing doesn’t work.

Speaking of authenticity, Southland takes advantage of many real and unexpected locations in L.A. Has working on the show changed your perception of the city?

I started to understand the city in a much broader, maybe much deeper way—how diverse it is, how vast it is, how many different communities there are. It’s very easy to live in L.A. and not know very much outside of five or ten miles from where you live. Because everything is so segregated. It all requires you to get in your car and drive when you’re going to another place. You’re just not going to walk through some of these neighborhoods by accident. I feel that I’ve gotten a richer experience because of that. Now I know of at least a few places in a lot of different neighborhoods that I could go to just to get a bite to eat. Or, I don’t know, shopping, whatever the hell it is. I really enjoy it.

What’s also nice about it in terms of working is, it keeps everything fresh. You’re in a new place every day, you’re not going to the same set day after day, all the time, and getting bored to tears. You’re being challenged every step of the way, because every day is a new day with new locations and new problems.

Do you feel a certain responsibility to portray the city accurately?

Yeah, I do. I think a lot of people in town are appreciative of that. I’ve heard some criticism that we’re just showing the dark side or the violent side or the tougher communities. But you know, we’re just trying to make a good TV show about the LAPD. We've also told stories that are set in richer areas, and we’ll continue to do so.

The thing I like about setting a cop show in L.A. is that it gives you the full range of human experience in America in the 21st century. We live in a pretty uneven society. There are some members of our society who have enormous, unbelievable, incredible wealth that allows them to have pretty much the world at their fingertips. And then we have a helluva lot of folks who have almost nothing, who survive day-to-day off of their ability to hustle. But they don’t necessarily know where their next meal is coming from. They don’t necessarily know that they’re gong to be alive to enjoy it.

I think that’s fascinating. We’re commenting on society even when we’re not commenting on society. We’re not trying to beat the audience over the head, we’re just trying to point out how crazy the world we live in is.

Any examples?

The example that comes to mind is the episode where my partner and I come upon this home-invasion triple-murder. We see these poor girls strangled to death and raped or assaulted, and then later on that night, at the end of the episode, I go out with my sister and my sister’s friends. And they’re talking about these murders as though it’s the daily gossip, as though it’s Britney vs. Christina or whatever the current thing is. With no understanding of what it actually was like. It’s a strange world.

Southland's previously unaired Season 2 premiere airs tonight at 10pm on TNT.

Follow writer Matthew Jaffe on Twitter: @MattAtTVDotCom

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