Benjamin McKenzie studied foreign affairs and economics at the University of Virginia, where his interest in acting began. Appearing in several theatrical productions, including "Zoo Story" and Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," McKenzie's passion gelled, and after graduation he moved to New York City to pursue the stage. He appeared off-Broadway in "Life is a Dream" at the SoHo Rep and in multiple productions at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, including "Street Scene" and "The Blue Bird." Soon Los Angeles beckoned, and McKenzie headed West to try his luck on the TV audition circuit.
The handsome young actor quickly found success, cutting his onscreen teeth with small appearances on the Craig T. Nelson police drama "The District" and as a petty officer on the military legal drama "JAG." Ironically, an unsuccessful audition for a UPN sitcom put McKenzie on the radar of the casting agents who would change his life. "The O.C." was already a highly buzzed-about project, a glossy teen drama with the distinction of being the brainchild of the youngest creator of a TV show in history, the wunderkind Josh Schwartz. Execs were struggling to cast the main character, Ryan Atwood, a troubled Chino teen from the wrong side of the tracks who gets taken in by the wealthy Orange County-based Cohens (Peter Gallagher and Kelly Rowan). McKenzie's electrifying audition convinced producers to take the enormous gamble of resting a brand-new television show on the shoulders of an unknown, and the hype machine kicked into overdrive with the actor's brooding mug soon becoming inescapable.
Happily, the show delivered on all fronts, becoming water-cooler television that minted each of its lead actors as instant celebrities. At the center of it all was McKenzie, whose tough-but-secretly-tender Ryan had to adjust to his adoption into a wealthy new world, navigate a crush on the lovely but damaged Marissa (Mischa Barton), and find himself simultaneously the protector, hero and best friend/brother of the Cohens' dorkily adorable son, Seth (Adam Brody), who pined for the seemingly-shallow Summer (Rachel Bilson). Crackling with youthful energy and a cutting-edge soundtrack, "The O.C." was truly the "It" show of its brief moment in time, and McKenzie earned a slew of magazine covers, media attention and award nominations. A serious-minded individual and actor in his real life, however, McKenzie chose not to traverse the typical teen star trajectory; instead taking a supporting role in the indie drama "Junebug." The story of a dysfunctional Southern family seen through the eyes of a newlywed art dealer (Embeth Davidtz), the film gave McKenzie a strong showcase as Johnny, Davidtz's new brother-in-law, a frustrated young man who still lives at home despite being married to a sweet-natured woman (Amy Adams). Although his part was small, McKenzie shared several ensemble honors with the cast and earned good reviews opposite Adams, who nabbed an Oscar nomination.
After "The O.C.'s" conclusion, McKenzie moved on to a supporting role alongside his acting idol, Al Pacino, in the real-time thriller "88 Minutes." The actor played one of forensic psychiatrist Dr. Jack Gramm's (Pacino) students, who may or may not be involved in a series of diabolically twisted murders. McKenzie next filmed any young actor's dream role: the grievously wounded soldier Joe Bonham in the "live on stage, on film" solo performance of "Johnny Got His Gun" (2008). As the only actor on screen, charged with channeling an American World War I soldier whose body is too broken to communicate with the outside world and only able to move or speak internally, McKenzie impressed critics in a role previously played by Jimmy Cagney, Jeff Daniels and Timothy Bottoms. Although this was not the type of production which launched actors atop the mainstream Hollywood pecking order, McKenzie always focused on his craft more than the stardom game, and he next appeared opposite Ashley Williams in a charming, award-winning short, "The Eight Percent."
For the second phase of his career, McKenzie chose a serious-minded role on a serious-minded show, "Southland" (NBC, 2009; TNT, 2010-2013), a gritty look at LAPD officers and the city they patrol. McKenzie played rookie cop Ben Sherman alongside a talented cast which included Regina King and Michael Cudlitz. More of a dark, character-driven drama than a police procedural, "Southland" was a challenging, intense program, and NBC never seemed quite sure what to make of it. Cancelled after its first season despite excellent critical reviews for its adult storytelling, the show rose from the grave when TNT picked it up, demonstrating the new fluidity of the altered basic cable landscape. Although TNT imposed budget cuts and corresponding cast reductions, it proved willing to invest in McKenzie and "Southland" for the long haul.
The actor returned to theater in 2010 with a well-received turn as gentleman caller Jim O'Connor in the Judith Ivey-starring revival of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" in Los Angeles.
In 2013 McKenzie will return to the network that first gave him his start. His lead role as Detective James Gordon in the Batman origin story on FOX's "Gotham" was the first series order of the Fall 2014 season.
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