Benjamin McKenzie knows full well the difficulties of coming back from a hit TV show. Best-known for his role as brooding teen Ryan Atwood on The O.C., he’s trying to further his career by taking on a variety of roles in different genres. McKenzie discussed his career, future plans and his new film, 88 Minutes, during a recent conference call.
“Television is a very powerful medium, and to be on a show that had some success and kind of permeated the pop cultural zeitgeist to a degree makes people sort of associate you with that character more than they might if it was just a film or a short-lived experience,” McKenzie says.
Though most iconic stars face the same task of disassociation, McKenzie has made considerable progress since the show ended by taking on projects quite different from his role on The O.C. He joined a small ensemble cast playing a bitter twenty-something living with his parents and pregnant wife in North Carolina in the highly praised 2005 indie film Junebug. Opening in theatres Friday, 88 Minutes broaches a new genre altogether.
“[88 Minutes] was a lot more of a conventional movie in that it was a thriller. You have your good and bad guys, and the guys you’re not so sure of, as opposed to a small indie film like Junebug,” McKenzie says.
88 Minutes stars Al Pacino as famed forensic psychiatrist Dr. Jack Gramm, whose testimony leads to the conviction of a notorious serial killer. But the night before the execution takes place, a new murder with the real killer’s signature occurs. Suspicion is cast on Gramm himself, and a mysterious phone call telling him he only has 88 minutes left to live triggers a race to find the copycat killer before it is too late.
The film takes place in real-time, essentially happening live for the audience. Although the film was not shot sequentially, those on set had to keep the time frame in mind throughout the process.
“You did kind of have to be aware of the fact that pacing-wise, the movie needs to start ramping up pretty quickly. And it needs to start at a certain level that is already pretty high, but it needs to get more and more intense and faster as you go along,” says McKenzie. “We sort of always had to be aware that it was taking place within a very limited time space.”
McKenzie plays Mike Stemp, one of Gramm’s students, who has his own suspicions about the copycat murders and confronts Gramm on several occasions. Working with Al Pacino was the definite draw of the film for McKenzie.
“My agent called and said there’s a role in an Al Pacino movie and there are scenes with Al Pacino and I said, ‘Great, when can I start?’” says McKenzie. “It was really that simple. You get different things out of different projects, and what I got out of this was the opportunity to watch a really fantastic actor at work.”
A naturally private person, McKenzie has shied away from the public eye and the celebrity that some of his former co-stars have embraced. “I’d prefer that any attention would be paid to what I’m actually in as opposed to who I am or where I shop or who I’m dating,” he says. The low profile he keeps may help separate himself from his O.C. counterparts, though McKenzie admits that he only has so much power over it. “It only comes down to what people view of me. Maybe I’ll hole myself up in a cabin for a few years, chop some wood and work on horseback riding,” McKenzie jokes.
In addition to 88 Minutes and Junebug, McKenzie recently wrapped up an independent film called Johnny Got His Gun. The film is based on a one-man play adapted from a novel written in the 1980s. It also functioned as an informal preparation for McKenzie’s eventual return to the stage, where he first began his acting career. “I would love to go back to the stage…the opportunity just hasn’t really arisen,” says McKenzie. “It’s been a dream of mine to go back to New York. Theatre is good for the soul and good for the old acting chops.”
McKenzie wants to broaden his acting range and experience and to change the perceptions people might have of him. When asked what character he would play for a length of 88 minutes to accomplish that goal, McKenzie responded in good humor with Dustin Hoffman’s role in Tootsie. “A little cross-dressing never hurt anyone really. And that would certainly change the perception of me, I believe, in both good ways and bad,” says McKenzie. “I really have no idea how to do so, but if I have to play a character for 88 minutes, I might as well get to wear a dress.”