Ben McKenzie’s clear-eyed stare makes him the perfect cop, as he proved on Southland and continues to prove on FOX’s Gotham. (Gotham season finale is set to air on FOX Monday, May 4.)
“As we begin the series, he is an old-fashioned hero, a man of principle, a veteran,” McKenzie says of his character, James Gordon. “He is very much his father’s son — his father being a revered D.A. — and Jim has modeled himself in his father’s image. He comes into Gotham to take on that cause from his father only to find out Gotham is not exactly a moral place and his father may not have been who he thinks he was, and he has to adjust to new circumstances.”
McKenzie draws from his own life in portraying the son of a lawyer, though his dad wasn’t a district attorney.
“I grew up having a lot of fairly substantive conversations about morality and ethics and politics and government around the dinner table, and maybe that’s infused as to how I view the world,” he says.
Just after earning a degree in foreign affairs and economics from the University of Virginia, McKenzie moved to Manhattan, two weeks before 9/11. He lived in a typically cramped fourth-floor walk-up and worked in off-off-Broadway plays.
Early on, he was cast on “The District” and within a year landed his breakthrough part on “The O.C.” Though actors often pine for a vehicle created for them or to play Hamlet, McKenzie, 36, maintains he is in his dream role.
“One of the things that almost any actor responds to is a new challenge, so I think it is really hard to create a perfect role,” he says. “Over a career you are going to play many roles and all will challenge you in many ways. This is pretty close to the perfect job. I have been given a leadership role on the show and Bruno [Heller, the creator] and Danny [Cannon, a director] have trusted me with what I really like. This is much more than James Gordon [being] a central character. It is also a big old production, which is exciting and fun. And it is in New York. I can’t believe my luck to come back.”
Having done the “starving artist, tiny apartment with roomies” experience, McKenzie is grateful.
“To come back in a completely different environment is bizarre, in a way,” he says. “You sort of pinch yourself. It makes everything much easier. More than anything else, I remember those days fondly and you have to remember the struggle and there is a certain romance and it is real.”
McKenzie had just finished shooting the “Gotham” season finale and was boarding a plane to Los Angeles the next day. His main objective during hiatus? Resting.
“I am excited about the direction the show has taken,” McKenzie reflects. “I think we made a very strong pilot and we tried to make the show more procedural than it wanted to be, and we corrected that. From here on in, the show will take on a more serialized, character-driven exploration of the origins of all these mythological creatures.”
But before he tackles our “5 Questions,” we have one burning Batman matter. Considering the many Caped Crusaders over the years, who does McKenzie consider Batman?
“I grew up watching Adam West with my brother, in the afternoons,” he says. “And so the first real Batman that registered as a cool new thing was Michael Keaton. Michael will always be Batman to me.”
You’re at a magazine rack and can pick only three titles. Which ones do you choose?
The Economist, GQ and Wired.
If your TV only carried three shows or networks, what would they be?
ESPN, FOX, MSNBC.
What three foods are always in your fridge or pantry?
Milk, eggs and coffee.
What has been your strangest fan encounter?
Nothing really strange. It is really moving when kids visit the set. We had a few yesterday, several kids from different families, and they were seeing the grandeur and were transported and had utterly wide eyes and that is quite a treat.
Tell us about a time when you were starstruck.
I did a movie with Al Pacino and I was starstruck for entire days — perhaps the entire shooting.