He captures the hearts of The O.C.'s faithful as Ryan Atwood, but Ben McKenzie wants the rest of America to know that he's not just that guy on Fox's popular teen drama. In fact, when fans hit theaters (in select cities) this weekend to check out his feature-film debut, Junebug, they'll be surprised to learn that their beloved boy-next-door is nowhere to be found. It may be difficult, McKenzie reasons, even to recognize him at first glance. The Texas native went back to his roots to play Johnny, a young man who struggles to make do while still living under his parents' roof with his pregnant wife and the rest of his "difficult" family. McKenzie acknowledges that his character isn't very likable, but says he could relate to Johnny nonetheless.
"I've heard a couple of comments about [Johnny], people saying, 'We hate him; he's so mean.' And I just so disagree with that," McKenzie tells TVGuide.com. "That's a silly way of looking at it. Johnny is a guy who does exist. I grew up with guys who weren't all that dissimilar from him. He's a Southern, working-class guy who's trying really hard. You can root for him the entire way."
Taking on a role so different from O.C.'s Ryan was a calculated move for McKenzie, who adopted a somewhat shaggy look, mustache and all, to perfect his film persona. For the 26-year-old, that brought back childhood memories. "I woke up one morning in Winston-Salem [where Junebug was shot], and I saw my dad in a mirror," he relates. "It's fantastic. If you don't recognize me [as Johnny], that's the highest compliment you can give me. The challenge was to treat it as a totally unique thing and to try to be different from the guy that I am on the TV show."
McKenzie first glimpsed the fruits of his labor at the Sundance Film Festival — an experience, he says, that was much better than he anticipated. "The screening was at a large theater, and I've never been in a film before. The largest thing I'd seen myself on is, like, my 30-inch TV at home! But it was so much better than I ever hoped it could be. The fact that I went to the bathroom [afterward] and didn't throw up is a testament to how happy I was.
"It's not a comfortable experience [seeing yourself on movie screen]. If you enjoy that, then there's something clinically wrong with you," he notes with a laugh.
Now that the first-film jitters are out of his system, McKenzie is on the lookout for new projects. Many offers coming his way are still aimed at the teen set, but the actor remains selective and is willing to take a gamble on roles that stretch beyond the realm of a typical teen drama.
"[Being on The O.C.] gives you a certain visibility that I'm very grateful for," he says. "The things that I [am] getting offered are more teen-oriented material — some of which is good, a lot of which isn't. I would much rather give a shot at being a serious, real actor and not risk sort of 'cashing in.'"
So until McKenzie selects his next film gig, he remains busy with The O.C., which premieres its third season on Sept. 8. He is tight-lipped about what to expect on new episodes, but did hint at his excitement about one recent addition to the cast: Star Trek: Voyager's Jeri Ryan. "I don't have any scenes with her," he allows, "but she is hot."