Ben McKenzie isn’t that big. At 5’8”, he’s hardly the imposing figure one would associate with a small screen brawler. But he certainly has a presence. Sitting down for a drink with the young television veteran — a breakout star from “The O.C.,” proven talent on “Southland” and now franchise lead in “Gotham” — anyone could tell the polite and thoughtful thespian knows how to handle himself. A Texas native, McKenzie doesn’t dismiss even the softest of questions, instead giving each the common (though rare) courtesy of consideration. But — as he’ll soon say about LBJ — he’s got his own “intoxicating” kind of intimidation.
This should come as no surprise to anyone tuning into McKenzie’s latest starring role, and there are a lot of you doing just that. “Gotham” has turned into one of the big hits of the 2014-2015 TV season, earning a Season 2 green light in January and pulling in more than 10 million total viewers consistently over its first year. With the Fox crime drama-meets-superhero origin story set to return from its spring break tonight, McKenzie shared with Indiewire how he created his version of Jim Gordon, why he’s afraid of the iconic mustache and what made him such a good (on-screen) fighter.
One thing I’ve noticed about the characters you play is they’re either people who end up having fights, or they’re fighters. So I was wondering if that was something you’ve been trained for, were familiar with before getting into TV, or if it’s just something that’s become a part of your expected repertoire?
Yeah, I think— that’s a hard question to untangle. Some of it is, you get cast in a certain role on “The O.C.,” and that character is a fighter, and you can do a decent enough job of it as an actor that the next role, and the next role, and the next role…
That being said, I think there has to be something in you that you can play because you know it; that allows for the audience to buy you in that part. And to that, I guess I would credit growing up in Texas, and playing high school football, and just, you know, you find yourself in situations where you’re either going to stand up for yourself or suffer the consequences. Usually, in my experience in fights, I get my ass kicked, but at least you didn’t duck it, and maybe that’s it. It is interesting. I guess, in some ways, you’re either playing the alpha or you’re not, and I’ve, in some ways, played three alphas in a row. It just goes with the territory. There’s only so much that you can film cinematically that doesn’t eventually devolve into just people punching each other.
Do you look forward to shooting the action scenes that you’re doing on “Gotham”?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
I saw the photos online when you went to the emergency room. I mean, that’s rough stuff! But I didn’t know if that was something you looked forward to performing.
Yeah, I do! And they’ve kind of gotten so gun-shy about it that I’m sort of missing it. I mean, we’ve done some stuff since, but I want to get back to it because it is fun. I think sometimes I like expressing myself through words as an actor, and then, physicality, nothing should be off the table. If fisticuffs are the ballet of it, then why not embrace that part as well? I’d love to get better at it. I’ve had some training, but I would say that most of it is just practical. Like, working with the stunt coordinator to make it look realistic-ish, but also choreographing it so it has a certain flair.
I mean, I’m really only asking these questions in the hope that someone reads this and is like, “Let’s put him in an action movie.”
I would love to do that. I would really love to do that. I would love to be able to train my ass off for something. We did a fair amount of cop training on “Southland,” but I’ve never actually done like a, “You’re going to do this particular movie where your character has this particular set of skills…” You know, Liam Neeson style, and spend three months busting your ass trying to do it. I would really like that. I would enjoy that. I mean, I would probably hate it while I’m doing it, but I would really like it at the end.
I read you were an economics and foreign affairs major when you were in school, and that you gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention. So, you obviously have a lot to say, and you can add a lot of that to your characters, which is fun to see. So it was just kind of interesting to see where your interest in the physical side came from.
Oh, thanks. Yeah, no, it is, and […] I love the notion of, like, my uncle wrote this play about LBJ called “All the Way,” and LBJ is a great example of an alpha who’s unafraid to use whatever he has to use to get things done. I like playing characters like that. LBJ’s not actually going to fight people, but he would physically intimidate people. He’s a big guy, [and] he would lean into you and scream at you or whisper in your ear — either one is terrifying. And he’ll cajole you at the same time, and he’ll slap you on the back. He’ll do whatever he has to do. And growing up in Texas, that was always around. I’d see those guys and wonder, “How do they get it done?” And there’s something very intoxicating about that. I’ve always liked that.
Shifting gears just a little, has there been a moment of pride that you had, throughout what you’ve shot so far, where you really felt like, “This is where I made this role my own?”
Yeah, there is, actually. In the episode where I banged my head, there’s an underground fight club that I break up, and there’s a fight with four guys — and that’s where I injured myself — but at the end of the episode, there’s a bit of a speech. And it might border on being kind of a trope, but the speech is to the effect, he just tells Harvey, “Hey. These bad guys. I’m gonna get them. This guy, this guy, whoever it is, I’m gonna get them.” And that’s who he is — he’s a gunslinger. He’s a guy who walks into the bar and says, “Gimme a whiskey and a beer, and where’s the villain in town? Where’s the bad guy? Bring him to me, right now.”
Wear that badge, and put it on the bar.
Exactly. Exactly! Yeah, I wear it purposefully in a way that most cops wouldn’t wear it, right in front. Because he’s walking into the O.K. Corral. Gotham’s just, “Who the fuck is this kid, and what is he doing?”
One of the sillier things I’m curious about, in that same sense…is the mustache coming?
Are we going to have a moment where all of a sudden, we flash forward a year, and the mustache is…
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
…but is there anything like that that you have in the works or that you’ve been pushing?
The mustache, I have not been pushing, because I’m really worried about looking like an utter jackass with a mustache. But, Bruno did have a fun idea about it, which is at some point, you could open a new season — 2 or 3 or 4 or 5, God willing — with me in the bathroom in the morning, shaving, taking off the facial hair, having this ‘stache looking at yourself, and kind of thinking of it. And then Barbara or Dr. Thompkins or whoever the love interest is, coming in and going, “Oh my God, you’re not going to really wear that are you? That looks terrible!” You know, that kind of thing.
That’s a pretty good scene.
I mean, you’ve got to play with it a little, and play with the audience’s expectations. I’m really having a good time, so at this point, I would really like the show to go on for a long time. And if we got to some crazy-long period of time — and I’m literally thinking wildly — but if it lasted forever, for 10 years or something crazy, could in year 10, I have eaten a lot of great New York City food, and put on 20 pounds, and put on the heft, and put on the ‘stache? Yeah, I could do it. But now, it feels as though we’re trying to satisfy something. It feels needy to put that on. We’ve got to carve out our own identity. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of it on the show. We’ll continue to do it better and better with each episode, but — one of the things that Geoff said, that we all kind of feel — is you have to be respectful of the mythology and be true to the spirit of it, and you have to carve out your own space at the same. You can’t be beholden to the fans because the fans in and of themselves argue among themselves. There is no correct view of who Jim Gordon is, who Batman is [after] 75 years. It’s been interpreted and reinterpreted, and the interpretations contradict themselves, often. So, you just have to make it your own. You just have to go in there and kick some ass.
How far ahead has been planned? Have they talked about a plan for Season 2 or Season 3?
Future seasons, we really don’t know. I mean, we really don’t. Bruno and I talk, but I think he rightly is focusing on this season because you get ahead of yourself in a way that’s not productive. It’s a challenging show to make each and every week, and it’s challenging for him, the directors, and the writers, the actors, the crew, and we just have to make sure that each episode is strong.
Twenty-two times a year.
Twenty-two times a year, exactly. It’s very different, honestly— I’ve done these shows; “Southland” was 10 a year, and it’s wildly different. I mean, it’s 2.2 times more episodes. That’s a lot of episodes.
People talk about it all the time with the Emmys and the Globes, that it’s not fair to compare the two.
They’re different beasts.
Eight episodes or 22? That’s a big difference.
Yeah. You take pride in it as a professional, if you’re able to get most of the episodes to be really good, for that period of time, it’s hard. Most shows — all shows — have slippages, [and] most never really fully nail it. But here, we have the luxury of having all the resources at our disposal — financially and otherwise — because of the pedigree of it all and the fan base. So, we owe it to them, and to us, to do it right. But it’s a challenge. So, future years? I don’t know. The story that I was pitched by Bruno — and Danny, but Bruno as the writer — when I agreed to do it, was “Serpico.” A guy: “Serpico” mixed with “LA Confidential.” It’s a guy going directly into the belly of the beast and taking no prisoners and cleaning it up from the inside. But unlike Serpico, he succeeds in the sense that he rises, but the city falls apart. So his ascendency is marked by the descendancy of Gotham into chaos, which is an interesting kind of hero’s journey. You got bigger and more powerful, but…
…your mission kind of failed, it sounds like. Which is going to be a tough way to end the show.
It had to, to have Batman, for Batman to be needed.