Ben McKenzie doesn't have it bad.
The 2001 College graduate has established himself in his chosen profession -- acting -- by landing the role of main character Ryan on Fox's hit new teen drama, "The O.C.," which airs at 9 p.m. tonight.
He took some time out of his busy shooting schedule -- his lunch break, to be exact -- to talk with The Cavalier Daily. Not every alumnus has a publicist.
As Ryan, McKenzie plays a teen with a troubled past, arrested for stealing a car with his brother and subsequently abandoned by his mother. He is taken in by his public defender, played by Peter Gallagher, and must transition from his working-class Chino past to the sometimes ridiculously opulent lifestyle of Orange County, California.
But McKenzie said Ryan's background has little in common with his own past.
"I was a football player, got a good degree from a great university -- little shout out to U.Va. there -- and I had a very wonderful family and grew up in a great environment," McKenzie said.
But he does feel he and Ryan are somewhat a match of personalities.
"I'm a fairly quiet, thoughtful, passionate guy, and I think Ryan is too," McKenzie said.
McKenzie's double majors, foreign affairs and economics, are not the most obvious for someone interested in acting, but he said that his interest in the theater didn't start until college.
"I came to U.Va. from Austin, Texas, where I played football and was not an actor -- I didn't have the guts to do it. When I came to U.Va. I didn't really know what I wanted to do, but I was intending to do something like politics or history or literature," McKenzie said. "But I tried out for a play and got cast, and I loved that experience and kept doing it again and again."
As graduation approached he wasn't sure whether he wanted to pursue acting or try something more conventional -- but eventually acting won out.
He spent the summer after graduation working with the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts and then moved to New York City in fall of 2001.
"It was right before Sept. 11. I got up there and it was a mess. The theater scene in large part shut down, so I waited tables and auditioned," he said. "I had the opportunity to go to L.A. so I packed a bag, figuring I'd be back in a week, but a week later I was still there and a year later I was still there."
And right after that he landed the job on "The O.C."
"It's a very 'go west young man seeking fame and fortune' kind of story," McKenzie said. "I had no plan. It was very haphazard. To be honest, in this business it's very haphazard how you make it anyway. You try to become a good actor by studying and working on it and then you give it a shot, and there's no way to guarantee success or failure."
His advice to students interested in following in his footsteps is to consider whether it's what you really want to do and then give it your all.
And be prepared to deal with disappointment with an open mind, McKenzie said.
"The most hardworking guy doesn't always get the job," he explained. "You have to understand that and be okay with that."
McKenzie is certainly working hard now.
He spends up to 12 hours a day working on the show, mostly on the set.
"It's a lot less glamorous and different than one would imagine. It's normal lives and normal people, of which I am one," McKenzie said. "You have different requirements, basically. Instead of having to do research for a presentation, you have to do a couple of interviews to promote a show."
McKenzie said he believes part of the reason the media has picked up so heavily on the show is that it is a break from cop, lawyer and reality TV.
The casts' looks don't hurt either.
Asked if Peter Gallagher is as hot on TV as he is in real life, McKenzie said he was.
"It's a pretty attractive cast, I have to say, both guys and girls," McKenzie said. "We're doing all right for ourselves."
The cast works five or six episodes ahead of what the show is airing, depending on when reruns air and other factors.
"It's mildly amusing to have people who are very avid fans want to know if Marissa is going to break up with Ryan," McKenzie said. "It's interesting to watch because as an actor you know what's coming up but the rest of the world doesn't."
He finds the working world on the set to be "a wonderfully cooperative environment."
"Josh [the creator] is 27 years old, and me being 25 I'm able to talk to him almost as a peer," McKenzie said. "I sit down with him after each draft, and anything I think is a trouble spot we work through it. I can't stress enough how important it is, and rare. Other shows end up being an environment where they tell you what's going to happen."
McKenzie said the cast members are able to have a fair amount of influence on their characters, especially Adam Brody, who plays the sarcastic Seth.
"Adam's able to put his own comedy and humor into the show, and I'm able to adjust the dialogue to something I think is semi-accurate," McKenzie said. "[Josh] also bases some of the show off of our lives."
He cited an example in which a conversation between he and Adam about girls turned up in the script.
"You have to watch yourself when you're around Josh," McKenzie said.
McKenzie's time at the University was full of normal activities. He streaked the Lawn. His favorite restaurant was Michael's Bistro, although he enjoyed going downtown to C&O when his parents were in town to foot the bill. He lived in Emmet his first year.
While serious about his studies, he spent most of his free time doing theater. "Mainly what happened was I would go to class during the day and have rehearsal at night," McKenzie said.
He worked in several productions, including a role as the duke in "Measure for Measure" during his fourth year, for any current fourth years who might have seen him during their first year.
He also enjoyed working with several of the professors in the drama department, including Betsy Tucker, Richard Warner and Gwen West, who he stressed were in no particular order.
"I look back and think U.Va. really is a wonderful place to go to school," McKenzie said. "Not to be too much of a dork, but it's a great learning environment. The professors are genuinely there to teach, and at other schools they're there to research."
Anyone looking for evidence of McKenzie in the yearbook isn't going to find him, however, because McKenzie is not his real last name.
He changed to his middle name -- his full name is Benjamin McKenzie Schenkkan -- because there was already an actor with a similar name in the union.
"He's in 'Angels in America' [and also last week's episode of 'Law and Order'] -- Ben Shenkman," McKenzie said. "It was causing confusion already, so I thought it would be simpler and easier if I went with my middle name."
McKenzie enjoyed following University sports while an undergraduate, especially football and basketball, "with the lovely court that Jefferson signed." He tries to follow the teams now, but they don't get onto television too often in Los Angeles, where he is now working.
Despite his high school background as a football player, McKenzie did not play any sports while at the University, although he did have a brief encounter with rugby.
"I played rugby for a while with a hallmate, Chris Turner -- a great guy. Rugby players are much scarier than football players, they do it without pads -- they're really nice guys but they're crazy," McKenzie said. "I'm not big enough to do it and not break. It was fun though. I had no idea what I was doing, running around trying to throw the ball to someone."
McKenzie said he sees the future as pretty wide open.
"In the near future I'd love to break into film and try my hand at different roles and different genres," he said.
Asked if he wants to be an actor for the rest of his life, he said there's no way to be sure.
"I love what I do," McKenzie said. "But it's hard to say at age 25. Four years ago I didn't know I wanted to be an actor. I'm interested in government and politics, and other aspects of the business, like directing, producing, writing."
And of course he'd like to come back to visit his alma mater.
"Wahoowa. Hopefully I'll make it back some day, be able to hang out again," McKenzie said. "It was a great time, a great school. I'll never be able to do it again"