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Ben McKenzie on Southland, Leno, and Breaking Free of The O.C.

Last year, Ben McKenzie — best known for playing bad boy Ryan Atwood on the SoCal teen masterpiece, The O.C. — successfully aged his brooding looks and angsty stares to a grittier, adult role: rookie cop Ben Sherman on NBC's critically acclaimed Southland. As everyone who follows NBC's speedy devolution knows, the network initially renewed the show after its successful spring debut, but abruptly canceled it to make room for Jay Leno. TNT swooped in, and starting tonight at 10 p.m. will air the seven episodes that aired on NBC, as well as six more never-seen episodes shot for the aborted season two. McKenzie, 31, now finds himself out re-promoting a show that he was already interviewed about last year, but he seems happy enough to do it, gamely schlepping down to our offices in Tribeca after a day of making the press rounds. He spoke with Vulture about being moved to cable, shedding his O.C. image, and feeling some guilt-free Schadenfreude over Leno’s demise.

So, first of all …
Yes, I see my O.C. castmates all the time, we hang out, it’s great … and, uh, yes, it’s been a challenge for me to change roles, play a more mature character, and it’s quite a switch from the O.C. … I’m sorry, I’m being way too sarcastic. Quiz me.

Okay. Being canceled by NBC before you even aired must have been a big, fat downer.
It was unusual, yes. I guess it wasn’t due to our ratings. It’s funny that Leno is now officially off 10 p.m., and he’s the reason that our cancellation happened. So is it karma? It’s just funny. And now NBC is ordering up all these high-profile pilots to get quality scripted dramas back at 10 p.m., and it’s like, huh, that’s funny, I have a quality scripted drama that they might like. But hopefully now we’ll get the ratings we need at TNT, and if it works there, it will be a more natural fit than it ever was at NBC.

How so?
Not to be a snob, but the sophisticated, character-driven dramas — the networks just aren’t going to do them anymore. They’re going to stick to things that are more straightforward procedurals or soap operas or whatever. The new great dramas are going to cable, and the reason is that cable doesn’t have to get that big of an audience, and can pull off that niche market.

Are you in the midst of filming new episodes?
Not yet. TNT bought the seven episodes that aired on NBC last year, and then six new ones that we’d already shot before we were canceled. So there will be six episodes that people haven’t seen, and then we’ll start filming new shows if we get the ratings we need.

What will the move to TNT mean for the tone of the show?
TNT can go in and un-bleep some things, and we can be even grittier. The Wire is the holy grail of law-enforcement TV shows, but we’re on cable, not HBO, so we’re focusing more on a few characters, and it’s going to be less of an epic, sociological study.

How does the rest of the cast feel about the changes?
You know, there was no drama on the set, nothing between the actors and the producers, etc. All the drama was with our former network, so now we’re free of that. What does Mad Men have to get — like a million people? We have to get a little more than that, but if they’re all 18–49 year olds, we’d be good to go.

The characters on Southland are pretty three-dimensional for a cop show.
We have a female writer, Ann Biderman, who wrote Public Enemies and Primal Fear, and I think it’s cool to have her write all the characters. It’s not necessarily more feminine, but it’s not a lot of chest thumping, "Rah rah rah, we’re the cops," you know? We have a black cop whose issues aren’t about being black, and a gay cop whose issues aren’t about being gay. So I feel like we’re not falling back on broad stereotypes.

This is your first show after The O.C., which ended in 2007. Why the long break?
It has been difficult for me to move on. You’re on a show like The O.C., and it’s so pop culturally everywhere. You’re that guy for a while, whether you like it or not. I was offered a lot of "Ryan Atwood on film," is the way I describe them. So yeah, I’ve worked less than some other actors in my position, but that’s out of choice. I think it was very smart and big of [executive producer] John Wells to get me to do the role, to take me for who I am as a person as opposed to the image.

And who are you?
I’m not that teen guy.

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