Since 2003, Ben McKenzie has been quietly establishing himself as a hard working actor who seemingly always has a project on the go. Since breaking out—at least with the teen crowd—on The OC as tough, fish-out-of-poor-waters Ryan Atwood, he has appeared in critically acclaimed films (Junebug, 88 Minutes and Johnny Got His Gun and Decoding Annie Parker) and the gritty TNT cop show Southland. The show went through its bumps—it was cancelled by NBC after one season, picked up by TNT and then cancelled after 4 more—but was very well-received, even picking up comparisons to The Shield, Rescue Me and The Wire.
Now, McKenzie is back with a new cop show and a role that was written specifically for him. From the creator of The Mentalist, Gotham is a new take on a 75-year-old story. Set in the city that made Batman famous, the show focuses on a Gotham that has yet to meet Batman…because he’s still a child. McKenzie stars as Detective James Gordon, a rookie cop tasked with solving the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. The prequel features enough familiar villains to keep diehard fans happy and more than enough new material for McKenzie and I to geek out over. We geeked out with him:
Congrats on Gotham, I’m really excited for it.
Thank you very much.
What drew you to the role of Detective Jim Gordon?
Well, I worked with Bruno Heller on a pilot last year and it didn’t go to series but we really enjoyed working together. He sent me the Gotham script earlier this year and said he wrote the part of Jim Gordon with me in mind. So it was an opportunity to work with a guy that I worked with before that I really liked a lot and an opportunity to take on an iconic character in a big setting. He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. And I didn’t refuse.
How can you, if he wrote the role with you in mind?
Yeah, it was really flattering. They treated me as a fellow collaborator. I’m really enjoying that process and we’re all working hard to keep making the show better and better. And I think so far, so good.
There have been so many incarnations of James Gordon throughout the years, I’m interested to see him as a young—maybe idealistic—man. Tell me a bit about Gotham’s version of Gordon.
You’re guessing that he’s idealistic and that’s right. He comes from a line of law enforcement officers; his father was a revered district attourney in Gotham. His father died when he was very young and he moved to the country with his mother. So, he’s coming back to Gotham for the first time as an adult, having served overseas in the military and having seen some action there. He comes with this hard and fast, moral righteousness and he quickly realizes that Gotham has fallen apart. He realizes that to survive and to actually get anything accomplished he has to figure out how to get things done in a city that will simply reject you if you stick to that moral righteousness. So, he has to grow up quick and adjust on the fly to make deals where he has to with the powers that be.
How did you prepare for the role?
I did a lot of reading on the various comics that could be seen as source material. But for the most part I just did what I do with all my projects, which is to look at the words on the page and work on the scenes. It’s hard on a job like this because it’s so public and comes with quite a lot of expectation as the fan base is really big and really vocal, understandably. So I try to treat it like I would any other job. There’s nothing else to do. You can’t really do an imitation of anyone else because that would be ridiculous. So you have to really trust that you’ve been cast for a reason and you know how to act.
I don’t really know of anything that has shown us a Gotham without Batman. What excites you about this new take on such an iconic story?
I think the very fact that Batman doesn’t exist is somewhat exciting because you’re seeing how the city came to be in such a state. As opposed to a more straightforward, traditional story of a hero that faces great conflict and arises and succeeds, we see a man who realizes that if the mad men around him succeed, his own business grows and grows. He sees the world around him crumble while he rises to the top. He develops a lot of scars along the way from all the battles that he’s had to fight. I think it’s an interesting spin on it.
The story of Batman has been around for 75 years. What is it about Batman’s story that makes it timeless and something people want again and again?
If you want the real answer, I think it goes back to the teenage psyche. I think so much of the superhero mythology rests on it. A young person, usually a teenage boy, who experiences a horrific tragedy—often the death of his parents—is forced to grapple with that. In other superhero myths, usually the young man gains some power like being able to fly or climb the walls like a spider. What’s interesting about Batman is, of course, he doesn’t have any of those. At the end of the day, he’s simply a man who is extremely wealthy and has access to all sorts of gadgets. What’s somewhat interesting about this is that in lieu of Batman we have an even more human, fallible person at the core of this. He’s a decorated war hero and an accomplished fighter, but at the end of the day, he’s just a man.
I have to ask, what is it about Gotham city that attracts all these maniacal psychos?
Well, Gotham is like our id. It’s the dark side of all of us. It’s where we get to be as angry and ruthless and vicious as we all would like to be. It’s almost a free-for-all with every man, woman and child watching out for themselves. Everyone is battling each other. I think Jim represents the good side, the side that says “no no no, that’s not right, we can’t do that.” I don’t know what it is about Gotham, particularly, but I think it taps in to what we all fear about dark alleys in any major city in the world. That there are bad guys around each corner that will do us wrong. And it’s always been that way.
Do you have a favourite villain?
Not really. A lot of them will be introduced on the show very quickly so there will be plenty for people to choose from. But I kind of like them all. I think Scarecrow is kind of cool. I’ve always liked The Riddler a lot. There are so many. If the show lasts long enough, we’ll be able to show an awful lot of them.
You’re obviously no stranger to roles in law enforcement. What, if anything, are you bringing to Gotham that you picked up on Southland?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
No, no, I’m just kidding. You definitely bring a little bit of the cop stuff there because we are still doing a cop show. There are certain kinds of tactical stuff, but it’s more so the mindset of how cops interact with the citizens of the city while on patrol. But more what I’m bringing from Southland is what I picked up as an actor, which is a kind of ‘all for one’ spirit that we had on Southland. I’m trying to bring a sense of camaraderie to the cast and a sense of unity of focus. Trying to make the best show possible is tricky on a show like this, which is really big and has a lot of different pieces to it, a big budget and a big cast. We’re trying to tell a bunch of different stories at once. It’s usually helpful to the cast if the guy at the middle of it has a sense that we’re all in it together.
Your costar Donal Logue is also pretty familiar with playing law enforcement; he played an FBI agent on Sons of Anarchy in the last season. Do the two of you ever sit around and talk tricks of the trade?
Yeah! We sit around and talk about it. We have a lot of respect for each other, so we’ll sit around and talk all kinds of different actor stories which would probably bore anyone else to tears. We can talk about it endlessly because, at the end of the day, we’re kindred spirits; two guys who picked this crazy profession and are trying to do it well. We also talk about how criminals operate and what we’ve picked up from doing our respective shows. We go into the research we did and what we think of how criminals think and commit their crimes.
This incarnation of Gordon seems to be a bit more badass than others. Is that just me?[Laughs] I will try to live up to that and make him as badass as possible. I think in the last couple Batmans, Gary Oldman walked around with an AR-15 kicking a lot of ass, which is a lot to live up to. But there’s definitely a lot of action here, cool fight scenes, fisticuffs and gunplay. I think it’ll be a spectacle type thing that people will watch. Quite frankly, even if people aren’t huge fans of the comics, there’s still a good show in there just in terms of the larger-than-life city that the cops are trying to patrol.
What kind of physical training went into prepping for the role?
You know, I do my own stuff regardless of whether I’m working on a job or not. It’s a combination of weight lifting, a little bit of boxing and running. But Gordon isn’t supposed to be really buff or anything. He’s not supposed to have a specific set of skills outside of being an excellent soldier. I didn’t have to learn kung-fu or anything.
In an interview, one of Gotham’s producers, Danny Cannon, said that in you they found a ‘Gary Cooper-type’. Would you describe yourself as the strong, silent type? Or, by extension, Jim Gordon?
I wouldn’t describe myself that way, but, yeah, I’d say that’s what Jim is. In many respects. The best leaders, I think, particularly in law enforcement, lead by example…through action rather than words. In some ways, this is kind of a western, so Gary Cooper is a decent archetype of a calm, kind-but-tough man, a morally resolute man at the centre of the Okay Corral in the middle of a shoot out. He’s going to try to do what’s right, he’s going to try to do it the best way he can and he’ll take his lumps along the way. In that sense, yeah, I try to be that way. I fail most of the time, but I try.
With Southland and now Gotham, you’ve played a cop twice. Do you have any cop shows you like?
Well, I loved The Wire, it was fantastic. Do I watch a lot of cop shows? I guess it depends on what you’re into. Luther is another great one. When it comes to cop shows I’m more into the darker stuff than I am the lighter stuff.
Is there a specific character you find particularly badass?
Well, it’s hard to argue with Idris Alba’s Luther. He’s doing a pretty good job there.
We spoke about Jim Gordon’s evolution at the beginning of this chat. How would you describe your own evolution since you started in this business?
You know, you learn by doing and you learn by repetition. It’s not rocket science. It’s showing up and doing your job and watching and learning from other people. You make mistakes and you learn from them. As long as you keep a good head on your shoulders, theoretically you’ll get better as you go.
Do you see a noticeable change in yourself?
Slower, greyer in the hair, more tired, easily tired… positive changes I’m not sure about. But physically I’m just older, slower and fatter. [Laughs] Is that what you were looking for?
I find that hard to believe with the fitness regiment you’re on.
Well, it’s hard to compete with your 23-year-old self. But I’m doing my best. I think what really comes in handy is the wisdom that comes with age, the idea of what not to do and what not to put yourself in. You realize that you don’t have to go there, or drink this, or smoke that or whatever. You learn from watching people that you respect and how they conduct themselves and how they truly practice their craft.
Gotham airs on Monday’s at 8pm EST on CTV. You can watch the first episode here.