When Benjamin McKenzie scored his breakout gig on The O.C. in 2003, his performance as a brooding teen won him comparisons to Russell Crowe. But in recent seasons, his Ryan Atwood character has become more like McKenzie himself: smart (the actor, an ’01 University of Virginia grad, majored in economics) and slyly funny (on the Crowe comments: “I’m glad to be compared to him and not Carrot Top”). The Austin native, 26, who plays another angry young man in the new indie film Junebug, talked to PEOPLE about Southern pride and the benefits of sulking.
What’s it like being a Southerner in Hollywood?
There’s kind of an unspoken code we all have – we all acknowledge one another. For a long time it was looked down upon to have an accent, to be in any discernable way not uber-hip, uber-urban, uber-cool. I think now people are realizing that’s what makes us who we are. I’m very proud to be from Austin, Texas.
You must have had lots of movie offers. Why did you choose this one?
First of all, it’s not entirely true. The sort of stuff you get off The O.C. is the sort of stuff you expect to get off The O.C. – teen-oriented material. When this script came along, I fell in love with it. A side benefit was that it wouldn’t be the same thing I do most of the year. It was very sexy to be able to try something else and see if I can do (it). And if not, I could fall on my ass, but in a small way. Then the movie exceeded my wildest expectations. To go to Sundance and Cannes – I never thought it would actually see theaters.
In Junebug, your character doesn’t speak much. What was it like to sulk for weeks on end?
It was wonderfully therapeutic. I’m not particularly some sort of method guy, (so) I could sulk the entire time I was shooting – the whole time after action – then the rest of the time I could be the nicest, happiest guy.
How did filming this movie compare to working on The O.C.?
It’s different. I find it very, very gratifying. It feels like you’re working toward one common goal. Anything that’s in a studio system or corporate system is more product-based – you’re just a piece of a bigger machine, and you don’t have much free will.
Now that you’re filming the third season of The O.C., is there a certain comfort level?
Yeah, it’s a well-oiled machine now. We just go in, get it done. It’s good – I think the show’s keeping up.
Are you dating anyone?
I am not. No, I am not.
How do you deal with all the Hollywood hype?
Go as far away from L.A. as you can. Do films like this. Stay the way you were before, as long as you like who you were before. And I liked who I was before.