The bad boy from The OC is now on the right side of the law. Guy Davis took a tour of Southland with Ben McKenzie.
Dubbed a “ raw and authentic” look at law enforcement in Los Angeles, Southland is the kind of underrated gem that can be hard to find but is well worth the effort.
While it’s an ensemble piece focusing on a diverse array of cops, one of the central characters is rookie LAPD officer Ben Sherman, played by Ben McKenzie, best remembered for his role as Ryan on teen soap The OC.
What attracted you to Southland?
The script is incredibly dense, intricate and beautiful. I can’t give away much about my character but you get a sense, pretty quickly, of the reason why he’s chosen to become not only a police officer but a very specific patrol officer, starting at the bottom and working his way up. It has to do with other things going on in his personal life. There’s a lot to each character, and every character is not only who they appear on the job but someone who has a whole host of emotional and psychological factors going on, behind the scenes, that inform who they are.
You’re playing this newcomer, someone through who we see this world unfold. How did you get into character, and how do you view him?
I knew nothing about police work before taking on the part, and one of the wonderful aspects of the production was the prep. They let us do ridealongs with officers in pretty tough divisions such as South Central LA. And then they also took us through a primer on the use of handcuffs, on search procedures, on all sorts of code stuff. It was like a boot camp but the actual boot camp is a lot tougher for an actual officer. Ours was the flaky actor version. [ Laughs] My character is the focal point of the pilot, primarily as a storytelling device, to get viewers into the world we’re entering. We need to have some fresh eyes for the world, and he has the freshest eyes of anybody. It’s his first month on the job, and he’s in over his head a little bit. The series will divert from that pretty quickly and tell a lot of different stories. But with the pilot you need a way to get into the world, and the way to get into the world is through a rookie like me.
Can you relate to him?
Yeah, I actually think I’m quite a bit like my character. I think I’m more like Ben Sherman than I am Ryan Atwood, far more so. I grew up in a pretty well-off family, in a nice upper-middle class kind of existence, and there are aspects of Ben Sherman’s personality – his ambition, his intelligence and his work ethic – that I would certainly like to aspire to. I would certainly like to believe I share them with him – sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. But I can definitely relate to him. And I can definitely relate to him seeing stuff on the street and being completely blown away by what’s happening in front of him. I didn’t grow up in Beverly Hills but I was sheltered in the same way that a lot of people are sheltered – you just don’t see this kind of stuff every day. Some of it’s very sad, some of it’s very disturbing, some of it’s very inspiring and some of it’s very funny. It’s the whole gamut of emotions.
What sets Southland police procedurals?
I think that the focus on the characters, not the crime, is absolutely a unique aspect of the show. I also think the way that it’s shot – it’s filmed on location, not in a studio, so everything is meant to look and feel as realistic as possible. And I think the dialogue is more realistic to the way that cops actually work, with the things they see and the situations they encounter. As opposed to some of the aspects of … well, I’m not trying to mock them but CSI or something, where they’re sitting in a lab and talking in long, expositional sentences about the scientific way that they are going to take the guy’s thumbnail and determine that, yes, the butler did it. [ Laughs] I just think it’s more realistic on all sorts of levels.
On the beat: Ben McKenzie, centre and inset, plays rookie cop Ben Sherman.