How Ben McKenzie's roles have prepared him to play Jim Gordon, not just 'The O.C.' bad boy

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Image Credit: Doug Hyun/TNT

This weekend, it was announced that Ben McKenzie has landed the lead role of Jim Gordon in Fox’s upcoming Batman prequel series, Gotham. Minutes later, Twitter exploded with congratulations, a few skeptical remarks, and every O.C.-to-Gotham pun you can think of: “Welcome to Gotham, bitch.” “I hope Jim Gordon’s going to wear a choker.” “Does this mean Seth Cohen will be be The Joker?” And although I understand everyone’s desire to reference McKenzie’s well-known run as Ryan Atwood on my favorite show in the history of ever, I also want to stress that McKenzie being perfect for the role of Jim Gordon is about more than his work on The O.C.

Is The O.C. a factor? Of course. Do I think McKenzie’s four seasons as Ryan Atwood are a prime example for what he can do as an actor? Definitely. I just don’t think that one role entirely encompasses his ability, which is why I want to talk about the many other roles that make him a good fit to play Jim Gordon.

To go ahead and get it out of the way, I will say that The O.C. did a lot more than demonstrate McKenzie’s ability to throw a punch or deliver a meaningful threat. Most obviously, perhaps, it showcased his ability to say so much without saying anything at all. Ryan Atwood was a man of few words who somehow seemed to constantly be in the conversation. For me, the season 2 finale was the perfect example of this. When Seth told Ryan about what really happened between Trey and Marissa, McKenzie took his character through a vast array of emotions in fewer than 50 words. If you weren’t already a fan of McKenzie’s work, that moment should have pulled you in.

That being said, The O.C. was quite literally the start of McKenzie’s career. It’s only one of the things that makes him great. For example, nobody on Twitter seems to be mentioning McKenzie’s portrayal of Johnny in the 2005 independent film Junebug. In the film — which earned Amy Adams her first Oscar nomination — McKenzie played the onetime high school jock who got his girlfriend (Adams) pregnant, and in a turn of events, suddenly felt like a nobody who’d been abandoned by his brother and was now trapped in a life he wasn’t sure he wanted. It was in Junebug that McKenzie showed us the depths of his vulnerability as an actor. McKenzie welcomed the opportunity to put aside his sex-symbol status and play the odd man out, the character who wasn’t always easy to love. And yet, McKenzie made him lovable. This was the role that proved that McKenzie didn’t need to be front and center to make an impact. [Bonus Jim Gordon point: Junebug demonstrated that McKenzie can successfully grow a mustache.]

Also not being mentioned on Twitter is McKenzie’s brief turn as an all-too-average guy in the 2009 short film The Eight Percent. For six minutes, McKenzie’s character embarked on a first date of sorts with his former high school sweetheart. After breaking up in college, the pair hadn’t seen each other in years before agreeing to meet, and the result was an incredibly realistic portrayal of human connection. As stupid as it sounds, this was the role that showed me how pure McKenzie could be. He didn’t need to be angry to be powerful on screen. He didn’t need to be damaged. He could quite literally just be human, and I was still captivated.

From there, we move to McKenzie’s second stint on television, when he played Southland‘s Ben Sherman. Followers of mine probably already know that Southland is one of my favorite shows of all time, but the quality of the program — excellent —  isn’t what we’re talking about. Overall, Ben Sherman underwent the biggest character transformation of anyone McKenzie’s played. In the show’s pilot, he was a wide-eyed kid (with some anger issues) from a rich family who wanted nothing more than to be a cop. As time went on, his demons began to reveal themselves as he slowly fell victim to the dark side of power. By the show’s season 5 finale — after which it was canceled — Sherman was no longer the good guy who once helped his partner to rehab. Now, he was the guy who nearly got his partner’s kid killed.

Following McKenzie on that journey was as exciting as it was heartbreaking. Most importantly, it showed his range as an actor, as well as his ability to accurately portray a character who was constantly battling juxtaposing characteristics and instincts. Sherman was never just the good guy or just the bad guy. He was going through a complex journey, and McKenzie never lost sight of who Sherman was within each stage of his life and career. And personally, I think Sherman’s journey ended with McKenzie’s greatest scene to date, when Ben and Sammy’s partnership ended in a fistfight. In his final moments, McKenzie was raw and compelling. All at once, I sympathized with Sherman and hated myself for doing so. [Bonus Jim Gordon point: McKenzie knows how the whole cop thing works.]

Finally, I have to mention McKenzie’s voice-over work in 2011’s Batman: Year One. He voiced Batman opposite Bryan Cranston’s Gordon, which means that he’s both familiar with this world and he’s gotten to watch the great Bryan Cranston inhabit a character he will now take on. If that experience doesn’t help prepare him for this next venture, I’m not sure what will.

All in all, McKenzie was amazing in The O.C. but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. That’s simply reason number one on my list of why I think he’ll make one helluva Jim Gordon. McKenzie doesn’t shy away from complexity. He can be dark. He can be light. And perhaps most importantly, I don’t think we’ve seen the full extent of his abilities just yet.

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