Welcome to the fictional Northwest Washington University, bitch! Benjamin McKenzie, best known for playing Ryan Atwood on The O.C., occasionally pops up as a smarmy forensics student in 88 Minutes, the Seattle-set Al Pacino thriller in theaters this Friday. We caught up with Ben to see if he’d be more generous with his spoken words than Ryan. And he was!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You filmed 88 Minutes back in 2005, right?
BEN MCKENZIE: Yeah, we filmed it a little while ago. We were shooting The O.C. in L.A., and they were shooting the movie up in Vancouver, but they were on a Wednesday-to-Sunday schedule. So I was able to basically go up on weekends. It was two months of seven-day work weeks. Never worked that hard.
Was it strange going back and forth?
It was very weird. It felt half the time like I was daydreaming, like I wasn’t really working with Al Pacino and it was all in my imagination.
When you found out you were working with him, were you terrified?
Absolutely petrified. I had some time to rehearse with him a little bit before we started shooting, when I first got up there. I was just doing a wardrobe fitting and at the last minute, the director [Jon Avnet] calls me up and says Al wants to rehearse. So it ended up being just me, Al, the director, and the photographer in this huge lecture hall. I was fumbling all my lines, but he was so gracious and nonchalant about it.
There’s one scene where it’s just you and him — you’re on a motorcycle, and he’s walking in front of you the whole time. That must have been weird.
That was weird, and that was another thing I was worried about. I hadn’t learned how to ride a motorcycle before, and because I was working on The O.C. and also shooting the movie, I didn’t get as much time to learn how to ride as I would have wanted. We kept pushing the date back for when we were gonna shoot the scene on the bike. So right before we start shooting, I’m having a hell of hard time changing gears and shifting and getting it in the right place, and I’m literally convinced I’m gonna hit the gas when I should be hitting the brake or something, you know, and kill Al.
Oh god, you’d be the guy from The O.C. who killed Al Pacino!
Yeah, I would never work in Hollywood again. Once you kill Al Pacino, you’re pretty much done. It wouldn’t even be the guy from The O.C., by the way. It’d just be like, ”that one guy.” Like, ”You know that guy, he killed Al Pacino that one time? He totally killed one of the greatest actors ever?”
Anyway, Al saw how bad I was on the bike, and we took a break, and when we came back to shoot it after rehearsing, he used a stunt double for just the opening shot of me pulling in.
Well, I’m glad you didn’t kill him…or the stunt double.
No Al Pacinos were harmed in the making of this movie.
I feel like if Ryan Atwood had stayed in Chino, he might’ve eventually been tooling around on a motorcycle.
You’re probably right. Not the cycle I was riding around on, which was like, Italian. He’d probably be on some sort of muscle bike, like a Harley. But yeah, if I’d been true to my Ryan Atwood self, I would’ve already known how to ride.
As an [O.C.] fan, it was pretty hilarious for me to watch you play this loudmouth, know-it-all college student.
Yeah, it was nice to play a slightly older, more verbose character…who doesn’t just respond in monosyllables.
I was a little surprised that you were only in 88 Minutes for, like, eight minutes.
I know. Well, scheduling-wise, it wasn’t easy to work out, so it kind of ended up being what it was. Watching the trailer, I thought it slightly exaggerated my role. But you know, they called me and they were like, ”Most of your scenes are with Al Pacino.” And I just said, ”Absolutely.” That’s the reason I did it.
Were you happy with the way the movie turned out?
Yeah, I’m basically happy with the way my stuff ended up. To be honest with you, because of the way it was set up, we were kind of all doing our little parts. Al did every scene, but the rest of us weren’t really around for the rest of it. So it was all new to me. Watching it for the first time, it was like, ”Oh, that’s what the movie is.”
NEXT PAGE: ”It got to the point [on The O.C.] where we were repeating ourselves and telling similar stories. So in that sense I think it was a natural place to end, before it went onto, like, 90210 levels, like 10 years later. Like, they all live together or something. That’s kind of ridiculous.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: A more recent project of yours is a film called Johnny Got His Gun [which is based on Dalton Trumbo’s 1930s novel and was previously made into a movie in 1971]. Will that be released in theaters?
BEN MCKENZIE: I don’t know. We shot it in the early weeks of fall last year. We’ve been sort of working in post with it. It’s a film version of the play version of the book, if that makes sense. The book was a big deal, especially during Vietnam, and it was turned into a one-man play with Jeff Daniels. So we decided to film me doing the play. I’m in a black box theater, and there’s no audience. It’s sort of a hybrid, between, like, a Lars von Trier Dogville and Spalding Gray, you know, Monster in a Box, something like that. It’s not quite a play, not quite an ordinary feature. It was really a lot of fun for me to do, and something different.
The character must have been a huge challenge — you play a war survivor who’s lost all his limbs and facial features.
Yeah, he basically has no ability to speak — he communicates through Morse code by tapping his head against his bed. He has no eyes, nose, ears, mouth. But because it’s a play, I’m shown as I see myself, full-body, fully capable. You have to sort of physicalize that.
How did you get into that project?
The director [Rowan Joseph], who’s been involved in L.A. theater — and New York as well — approached me about doing a film of it. And I’m somewhat political, and I loved the book and the play. I just fell in love with the words, you know? Dalton Trumbo was one of the best screenwriters and novelists of his time, and the book itself has its own place in American history.
Johnny Got His Gun was already a movie in 1971 — did you ever see that?
To be honest with you, I’ve only seen clips. It’s really hard to get a hold of. I’ve just seen clips from the  Metallica video [for the song ”One,” which included snippets of the film]. It’s a very different thing than the movie. No props, sets…it’s a much more stripped-down version of it. It’s just the words, and someone’s performing directly to the camera.
Is it just you most of the time in the movie?
Just me. The whole movie.
[Laughs] Well, wait ’til you see it. It was a challenge. There’s nothing else going on — it succeeds or fails on its own. Hopefully it works out. I’ve seen a rough cut of it, and I like it. Looking at most of the career choices I’ve made since The O.C., honestly I’m just trying things that challenge me as an actor and if they don’t work, they don’t work. I’d rather search for something a little less orthodox and risk failure than sort of just doing the same thing over and over again.
What about The Stanford Prison Experiment?
It’s been in pre-production for a while. Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects, cowrote this Tom Cruise movie Valkyrie, so he’s been dealing with that for the past year, basically, so…we’ll see. It’s honestly a really great script and a great story, very timely. It’s about this experiment conducted at Stanford — so the title works! They basically wanted to simulate a prison environment, so they created a fake prison in a building off-campus and put 10 or 20 students into groups. Half of them were prisoners and half of them guards, just randomly. And the idea was to see how people respond to authority. Basically, they had to call it off within a few days because it got really intense — the guards were verbally and physically abusing the prisoners and the prisoners were losing their minds. What started off as kind of a quaint little experiment became this fascinating study of the power dynamic and what prison can do to people.
Would you ever want to do TV again?
I might. There’s very few actors — the George Clooneys — who can pick and choose. Most of us are just responding to what’s out there. But that being said, I really do pick for the part. I loved having that immediate feedback from The O.C., and more to the point, I loved having a job to go to every day, and getting to exercise those muscles. But also, it got to the point where we were repeating ourselves and telling similar stories. So in that sense I think it was a natural place to end, before it went onto, like, 90210 levels, like 10 years later. Like, they all live together or something. That’s kind of ridiculous.
Who’s better with a gun — Al Pacino or Mischa Barton?
Al Pacino had a stronger grip, I think. I don’t know if you’ve seen that SNL skit playing off that O.C. scene — pretty fantastic.
Oh yeah, with the ”Hide and Seek” song playing over and over!
Yeah, that was hilarious.
Do you worry about being pegged as ”that guy from The O.C.” for the rest of your career?
Constantly. I can’t sleep at night. No, honestly, all I can do is try things that I think are different, whether it’s [what I did in] Junebug — you know, that small, indie character — or working with Al. I try to do parts based on what those parts are and my ability to do them. I haven’t done any of the teen comedy stuff since then. If people put me in that box, there’s not much I can do about it.