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Ben McKenzie of 'Southland,' 'The O.C.,' talks new Batman prequel, 'Gotham'

Ben McKenzie at the Sept. 16, 2014 premiere

Ben McKenzie at the Sept. 16, 2014 premiere of the new Batman prequel "Gotham" on Fox. Credit: AP

Ben McKenzie first gained attention as troubled teen Ryan Atwood in the hit TV series "The O.C." Not content with being a teen idol, he followed that up by playing an L.A. cop on the critically acclaimed series "Southland." Now, the 36-year-old actor is starring in one of the most anticipated shows of the new TV season. "Gotham," debuting tomorrow at 8 p.m. on Fox, is a sort of prequel to the Batman epic, in which characters like Penguin, Catwoman and Bruce Wayne himself appear as their much younger selves. In the series, McKenzie plays Det. Jim Gordon -- later Commissioner Gordon -- a war-weary vet forced to deal with a hugely corrupt city. Lewis Beale spoke to the thoughtful actor by phone from Los Angeles.

What were your initial thoughts when you heard the concept of this series?

I thought it was a really interesting idea, to take this mythology that an enormous number of people are familiar with, and go back to how it all started, and really only switching one thing -- putting Jim Gordon in contact with Bruce Wayne as we start the story, and to form that bond at an early age. It was a cool idea, and a difficult one to pull off.

Describe your character.

He's fresh out of the military, he's a war hero, and he's coming back to Gotham for the first time as an adult, having left under tragic circumstances, because his father died in a car accident. He's coming back with this form of moral righteousness, but he doesn't know how morally bankrupt the city has become. He's trying to seek justice in an unjust world. There are elements of this which are a nod to "Serpico," and crime saga stories like "The Godfather" and things like that, where these criminal elements are fighting each other for control of the city.

Comic book fans tend to be really proprietary about their favorite characters. Are you worried about how they might react to the show?

Yeah, I am. End of the day, I am. I could pretend that wasn't a concern, but there is no way as an actor you can control the process like you can control a scene from moment to moment. How it's going to be viewed by these ardent fans, who knows? I think we're making a really good show. I didn't grow up as a comic book aficionado, but all I hear is the feedback of people wishing me well.

You're shooting in New York after filming two previous series in L.A. What's the difference?

I'm loving it in New York. Gotham has always been New York. There's an energy and pace to New York City that you can't duplicate on a back lot in Burbank. You have to be in that energy to get it on-screen.

Your previous series, "Southland," was a gritty series about L.A. street cops. It was critically acclaimed, but dropped by NBC, then picked up by TNT, where it seemed to languish. Do you think it would have been better off on a pay-cable network like HBO?

Maybe. It's remarkable how fast the terrain has changed in TV. In the 10 years I've been doing it, there has been a sea change in these models that are more oriented to niche- focused content. I thought TNT treated us really well; we never did as big numbers as their other shows, and they stuck by us. We just didn't quite fit into the rest of their shows; their shows are not as aggressive as our show was. I don't bear any grudges against any of them.

You come from a very artistic and well-educated, family. Father is a lawyer, mom a prizewinning poet, one brother edited the UCLA Law Review, and an uncle is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. How did all that influence you?

It influenced me greatly. I grew up thinking that what you do for a living, you should take seriously. We had heady conversations over the dinner table about history, politics, art, literature. I went to New York when I was 12 to see my uncle's play on Broadway , and it opened me up to an understanding that there was a bigger world out there of people pursuing the arts as a living, and how wonderful a job that could be. It pushed me to try to do something I really wanted to do.

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