ATLANTA - Never underestimate the role of naivete in building an acting career.
That's one of the attributes that Ben McKenzie says led him to his film debut in Junebug, a critically praised indie movie that opens tomorrow, by way of the Cannes Film Festival. What makes McKenzie's appearance in the movie as a sad sack good ol' boy so noteworthy is that up until now he's been known exclusively for his starring role as Ryan Atwood in the Fox TV soap The O.C., a circumstance that dictates that every time his name is mentioned in any medium, the term "teen heartthrob" is always attached.
We're talking Tiger Beat pinup boy, with the kind of soft, dreamy good looks that run in a line of teen squeal-appeal back through Dawson's Creek to David Cassidy.
"It's not that I sought out a project that would be the polar opposite of The O.C., but of all the scripts I read, this was the project I had passion about," he says in a telephone interview during a break in filming the show in California.
"I knew I was in this for the long haul, and I wasn't looking to cash in on the teen, you know, stardom thing, for lack of a better word," he adds, obviously not terribly comfortable with talking about how insanely popular The O.C. is with younger viewers.
Junebug is the story of George (Alessandro Nivola) and his beautiful, artsy new wife Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), who return to George's home in North Carolina and adjust to fitting in with George's blue-collar family. McKenzie plays Johnny, George's younger, and vastly less sophisticated, brother, a rather simple soul who has impregnated his girlfriend (Amy Adams), married her, dropped out of high school and moved back in with his parents.
It's very much an ensemble, but Johnny is a man of few words, so McKenzie was given almost no memorable lines.
"He's not a glamorous, archetypal hero," McKenzie says. "He's well-intentioned. He likes his Carolina Panthers and his NASCAR and drinking beer with his buddies. He has just enough self-knowledge to understand that he's limited."
To set Johnny off from The O.C.'s Ryan Atwood even more, McKenzie grew a mustache for Junebug, and not a cool-looking mustache, either. Like Johnny himself, his upper lip is unimpressive, a bit wimpy.
McKenzie chuckles at the notion of mustache as metaphor. "He's not a hip guy," he says of Johnny.
But he's a character he says he knows from his own past. McKenzie (originally Benjamin McKenzie Schenkkan) was born and raised in Texas and graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in economics. After some small theater roles, he moved to Los Angeles and, a year later, was cast on The O.C.
He filmed Junebug in spring 2004 Now he's back shooting The O.C., whose third season premiered last week. The Fox show is more popular than Junebug by a factor of several million, but has barely a fraction of the industry respect.
"I'm interested in the character I play, and I find parts of what I do very fulfilling," he says. "And there are other parts where you're making an hour's worth of entertainment for people to enjoy. So there's one side of my life with a lot of name recognition, and there's another side to my life where I hope to broaden myself as an actor. I'm a young guy (he turned 26 on Monday), and I'm not so full of myself that I don't realize I have a lot of growing up to do."