In Batman: Year One, Ben McKenzie takes on the iconic role of Bruce Wayne/Batman during his first year of “service” to Gotham. While doing press for the film at Comic-Con, I had a chance to participate in a small roundtable with the Southland actor who seemed genuinely grateful for the opportunity to voice the character in the animated adaptation of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s classic tale.
During the interview, McKenzie talked about learning the ins and outs of voice acting, filling the iconic shoes of both Batman and Kevin Conroy, shared stories from shooting Southland on-location, and discussed some of the baggage brought on by his tenure on The O.C.. Check out what he had to say after the jump. Batman: Year One will be available on Blu-ray/DVD on October 18th and, after watching the film last night, comes highly recommended from yours truly.
Question: How much did you know about Batman from a character perspective beforehand?
BEN MCKENZIE: I had never heard of this Batman that you speak of (laughs). You know, I’m not an aficionado. I can’t claim to have the kind of devotion that so many fans here have to all sorts of various comics. But, Batman: Year One I was definitely familiar with. I was a big, big fan of all of Frank Miller’s stuff, but particularly Year One. It’s an origin story but it’s very realistic, very gritty, very “noirish.” It inhabits a world that I really like exploring and, as an actor, it all tracts motivationally and, you know, if you like characters, these are actual characters with actual human problems. They don’t have superhuman powers and they are just supremely motivated whether it’s trying to exact justice in an unjust world or controlling themselves while suffering great pain, they’re all real people and that’s fun to play as an actor.
Can you talk a little bit about your approach to the character considering that you’re, in a way, filling two iconic roles: one of Batman and the other of legendary voice actor Kevin Conroy?
MCKENZIE: I’m sure I will fail in that sense. I was asked while walking the press line if I had revisited anyone else who had voiced the character before and I didn’t because I felt as though that’s not what I’m supposed to be doing. What I’m supposed to be doing is, I was hired for a reason and I have to trust that Andrea knew what she was doing and my take on it is my take on it. Now, when we get in the booth, we work collaboratively on it to come up with the most compelling Batman/Bruce Wayne that we can. In some sense, perhaps the reason why I was cast is that it is a younger Bruce Wayne/Batman. It’s a twenty-something guy who is coming back to Gotham, who is trying to exact justice but is unsure of himself a little bit in terms of how he is going to be able to do this and he gets himself sort of in over his head in certain situations as Batman. So, he’s feeling out this new life. So, yeah, he’s a little younger and less sure of himself.
Did you have any fun with the role at home, just practicing in front of a mirror?
MCKENZIE: Yeah, my dog got a lot of (in character) “I’m Batman” and obviously he didn’t really know what the hell I was talking about (laughs). So, there’s a lot of talking to your dog and there’s a lot of practicing in the mirror. Somebody mentioned to me that the line “I’m Batman” is probably the best pick-up line you could have. Plus, Comic-Con is probably the best place to have that best pick-up line so I’ve got to try that out later (laughs). In all seriousness, you do find yourself going over and over the lines. You’re really trying to find the through-line throughout what is going on with him psychologically and what is forcing him to take on such drastic action to do something that almost none of the rest of us would ever do. We may dream of doing it, we probably all fantasize about, you know, taking out that neighbor that we hate or that family member, hopefully not close family member, that we hate or some part of the world that we don’t like and that is wrong, that is actually immoral, not for personal petty reasons but because there is actually a flaw in the world and he is the one who is bold enough to do it. So, that requires a certain amount of psychosis given that he’s psychotically focused on justice and so he acts out the way that he does.
Now that you’ve played the Dark Knight, are there any other iconic superhero roles, animated or live-action, that you look forward to playing?
MCKENZIE: Man, I’m very happy just to be doing this. Weirdly, and this is not some sort of ploy to be able to play him in another movie, but I actually grew up loving Iron Man who’s maybe not the most popular answer. I had an Iron Man graphic novel as a kid that I loved. I think what’s great about playing superheroes is that, in general, they are often at the extremes of human behavior, which is a very fun place to go as an actor. You’re often not, for example, on The O.C. there weren’t a lot of epic battles. Now, there were some classic lines, but it usually wasn’t a life or death struggle, although some times it was, in a way that only The O.C. could of done. But, yeah, I think it’s great playing superheroes, I mean, it’s really a lot of fun.
You’re actually getting a lot of attention for Southland right now. What are you currently setting your sights on? What role do you want to take on next and what drives you as an actor?
MCKENZIE: Well, Southland is something that I really enjoy being a part of because it has allowed me to get away, a little bit, from some of the baggage of The O.C., which I would never criticize, but it certainly puts you in a certain category where you have to take on projects that allow you to play adults with real problems and real issues. I’m very proud of that show. In terms of what’s next, I don’t know. I’ve always, ever since The O.C., just tried to take on projects that I felt had good stories with good characters. I’d like to do that more in film if possible but, you know, sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.
Would you consider doing more voice acting?
MCKENZIE: I would love to. It’s been really, really enjoyable to be a part of Year One. I’ve done a few things here and there, but this has been really great. What’s great about voice acting is that it’s very similar on one level to live acting but there’s a whole technique that I’m new to, that I’m learning as I go along. It’s really enjoyable. It’s like playing bass guitar versus regular guitar or something like that. It’s a different instrument and a completely different part of your body that you have to fine-tune and work on.
Having someone like Andrea (Andrea Romano, voice director on Year One and countless other animated projects) around I’m sure is very helpful too.
MCKENZIE: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. I think maybe the way it worked out is that she worked with Regina King, my co-star on Southland, on Boondocks and so she asked Regina about me and Regina lied and told her I was a good guy so that’s how it all kind of came through. But, yeah, she’s a legend, you know, she does everything. So, I just have to not fail her and I’m pretty much good.
You did really good work in Junebug. Do you have any other indie projects that you are looking at?
MCKENZIE: I’m trying to develop a couple of things on the indie track but they wouldn’t go until next year once I’m done with Southland. But, yeah, I love that movie and I love movies like that, smaller with more understated drama.
Have you visited the convention floor yet?
MCKENZIE: I have not. Do I need to?
You definitely should, but be prepared for the Kevin Conroy people.
MCKENZIE: (Laughs) Oh boy. Do I need bodyguards?
You don’t need bodyguards, you’re Batman.
MCKENZIE: (Laughs) You do know that I’m not really Batman, right?
What’s your craziest Southland filming story? You guys shoot on location mostly, like right in the middle of things, so what’s the craziest thing that’s happened?
MCKENZIE: Well, we’ve had some fun stuff. We were shooting in, I can’t remember the name of the area, it’s where they shot the scene in Training Day where Denzel gets shot. It’s in central Los Angeles. We were shooting there and the actual cops were there and they pulled a gun off of a woman who had come outside brandishing it, threatening to kill her boyfriend like literally as we were shooting the actual show. So, we’re in some interesting neighborhoods. The gang guys are kind of amazing. One of the guys, this really, really hard dude, wearing a wife-beater, tats all over him, comes up to me and says, “I gotta tell you, I’m a big fan. I love your shit.” I was like, “Thank you. I don’t know what you’re talking about, but thank you.” And he’s like, “The O.C., man. That was a badass show. We used to watch that shit in the joint. Thursday nights, all up and down the cell block it was like (singing) ‘California, California…’” So, you know, The O.C. was bringing people together. There were no people getting shanked on Thursdays from eight to nine or whenever our show was.
I don’t want to stray too far from Year One, but can you talk a little bit about how, if any, Southland has changed since moving from NBC to TNT?
MCKENZIE: Well, the budget had to come down a little bit but, as far as the writing goes, we’ve been allowed to do exactly what we wanted to do in terms of the content, more or less. The only thing we have to watch are the cable standards, which are obviously looser than network standards but are still standards. You can’t say this or that, you can’t show this or that. But, basically we have to make the show cheaper and shoot it faster but we get to make it more the way we want to make it and that is a compromise that we are all very happy to accept. Our problem on NBC was not so much budgetary or anything, it was that they didn’t seem to want to let us make the show that we wanted to make. They wanted to make something much softer, less real, and less tough. So, in some sense it’s a real blessing that we ended up on TNT, which is where we probably should have been all along.
Even while it was on NBC, I always thought the show looked and felt like a cable show.
MCKENZIE: Yeah, we were one of the last shows on network television under that old model. Network television used to make these high-end, grittier dramas and they really don’t anymore. It’s all on cable because the networks are afraid because cable has looser standards so they can show more. But, you know, all of the high-end, sophisticated dramas are all on cable and that’s where we are now so we’re in a good place.