Before he was cast as Jim Gordon in Gotham, Southland star Ben McKenzie takes justice into his own hands as the title character of Batman Year One back in 2014
Ben McKenzie plays a wealthy young man on a personal quest for justice in TNT’s hit series Southland. Now the actor heads to the streets of Gotham City as the voice of another rich young adult with a need for righteousness in Batman: Year One, the next entry in the popular, ongoing series of DC Universe Animated Original Movies.
Currently in the midst of filming the fourth season of Southland, McKenzie skyrocketed to fame in 92 episodes of The O.C. His film credits include acting opposite Al Pacino in 88 Minutes, and working alongside Amy Adams in Junebug. He also starred in the 2008 adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun.
A true admirer of Miller’s work, McKenzie embraced the character and the story with great enthusiasm. Following his initial recording session for Batman: Year One, McKenzie took some time to discuss the film, the character, Adam West and his dog’s linguistic skills. Read on …
What was your initial reaction to being offered the role of Batman?
BEN MCKENZIE: When I got the offer for Batman: Year One, I was very excited because I really like this particular take on Batman. It’s a darker take – a Frank Miller take – on the origin story. And I think it’s fun to play the character in a way that it is more reminiscent of his being a real vigilante. He’s a tough, tortured soul who is exacting revenge upon a criminal element that took something very important away from him. As an actor, this role gives you a little bit more backstory, so you have the chance to play him as a real person, albeit a person who is a little bit mentally unstable, perhaps, but heroic nonetheless. It’s exciting to get to play a character who is so specifically intense and unusual.
And how many times in the last weeks since you’ve known you got the role have you said to anyone, “I’m Batman”?
BEN MCKENZIE: (laugh) I usually wake up in the morning, go to the mirror and say, “I’m Batman.” I’ll say it to my dog, and he gives a very confused look, which he always does because he doesn’t speak English. I’ve tried to use the “I’m Batman” line on everyone from the valet to the guy washing my car. You know, anyone who will listen. No one seems to pay any attention. But I know. (laughs)
Did you do any research or prep work going into the recording session?
BEN MCKENZIE: I did actually read the comic again, and it was exactly how I remembered it. Really cool and kind of dark and gritty and very bold in how it approached the source material, which has been carved out into such a revered piece of comic book fiction. It is impressive that someone would do a new take on the story, summoning the courage to just throw away a lot of that traditional stuff and really focus on some of the darker elements, which is what Frank Miller did. I think it’s great. It’s cool, it’s bold, and I think the film lives up to that.
As this was your first animated voiceover project, what were you expecting and how did find the experience?
BEN MCKENZIE: It’s always fun to do something that you’re not particularly experienced in, something that’s a little bit of a new skill to learn. Regina King has done a lot of voiceover stuff for Boondocks – with Andrea (Romano) – and she loves it. So it was really nice to feel like I was in good hands and that I’d be well treated. I think any job where you can stay indoors, work a couple of hours, say a few things and get paid is a good job to have. It beats Southland, where you’re out in the streets and the heat in the wool uniforms. Nobody needs that. (laughs)
Were there any outside influences on your performance before working on the booth?
BEN MCKENZIE: I’d like to say I was influenced mainly by Adam West’s performance as Batman more than anyone else – but it’s not quite the same take. There’s something in the way that Frank Miller wrote the comics that lends itself to a darker gravelly-voiced kind of intensity. You can’t help but go there. So maybe it’s sort of similar to the live-action version that Christian Bale is doing, but maybe not quite as much in that direction.
How did your familiarity with the original Frank Miller comics help formulate your approach to the acting?
BEN MCKENZIE:This Frank Miller world is an amazing place with a wonderfully dark aesthetic – it has the kind of noir-ish world of moral ambiguity that I really respond to. And I think if you’re going to play it sincerely, you have to realize that it’s written like a piece of noir with real characters and real emotional takes. This isn’t some fantasy. Bruce Wayne is damaged, he’s emotionally scarred, and he’s trying to make sense of justice in the world. So he creates an alter ego to keep some normalcy in his daily life. That’s the way he tries to make some sense of the world. He’s battered and scarred, but that sort of makes him stronger, because he’s ultimately unafraid of putting it all on the line. He’s very human. That’s the great thing about Batman – he has no super powers. He is a flawed man.
How did you differentiate the voice or the attitude for Batman versus Bruce Wayne?
BEN MCKENZIE: We worked on distinguishing between Bruce, who is an introvert perhaps, but is forced through his position in society to be affable to a certain degree, and then Batman himself, who is really sort of the devil within. He can really take on a whole another vocal inflection and demeanor. So we sort of wanted to play with that and make Bruce almost overcompensate in order to hide his identity, to be even more affable and agreeable than he would otherwise in order to hide the fact that he is Batman.
It’s hard to do because when you’re going through the script in the sessions, you’ll just jump back and forth. One page, you’ll be doing Bruce Wayne, and the next page, you’ll be doing Batman. So it is hard to kind of keep them separate in your mind. It requires a few takes to sort of relax into it and to switch it up. I’m sure tonight I’ll be dreaming of being Batman. (laughs)
Was there a focal point for you to stay on target throughout the recording session?
BEN MCKENZIE: I think the acting is really just trying to imagine being 12 again and seeing Batman in this animated form and thinking “What would you like to see? What would you really geek out on?” If you can bring that passion across on the screen, then that’s your job. I think if you were going to do anything acting-wise that got any methody, you’d be a little scary. I think it’s better to just try and have fun with it.
Do you have a favorite line or scene?
BEN MCKENZIE: There’s a fun scene with one of the young thuggish guys where (Batman) says something like “I know pain. Sometimes I like to share it, maybe with somebody like you.” I like that moment. The adrenaline and the testosterone really flows through you. It’s fun. It’s really fun. If you were ever picked on in high school and you just wanted to grab the bully and say, “I’m gonna beat the living heck out of you,” that’s exactly what you get to do as Batman.
Did this experience give you a new perspective on Batman?
BEN MCKENZIE: Yes, absolutely. This experience has definitely reinvigorated my interest again for Batman. I’ve seen the Christopher Nolan films, and I think they’re great. When you get a chance to actually be a part of something based on the same source material, it’s really exciting. It allows you to sort of experience what that character is experiencing, which is a darkly fun take on what it would be like if you could actually fight crime, if you could actually get revenge on all of the people that you think are bad people in this world, if you could exact justice out of an unjust world. It’s kind of thrilling even to be an actor playing that part.
Do you see any parallels to your character on Southland?
BEN MCKENZIE:I think there is sort of a broad parallel between Bruce Wayne/Batman and my character on Southland in the sense that they’re both wealthy and they’re both fighting crime – in the broadest sense. Bruce Wayne and, really, Batman is just the extreme version. Instead of becoming a patrol officer, he spends his money creating an alter ego and going out and doing it himself. So Bruce Wayne/Batman is just the fantastical version of what Ben Sherman is doing on Southland. He’s just doing it to a more extreme level. So, yeah, there’s definitely a comparison to be made for sure.
Special thanks to Gary Miereanu