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McKenzie brings viewers to ‘O.C.’

Young unknown is emerging as breakout star

Benjamin McKenzie says a mouthful with his eyes. A flash of his baby blues can signal hurt, wariness, rage or defiance roiling within Ryan Atwood, the troubled teen he plays on Fox’s “The O.C.” Drawn into the privileged world of Orange County, Calif., Ryan is a tough but sensitive outsider struggling to fit in without compromise. The eyes say it all.

“HE’S THE EYES and ears of the audience. He provides them with the entree into this world of glitz and glamour. He displays as much wisdom as anybody on the show. Basically, Ryan is an adult trapped in a kid’s body — that’s my take on it,” McKenzie says.

His viewers are taken with him. A 25-year-old newcomer with a compact frame and a facial resemblance to Russell Crowe, McKenzie has an old-soul intensity that has helped this serialized drama become one of the fall’s most promising shows.

Meanwhile, he is emerging as a breakout star.

“I hit the lottery,” says McKenzie, almost apologetically. “I know how fortunate I am. I mean, I think I do.” He laughs at the wonder of it all and at himself. “I don’t know! You know what I’m saying?”

As McKenzie’s fans know, Ryan was a poor kid in a jam with the law who, in the series opener, was invited by public defender Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher) to live with his family in Orange County’s Newport Beach cushiness, much to the surprise of his real estate developer wife (Kelly Rowan) and much to the delight of his brainy, awkward teenage son (Adam Brody).

Another key character: Marissa (Mischa Barton), the beautiful, tormented girl next door whose heart is torn between Ryan and her abusive boyfriend.

When viewers last saw Marissa, she was overdosed from sleeping pills and draped in the strong arms of Ryan, who had rescued her in a Tijuana alley during a holiday break gone terribly wrong.

But that was in mid-September. After airing seven episodes, “The O.C.” took a break of its own so Fox could air postseason baseball. Now it’s back (9 p.m. EST Wednesdays) to resume sun-splashed angst, wrongdoing and romance.

“Our show has extreme situations and extreme characters,” allows McKenzie, “but you play it realistically.”

AUSTIN TO HOLLYWOOD This approach has helped make “The O.C.” more than a youth-skewing follow-up to “Beverly Hills 90210.” With its solid cast, the show has broad appeal.

In particular, Gallagher (”sex, lies and videotape” and “American Beauty”) is effective as Ryan’s surrogate father, a conflicted boy-man who surfs every morning, then applies his legal skills to help the downtrodden while his wife supports the family’s swank lifestyle.

And as Ryan’s new “brother,” Brody (a recurring role on “The Gilmore Girls”) makes nerdiness downright adorable.

“He has great comedic timing,” McKenzie says. “I compare him to a young Tom Hanks. We bonded immediately.”

Perhaps fittingly, McKenzie, a relative outsider in the acting world, was brought into the cast just a week before shooting of the pilot began last May.

An unknown, he had grown up in Austin, Texas, where he played high school football. He graduated from the University of Virginia, majoring in foreign affairs and economics. Then he moved to New York to be an actor, arriving in August 2001. But in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, he found it hard to break into show business. He took off for Los Angeles in early 2002.

“I had been in L.A. a year and six days before I auditioned for ‘The O.C.,”’ he reports. He’s not complaining, mind you. “I can’t pretend like I’ve struggled for a lot of years.

“But I was so fed up with the audition process, where you hate yourself for wanting to get a job that you know is terrible on a sitcom that you can only imagine will get panned, if it ever gets made, and they keep telling you, ‘Play it bigger! Play it bigger!’

“So by the time I got into ‘The O.C.’ I went in and just did it, I didn’t try to impress anybody. Which was different from my other auditions. I think that’s why I got it.”

Maybe so. Ryan isn’t much of a suck-up. Nor does he suffer patronizing behavior from others.

“The whole positive-encouragement approach some people try on him — ‘Oh, have you thought about college?’ — feels so phony to him,” McKenzie says, “and it seemed so absurd to me at the time: Oh, yeah, I’m gonna get this pilot and be a star. C’mon! That doesn’t happen to some kid from Austin who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.”

Or maybe it does, when the kid has the right look in his eyes.© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.