Photo: Ryan Lowry/RYAN LOWRY
The actor Ben McKenzie is sitting in the den of his Brooklyn Heights townhouse, summarizing a 24-part MIT lecture series about the blockchain by SEC chair Gary Gensler. “Gensler talks about finance being the intermediation of risk and capital,” he explains before whipping me through the reliability of state-held currencies, the dangers of speculation, and the history of encryption from the Merkle tree (an early method of computer encryption) to ethereum (the biggest cryptocurrency after bitcoin). Once he gets through the three sides of the fraud triangle and the definition of securities, he takes a sip of tea. “It’s really good that you’re here talking to me,” McKenzie says. “Now my wife can say, ‘Thank God, for one day, I don’t have to listen to this shit.’”
It’s a February afternoon and 15 years to the day since The O.C.’s final episode aired, marking the end of McKenzie’s run as Ryan Atwood, the brooding, tank-top-clad hottie who captured the hearts and hormones of a generation of tweens. Today, McKenzie is angling for a return to the Zeitgeist, this time as a reluctant public intellectual. He’s joining the growing ranks of Hollywood and Hollywood-adjacent figures who are talking about crypto, but instead of hawking NFTs (like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Tom Brady) or shilling for various crypto exchanges during the Super Bowl (like LeBron James and Larry David), McKenzie is playing the role of the lone Cassandra, a voice of dissent in the celebrity crypto-endorsement industrial complex. Since last year, he has been writing and tweeting about how celebrities boosting the industry don’t know what they’re talking about — except for maybe him. He recently announced he is writing a book with New Republic journalist Jacob Silverman for Abrams Press titled Easy Money, a kind of “Big Short for crypto,” as McKenzie describes it.
His obsession began with boredom. Gotham, the Batman prequel show he starred in after The O.C. and the crime drama Southland, ended in 2019, and McKenzie had just wrapped a Broadway play when he and his wife, Gotham’s Morena Baccarin, found themselves out of work in the pandemic. After Baccarin gave birth to their son, Arthur, in March 2021 (they also have a 5-year-old, Frances, and Baccarin has an 8-year-old son with her ex), McKenzie was still figuring out his next project when a college buddy named Dave talked to him about bitcoin: “You should get into this, dude,” McKenzie recalls Dave saying. The conversation sent him down the crypto rabbit hole. He watched the Gensler series and listened to podcasts and read a million articles. When he emerged, he told Dave, “I don’t know, man, this doesn’t seem right.”
Photo: Ryan Lowry/RYAN LOWRY
Before he began his TV career, McKenzie studied economics and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. To him, cryptocurrency appeared brazenly shady, operating largely without regulation and ballooning in a pandemic economy awash with cash. He became obsessed with one of the few criminal investigations taking place: the Justice Department’s probe into tether, the largest stablecoin on the market, for bank fraud. He saw Kim Kardashian West pushing ethereum max, a token on the ethereum blockchain, to her more than 200 million Instagram followers. In August, he decided he needed someone to talk to other than Baccarin, so he sent a Twitter DM to Silverman, who had written a piece titled “Even Donald Trump Knows Bitcoin Is a Scam.” He seemed to be a kindred spirit, another guy with a newborn trawling crypto forums and Substacks. They met at Henry Public, and over burgers, McKenzie proposed that the two write a book together. For Silverman, who had watched The O.C., the offer was surreal, but he was game.
McKenzie has aligned with other “no-coiners,” who believe the whole scheme is a bubble on its way to bursting. The value of major coins has been dropping, and the crypto whales need to be fed by a new surge of participants — that’s where celebrities come in. Crypto is “a boring thing,” McKenzie says. “You’re trading on your phone. So the main thing you gotta do is elicit an emotional response. It’s Damon telling you, ‘You’re a wimp, come on, you can do this,’ ” a reference to Matt Damon’s crypto.com spot. “Or it’s Larry David” — in his Super Bowl ad — “saying, ‘I’m an idiot, but you, you can make a bunch of money.’” McKenzie thinks celebrities are going to help ensnare regular people desperate to get in on what appears to be, from the outside, a boom so big there is room for everyone. (Young people, he believes, are most vulnerable.) “Don’t worry about my buddy Dave because he’s fine,” he says. “All I really care about is that people who can’t afford to lose the money don’t lose it.”
When McKenzie talks about crypto, he does so with an assured, steady cadence somewhere between a podcaster’s and a professor’s. “They call it a currency,” he tells me, “but words have meaning.” He picks up his mug of tea and holds it to his ear. “I can tell you, ‘I’ll call you on my phone.’” He sets the mug down forcefully. “It’s not a phone.” But let him pontificate long enough and he’ll go off like an overeager grad student, footnoting his own points with references and dates (the Securities Act of 1933, the bitcoin white paper of 2008), creating a thicket of allusions to everything from Thomas Piketty’s Capital to Winston Churchill.
Eventually, it’s time to pick up Frances from school — after McKenzie negotiates with his nanny, Thoko (“I’ll start dinner if you can do pickup”). I open my laptop and show McKenzie a web of crypto- and NFT-related investments and relationships compiled by my former colleague Max Read in his newsletter, which depicts what looks like a kind of Hollywood crypto cabal: For example, Creative Artists Agency, a major talent firm, represents a pseudonymous NFT collector called 0xb1 who owns NFTs from World of Women, which recently partnered with Reese Witherspoon to make movies (somehow) of those NFTs; Witherspoon is married to Jim Toth, who was previously a top agent at CAA. If the crypto-luminati exists, is McKenzie afraid of alienating them? (He used to be represented by CAA.) First of all, McKenzie says, “they’re here,” putting his hand above his head to indicate a stratum of stardom, “and I’m …” He moves his hand to somewhere near his neck. Also “I’m old enough where I just don’t care anymore,” he says. He suspects most celebrities don’t actually understand what they’re helping to sell — they, too, can be lured in by the promise of a big payday (like the rumored $100 million spent on the Damon ad) or of getting in on the ground floor of something “revolutionary.” Which gives McKenzie and his econ B.A. a purpose. “I feel like a dork Liam Neeson in Taken; I have a particular skill set, and I’m using that particular skill set. I’m an econ dork, and I have a megaphone.”
When Thoko arrives with Frances, it’s time to start dinner. Baccarin is late to return from filming a new NBC show, so McKenzie is on entertainment duty while Thoko finishes cooking. Frances heads up to her bedroom and returns with a briefcase containing lab goggles. We settle at the dining-room table, where she conducts an experiment involving baking soda and orange juice while her father amuses Arthur.
Amid the froth and absurdity of 2022 crypto mania, it makes a cosmic kind of sense that the crusader coming to save us is a guy we all had a crush on in 2004. He’s young enough to speak millennial, old enough to do so with some authority. “The stuff that I was taught in college about capitalism I don’t see in reality,” McKenzie says. “The rules are much more sporadically enforced, and the outcomes are quite disparate.” I am reminded that he has played all kinds of law enforcement as an actor: CIA, L.A. rookie cop, Batman-adjacent cop. I ask him if he sees himself as having a moralizing streak. “I think I’ve just always been a dad, secretly,” he responds. Then, getting excited again about his reporting bucket list with Silverman — traveling to crypto conventions and far-flung bitcoin farms; eating steak dinners with crypto whales — he offers an alternate explanation: “Honestly, I’ve been sitting around for two years. I really want an adventure.”
Ben McKenzie, Actor Turned Crypto Naysayer