Ben McKenzie, Actor Turned Crypto Naysayer


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Photo: Ryan Lowry/RYAN LOWRY

Actor Ben McKenzie is sitting in the study of his Brooklyn Heights row house, recapping a 24-part MIT lecture series on blockchain from SEC Chairman Gary Gensler. “Gensler talks about finance being the intermediation of risk and capital,” he explains before explaining to me the reliability of state currencies, the dangers of speculation, and the history of the Merkle tree cipher (an early method of computer encryption). . to ethereum (the largest cryptocurrency after bitcoin). Once you get past all three sides of the triangle of fraud and defining values, take a sip of tea. “It’s really nice that you’re here talking to me,” says McKenzie. “Now my wife can say, ‘Thank God, for one day, I don’t have to listen to this shit.'”

It is a February afternoon and exactly 15 years since the bossMcKenzie’s final episode aired, marking the end of McKenzie’s run as Ryan Atwood, the brooding, tank-top-clad handsome who captured the hearts and hormones of a generation of tweens. Today, McKenzie is seeking 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 selling NFTs (like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Tom Brady) or paying various crypto trades during the Super Bowl (like LeBron James and Larry David), McKenzie plays the role of the reclusive Cassandra, a voice of dissent in the celebrity-backed crypto industry complex. Since last year, she’s been writing and tweeting about how the celebs driving the industry don’t know what they’re talking about, except maybe him. He recently announced that 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 started with boredom. Gotham city, the bat Man prequel show he starred in after the oc and crime drama south land, ended in 2019, and McKenzie had just finished a Broadway play when he and his wife, Gotham cityMorena Baccarin, was left without a job due to the pandemic. After Baccarin gave birth to their son, Arthur, in March 2021 (they also have a 5-year-old son, Frances, and Baccarin has an 8-year-old son with his ex), McKenzie was still thinking about his next project when a college buddy named Dave told him about bitcoin: “You should get into this, dude,” McKenzie remembers Dave saying. The conversation sent him down the crypto rabbit hole. He watched the Gensler series, listened to podcasts, and read a million articles. When he came out, he told Dave, “I don’t know, man, this doesn’t seem right.”

Photo: Ryan Lowry/RYAN LOWRY

Before beginning his television career, McKenzie studied economics and foreign relations at the University of Virginia. To him, cryptocurrency seemed unabashedly bleak, operating largely without regulation and growing in a pandemic economy awash in cash. He became obsessed with one of the few criminal investigations going on: the Justice Department’s investigation 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 his more than 200 million Instagram followers. In August, he decided he needed to talk to someone besides Baccarin, so he sent a Twitter direct message to Silverman, who had written an article titled “Even Donald Trump Knows Bitcoin Is A Scam.” He seemed to be a soul mate, another guy with a newborn scouring crypto forums and Substacks. They met at Henry Public, and over hamburgers, McKenzie proposed that the two write a book together. For Silverman, that he had seen the oc, the offer was surreal, but he was game.

McKenzie has aligned himself with other “non-minters,” who believe the entire scheme is a bubble waiting to burst. The value of major coins has been falling, and the crypto whales need to be fed by a new wave of entrants; that’s where celebrities come in. Cryptocurrencies are “a boring thing,” says McKenzie. “You are trading on your phone. So the main thing you have to do is elicit an emotional response. It’s Damon telling you, ‘You’re a coward, come on, you can do this,’” a reference to Matt Damon’s ad on “Or it’s Larry David,” in his Super Bowl ad, “saying, ‘I’m an idiot, but you can make a lot of money.'” McKenzie thinks the celebrities will help catch the normal people desperate to get in. in what appears to be, from the outside, a boom so big there’s room for everyone. (He believes that young people are the most vulnerable). “Don’t worry about my friend Dave because he’s fine,” he says. “All I really care about is that people who can’t afford to lose money don’t lose it.”

When McKenzie talks about crypto, he does so with a steady, confident cadence, somewhere between that of a podcaster and a professor. “They call it currency,” he tells me, “but words have meaning.” He picks up his cup of tea and holds it close to his ear. “I can tell you, ‘I’ll call you on my phone.'” He sets the cup down hard. “It’s not a phone.” But let him pontificate long enough and he walks away an overzealous graduate student, jotting down his own points with references and dates (the 1933 Securities Act, the 2008 bitcoin white paper), creating a tangle of allusions to everything from Piketty’s Thomas Capital to Winston Churchill.

Eventually, it’s time to pick up Frances from school, after McKenzie negotiates with her babysitter, Thoko (“I’ll fix dinner if you can pick her up”). I open my laptop and show McKenzie a network of crypto and NFT-related investments and relationships compiled by my old colleague Max Read in his newsletter, describing what looks like some kind of Hollywood crypto cabal: e.g. Creative Artists Agency, a major talent firm, represents a pseudonymous NFT collector named 0xb1 who owns NFTs from the World of Women, who recently teamed up 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 exist, is McKenzie afraid of alienating them? (He used to be represented by CAA.) At first, McKenzie says, “they’re here,” putting his hand on his head to indicate a star stratum, “and I’m…” He waves his hand somewhere near his neck. Plus, “I’m old enough that I don’t care anymore,” she says. He suspects that most celebrities don’t really understand what they’re helping to sell; they, too, may be lured by the promise of a big payday (like the rumored $100 million spent on Damon’s ad) or to partake in something “revolutionary” downstairs. Which gives McKenzie a purpose and the economy of him BA of him. “I feel like an idiot Liam Neeson in Taken; I have a particular skill set and I’m using that particular skill set. I’m an economic idiot 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 duties while Thoko finishes cooking. Frances heads to her bedroom and returns with a briefcase containing lab glasses. We settle down at the dining room table, where she conducts an experiment with baking soda and orange juice while her father entertains Arthur.

Amidst the froth and absurdity of 2022 cryptomania, it makes cosmic sense that the crusader coming to save us is a guy we all had a crush on back in 2004. He’s young enough to speak millennial, old enough to speak with some authority. “The things I was taught in college about capitalism I don’t see in reality,” says McKenzie. “The rules are applied much more sporadically and the results are quite disparate.” I remember he’s played all kinds of cops as an actor: CIA, rookie LA cop, Batman-adjacent cop. I ask him if he sees himself as having a self-righteous streak. “I think I’ve always been a father, secretly,” he replies. Then he got fired up again about his reporting bucket list with Silverman: traveling to crypto conventions and remote bitcoin farms; eating steak dinners with crypto whales, he offers an alternative explanation: “Honestly, I’ve been sitting around for two years. I really want an adventure.”