How Ben McKenzie Went From The O.C. to Crypto’s Biggest Enemy

With new book Easy Money, the actor takes aim at the dark side of the cryptocurrency craze.

by Ilana Kaplan

Ben McKenzie
Getty. Image treatment by Ashley Peña
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The inspiration for Ben McKenzie's literary debut came from where many great ideas emerge: getting stoned. "I took some edibles, and I was like, 'Oh, I'll write a book,'" the actor says over Zoom from his apartment in Brooklyn. Like most high thoughts, it sounded great at the time, but by the morning he realized he didn't exactly know how to write a book. "So I got high again, and I summoned the courage," he laughs.

McKenzie wasn't totally starting from scratch. During the summer of 2021, he fell into the crypto rabbit hole just as the digital currency was going mainstream. But unlike many of the high-profile celebrities who were touting investments in different currencies—remember Doge coin?—through their social media channels, the actor came out on the other side asking, "Is this thing a huge Ponzi scheme?" Alarmed, he felt he needed to do something to alert the public to the currency’s potential pitfalls. "So many celebrities and influencers, without even giving it a second thought, were schilling crypto," he says, shaking his head. "For me, instantly, the people that I saw schilling it, people I knew, I was like, ‘I don't buy this.’"

So why didn't he fall for the burgeoning crypto scene when others did? McKenzie's skepticism came from past experience. In his twenties, his friend Dave gave him "the worst financial advice of my life." He encouraged the actor to invest in an obscure company, and both of them quickly lost their money. It wasn't an enormous amount, but it was enough to remember. "He came back to me in 2021 and said, 'You've got to buy Bitcoin,'" he recalls. "That was my 'what is this?'" He knew something was off.

After coming across an article journalist Jacob Silverman had written titled "Even Donald Trump Knows Bitcoin is a Scam," McKenzie followed him on Twitter. Eventually, he worked up the courage to DM him. They ended up grabbing drinks, and McKenzie floated the idea of a book by Silverman. "He was about to go on paternity leave," McKenzie recalls. "I just got really lucky that he was about to be free and was willing to do it."

McKenzie knew that he had to prove he was more than "a random actor," especially if he would co-write a book debunking crypto. So he and Silverman began writing articles together. "We started writing articles to do the research, but also practically speaking, to kind of prove that we could," he explains. They published their first article in Slate, and then stories for The Washington Post, The Intercept and The New Republic followed. Now, they’ve officially written their first book with Easy Money, Cryptocurrency, Casino Capitalism, and the Golden Age of Fraud.

As McKenzie has dug deeper into debunking the overpromises of crypto, he hasn’t escaped backlash from its evangelists. "I got vitriol from the bros, of course. I got a lot of hate from the crypto people, but I kind of knew that going in," he says. But what about the celebrities he knows? "I love that the general public thinks that all celebrities know each other—we just go to the weekly meetings and hang out," he teases. "I guess I've met some of the people that schill crypto, but I'm not, that I'm aware of, close friends with anybody."

While McKenzie wanted to take on crypto as a whole without singling out too many celebrities, he did make a point of discussing some of the more egregious hawking for the controversial currency—Kim Kardashian's promotion of Ethereum Max and the SEC charge and penalties she had to pay, Matt Damon's infamous ad and Jack Dorsey and Jay-Z's Bitcoin Academy. The latter, specifically, remains a point of contention for him.

“Their first thing was to go to where Jay-Z grew up [at Marcy Houses in Brooklyn] to sell this largely Black working poor neighborhood and convince them to invest in this incredibly volatile, unregulated investment,” he says, referring to Bitcoin Academy. “I was like, this is gross, dude. It's so gross.”

But celebrities, he says, aren’t the core problem. “They're just a megaphone that the Ponzi needs to spread,” he asserts. “The bigger the thing gets, the more famous people you need to spread it further.”

He should know: after all, McKenzie has been in Hollywood for more than two decades. Nearly 20 years ago, the 44-year-old actor landed his big break in the leading role on The OC where he played Ryan Atwood, the bad boy with a heart of gold from Chino swept up in the rich people drama of Newport Beach. “I'm very grateful for it,” he says of the role. “I think it's a complicated thing. Your first job, which effectively it was, for me and for a lot of the young cast, when it blows up—I know it's champagne problems—but it is a mind fuck.”

Since the success of The OC, McKenzie has starred in a handful of films, including the 2005 homecoming dramedy Junebug, as well as action thriller Line of Duty and last year’s rom-com, I Want You Back. But it’s his TV roles that have kept people talking—as LAPD officer Ben Sherman on Southland and as detective James Gordon on Gotham. For McKenzie, not being typecast has been important to him.

“I love actors and I love acting, but I also don't want to be defined by one thing,” he notes. “Honestly writing the book was helpful, because one of the things that I hated getting pigeonholed was as, Ryan Atwood or James Gordon, or my beloved character Ben Sherman on Southland, which is actually the favorite show that I made, but the least-watched.” But his dream role is actually in a different capacity—directing. “It's the role that I'm doing right now, which is putting together a documentary where I went down the rabbit hole with crypto,” he says.

While McKenzie never thought he’d write a book, it’s been extremely satisfying for him to combine his economics degree with what he’s learned from the last 20 years in showbiz. The fact that it blends in his passion for true crime is an added bonus. “My favorite genre of true crime is what I like to call ‘stupid crime.’ Cohen Brothers'-esque crime is my favorite thing to read about.” Writing a book on crypto, he says, was like making “Fargo for the digital age.”

Though he doesn’t have a specific topic in mind, McKenzie is already considering writing another book again. “I'm interested in human stories as they intersect with economics, but also politics and stuff. I don't know what that will become,” he explains. But he won’t be writing another right now.

“It’s kind of like having kids,” he laughs. “Maybe a little break, then later.”