Ben McKenzie, “O.C.” Star, Pivots to Crypto Critic

The Four Percent


ROCKDALE, Texas — Ben McKenzie was driving his father’s silver Subaru through Texas farmland, talking in breathless bursts about money: who has it, who needs it, what makes it real or fake. He detailed the perils of cryptocurrency exchanges, the online brokers that sell Bitcoin and Ether to speculators, then delivered a glowing endorsement of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” a 700-page book by the economist Thomas Piketty about income inequality and the power of wealthy capitalists.

“If they can make money on it, they’ll do it,” Mr. McKenzie, 43, said as he sped past cattle farms and run-down gas stations one morning in March.

Mr. McKenzie was on his way to Whinstone U.S., a crypto mining operation about an hour outside Austin, where rows of energy-guzzling machines generate new Bitcoins. Over the last six months, as A-list celebrities have shilled for digital currencies and NFTs, Mr. McKenzie, a TV actor best known for his starring role in “The O.C.,” has become an outspoken skeptic. He’s written critically about the #ad for little-known coins that Kim Kardashian posted on Instagram and earnestly asked Reese Witherspoon to stop proselytizing about the metaverse, all while acknowledging that he’s not a financial expert.

“I’m just a former teen idol standing here (alone?) asking people to consider downside risk and the possibility of fraud,” he tweeted in February.

Mr. McKenzie rose to prominence in the early 2000s playing Ryan Atwood, a brooding, musclebound teenager from the wrong side of the tracks who moves in with a wealthy family in Newport Beach, Calif. After “The O.C.” wrapped, he went on to star in two other TV dramas, “Southland” and “Gotham,” both of which ran for five seasons.

Nor did Mr. McKenzie’s celebrity open any doors at Whinstone, where he and Mr. Silverman were hoping to do some book research. When Mr. McKenzie pulled into the parking lot, a concerned-looking security guard asked him to identify himself. “I’m an actor,” Mr. McKenzie said. Had the guard seen “Gotham”? No. What about “The O.C.”? Also no. “Ask your daughter about ‘The O.C.,’” Mr. McKenzie replied with a grin. A second security guard said he had watched “The O.C.” but didn’t recognize Mr. McKenzie.

After a few more minutes of confusion (one of the guards kept referring to the mine’s celebrity visitor as “Bill McKlensley”), the security team sent Mr. McKenzie, Mr. Silverman and a cameraman who was documenting their trip to meet Chad Harris, a former Christmas tree salesman who now manages the Whinstone plant, which was acquired last year by the publicly traded Bitcoin mining company Riot Blockchain.

Mr. Harris seemed as comfortable in front of the camera as the actor turned critic who’d showed up to spar with him; he said he’d given 1,000 tours of the facility. When photographers arrive at the mine, he said, “I know which way to turn my shoulder.”

Mr. Harris said he was confident he could go toe to toe with any skeptic; he bragged that he’d recently schooled some crypto haters from Vice News. “You can’t bash something if you don’t know all the facts,” he said. At one point, he boldly predicted that he could change Mr. McKenzie’s mind about crypto with a single sentence. He proceeded to speak for several minutes straight about the economic benefits of Bitcoin mining.

Mr. Harris led Mr. McKenzie and Mr. Silverman through a vast warehouse filled with hundreds of whirring machines. The cameraman captured footage of Mr. McKenzie in a hard hat, nodding sagely while Mr. Harris explained the intricacies of the liquid-immersion cooling system that keeps the mining machines from getting too hot. On “The O.C.,” Ryan is a well of repressed emotion, rarely betraying a hint of his thoughts. Mr. McKenzie, conversely, is a chatterbox: For two hours, he grilled Mr. Harris on the energy costs of crypto mining and the practical utility of Bitcoin as the camera rolled.

Mr. McKenzie and Mr. Silverman have floated the idea of adapting their still-unwritten book into some sort of Hollywood production. They’re modeling the project on “The Big Short,” Michael Lewis’s book about the savvy investors who predicted the 2008 housing market crash. The movie adaptation features Margot Robbie drinking champagne in a bathtub as she explains the subprime mortgage crisis.

“Jacob and me in thongs,” Mr. McKenzie said. “It would probably turn people away.” Mr. Silverman laughed. “I will go to the gym for one month,” he said.

If that doesn’t work out, there’s always TV. Mr. McKenzie said he pitched Josh Schwartz, the “O.C.” creator, on a reboot in which a cryptocurrency billionaire, maybe the son of Luke Ward, whose series arc traces an evolution from villain to beloved himbo, moves to Newport Beach and takes control of the local real estate market.

Mr. Schwartz “laughed politely,” Mr. McKenzie said. (In an interview, Mr. Schwartz suggested an alternate crypto-themed follow-up involving complex political machinations masterminded by Luke’s younger brothers. He added that Seth Cohen, Ryan’s geeky best friend played by Adam Brody, would “definitely be trying to sell some NFTs.” Mr. Brody, reached by text, said he agreed. “Or he’d be selling bongs out of a van,” he said. “I don’t know.”)

After the tour, Mr. Harris led Mr. McKenzie and Mr. Silverman to a building that the mining staff call “the White House” — the site of the mine’s executive office. Standing by the door, Mr. McKenzie pressed Mr. Harris on his cryptocurrency commitments. Wasn’t it just another form of gambling? A high-stakes poker game with no real societal value?

Mr. Harris shrugged. He said he was comfortable taking financial risks. “Think about it in parallel with your own life,” he said. Mr. McKenzie had taken a break from acting and put his reputation on the line to write a book arguing that the nation’s tech elites are promoting a glorified Ponzi scheme. “Life’s a gamble,” Mr. Harris said.

For a split second, Mr. McKenzie looked like Ryan Atwood again, brooding thoughtfully.

“That’s true,” he said. “That’s true.”


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