Tech

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

ROCKDALE, Texas — Ben McKenzie was driving his father’s silver Subaru via Texas farmland, speaking in breathless bursts about cash: who has it, who wants it, what makes it actual or faux. He detailed the perils of cryptocurrency exchanges, the web brokers that promote Bitcoin and Ether to speculators, then delivered a glowing endorsement of “Capital within the Twenty-First Century,” a 700-page guide by the economist Thomas Piketty about revenue inequality and the facility of rich capitalists.

“If they’ll generate profits on it, they’ll do it,” Mr. McKenzie, 43, stated as he sped previous cattle farms and run-down gasoline stations one morning in March.

Mr. McKenzie was on his solution to Whinstone U.S., a crypto mining operation about an hour exterior Austin, the place rows of energy-guzzling machines generate new Bitcoins. Over the past six months, as A-list celebrities have shilled for digital currencies and NFTs, Mr. McKenzie, a TV actor greatest identified for his starring function in “The O.C.,” has develop into an outspoken skeptic. He’s written critically concerning the #advert for little-known cash that Kim Kardashian posted on Instagram and earnestly asked Reese Witherspoon to cease proselytizing concerning the metaverse, all whereas acknowledging that he’s not a monetary professional.

“I’m only a former teen idol standing right here (alone?) asking folks to think about draw back threat and the opportunity of fraud,” he tweeted in February.

Mr. McKenzie rose to prominence within the early 2000s taking part in Ryan Atwood, a brooding, musclebound teenager from the fallacious aspect of the tracks who strikes in with a rich household in Newport Seaside, Calif. After “The O.C.” wrapped, he went on to star in two different TV dramas, “Southland” and “Gotham,” each of which ran for 5 seasons.

However performing work dried up throughout the pandemic, and like many individuals, Mr. McKenzie quickly discovered himself sucked down a crypto rabbit gap. After a few pals inspired him to speculate, he took a 24-part on-line course on cryptocurrencies taught by Gary Gensler, the chairman of the Securities and Alternate Fee (or simply “Gary,” as Mr. McKenzie fondly calls him; they’ve by no means met).

The crypto market appeared tailored for fraud, Mr. McKenzie stated. He was satisfied the skyrocketing valuations of fashionable cash had been fueled by reckless hypothesis, fairly than any sensible software of the know-how. “It doesn’t do what currencies do,” he stated. “It’s not a dependable retailer of worth, unit of account or medium of change.”

In August, Mr. McKenzie despatched a Twitter DM to Jacob Silverman, a tech author for The New Republic who had just lately printed an essay titled “Even Donald Trump Is aware of Bitcoin Is a Rip-off.” “I’d love to choose your mind,” the actor wrote. “Be at liberty to ignore this if it’s all too bizarre.”

Mr. Silverman, an “O.C.” viewer, was intrigued. He and Mr. McKenzie each live in Brooklyn, they usually met for beer and burgers at Henry Public. Mr. McKenzie proposed a guide venture; Mr. Silverman agreed on the spot. “I began additionally to grasp Ben’s sense of concern at what he noticed and on a regular basis folks probably getting fleeced,” Mr. Silverman stated. Abrams Press is planning to publish their guide, “Easy Money,” in 2023.

Mr. McKenzie stated his newfound ardour has left pals “supportive however confused,” whereas his spouse, the previous “Gotham” star Morena Baccarin, is “simply bored with me speaking about it.” Mr. McKenzie has a bachelor’s diploma in economics from the College of Virginia, and through the years he has sometimes chatted concerning the intersection of regulation and finance along with his father, Pete Schenkkan, a regulatory lawyer in Austin. Nonetheless, Mr. Schenkkan stated, he was “astonished” to be taught of his son’s crypto fixation. “It was a leap sideways from the remainder of his life.”

The venture can be a deviation from what number of celebrities have approached crypto. Matt Damon appeared in a now-infamous business for Crypto.com, a buying and selling platform. Paris Hilton has been hawking NFTs. In an essay for Slate in October, Mr. Silverman and Mr. McKenzie wrote that superstar endorsements are exposing peculiar customers to scams resembling “rug pulls,” during which an nameless developer solicits funds from buyers after which disappears with the cash. “The Hollywoodization of crypto,” they wrote, “is an ethical catastrophe.”

Mr. McKenzie has joined a rising group of skeptics and critics often known as “no-coiners.” In February, he appeared on “Crypto Critics’ Corner,” a podcast hosted by Bennett Tomlin and Cas Piancey, who publish two episodes per week concerning the dangers of decentralized finance and different crypto ventures.

No-coiners are sometimes the targets of on-line abuse, although the trolling can run each methods. “I’ve picked lots of fights,” Mr. Tomlin stated. “Usually I used to be the one making an attempt to provoke conflicts by making an attempt to level out to those who ‘Earlier than you stated this, now you’re saying this.’”

The no-coiners have a few of the identical idiosyncratic obsessiveness because the crypto bros; like their antagonists, they collect on Discord and Twitter to change suggestions and memes, they usually’re fluent in acronym-heavy jargon. Mr. McKenzie acknowledges that he’s an uncommon addition to their ranks, which consist largely of journalists, software engineers and teachers. “I’m an actor,” he stated. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Mr. McKenzie’s background additionally offers him some benefits. Many crypto bros attempt to silence skeptics with the identical mic drop: “Have fun staying poor.” “They don’t use that line a lot with me,” Mr. McKenzie stated. “You need to evaluate real-money financial institution accounts?”

However within the noisy world of crypto, TV fame doesn’t essentially translate to affect. Earlier than setting out for the mine, Mr. McKenzie led a panel at South by Southwest known as “Belief Me I’m Well-known.” The session came about in a big auditorium, with many rows of empty seats. A bunch of younger followers cheered when Mr. McKenzie launched himself as Ryan from “The O.C.,” then spent the remainder of the occasion glued to their smartphones whereas he held forth on the hazards of unregulated securities buying and selling. (He discovered his 6-year-old daughter, Frances, slumped in her seat on the finish of the panel. “I do know it was boring,” he instructed her. “Are you mad at me?”)

Nor did Mr. McKenzie’s superstar open any doorways at Whinstone, the place he and Mr. Silverman had been hoping to do some guide analysis. When Mr. McKenzie pulled into the car parking zone, a concerned-looking safety guard requested him to establish himself. “I’m an actor,” Mr. McKenzie stated. Had the guard seen “Gotham”? No. What about “The O.C.”? Additionally no. “Ask your daughter about ‘The O.C.,’” Mr. McKenzie replied with a smile. A second safety guard stated he had watched “The O.C.” however didn’t acknowledge Mr. McKenzie.

After a couple of extra minutes of confusion (one of many guards saved referring to the mine’s superstar customer as “Invoice McKlensley”), the safety workforce despatched Mr. McKenzie, Mr. Silverman and a cameraman who was documenting their journey to satisfy Chad Harris, a former Christmas tree salesman who now manages the Whinstone plant, which was acquired final 12 months by the publicly traded Bitcoin mining firm Riot Blockchain.

Mr. Harris appeared as comfy in entrance of the digital camera because the actor turned critic who’d confirmed as much as spar with him; he stated he’d given 1,000 excursions of the power. When photographers arrive on the mine, he stated, “I do know which solution to flip my shoulder.”

Mr. Harris stated he was assured he might go toe to toe with any skeptic; he bragged that he’d just lately schooled some crypto haters from Vice Information. “You’ll be able to’t bash one thing in case you don’t know all of the details,” he stated. At one level, he boldly predicted that he might change Mr. McKenzie’s thoughts about crypto with a single sentence. He proceeded to talk for a number of minutes straight concerning the financial advantages of Bitcoin mining.

Mr. Harris led Mr. McKenzie and Mr. Silverman via an unlimited warehouse full of a whole bunch of whirring machines. The cameraman captured footage of Mr. McKenzie in a tough hat, nodding sagely whereas Mr. Harris defined the intricacies of the liquid-immersion cooling system that retains the mining machines from getting too sizzling. On “The O.C.,” Ryan is a properly of repressed emotion, hardly ever betraying a touch of his ideas. Mr. McKenzie, conversely, is a chatterbox: For 2 hours, he grilled Mr. Harris on the power prices of crypto mining and the sensible utility of Bitcoin because the digital camera rolled.

Mr. McKenzie and Mr. Silverman have floated the thought of adapting their still-unwritten guide into some kind of Hollywood manufacturing. They’re modeling the venture on “The Large Brief,” Michael Lewis’s guide concerning the savvy buyers who predicted the 2008 housing market crash. The film adaptation options Margot Robbie ingesting champagne in a tub as she explains the subprime mortgage disaster.

“Jacob and me in thongs,” Mr. McKenzie stated. “It might in all probability flip folks away.” Mr. Silverman laughed. “I’ll go to the health club for one month,” he stated.

If that doesn’t work out, there’s at all times TV. Mr. McKenzie stated he pitched Josh Schwartz, the “O.C.” creator, on a reboot during which a cryptocurrency billionaire, perhaps the son of Luke Ward, whose collection arc traces an evolution from villain to beloved himbo, strikes to Newport Seaside and takes management of the native actual property market.

Mr. Schwartz “laughed politely,” Mr. McKenzie stated. (In an interview, Mr. Schwartz urged an alternate crypto-themed follow-up involving advanced political machinations masterminded by Luke’s youthful brothers. He added that Seth Cohen, Ryan’s geeky greatest pal performed by Adam Brody, would “undoubtedly be making an attempt to promote some NFTs.” Mr. Brody, reached by textual content, stated he agreed. “Or he’d be promoting bongs out of a van,” he stated. “I don’t know.”)

After the tour, Mr. Harris led Mr. McKenzie and Mr. Silverman to a constructing that the mining employees name “the White Home” — the positioning of the mine’s govt workplace. Standing by the door, Mr. McKenzie pressed Mr. Harris on his cryptocurrency commitments. Wasn’t it simply one other type of playing? A high-stakes poker sport with no actual societal worth?

Mr. Harris shrugged. He stated he was comfy taking monetary dangers. “Give it some thought in parallel with your individual life,” he stated. Mr. McKenzie had taken a break from performing and put his repute on the road to jot down a guide arguing that the nation’s tech elites are selling a glorified Ponzi scheme. “Life’s a raffle,” Mr. Harris stated.

For a cut up second, Mr. McKenzie appeared like Ryan Atwood once more, brooding thoughtfully.

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

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