How a 2000s teen heart-throb found himself investigating stock market fraud

How a 2000s teen heart-throb found himself investigating stock market fraud

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What was it that made Ben McKenzie, actor, early 2000s heartthrob and father, decide to spend two years digging himself deeper and deeper into the world of cryptocurrency?

“Boredom,” he says without hesitating. “COVID-induced boredom.”

Over the course of our conversation, however, his answer begins to shift. “I had this sense of impending doom about crypto,” he says later. “To me, anyway, it was a massive social harm that I could see.” He laughs quietly, then compares it to watching the Titanic heading straight towards the iceberg.

“You call to the captain, but there is no captain – and you realise you, unfortunately, are the best the ship has. And so, you start yelling and screaming and trying to get as many people to recognise it and get into lifeboats as you can.”

At the end of 2020, with his industry shuttered and no work to distract him, McKenzie picked up a pandemic hobby: trying to detect fraud in the stock market.

Ben McKenzie was one of the few openly dissenting voices willing to put his name to his criticism of cryptocurrency.

Ben McKenzie was one of the few openly dissenting voices willing to put his name to his criticism of cryptocurrency.Credit: Leah Jing McIntosh

“Once I started looking at it from up close, nothing made sense,” he says. “People were buying failing companies and their stock prices were soaring, they were buying these things called cryptocurrencies, these things called NFTs – which appeared to be receipts for links to JPEGs – for millions of dollars of fake money.”

The Titanic comparison might not be as wild as it initially seems. Over the two years he spent looking into cryptocurrency – at its simplest a digital form of money with no real regulation – he was one of the few openly dissenting voices willing to put his name to his criticism. Crypto for the most part looked like a new gold rush – no-one involved wanted to hear about the red flags that McKenzie was seeing everywhere.

This week sees the Australian release of Easy Money: Cryptocurrency, Casino Capitalism, and the Golden Age of Fraud, a book that McKenzie has co-written with journalist Jacob Silverman. In it, they dig into the origins of cryptocurrency, trace the connection between its rise to the subprime crisis, and offer what they describe as “an inside look at one of the greatest frauds in history, bigger than Madoff by an order of magnitude”.

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It also documents what turned out to be a wild two years of research which saw them spend a surreal night out with two CIA agents, travel to El Salvador where Bitcoin had been adopted as legal tender, and McKenzie losing almost $250,000 wagering “too much on crypto’s collapse too soon”.

On first glance, McKenzie seems an unusual figure to be leading the charge against cryptocurrency. Before now, he was best known as an actor – most famously for his role as bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold Ryan Atwood in early 2000s soap opera The OC and James Gordon in Gotham – and most celebrities publicly associated with crypto are advocating for it. There’s Matt Damon, whose ad for Crypto.com played at the Super Bowl. There’s Kim Kardashian, whose paid post encouraging people to buy Ethereum Max eventually led to the reality star being fined $US1 million. Then there’s footballer Tom Brady who threw his fame behind now-bankrupt crypto exchange FTX.

McKenzie, however, has been a vocal critic of cryptocurrencies for the past few years, starting with a critical tweet, then a Slate article pointedly calling out the issues with celebrity crypto shilling, giving testimony at a Senate Banking Committee hearing and now the book.

It was a story he was compelled to tell. “There were no investor protections there,” he says bluntly. “And it was being sold to the masses, at the Super Bowl, on national television, by some of the most famous people on the planet.”

Here’s the thing when someone known very well for doing one thing does something entirely outside the scope of what is expected of them – people make assumptions. In McKenzie’s case people saw him purely as a celebrity actor – and it’s something that ultimately worked in his favour.

“I thought of it as a hurdle I would have to overcome, that I wouldn’t be taken seriously because I’m just some guy from TV,” he says. His co-writer, however saw things differently. “He said, no that’s your superpower,” McKenzie says. “They might underestimate you, and that’s that’s perfect. That’s exactly what you want – and sure enough that turned out to be true.”

McKenzie speaks during a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on FTX in Washington, DC on December. 14, 2022.

McKenzie speaks during a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on FTX in Washington, DC on December. 14, 2022.Credit: Ting Shen/Bloomberg

Before he landed his role on The OC, McKenzie was at university studying “a smattering of classes” that would position him to take up a career in law. It was there he discovered a love of economics, but didn’t pursue it because it “seemed very daunting”. “And I’m rubbish at math,” he says drily. “Which, for an economist – that’s not a good thing.”

In Easy Money McKenzie gets access to two of the biggest hitters in the crypto world at the time: founder and CEO of now-bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange FTX Sam Bankman-Fried and co-founder and former CEO of now-bankrupt cryptocurrency lending platform Celsius Network Alex Mashinsky, with both of them offering up shockingly candid interviews that they also allowed him to film. Both men have since been charged with fraud and face potential prison sentences. Both have pleaded not guilty. “I guess [we were] lucky to be in early, when they still felt invincible and still felt willing to talk.”

Ben McKenzie and his co-writer Jacob Silverman spent two years immersed in the world of cryptocurrency as research for their book, Easy Money.

Ben McKenzie and his co-writer Jacob Silverman spent two years immersed in the world of cryptocurrency as research for their book, Easy Money.Credit: Leah Jing McIntosh

Now that the book is out, McKenzie is turning his hand to making a documentary, using the footage captured when researching for the book.

Beyond that, on what comes next, he isn’t sure. In the acknowledgements of Easy Money McKenzie finishes by thanking his wife, Morena Baccarin, and then asking “Please let me do it again”.

Do what again? He pauses. “I don’t know.” He’s open to writing more about crypto but at the same time feels that walking away sounds pretty good too.

“One thing I have learned – it is a hell of a lot of work to write a book, and you really ought to be passionate about the subject matter … you should really sort of have to write it. And it’s a thing that actors often say, which I actually always recoiled against, which is ‘if you can do anything else’, you know? ‘You should only do acting if you absolutely have to do it’, which I always thought was bullshit, to be honest with you. I could do a lot of other things. I like acting. But I could do a lot of other things.”

The rise and fall of cryptocurrency was a story that gripped him completely; was one he had to tell. In writing the book “my understanding of the world, my experience of the world increased exponentially.”

Once the documentary is done, he says, “I’ll just be looking for the next adventure. I don’t know what that one will be.”

Easy Money: Cryptocurrency, Casino Capitalism, and the Golden Age of Fraud by Ben McKenzie with Jacob Silverman is published by Abrams Books, distributed in Australia by Thames & Hudson and available from August 31.

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