Jennifer Armstrong
May 08, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The O.C. heartthrob is finally acting his age. After scowling his way to teen idoldom as Ryan Atwood, the 30-year-old now plays rookie cop Ben Sherman on NBC’s gritty drama Southland. He talks about ditching the wifebeater and showing up Dennis Franz.

This does seem like a pretty bold career transition — was it part of your plan?
I planned it all along. Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha. No, I played the cards I was dealt. When I got The O.C., I needed a job. I would’ve taken anything I got. But I did think it was gonna work as a show.

So why this project?
I thought it was a good opportunity to play an adult, a character that I think is quite different from Ryan Atwood. He’s the rich kid going to the poor area instead of the poor kid going to the rich area. In some ways, he’s more similar to me. I grew up in Texas in a lovely upper-middle-class childhood. Idyllic, you might say.

We were a little too excited to see you in the Southland premiere arresting Taylor Handley, who played the much-hated Oliver in The O.C.‘s first season.
It was quite funny. We were filming the scene on Sunset Boulevard. I’m arresting this guy who played my nemesis on The O.C. He’s calling me by my character’s name, which is also my real name. And just out of frame is a Starline tour bus with all the tourists taking pictures of us filming. It was about as surreal as it gets.

There’s one key similarity in your roles on both shows, though: You barely talk. I tend to play characters who are guarded and then open up to people. Or maybe I have limited capacity to memorize lines. [Laughs]

Did you have to prove yourself for the Southland gig?
I had a meeting with the producers where I offered to read. So, technically an audition. It was frustrating for me post-O.C. for a year or two. You get to a certain age and it’s almost comic, trying to stay in a high school world. I guess I got blessed with genes that let me play younger than I am, but I shouldn’t be playing 10 years younger!

Did you turn down any roles in between?
It was a lot of, I call it ”Ryan Atwood on film.” A friend of mine called me from a movie he was doing and was like, ”Dude, they want me to be you! Get me a white wifebeater.”

But Southland is clearly not The O.C. — it uses profanity, for one thing, even though it’s bleeped out.
I think the nice thing is NBC is willing to take a gamble on certain things. We’re somewhat free to make the show we want to make.

Does this mean Franzian nudity is in the offing?
Dennis Franz ain’t got nothing on me. I used to watch NYPD Blue when I was way too young to, and I have the image of his naked ass seared into my memory. I’m going to try to show him up.

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