Benjamin McKenzie was born in Austin, Texas to Mary Frances (Victory), a poet, and Pieter Meade Schenkkan, an attorney. His uncle is playwright Robert Schenkkan. Ben is of Dutch Jewish (from his paternal grandfather), English, and Scottish descent. He attended Austin High School, and played wide receiver and defensive back for the school's football team. From 1997-2001, he attended the University of Virginia, where he majored in Foreign Affairs and Economics.
McKenzie got into acting during his first few years at the University of Virginia, where he appeared in "Measure for Measure" and "Zoo Story." After graduation he moved to New York and appeared off-Broadway in "Life is a Dream" at the SoHo Rep. Additionally, he performed in numerous productions at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, including "Street Scene" and "The Blue Bird." He relocated to Los Angeles in late 2001. His early TV appearances included roles on The District, JAG and Mad TV.
In 2005 McKenzie made his feature film debut in Junebug opposite Amy Adams, the film received high praise at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. He also appeared in a pivotal role in the 2007 film 88 Minutes. McKenzie's first starring role in a feature film was in the 2008 indie release Johnny Got His Gun, and the movie premiered at the Paramount Theater in McKenzie's hometown, prior to playing art houses where it garnered excellent reviews for his solo performance.