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Dennis Hopper plays crazy for ‘Crash’

Hopper is totally tickled by his outrageous new alter ego, freaky Los Angeles music producer Ben Cendars in the Starz series “Crash.”
/ Source: The Associated Press

With a raft of weird roles to his credit, Dennis Hopper might well yawn about playing another wacko. Yet Hopper is totally tickled by his outrageous new alter ego, freaky Los Angeles music producer Ben Cendars in the Starz series “Crash.”

“He’s unbelievable,” says Hopper, chuckling about Ben’s raunchy first scene in the edgy drama. The gentle-voiced actor — who defined cinematic bizarre in “Blue Velvet” — gets top billing in the ensemble program, spawned by the Academy Award-winning film about racial tensions in Los Angeles. Hopper’s blue eyes twinkle as he relishes his off-the-wall character, who smacks a bit of notorious real-life record producer Phil Spector.

“Ben’s just a shocking guy,” he says.

In the series’ premiere (10 p.m. EDT Oct. 17) Ben unzips himself in the back of his chauffeured limousine and berates his aging manhood as his female driver listens.

“Ben has no edit button,” Hopper says. “Ben is violent, too, but it makes sense in his world.”

Large as Ben — and Hopper — loom in “Crash” the TV show, Ben did not exist in the original film. None of the movie’s characters and cast made the leap to television.

Still, the series mirrors the movie’s multiracial mix with a complement of strong, reckless and corrupt cops (Arlene Tur, Ross McCall and Nick E. Tarabay, respectively), a struggling Guatemalan immigrant (Luis Chavez), a Korean-American medic (Brian Tee) and an upscale Anglo married couple (Clare Carey and guest star D.B. Sweeney).

Starring Albuquerque, N.M. as Los AngelesIronically though, the series plays sleight of hand with the movie’s most pervasive persona — Los Angeles itself. From the premiere’s signature car crash to an L.A. police station, the show is filmed mostly in Albuquerque, N.M., where production is cheaper. A few second-unit exterior scenes were lensed in L.A.

Series creator Glen Mazzara says the decision to film it there was made before he was hired. “Lionsgate was always determined to shoot this in Albuquerque,” Mazzara says of Starz’s producing partner.

“‘The Shield’ was able to shoot in Los Angeles on a very small budget and did so quite effectively for seven years,” says Mazzara, who was a producer on that show for six seasons. “I was surprised that this show would not follow that same model. I do believe it’s possible to shoot quality material in Los Angeles on tight budgets.”

Nonetheless, the Albuquerque-for-Los Angeles look is working out, says Hopper, a longtime L.A. resident who admits he’s “not a big fan” of the city.

Such ambivalence is what the series aims for, Mazzara says. “Our characters have a love-hate relationship with Los Angeles, as lots of people do. We want to show the pressure of living in Los Angeles — how that pressure takes a toll.”

‘We won’t have a racial fight of the week’Like the 2004 film “Crash” and the 1993 movie “Short Cuts,” “Crash” the series is an ever-tightening web of events that squeezes seemingly unconnected characters together. With 13 episodes to fill, the series’ characters take their time about intersecting. “Most of the story lines come together in episode six,” Mazzara says.

Some of the people who crafted “Crash” the movie — Paul Haggis (director/co-screenwriter), Bobby Moresco (co-screenwriter) and Bob Yari (producer) — also serve as executive producers on the series. Yet the TV version does not play as noir, or darkly despairing, as the movie did.

“It has a lot of absurdist humor, like ‘Short Cuts,’” Mazzara says. “It has more hope than a noir piece. It’s less cynical.”

Plus, “we won’t have the racial fight of the week,” says Don Cheadle, who starred in the film, was also a producer, and is a co-executive producer on the series. “When people talk about the movie, they’re always focused on its racial aspect. But I thought it was a movie about power and people scared that they’re losing it and desperate to get it from other people. Those deeper themes are very much a part of the series.”

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Regardless, Ben makes wildly insensitive racial comments about the 1992 Los Angeles riots in his first scene with his new chauffeur, Anthony (Jocko Sims), an aspiring singer-songwriter who is African-American.

“Ben is like ‘All in the Family,”’ Hopper says, recalling hilariously blunt bigot Archie Bunker on the classic ’70s sitcom. “If there’s comic relief in ‘Crash,’ Ben is it.”

Says Sims: “After that first scene with Dennis about ‘ghettos,’ I thought the show might go down the cliched road of Anthony being pulled over by cops and racially profiled. But you’ll be surprised by what does and doesn’t happen. This series leads you to believe anything can happen — which is certainly true for the city of Los Angeles.”