Eric Roberts plays a good guy, for a change, in “Crash”

Crash © 2009 Lions Gate Television Inc. and Starz Entertainment, LLC. Credit: Colleen Hayes

Crash © 2009 Lions Gate Television Inc. and Starz Entertainment, LLC. Credit: Colleen Hayes

By Stacey Harrison

For actors trying to play a sympathetic character, it’s helpful to have certain aspects to work with. A limp, maybe. A troubled past. If it’s a particularly attractive performer, going ugly always helps.

But what about an egomaniac who happens to be one of the world’s richest men? That’s Eric Roberts’ assignment as he joins the cast of Crash, which begins it second season on Starz Sept. 18. He plays Seth Blanchard, a Richard Branson-type billionaire whose latest conquest is bringing pro football back to Los Angeles. He’s willing to strong-arm local politicians and grease whatever wheels necessary to make it happen — not so much because he yearns for gridiron fans to have a new team to cheer for, but because it will be yet another monument to his own greatness.

That’s all until a near-death experience changes his outlook. Convinced he’s had an encounter with God, Blanchard now sees his lifelong pursuit of money and possessions as empty and soulless. Unable to find anyone in his inner circle who believes him — or thinks he isn’t losing his mind — he is drawn to the man who helped him on the scene: disgraced former cop Kenny Battaglia (Ross McCall) who’s now divorced and making ends meet as a strip-mall security guard. He makes Kenny his new head of security and feels comfortable telling him about his new lease on life.

After years of playing villains — starting with his signature role in 1983’s Star 80 — Roberts gets to flex his nice-guy muscles, albeit in Crash’s morally muddy look at modern-day L.A. Most of his scenes have been with series regular McCall, but Roberts is anxious for his character to tangle with Dennis Hopper’s Ben Cendars, the loony record producer who spends this season trying to solve his daughter’s murder.

“It’s gotta happen,” Roberts says, laughing. “I’ve known Dennis for 20 years, and acted with Dennis [in 1989’s Blood Red], and he was definitely part of why I wanted to do this.”

Roberts counts himself a big fan of the 2005 film that inspired the series, but hadn’t seen the show’s first season. He still hasn’t, since producers “told me to stay away, since it’s a completely different show now.”

True, you could be new to Crash and be just fine this season, but there will be plenty of storylines for longtime watchers to pick up, including Anthony (Jocko Sims), who had washed his hands of Ben but is persuaded by the old man to help him out in his quest for justice; Inez (Moran Atias), Kenny’s former mistress, who is trying to earn money at a top-flight gentleman’s club while supporting her ne’er do-well gambler boyfriend, Jimmy (Dana Ashbrook). New to the cast is Jake McLaughlin, who plays Bo, a former baseball prodigy sidelined by injury who finds new purpose coaching high-school players but also must deal with an alcoholic mother (Tess Harper). Julie Warner (Doc Hollywood) signs on as Blanchard’s ambitious right-hand woman, who does not care one bit for Kenny coming onboard.

Roberts is no stranger to joining established shows, having done time on Heroes and The L Word. He’s one of Hollywood’s busiest actors, in fact, currently with 13 projects in various stages of production. That’s exactly the way the star wants it, and after some advice earlier in his career steered him in a different direction (and backfired), he’s done things his own way.

“When I first became a movie star … I was told as a mainstream movie star, what you have to do is one movie a year tops,” he says. “So I did that for my first eight movies, and I was miserable. It wasn’t working. Then I got nominated for an Academy Award (for 1985’s Runaway Train), and I looked at all the other nominees, I looked at my work and their work, and I thought, ‘Christ, I might win this.’ They gave the trophy that year to Don Ameche for Cocoon, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this sucks.’ So I called my agent and I say, ‘Obviously quality is not an issue here, so I’ll do anything anywhere.’

“I love working, and I’m going to go to work and I’m not going to stop till I retire. I’ll do anything anywhere as long as there’s one good thing about it: a good location, a good script, a good director, a good costar. Whatever it is, one good thing about it. … I’ve had a great life seeing the world for free, and I stopped worrying about shit and it’s just a blast. I have the best job on the planet, brother. Bar none.”

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