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Character actor is 'King of New Orleans'

Editor's Note: King of New Orleans is screening Saturday, Oct. 17, at 10 a.m. at Canal Place on two screens, and Wednesday, Oct. 21, at 9 p.m. at the Prytania. New Orleans-written, shot and produced, the movie follows a United Cab driver and a troubled college student as they encounter life in New Orleans. This interview with the film's star was originally published in February.

David Jensen stars as a United cabbie in 'The King of New Orleans.'

David Jensen stars as a United cabbie in 'The King of New Orleans.'

David Jensen’s face is probably a familiar one. He’s the doctor who brings an elderly Brad Pitt into the world in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The eye-in-sky-casino tech in Oceans Eleven. And, one of his favorites, the jaded glam rocker of TV’s Pop Rocks.

Jensen has been creating characters in movies big and small for four decades – ever since, as a theater major at LSU, he met a young Steven Soderberg, whose success with Sex, Lies and Videotape helped Jensen’s own entrée into the business. He went on to work with Soderberg in big movies like Kafka and King of the Hill. And at least one smaller one, too.

“In ‘92, we were in Austin doing The Underneath, and at that point Steve felt like if the film business was like that, he’d rather be a plumber or a WalMart greeter, so he bought a camera and we made a little film called Schizopolis,” Jensen says. “We took a year to do that. During that time Casey Silver, who was head of Universal at the time, called Steven up and asked him to do Out of Sight. So instead of being what I assumed was going to be our independent film career, making little films like Schizopolis, he went to Los Angeles and began his run.”

Jensen did, too, playing an array of characters, more than 80 of them, some good guys and some bad, in a wide range of films. But his latest role is a starring one, and it brought him home to New Orleans.

“Leonard Spears, who was a set director on Love Song for Bobby Long, said I have a friend who has a pretty good story you should look at,” Jensen explains. “It was Brian Friedman’s kind of real-life story, his Katrina story."

The story is called The King of New Orleans, and Friedman (a NolaVie contributor) wrote the screenplay in Jackson, Mississippi, where he had evacuated after Katrina. In it, Jensen plays a United Cab driver.

“His name is Larry Shirt and he is a longtime New Orleanian,” Jensen says. “New Orleans comes through his cab, as you would imagine it would. So there are 30 to 40 people that we meet through this experience and all deserving their own movie probably. But we see Larry and Bobby, who is the Brian character. They forge a friendship and, you know, he’s interested in Bobby’s journey.”

The King of New Orleans, which will have its cast and crew screening this week before heading out on the film festival circuit, was five years in the making.

“It was one of those great projects that was just kismet. They asked the right people and doors opened for them and they kept on plugging away at it and got it finished.”

The movie is about friendship, and family, and redemption. Jensen, who grew up in New Orleans, says he tapped into his own personal history for this role.

“It was so cathartic. My father was a German Lutheran minister and the church was in the Irish Channel. We shot all over town, but a lot of that came back. Just the geography of it and the sense of place and that feeling you have about New Orleans when you connect with it.”

Only a New Orleanian could get one particular location in the movie right – and that’s the United Cab Dispatch center.

“That place, it’s right off St. Charles, the dispatcher’s hub,” Jensen says. “The way they operate, it is so low tech, but it’s so great, and it’s such a piece of New Orleans to hear the cab drivers talk to the dispatcher who has a mop and a plunger and he’s using 3-by-5 cards, just keeping everything straight. I just immediately perk up my ears. I have a whole different appreciation for cabbies.”

As Shirt, Jensen is not the only star of The King of New Orleans. The city itself is a character in this movie filmed here.

“When New Orleanians shoot New Orleans, it’s a very different place than when someone who hasn’t experienced the geography.”

Jensen can also be seen this year in such big-screen releases as Don’t Mess With Texas, Midnight Special, and Free State of Jones. But none of those will give him quite the same thrill as climbing into his battered United cab, where his reading glasses are held together with green Whole Food rubber bands, and a photo of his son – a young Brian Friedman himself – is pasted on the dash.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]