It’s just another day in the life of actress Beth Riesgraf who plays Parker the cat burglar on the new TNT series Leverage that premieres tonight at 10 p.m. “It pretty much broke down like this. I got hired on Friday and on Monday I was in Chicago hanging upside-down up on top of a forty-story building at four am,â€ Riesgraf says to SheKnows during our set tour.
The perfect mix
Funny, clever, with just a touch of fantasy, Leverage is a weekly David and Goliath tale. But this time, David’s got much more than a slingshot. Modern-day David’s have the highly skilled team of thieves, grifters and hackers who comprise Leverage. They have a low tolerance level for crooked politicians and greedy corporations.
Executive producer Chris Downey says he got the idea for the series while he was sitting around in his garage drinking with partner John Rogers. “Which is not as sad as it sounds,” says Downey. “(We were) talking about how heist shows have been getting really grim and gritty and highly serialized, you miss half an episode and you’re lost. We talked about shows we liked: Rockford Files, The A Team, Mission Impossible. Why not do one of those?”
The next day Downey had lunch with Independence Day director Dean Devlin and he mentioned the idea. Coincidentally, Devlin had just signed to work on a series for TNT so it was a match made in heaven.
What they came up with was Nathan Ford (played by Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton), a dedicated insurance investigator who blames his employers for the death of his son. Lost and adrift, Ford is intrigued when a man offers him a way to get revenge on that same insurance company and all he has to do is pull of a small heist. Ford takes the job, and assembles a team. They do the deed and that is that – until Ford finds out that all is not as it seems.
With Rogers and Downey’s quirky script and Devlin’s flare for action flicks – Leverage is unlike anything you’ve seen on weekly TV. It’s fast-paced, intricately plotted and has a sense of humor that keeps it from taking itself too seriously (which would be a crime most heinous).
“Dean’s a film guy,” says Downey, “and we have a constant argument on set, ‘you know you’re directing a TV show, right? You only have seven days for this.'”
But Devlin does in seven days what most people need two months and a feature film budget to pull off. “There are things that should have been tossed out the window because we can’t afford them,” admits Devlin.
“Unfortunately, our appetites are bigger than our budgets and we just never turn anything down. It’s like, ‘so then they land the airplane on the freeway in the Florida Keys’. Alright. . .”
And landing a plane on a freeway on TV is pretty cool, but all the action in the world won’t keep people coming back week after week if your characters aren’t compelling.
For Leverage, it’s not a problem.
A team of rivals
Ford’s team is made up of criminal talents who are used to going it alone. There’s Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge of Supernatural) the computer hacker, Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane of Angel) the “retrieval specialist” who can take out a room full of armed guards without breaking a sweat. Sophie Devereaux (Gina Bellman of Jekyll) is a grafter who can become anyone you want her to be and crazy Parker (Beth Riesgraf) who gets joy out of sliding down zip-lines and hanging upside down off of office buildings.
“We went against type for a lot of roles,” says Downey. “Aldis is not the usual guy you think for the hacker. (Christian) is not the usual guy you think for the precise controlled, strategic thinker.”
Gina cuts in with, “me, beautiful mysterious…”
“You were dead on type,” Downey replies. “We said, ‘Sophie? Her superpower is that everyone falls kind a little in love with her,’ and that’s you Gina.”
Bellman smiles demurely and it’s like Sophie working a con. “One of my personal heroes is Marilyn Monroe. I think she was a fiercely intelligent performer who played against that so brilliantly. I played her once in a play, did a lot of research on her,” Bellman adds. I used her a lot in this character because I get to play both the femme fatale and the kind of goofball, so I do channel her a teeny bit.”
“All my children,” director Devlin says as he laughs, “it’s different aspects of each one of them that really tickles me. She came up with it herself in the audition. When she finished her performance the head of the network just turned to me and said, ‘is she crazy?’ I said, ‘I don’t know but I love what she’s doing.’ I had a totally other actor in my mind for (Aldis’s part). He came in and met with us and completely changed my mind in one meeting.”
Aldis Hodge may be the baby of the group, but he more than pulls his weight. As the computer geek, he’s generally stuck with the exposition, which can be dull and boring. In his hands it’s funny, funny, funny. Who knew?
“I actually, I started doing standup comedy when I was eleven years old,” says Hodge. “Growing up, comedy was more of a background for me out of bad times. You know, when it got tough at home I just started doing crazy stuff to make my momma laugh and that’s where it really came from. It never was intentional. It just grew as part of my personality and with this character, god bless him, Dean and the team, they give me so much freedom to just be me and add what I can, and you know I have a lot of fun.”
Up next…Oscar winner Timothy Hutton tells SheKnows about how found Leverage.