Hitter. Hacker. Grifter. Thief. Brains. For five seasons on TNT, “Leverage” followed four lone wolf criminals — led by former insurance investigator, Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton) — turned crew of Robin Hoods, fighting corporate and government injustices inflicted upon everyday people. Using their individual skills as a team to steal from the deceitful and remorseless rich and powerful, the Leverage crew’s motto was simple: “Sometimes bad guys make the best good guys.”
Nine years after its original run, “Leverage” is returning (on Amazon’s IMDb TV) with “Leverage: Redemption.” In this continuation series, the Leverage crew has to adjust to the new world order of the rich and powerful, who are even more ruthless — and getting away with even more heinous crimes — than before. Hitter Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane), hacker Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge), grifter and now also brains Sophie Devereaux (Gina Bellman), and thief Parker (Beth Riesgraf) have all returned for “Leverage: Redemption.”
And joining the crew in their new New Orleans setting are newcomers who are quite familiar with how things have changed since the last Leverage crew did a job: Harry Wilson (Noah Wyle), a corporate lawyer who has to reckon with the fact that he’s been fighting for the wrong side for his whole career, and Breanna Casey (Aleyse Shannon), Hardison’s foster sister who has the same illegal technological precociousness as her older brother did at her age.
Here, Variety speaks with the cast about getting the band back together, the new kids on the block and why now is the perfect time to continue on with the legacy of “Leverage.”
What was the pitch like when it came to returning to the world of “Leverage”? Did the powers that be simply ask, “Do you want to do more ‘Leverage?'”
Gina Bellman: Pretty much. The cast had stayed in touch with each other. We used to see each other whenever we were in the same city, and then a couple of years ago we all had dinner together and we had such a blast. We’ve all kept abreast of the fanbase. The community had this momentum about wanting a “Leverage” movie or a future imagining of the brand. We were very much in touch about it. Even though the actual phone call was a bolt out of the blue, in a way, it wasn’t unexpected. It’s hard to describe. Dean [Devlin] [“Leverage” and “Leverage: Redemption” executive producer] did phone out of the blue, and he just said, “Hey Gina, it’s Dean. How do you feel about getting the band back together?” And I think I screamed. I almost remember the phone slipping out of my hand. I was like, no hesitation, “Absolutely. Sign me up, I want to do it.” These are my people; these are my friends. And not just the cast. The writers, the crew — we connected with a lot of the same crew that were on the original series of “Leverage.” It was a no-brainer.
Christian Kane: Dean Devlin, I was already working with him. We were doing a series called “Almost Paradise” and he told me that “Leverage” was coming. There was no pitch to me. We’d been asking for it for a long time. There’s not one person to tell you that we weren’t. We wanted to do it so bad. You didn’t have to twist anybody’s arm, but I’ll tell you what I was very, very excited [about]: I remember I was in the Philippines — I was in Magdon — and Dean told me that we were definitely picked up. I was doing “Almost Paradise,” and I walked out to the water and just looked out the water and just thanked God that my life was so great. I was just really excited.
And on that day were you like, “Well, I guess I have to grow my hair back out”?
Kane: Yeah. Dean came out to direct the last episode of “Almost Paradise” and when he got there to prep he said, “Stop cutting your hair.” That’s one of the reasons I knew that “Leverage” was coming back. He was like, “Don’t cut your hair.” And I was like, “We got it!”
What was it like getting back into the mindset of these characters? Was there an excitement to returning to this world or a sense of struggle to get back into the groove?
Beth Riesgraf: Oh, it was so fun. This character is unlike anything I’ve ever played and it’s a gift because Parker has no rules. And my audition scene, I remember originally was two or three pages. And none of this stuff was really there. It was just a few words, and we laugh about it now because it’s like I started taking creative license. And to be fully honest with you, I remember one of the first reviews coming out on the original series and I got shredded. Everybody else was praised, and there was a huge paragraph about how awful I was. And then the show became a success. And that same critic, two seasons later was raving about me and how unique my performance was. At the time it really messed with me. And I remember Dean and John [Rogers, “Leverage” co-creator] coming up to me and saying, “The things that you’re coming up with are what make this character special. Don’t let that mess with you.” And it kind of mirrored to me the way society can be sometimes to people who are different or don’t look like everybody or don’t do what you’re expecting, actually. That’s not always a bad thing when you talk about creativity.
Bellman: I think the most exciting thing was reading scenes. I’m very British, so I’m big on “take the mickey out of you”; I’m a teaser, pushing people’s buttons. And I love that about these characters. So, the first few scripts [of “Leverage: Redemption”] where I saw the little banter between myself and Christian Kane’s character and Beth Riesgraf’s character, seeing the teasing, that was really thrilling for me. And we do do a little improvisation and we do collaborate a lot in scenes where I’ll say to another actor, “Oh, I think you’d do this joke better.” Or, “Let’s flip this line so that you have the last line of the scene.”
It’s very collaborative in that way and I’ve never really experienced that before. I’ve worked on great shows before, but when I worked on “Coupling” or “Jekyll,” Steven Moffat is a brilliant writer but you’re very specific. You read it as written, exactly. And the thing about “Leverage: Redemption” and “Leverage” is that we do get a little leeway and we get to play with our lines and improv a little and invent our own physical comedy, and I love that.
Kane: Eliot’s never left my heart. I’ve said this before: This is the role I came to Hollywood to play. When I was a 15, 14-year-old kid on the side of his bed praying that this would happen to me, this was the role I wanted to play. And it’s the best character in the world, so it wasn’t very hard for me to step back into these shoes. But everyone else had gone off and done some other stuff. Beth was into drama with her series. Aldis had done so much drama, doing so much good work. I was off doing a little bit of comedy but mostly drama with my series. But I was worried, “How are we going to come back and wrap this up?”
Bellman: Yeah. I mean, it surprised me how readily I was able to slide [back into Sophie]. I didn’t really know what to expect. I was a little bit nervous, and obviously I was moving in the middle of a pandemic to go back to the States and it was nerve-wracking. But from my very first costume fitting, table read, Beth and Christian and I have such a shorthand and we know each other strengths, we really kind of celebrate [them]. So, we do lob balls at each other all the time, like, “You take this, you take that,” and that all happen straight off the bat.
But also working with Noah and Aleyse, I thought it was a really great dramatic device because you feel a bit of responsibility with a character that you have to tell their story. And if it had just been the established characters, I think that could have felt a little bit labored, but the fact that we had these new lead actors that are brilliant characters, they were able to meet us through a fresh lens. And I think that really helped us.
Kane: I was worried it wasn’t going to all meld [but] Dean Devlin was so smart because he directed the first episode and he put us all in the same room for the first scene. He put us all in there, which made us all play together. And two minutes into it, it was just old hat. Aldis and I — that’s what we do; we bank off of each other in such a good way. And it was so much fun to pick that back up where we left off, especially working with him.
Aldis didn’t just become a movie star. Aldis didn’t automatically start doing really great work and start being recognized for his work and become a movie star. Aldis, at 21-years-old, when he walked onto the set in 2007 of “Leverage,” was already a movie star. And so for me to get to work with somebody of that caliber, I appreciate it.
Where are these characters when we return to them in “Leverage: Redemption?”
Bellman: Sophie has suffered a loss, but she starts the season in a really great place in that she’s experienced stability, she’s experienced commitment, she’s experienced a great love. And I think in the past, I always saw Sophie as sort of a bird in flight. I always felt that she had one foot in the door, she had her suitcase packed, she was always ready to exit stage left. And I feel like what I loved in this reiteration is that they allowed the characters to mature. So, I think when we meet Sophie again, she’s looking to land somewhere. I think she’s tired of flying and she doesn’t want to take off anymore where she doesn’t know where she’s going to land. I think the season for her is about — and she resists it — “Can I lead this team? Can I commit to this?” And then I think that her journey through the season, watching her sort of land and settle is a really lovely journey.
As you noted, Sophie steps into that leadership role for “Leverage: Redemption.” Gina, how is that dynamic for you now, playing the Mastermind of the crew?
Bellman: I think the writers and the executive producers, they handled it so well. Because I think it would have been wrong if Sophie had just taken that role, especially given that the other characters have been running successful international teams in the intervening years. I think it’s important that she’s given that role, and they give it to her very generously because they want to give her meaning. They want to help her find her path and her meaning. And I think that’s a really important distinction — that she doesn’t just take it and grab it, that they give it to her. And then she has to really earn it, which we’ll see if she does.
[And Eliot’s] very protective of her in this “Leverage: Redemption” season. She’s always looking over and sees that he’s watching her. He’s just checking in with her. He’s very protective and nurturing.
Kane: Well, the one thing about “Leverage” with Eliot is — and this might be boring — “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I remember the wardrobe person came in [with] all new looks for every single character, and then she came in with one picture of me on the original “Leverage” and she said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And they all started laughing and agreed. My character is my character. He’s still paying for all this stuff he did in life. Everybody else did a little bit of this and that, and it was really, really bad, but my character was a hitman. He murdered people. I’m never going to be clean of that. So he’s still the same character.
He has opened up a little bit more to Hardison and Parker because they’ve been together for so long. From the end of “Leverage” to the beginning of “Leverage: Redemption,” we never stopped working. So we’ve always been around each other, so he’s become more tolerant of them. And instead of a love/hate relationship, there’s more of a love/love/hate relationship with him and Hardison. And I can’t say enough about the man playing Hardison. It’s Aldis Hodge, man. So when you get us in a room, nothing changes.
Aleyse, what was it like coming into an established series like this, with a cast and crew who all had established relationships and dynamics?
Aleyse Shannon: They pushed me around. They duct-taped my eyes and gave me a swirly my first day. [Laughs] No. No, I’m not going to lie to you, it was a bit of pressure. Watching that whole series and realizing that these people are consummate professionals. And they’re so funny, their timing is on, but they also have this heart punch too. They’re so grounded. You do sit there and wonder, “Oh darn, am I going to be able to live up to it?” But getting to set and working with them, all of that melts away in minutes and it has just been such a pleasure. They’re all like my big brothers, big sisters, aunts, uncles, whatever you want to say, but it’s been lovely.
Riesgraf: Oh hell yeah. I was able to read with her on her audition via Zoom and she is absolutely so wonderfully talented. She is classically trained. She’s really funny. Her timing and physical physicality is amazing. She’s so authentic, grounded. When I saw her, I was like, “Oh, this is the person that has to do this role.” She’s an amazing artist and we’re lucky to have her.
Parker kind of takes a big sister role with Breanna. Beth and Aleyse, would you also say that’s how things have become now in real life?
Shannon: Well, yes. I don’t know if she willingly took it, but I forced it upon her. I definitely head over to Beth’s house and am like, “Can I hang out with you, please?”
Riesgraf: Yes, please. She gave me a nickname. I do feel so lucky it’s Aleyse because I just love her to death and the freedom that I feel I have to create with her. I can throw her something and she doesn’t balk at it. She’s like, “Let’s try it. Yeah, let’s see.” And then if it doesn’t work, we’re both cool. We’re like, “OK well, let’s try this other thing. What do you think?” And so, I think the more we got to play together — and to be honest I will want more scenes with her — but every time we had a minute together, there was this amazing creative inertia happening. It was like, “Oh, wow there’s so much for us to find here.” So knock on wood we get to do this again because it’s so damn fun.
Shannon: And in those moments, I tell you, I’m just trying to keep up with Beth. Beth has the most energy and the most imaginative, creative mind, I think most people will ever encounter. So she’s throwing me stuff and I’m like, “Hold on, I’ve got to go grab a wig, I need something to lean on.” I got to keep up with Beth. So, dream come true.
Kane: When Aldis Hodge as Alec Hardison left after a couple of episodes — he had to go do some other work — [Breanna] became my person that I needed someone to really rattle me up. I needed someone to poke the bear and [Breanna] became that character for me. She was young and vibrant and all this other stuff and she was poking the bear. And I need that as a character; I enjoy it because it gives my character somebody to get mad at. So she provided that for me.
And Noah, what it was like for you coming into this world as the other newcomer?
Noah Wyle: That provided the challenge I was looking for. It’s like joining a chorus that’s already cut a bunch of great albums and you want to make sure that your voice gives them a slightly elevated sound in a different way and isn’t jarring and doesn’t make the old fans want to tune out. Maybe it makes new fans want to tune in. I had a lot of nervous excitement about entering into this, and the cast was phenomenal and embracing, and it was way more familial and way more familiar than I expected once we started in. And in a way, I think that’s what made us successful if we hadn’t gotten along as well as we did and work so well with each other, I don’t know that we could have accomplished shooting 16 episodes during this particular timeframe because it had its challenges.
Kane: With Noah, let me tell you, it was a very weird transition and he’s such a brilliant actor and I feel like that I’ve learned a lot from him and learned over the years how to do this. We had a very weird situation: I did “The Librarians with” him for four years. He was my boss. He was a mentor, I was his apprentice. And we did that for four years and it’s only been a year off and then you switch it and he comes in and now I’m the guy that knows what’s going on and he’s lost. And so it was a very weird dynamic that we had. He was here, I was here, and then we had to do this. And I think we actually did it flawlessly. And Noah’s directed me so much. He’s written for me numerous times. He directed me on this show as well again, and so it’s a very easy transition with me and Noah. We’re very good friends and it was fun to have him on board.
And he provides a character that is very fun to watch. And if this is called “Leverage: Redemption,” there’s a little bit of redemption in everybody. He’s probably the one that this is based off of with the redemption with his life. And it’s going to be very fun for those who are fans of Noah Wyle, who are fans of “ER,” to watch him go through this whole thing. A lot of emotions are going to come out of him that you may not have seen before. It’s going to be fun to watch for people that are fans of Noah. I know I am.
Could you talk a little about the filming and production process? There have been a number of “COVID seasons” on television this year, where you can really tell the pandemic-related issues they had making certain shows, but “Leverage: Redemption” really doesn’t feel like it has that problem. How were you all able to make it still look and feel like a fun heist show?
Wyle: That’s one of those things you want to put an asterisk on the season and say this was shot with an additional set of obstacles in its place. And we had a conscious choice to either play in a COVID-conscious world or not. We decided that the longevity of this show would be longer if we didn’t specifically isolate in this period of time. And also, it’s just not the universe we wanted to play in. So, it required getting a lot of tests out to people, and it required an incredibly comprehensive protocol plan, and it required everybody adhering to it with total, 100% cooperation. So it was daunting, but we did it.
Bellman: I think one of the other things we’ve got to give kudos to are all of the design departments because we’ve got such an incredible set designer and costume designer. They were really able to kind of create these worlds because they’re standalone episodes and we enter different worlds. In every episode, they made these worlds feel so lavish, and obviously they were restricted in terms of spaces and how many extras we could have. But everyone did a phenomenal, phenomenal job.
But I also think this is one of the things where we might have been ahead of the curve in terms of an ensemble. We couldn’t have a writers’ room. That was one of the kind of technical things that we couldn’t have in COVID protocols. But I think it really helped us that we knew each other so well and that we knew the characters already, and that we’d worked with creative teams before. Because if something didn’t feel right, we were able to huddle on set and say, “Let’s switch this up or let’s change that, or let’s move this around.” And everyone was very open to it.
What is it about “Leverage” that you think has made it endure as long as it had and makes it the perfect show to come back now?
Riesgraf: I think people connected with these characters first and foremost. The message overall in the beginning of “Leverage” was really revenge and going after people. And we had this pack of lone wolves that were trying to survive and suddenly realized they might be stronger together. Now we have “Leverage: Redemption,” which is all about second chances and coming back around and growth — and knowing that they have the confidence and certainty in being a part of this family.
Bellman: We all had that conversation because obviously, we did 77 episodes previously. Being an actor, it’s just like any other job. Sometimes you go to work and you’re like, “Oh I don’t like this scene,” or “Oh this joke’s not funny.” You have your good days and your bad days, but actually Beth and Christian and I, and Aldis, when he was around, we would talk about having gone back and seen episodes and gone, “Oh my God, I loved that! I loved that scene where we did such and such.” Actually going back and seeing episodes going, “God, that’s now one of my favorite episodes.” And I think that it’s a show that is constantly in motion in a way, you’re just going to connect with different things.
Kane: When we first came out, the economy wasn’t that great. And I really honestly believe that everyone was upset at the higher-ups. Now, most people have a pretty good head on their shoulders. You’re not going to go out there and punch somebody. You’re not going to go steal something. But you want to. You want to get revenge, you know what I mean? You want to take it out and there was so much animosity back then that people sat on the couch and watched us punch the people in the face that they really, really wanted to, regardless of what it was. And I think that was one of the reasons that the show became a hit. Because we were throwing punches for you.
And now coming out of this pandemic, everyone right now is sitting there with all this angst, with everything that’s going on in the world. And once again, instead of going to jail, instead of doing something that could get you fired, we throw the punches for you again. And I mean that literally as my character and I mean that metaphorically as a team, as a whole. People are ready to see that kind of stuff again, sometimes people need that. Unfortunately, people need that and we’re going to provide it for you.
Talking about the fans and what they get out of the show, how do you think that the fanbase has factored into keeping the show alive, in a sense, as well as the show’s return?
Kane: We felt like we didn’t get to say goodbye to the fans. We knew we were going to keep going and then we didn’t go. And then we won a People’s Choice Award [in 2013] over “The Walking Dead.” How does that happen? And we still didn’t go. So we felt like we never really got to say goodbye to the fans, which I thought was unfair because they’re the sole reason we’re here right now.
Bellman: In the past we did a couple of conventions, and when we first started doing “Leverage,” social media obviously wasn’t nearly as huge as it is now. I think we were one of the first shows at the time that started to communicate directly with the fanbase through Twitter, and that really gathered a momentum. I wrote an article about it actually in The Observer years ago about how we’d go to these conventions and what was really illuminating was that, of course people were excited to see us there and talk about the show, but actually they were equally excited to be in that community together. And you could see that it was really actually building bridges and bringing people together — people who wouldn’t necessarily have that outlet before. It’s very profound when you witnessed that. And I think that we’ve never, ever not been grateful for this group of people that have had our backs and been behind us and wanted more. We feel a massive responsibility to do a good job for them.
Riesgraf: With these characters, especially, that sense of community is very strong, and we’re all misfits. And the fact that you can have people reaching out saying, “I thought I was alone. I didn’t know there was anybody like me and Parker made me feel like I wasn’t weird.” That’s one small example, but I do think that the community of this show is they like to have fun. They like the action. They like all the quirks and they enjoyed that they feel like they’re part of something special. And that is how the show makes people feel, which is super cool.
For any potential new viewers or even old viewers who may have forgotten just how much they liked “Leverage,” what would you say is the hook for “Leverage: Redemption?” Other than Eliot throwing punches for them, of course?
Wyle: The show is successful in its first incarnation, but then it almost became more successful off the air and [in] syndication because the need for a show like this kept growing and the type of show that this is suddenly vanished from TV. Shows that make you feel good, shows that have a positive ethic underneath it — but don’t really dumb themselves down too much — that are engaging and funny and topical and exciting. And you want to eat some popcorn and you can watch it with both your parents and your kids. It’s intergenerational. I think that it’s almost a tonic to the days that we’re living in these days.
Bellman: I also think that the pilot episode [“The Too Many Rembrandts Job”] where we start off is a really good launching point, and I don’t think that anyone necessarily has to have already seen the original “Leverage.” They don’t have the characters reflecting or looking backwards. All the characters are looking forward. They’re all re-meeting and meeting new characters in the pilot episode. And I really think that new viewers will be able to meet us and take off with us without having seen our original show. And hopefully if they love it, they’ll go back and watch it.
Of the first batch of eight episodes, which episode would you point to and call your favorite?
Kane: I know that I have one that’s very favorable to me on the second batch coming out. It’s a very inside story on Eliot, some of his past and stuff like that. And it was directed by the beautiful Beth Riesgraf, her first time directing for “Leverage,” her first time directing ever. So it was really cool for me to be a part of that and especially being the head storyline with the American icon that came in as the guest star with me. I think in the first [batch] maybe the very first episode, only because you wait and you wait and you want Eliot to fight and finally he gets a fight.
Shannon: Really the whole process was stunning, so it’s hard to pin down. Beth directing is one of my favorite episodes to be in and act with. And then there’s some moments that I’ve seen myself act and I’m like, “That’s one of my favorite moments, I’m not huge cringefest.” When my character is shadowing Eliot and shadowing Parker and trying out some of the things that they do and not really getting on with it well. So, is it cheap to say they’re all kind of my favorite?
Riesgraf: No, that’s OK. There’s great moments in every single one, I think, too. I loved my moment with you and Gina in “The Paranormal Hacktivity Job,” the Halloween episode. We had some really fun times together, and it was one of the episodes where actually I had a lot to do with Breanna. It was really fun, because that’s kind of when things started to percolate and we’re like, “Oh hold on, we have a lot to untap here and we’re going to have fun doing this.” And same with Gina, her grifting and getting to do this character. And to find little Easter eggs we could plant from past episodes and moments these characters have had. I really, really enjoyed that.
Bellman: I get to play a kind of Southern lady, and I love doing that voice — that low voice. It’s funny because people think, “Oh you’re so refined and British,” but actually I’m happiest being a complete goofball. That’s my happy spot. I really liked the pilot opening episode, re-meeting everyone again. I think it’s handled really well, and it feels kind of sophisticated and chic and very current.
The first eight episodes of “Leverage: Redemption” will be available to stream July 9 on IMDb TV.