Unfinished business

Unfinished business

By Michael Pickard
July 8, 2021


Leverage: Redemption exec producer Dean Devlin and star Gina Bellman preview the return of the US drama, in which the original crew reunite to use their very particular set of skills to right more wrongs.

Leverage: Redemption joins the current US trend for reboots, remakes and spin-offs that will also see the return of shows such as Sex & the City (under the new title And Just Like That), Gossip Girl and Dexter alongside prequels to The Sopranos and Game of Thrones. But if executive producer Dean Devlin had had his way, Leverage would never have been off screen in the first place.

Originally debuting on US cable channel TNT in 2008, the show ran for five seasons and told the story of a five-person crew – a thief, grifter, hacker and a retrieval specialist led by a former insurance negotiator – who use their skills to carry out heists to fight corporate and government injustices.

Dean Devlin

Although Leverage continued to be popular among its fans, fuelled by its stars embracing the emerging social media boom, the show was cancelled after five seasons and 77 episodes in 2012. But now, almost a decade later, original cast members Gina Bellman (grifter Sophie Devereaux), Beth Riesgraf (thief Parker), Christian Kane (hitter and retrieval expert Eliot Spencer) and Aldis Hodge (hacker Alec Hardison) have reunited for Leverage: Redemption, which launches tomorrow on US streamer IMDb TV.

Since the team’s last outing, the rich and powerful have continued to take what they want without consequence. But with Harry Wilson (Noah Wyle), a corporate lawyer looking for redemption, and computer expert Breanna Casey (Aleyse Shannon) joining the group, they set out to right some more wrongs.

“I never gave up. Every single day, I tried another way to bring it back,” Devlin tells DQ. “This has been such a labour of love; I’ve had 40 different versions I’ve tried to pitch over the years and I’ve finally hit gold, so I’m super happy.

“I had all kinds of versions – I had a European version, one that was just Beth, one that was just Christian, one where I put the two of them together and one that was just Aldis. It was very hard because, for the longest time, there was no cable network that wanted to do a show that had been on a different cable network because they were very worried about brand identity. I just kept trying place after place, always getting rejected, and then when I heard Amazon was going to begin [ad-funded streamer] IMDb TV, I got really excited because I thought that was the perfect home for this.”

Devlin (The Librarian) and IMDb TV execs first met two years ago to discuss rebooting the show, which is produced by Electric Entertainment and is the platform’s first original drama series. He says IMDb TV were interested right away – the fledging streamer’s big brother Amazon Prime Video hosts the original series – and, after a lot of discussion, the two parties settled on the show’s central idea of ‘redemption.’

With the original cast, minus Timothy Hutton, coming back, Devlin wondered whether the chemistry that made Leverage so fun and watchable would also return. But the opening episodes of Leverage: Redemption are proof that the series is as enjoyable as ever. The executive producer agrees, remarking that the first script read felt like turning back time as the cast slipped seamlessly back into character.

Noah Wyle (right) joins returning cast members including Christian Kane

“Not only did everyone immediately bounce off each other like they’d never stopped, Noah Wyle suddenly slid in there as though he had always been on the show from day one, tonally hitting it exactly on the mark,” he says. “The actors kept looking up from the script at each other and at me going, ‘Oh my God, this is really like a time machine,’ and it was. It was like no time had passed at all.”

The sentiment was the same for Bellman (Coupling, Jekyll), who points out that actors are used to completing one job and moving on to the next. But because of Leverage’s still-faithful legion of fans on social media, the calls for the show’s return never really went away.

“Even in the hiatus years when you’re posting online about completely different things, there was just this low background hum of, ‘Let’s get Leverage back,’ so it wasn’t completely out of the blue,” she says. “We’d get together from time to time and be like, ‘Wow, the fans are still with us.’ It’s humbling as an actor to know actual people have made this happen rather than just an executive.

“It was great to be with the cast and obviously it was an amazing buzz sitting around the first table read, hearing everyone’s voices and getting on set for the first time with me, Christian and Beth. It was just fun. When you know people’s rhythms so well and you know how people work so well, you just pick up the thread. Then we had these two new characters which just kept us on our toes a little bit.”

Kane as Eliot Spencer alongside Gina Bellman, who plays grifter Sophie Devereaux

In the first episode of Leverage: Redemption, having spent the last eight years building Leverage International with numerous hubs around the world, Hardison, Eliot and Parker attempt to coax a reluctant Sophie back into the fold after she left the team at the end of the original show.

“They’ve come back for Sophie, to be with her, to support her and see if they can shake the rust off her and get her feeling better about life,” Devlin says. “This [series] is really more about how each of the characters, especially the new characters, has the opportunity to use the Leverage team for redemption. That’s very different from the original show, which was really about revenge. This is about how can we free ourselves by doing the right thing, and that’s a really good message today.”

“What I liked about that opening episode is it all happens accidentally in a rush of adrenaline,” Bellman says of Sophie’s decision to return to the fray. While in the original series, her character was constantly on the move with her bags packed, always looking over her shoulder, “what the writers have given us here is a sense that she’s settled, she’s experienced fidelity and she’s experienced commitment in the interim,” the actor explains.

“Even though we don’t learn much about that period, the sense she’s had stability is very much there. She doesn’t really know this is the direction she wants to get back into, but she is looking for some sort of purpose. What I really like about what the writers have done is they have matured the characters without making them dull. They have let them mature and grow up a little bit and I really respect that.”

Beth Riesgraf is thief Parker, while Aldis Hodge plays hacker Alec Hardison

That opening mission involves Wyle’s Harry, a lawyer who has made a career working for the wrong side and wants to clear his conscience with the help of the Leverage team. Like Sophie, “he’s also on a journey looking for meaning and some sort of purpose and redemption,” Bellman says.

“The danger of doing a new incarnation of a show is to have the characters, especially in the first few episodes, reintroducing themselves to new audiences. But actually, in this case, we don’t have to reintroduce ourselves because we’ve got those new characters meeting us. It’s a great lens to discover the show. New audiences can come to Leverage: Redemption on episode one and experience it new and fresh as its own show, and if they love it, which hopefully they will, they can go back. In many ways, Leverage: Redemption is a show in itself, and then people can go back and look at the origin story of the group.”

Following a story-of-the-week structure, Leverage: Redemption continues the original show’s unique format that sees the crew take part in elaborate heists and schemes, only for them to encounter problems along the way and then eventually achieve their goal, with flashbacks revealing how they did it.

Writing the show “is literally the most complicated thing I have ever been involved with,” confesses Devlin, referring to the fact that each episode often has more than one con in play and numerous double bluffs and red herrings. “We’re burning two cons per episode and there are only so many cons, so that’s incredibly hard. What isn’t hard is finding our bad guys. All you’ve got to do is open a newspaper and there’s just a flood of them. They seem to get worse and worse all the time. I don’t think we’re ever going to run out of guys we want to punch in the neck.”

Aleyse Shannon joins the cast as computer expert Breanna Casey

For the actors, working on Leverage: Redemption was a unique experience that afforded the returning cast room to speak openly to the executives about the script and the relationships between the characters.

“Dean is so open to your ideas and creativity,” Bellman says. “The fact Beth is directing two episodes this season also shows his faith in her. John Rogers is still always at the end of the phone. The script comes in, we can talk about structure with them, individual lines, or maybe there’s not enough humour running through this episode so maybe we’ll do a skit here between Sophie and Parker. It’s so fun to work on because it is really fluid. Some episodes come along and you just shoot them as is and they just fly off the page. Other episodes need a little cranking, and we do that as a group and it’s really nice.”

Filming the series proved to be no easier than writing the scripts, with the nine-month shoot in New Orleans hampered by numerous hurricanes and tornadoes, all while the crew grappled with the new health and safety requirements that came with producing a series during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It was the most challenging experience of my career,” Devlin says. “We divided the production into five separate pods that were not allowed to interact with each other. We had to get tested every other day. Every single day, we had to get temperatures and blood oxygen levels taken and we had to write down where we’d been.”

‘Covid monitors’ would keep tabs on the cast and crew on set, while the pandemic also affected which filming locations could be used. Visual effects were used to digitally add extras into the background of scenes.

Leverage: Redemption will begin with eight episodes this month

“Hopefully for the audience, it will be seamless. But as a production, it was enormously more difficult than anything we’ve ever done before,” Devlin says. “But this crew really cared about each other and people were enormously cautious. It was really unprecedented and unexpected, and I could not be more proud of this crew.”

As Leverage returns to screens almost a decade after the original series ended – eight episodes launch this month, with a further eight to follow in the fall – both Devlin and Bellman believe the show is more topical and relevant than ever.

“When we did the original show, all our heroes had to do was get the bad guy on tape confessing what he had done and we were done,” Devlin says. “You could just put it into the legal system and you knew things were going to be taken care of. But we live in a time now where we’ve legalised criminality, where the rich and powerful have gotten a lot more rich and powerful and the idea of being able to take them down has gotten much harder. So that made our show harder but also, for the audience, made that desire for justice even more palpable than it was before.”

Bellman picks up: “Last time was much more about revenge and righting wrong. This time it’s much more about redemption. There’s so much exploitation in the world right now. What’s great about the show is we take very serious issues and try to create really sophisticated plots but the way we treat it is very light, tonally, and fun. We make fun of each other and we can be goofballs and it’s sentimental in places. That’s a tonic right now for all these issues people are feeling anxious about. It’s an affectionate show. There is a place for it now more than ever.”

As for the show’s future, it remains a firm favourite of Independence Day, Godzilla and Stargate writer Devlin, who also directs some episodes of Leverage: Redemption. “There’s a great line at the end of episode one where Hardison says, ‘Redemption is a process,’ and we really believe that. That’s why you’re going to need 180 more episodes of Leverage to really complete that process. I’ll make this show until I drop.”

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