Like a bad penny –- though Mark Sheppard will argue that characterization! — Jim Sterling is back on TNT’s Leverage this Sunday at 9/8c. The wrinkle this time: Rather than waylay or hijack Nate’s latest caper, Sterling commissions it, anxious as he is to keep something valuable out of the wrong hands.
The setting for the grand sting is a chess tournament in Dubai, where Nate checks mate after mate while Parker labors to infiltrate a security system even though deprived of her greatest asset. But is Sterling secretly playing the gang like pawns? TVLine spoke with the extremely spoiler-averse, London-born Sheppard about his role in the drama’s midseason finale.
TVLINE | Here we are, four seasons in… Did you suspect back when you started that Sterling would recur this long?
In a weird way, yes. It sounds strange to say that, but the circumstance through which I got involved in Leverage was so wonderful. There was a phone call, an inquiry as to my availability, there was no audition…. I was on my way back from a motorcycle rally in Sturgis [South Dakota], and they were like, “Great, you start Thursday!” And it was a character that was in essence created with me in mind, so it was just fantastic. I walked onto the set for [the series’ third episode] “Two-Horse Job,” and I had never actually met [executive producer] Dean [Devlin], and he’s like, “Pleasure to meet you – do you want to play it English or Irish?” I’m like, “This is going to be so much fun!” I’ve been very protective of Sterling, and I’ve always had that sense, from the very first meaningful scene we shot — at the end of “Two-Horse,” when Nate finds Sterling in his house — that there was a huge backstory between them. And what I’ve loved about this show is that instead of having them become friends or one kills the other, something ridiculously unnecessary, all they’ve done is kept the characters the same and revealed little droplets of how they got there.
TVLINE | Right, you almost sense that Sterling needs Nate in his life, that Nate needs Sterling. One needs the other to coexist.
That’s why it resonates with the viewers, and that’s what I enjoy about playing it. Tim [Hutton] and I have a very interesting relationship, as Nate and Sterling, and it’s one of mutual respect and total mistrust! [Laughs] And yet there is total trust, in that they can rely on each other totally. We know each other extraordinarily well. It seems to be awfully painful for the people for the people around them, but… [Laughs]
TVLINE | Sterling is like the proverbial bad penny.
No, he’s the good guy! This is what you guys keep getting wrong. Sterling is the good guy. I’m the cool hero! It’s just that everybody hates me. It’s true, you can’t play him as a villain – “Ooh, he’s bad” — but his path runs absolutely parallel to [that of Nate’s team] — absolutely parallel — which I think is fascinating.
TVLINE | Tee up this Sunday’s episode, “The Queen’s Gambit.” Nate’s crew is hired by, of all people, Sterling?
What’s so unusual about that? What’s so unusual about that, I ask. Sterling is very aware of the crew’s capabilities, and Sterling is very much in a time crunch. He has to circumvent some of the procedures by which he would normally do his business, so he goes to some known entities who know how to take care of the situation. Who better to go to than Nate?
TVLINE | Right, but if I’m Nate I don’t take the job. I smell a rat.
Noooo…. What is wrong here? You don’t smell a rat.
TVLINE | Then what is this, “Keep my enemies closer”?
He’s not an enemy. Sterling is not an enemy. It’s something that needs doing — and there’s a certain piece of leverage at play, so there’s a reason why they’re doing it. If you think of it that way, it’s just, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” Nate knows who Sterling is, so if he needs something this is what he needs and there’s the right amount of wariness. [Leverage cocreator John] Rogers once said, “As far as Nate and Sterling competing, each would concede that the other would come a close second.” I’m the person that Nate is probably least afraid of in this business.
TVLINE | Might we see a new side to Sterling in this episode?
Who would know? Possibly. If we start playing with that , we start playing toward a reveal. You know, I’ve taken my name off the credits so many times on these shows, deliberately, in order to protect the fact that there is a thing to reveal. The first question I asked [John] Rogers is, “Are we taking my name off?” He said, “Nope.” Are we going to say I’m back? “Absolutely!” So we’re doing it in a big way for a change. I will tell you this: It is a great episode, an extraordinarily simple episode, and it goes a long way to explaining a lot of what is going on with the characters, which is why I think the Leverage fans will really, really like this one. I remember reading this script and going, “This is gonna be really good.” And to finally work with [director Jonathan] Frakes after all these years…. He and my dad [William Morgan Sheppard] worked together on [Star Trek:] Next Generation, so I walk on the set and he says, “Ah the lesser-talented of the Sheppards…,” which made me giggle. He’s so much fun to play with.
TVLINE | As a summer finale, would you say this episode ends on note that brings a new wrinkle to the Nate/Sterling relationship?
I absolutely won’t say anything about that at all! [Laughs] It’s a midseason [finale], you know there’s going to be a reveal. It’s a great episode, and you can tell they cared about the history of the characters. Most people would have the characters unfold by changing their relationship, but instead they’re revealing more and more pieces of that. And for an actor, that’s great to play.