Aldis Hodge, Gina Bellman, Beth Riesgraf, Timothy Hutton, Christian Kane and Mark Sheppard in LEVERAGE - Season 4 - "The Queen's Gambit Job" | ©2011 TNT/Erik Heinila

Aldis Hodge, Gina Bellman, Beth Riesgraf, Timothy Hutton, Christian Kane and Mark Sheppard in LEVERAGE - Season 4 - "The Queen's Gambit Job" | ©2011 TNT/Erik Heinila

On TNT’s LEVERAGE, airing its summer finale tonight at 9 PM, Timothy Hutton’s former insurance investigator Nathan Ford rides herd on a small team of con artists who pool their various skills in the service of doing the right thing.

Not much rattles Ford, but we can see his spine stiffen whenever a male British voice utters the words, “Hello, Nate.” The voice belongs to Ford’s former colleague and frenemy Jim Sterling, played by English actor Mark Sheppard, who recurs on LEVERAGE to alternately thwart, aid and aggravate Nate and Company

.Sterling appears in “The Queen’s Gambit Job,” which serves as the Season Four summer finale, but Sheppard is careful not to put out any spoilers about just what he does in the episode.

MARK SHEPPARD: In the teasers [for “Queen’s Gambit”], we haven’t really seen that I’m with anyone. The only person we see me interacting with is Nate, and the “Hello, Nate” being the famous opening line for everything I do, really.

Well, this time, actually, I went to [LEVERAGE show runner] John [Rogers] and said, “Are we revealing me [as a surprise during the episode] or what?” He said, “God, no, we’re playing the hell out of the fact that you’re actually coming back for a change.” [laughs] So I think that was our determination from that start, that we weren’t going to have me do a “Hello, Nate” right in the middle of somebody else’s story. Although that was an awful lot of fun to do at the end of Season Two.

AX: The last time you appeared on LEVERAGE, did you expect Sterling to return?

SHEPPARD: Always. Why would Sterling not return? Sterling never loses, so Sterling will always be around. I don’t think you can get rid of Sterling that way.

AX: As the series progresses, do you feel the relationship between Sterling and Nate is changing?

SHEPPARD: It’s more along the lines of, we’re getting a further chance to see and explore more of the relationship between Nate and Sterling. Writing-wise, a lot of shows would have more and more things happen between the pair. There would be more and more new twists to their relationship. I think if you actually look at what’s happened to Nate and Sterling thus far, very little has changed in the way that they feel about each other, which is I think fascinating.

What’s actually happened is that the audience has had more and more of our relationship revealed. Our past has been folded very carefully into the episodes and as we move forward, we find out more and more of what caused their rift and why they were probably friends in the first place. It’s a great way to write, different than a lot of other shows, which obviously would have them do something that changes the way they feel about each other or do something that would be the purpose of bringing them back together. What’s funny is that they’re sort of inexorably linked to each other, they can’t get away from each other in that way, because they move in certain circles that are similar. And yet the more they talk to each other, the more that they interact with each other, the more we find out about what went wrong or what happened or what was good or what was bad in the first place.

AX: So they’re essentially discovering their old feelings about each other are still valid?

SHEPPARD: No. I don’t think that they’re discovering much. I think we are discovering that their old feelings are essentially valid [laughs]. I think that’s what the difference is – the subtlety is, I think that they’re carrying on regardless and I think that the audience is becoming privy to more information about them, which is fascinating to me. If you watch it from a purely story point of view, it’s an amazing way to handle a major relationship between two characters. You know very little about them, you know very little about what happened to them, and as you continue, all you do is, you find out more and more of what happened to them before.

AX: Now, do you feel like Sterling’s feelings about the other people on Nate’s team are changing, or does he just sort of disregard them?

SHEPPARD: I don’t think he ever disregards them. The fact of the matter is, it’s kind of a strange mutual admiration society. The team’s attributes are extraordinary. They are really very good at what it is that they do, but I think the further that Sterling travels with them, the harder it becomes for him to manipulate the situation, which is fascinating, and the more the team believes that they can handle him. And yet, on the other hand, the more that they believe that they absolutely can’t trust him. And yet [laughs], they still continue to do business with each other.

AX: Well, Sterling is not something they can walk away from, or even think they can walk away from, as opposed to, say, Leon Rippy’s character, who has been making money betting against the team’s adversaries.

SHEPPARD: Right, of course. [Sterling is] not the antagonist, per se, but he is very much the conduit to that. When he shows up, they know it’s not going to be easy – but you know, truthfully speaking, I think they could always say it’s been a lot of fun [laughs].

AX: He certainly prompts them to put forth their A game?

SHEPPARD: Yes, absolutely. He keeps them on their toes a little. I think it’s becoming more and more difficult [laughs] every time they meet.

AX: Jonathan Frakes directed “The Queen’s Gambit Job.” Had you worked with him before?

SHEPPARD: No. Frakes [worked with] my dad [actor W. Morgan Sheppard]. I walked onto the set and Frakes said, “Aha! The lesser-talented Sheppard.” [laughs] Frakes and my dad go way back and I’ve known Frakes a long time. I like him a lot. We spent some time together at the Dragon*Con, we’ve spent time together a lot of places. Lovely, lovely man. Wonderful, wonderful director. Truly makes a very special place to play. He’s fabulous at that. He’s fabulous at giving the actor the space and the room to create something really, really special. He’s somebody you can trust and lean on and it’s a fantastic thing to have a director who can do that. He’s a real director. He’ll direct when he needs to direct and he’ll stand back when he needs to stand back.

There’s not one correct way of doing anything and when you have somebody at the helm like Frakes – he leads with enthusiasm and he encourages the best out of people and his job, I think, more than anything, is to make a place where magic can happen, and that’s what he does. And it’s fabulous to work with him. He understands it better than most, because he was in one of the most grueling, long-running series of all time [STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION]. He does understand what it takes to finish an episode, he does understand what it takes to get it into the can, but he truly, truly loves actors, he truly loves actors, and he wants the best, he wants the best out of what you do and he’s fabulous at encouraging and bringing the best out of people. He’s a very interesting man. He makes it a lot of fun to play. I’m very happy to work with him.

AX: Speaking of directing, are you still in post-production on the film MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, which you directed?

SHEPPARD: Ah, the endless post of sci-fi movies. Yes. A lot of fun. I spent a lot of time down in Louisiana discovering what animals could eat me alive. Chiggers to alligators. It’s kind of amazing. Smallest to largest. I’ve been bitten in places people shouldn’t be able to be bitten. Yes, fun, interesting, hot, sweaty place. Lovely people, great food. They can fry water down there – they’re amazing. Truly fun experience down there – got to direct my dad, some lovely actors and actresses, and had a lot of fun making the most impossible Jules Verne story that’s ever been written.

AX: Anything else you’d like to say about LEVERAGE and “The Queen’s Gambit Job”?

SHEPPARD: Fabulous, really happy to be back, and I think this is a very special episode. I think it’s going to be an awful lot of fun. Hold onto your hat.

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