Exclusive Inteview with Mark Sheppard of Leverage
Interview by Jamie Ruby
Written by Jamie Ruby
Mark Sheppard is well known for his work in television, especially when it comes to science fiction. He is known for usually playing the snarky and/or villianous characters. He has had memorable roles in series such as The X-Files
, Battlestar Galactica
, Warehouse 13
, Doctor Who
, and Supernatural
, plus many more.
He however has also been seen in films as well such as Deep Shock
Sheppard's work, however, is not all science fiction. He has appeared in series such as 24
, Burn Notice
, and of course in Leverage
where he plays the part of Jim Sterling.
, which will air it's fourth season finale tonight, follows the lives of a group of con artists, grifters, and thieves, who will stop at nothing to stop those who have wronged others, regardless of the law.
The team is led by former insurance investigator and "mastermind" of the group, Nate Ford (Timothy Hutton). The other con artists in his team include the grifter, Sophie Devereaux (Gina Bellman), the "hitter," Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane), the techology wizard and super hacker, Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge), and the quirky thief, Parker (Beth Riesgraf).
Sheppard's character, Sterling, once originally an insurance investigator at Nate's old firm, is now an agent of INTERPOL, and in tonight's episode, must reluctantly seek out Nate and the team's help.
Yesterday Mark Sheppard sat down with Jamie Ruby of SciFi Vision for an exclusive interview to talk about his upcoming appearance, as well as some of his other roles.
Sheppard did not audition to be on Leverage
, he was requested. "[It's] an amazing story. I was on my way to Sturgis, South Dakota on my Harley. It was an amazing day, and I got a phone call saying that they were inquiring about my availability for a show. I was like, "Well when's the audition, or when's the meeting, or when am I going to meet these guys?" And they were like, "Oh no, there's no meeting; they're just inquiring about your availability." I was like, "Oh, okay."
"I was in Sturgis and I was like, "You know what? I still need to come home," and I turned around and I came back early. On my way back it was like, "We need you to start on Thursday." It was a perfect piece of timing.
"So as I arrived at the set, originally the show was shot in L.A., there was Dean Devlin (executive producer; show runner; creator) and everybody else and it was like, "Hey, great to have you. So do you want to play it English or do you want to play it Irish?"
"So that was fantastic. I had never met Dean before, I had never met John [Rogers; executive producer; show runner; creator] before, and of course I knew of them both, and I was informed that the Sterling character was written very much with me in mind. Dean and I had mutual friends but we had never met but obviously knew of each other. It was an amazing circumstance.
"[The episode] was "The Two-Horse Job" in season one. Very quickly we shot the first scene. It was the ending scene with Nathan and myself. I'm already in Nate's house when he comes back, so it was very heavy and very interesting, and I think it set the tone for the rest of the encounters between Sterling and the team and the show. A lot of fun."
Sheppard enjoyed being there at the beginning of the series. "Remember, when I joined Leverage
yet. That's the great joy of great writing; that's really the big deal, that's the truest thing I can say about this, is when I first started participating in Leverage
, and when you first saw Sterling, Leverage
yet, and it was a wonderful thing to be included in the beginning of the show and to be a part of that character development.
"And there are a lot of shows that we don't know the names of yet, that hopefully be our next The Wire
, or you know, the shows that I've been lucky enough to do. I wasn't in The Wire
but I was in Battlestar
. There's a lot of shows I was in, but who wouldn't want to be in The Wire
or The Sopranos
or the next versions thereof? I've been very, very lucky and I've been treated so remarkably well by wonderful writers, producers, and directors and asked to play in some wonderful sandboxes."
The actor did not have to research much for the role of Sterling. "INTERPOL [agents] don't carry guns, and there are not a lot of field agents in INTERPOL, let's put it that way. John said, rather brilliantly, "For television purposes, Sterling at INTERPOL is sort of Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD
." If you think about it that way, it's probably the best way of looking at it. It's a sort of a ubiquitous, catch-all, international organization of policemen, whereas in real life, it's actually not that exciting...We take a few liberties.
"I've always been fascinated by cons and heists. Of all the criminal activity, they require the most amount of intelligence, I think, and that's what has drawn me to them over the years. And I like to think that I think the same kind of way that the Leverage
writers do, so I'm always reading, and as a consumer of story and of interest, I'm always fascinated by people who work out ways of robbing banks...And when you meet Apollo Robbins and you see how to do certain things, it's kind of fascinating."
Robbins is the "thief" specialist on the set of Leverage
that shows them how pick pocketing is done. "I remember when Beth [Riesgraf] starting working with Apollo for the show, and he's like, "My God, she's a natural." That scared the heck out of me if you really think about it."
Sheppard jokes that hypothetically if he were part of a team like that on Leverage
, he would be the "mastermind." "Come on, I'd be the brains, what do you expect? I'd be the brains. I still am the brains. John said a long time ago, "In any other series, Sterling's the lead; this just happens to be about the bad guys." I'm the good guy...I'm working for the good people, you know, I'm working on the side of right."
In a show where viewers are meant to root for the "bad guys," he jokes about the way it should be. "You can't side with a bunch of people who just continuously break the law and flaunt their illegal activities. Another piece of this pu
le is that it's a very thin line between right and wrong in this context, I think, and I think that's what is fascinating about it."
Sheppard likens the series to The Rockford Files
in that way. "It was an extraordinary series because the morality of it was very, very different than any show that was made before it, and in some ways, since. And I think it rings very true in the same way that Leverage
does. It's that the rules are blurred. Doing the right thing you'll always have to blur the rules somewhere."
Sheppard was able to reveal a bit about the finale of Leverage
that he appears in. "Sterling has a problem which has a very distinctive time crunch element to it. The solution to this problem falls outside the usual INTERPOL means and needs, and so he goes to the only group of people that he knows that could possibly execute this plan within the time frame and at the speed that he requires.
"...It's an interesting twist, as in the relationship between Sterling and the team is pretty close. I mean, they are going to intersect at times; it's just the nature of the work that they do. This is very definitely Sterling bringing something to the team."
Sheppard teases about a scene in the episode where Sterling is with Eliot. "Any time you stick Eliott and Sterling together, you know that there is going to be some sort of problem. They've had a rocky relationship thus far. I think that as a standalone episode, having been in the show since the first season, it's a wonderfully simple episode with a lot on interesting twists and turns."
The relationship between Nate and Sterling is an important one on the show. "John and Chris [Downey; executive producer; creator], very much have created a character with a huge problem, which is that his credo, or the edict, or the writing of the character, is that he never loses. Sterling never loses. And if Sterling never loses you've got an issue every time that he is intersecting with the team. So it's been very, very interesting thus far.
"What is fascinating to me is, there's a lot of shows for example, that would spend a lot of time in character development between Nate and Sterling, as in they would have them working together or be working against on another on a continuous basis. I think what makes the show so fascinating is that our relationship hasn't actually changed that much since the first season, if you really think about it. You've found out more and more things about why our relationship is the way it is, which I think is fascinating. I mean, it started out where you were absolutely certain that we despise each other, and then I think by season two you kind of know that they used to be very close friends. I was posing the idea that he's sort of an ex-wife of Nate's, if you can imagine that."
Outside of the show, the cast and crew work well together. Sheppard says that the work is often collaborative. "...If you are going to do anything long-term, with a set of producers and a set of writers, and obviously directors, it tends to be that they do want to collaborate in some ways, but you can't just have everybody running around making up what they say; it doesn't usually work very well for structure. In a show that is as well written and as complex as Leverage
can be, it helps to know what you're saying. It helps to know what the plot is. It tends to be that you want to work the kinks out before you get there."
Sheppard may be interested in stepping behind the camera for Leverage
in the future, but probably not for writing. "You've got to remember, to write a show like this, this is an ongoing participation. These guys slug it out in a writer's room and they break stories for weeks at a time, beating down every single element, every single aspect of where every character is going. It's not just, you know, sit in a room and just write a script and bring it in and it gets done. I mean, it's a massive team which has it's dynamics within itself. It's a huge amount of work to write for television, and I love it, I truly love watching it, but it requires a massive amount of commitment.
"As far as directing is concerned, I've directed film and I've done a lot of television and I would be very happy to direct something as good as this show. I don't know if anyone would listen to me, though (laughs)."
Sheppard is often required to be secretive about what role is next for him. "I've been lucky enough to play roles that have somewhat resonated with the fans and the writers, and in a lot of the shows that I've done, my characters have been lucky enough to recur, for which I am extraordinarily grateful. The biggest problem is that if I play a character that has an impact on the show, the way say, Sterling does in Leverage
, sometimes you've got to hide his entrances and exits. Sometimes you've got to not let the fans know when he's going to be back.
"A good example is the end of season two, where I appeared in the last few seconds...If [they'd] put my name on the front of the credits and did the usual press, or I was in the clip or in the TNT promos, you would have known immediately that I was going to show up at the end. And you would be waiting for me to show up, and I'd show up right at the end, and it would be a huge spoiler for the fans.
"So there's been a lot of deviousness on my part and on the part of the producers in season two with TNT; they were very clever. We hid my reappearance to the show. We're very protective of that.
"So I've sort of turned into this bizarre liar. I can't Tweet what city I'm in because then people know what show I'm doing. If I'm in Vancouver, I'm probably doing Supernatural
. If I'm in Portland, I'm probably doing another episode of Leverage
. Fans are very, very smart, and I can't tell the truth about what I'm doing or what I will be doing.
"I stood on the stage in Chicago, about a year ago, and they're like, "What show would you like to do that you've never done? What show would you like to be in?" I'm like, "Well, Doctor Who
would be fun," and I had a ticket to Cardiff (a filming location for Doctor Who
) in my pocket at the time, because I was leaving the next day."
Sheppard has worked on a lot of science fiction shows, but thinks that a lot of shows are starting to cross genres; there isn't such a definitive line anymore. He jokes about why he works a lot in the specific genre. "One would like to think that my continued work in some of the areas of that genre is due to just how wonderful and brilliant I am, but I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I've been on some rather wonderful sci-fi...
"It's something that rings to me. Fantasy and sci-fi is about story, and it's about learning from history. It's about where our minds take us, where our imagination takes us.
"I recently just intersected with one of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman, who's just such a fantastic writer, a lovely lovely man, and probably one of the most prolific fantasy and sci-fi writers that I've known of, certainly in this country. And working with [Steven] Moffatt (Doctor Who
) and working with Joss [Whedon; Firefly
] and working with all these people, but I don't see any difference between [genres].
"Sci-fi is no longer just a specialist genre. Sci-fi has always been the realm of the great geeks and writers and freaks and people with the strangest ideas. Sci-fi was the secret area of the fantasists, and as time has gone by, you'll find that the people that created a lot of the sci-fi that we truly, truly love, has permeated into every other type of show and every other type of film.
"...We've taken over the world in that context. There is an element to Leverage
, which is not just Rockford Files
, although the fact is, that's what I love about it. It's very Rockford Files
; it has that wonderful, intelligent, well written feel to it. It's written by the same fantasists that give us great sci-fi.
"I don't think the divide is that big anymore. It used to be Philip K. Dick, and Ray Bradbury, and all those great writers, had to be somewhat positive. It was a dirty job to write sci-fi. You'd never make money out of it; nobody ever wanted to watch it."
Sterling also believes there has becoming less of a gender gap in television writing. "...Think of Amy Burke who was involved in earlier on with Leverage
, she's now on Eureka
. [She was] very involved for Sterling, and in some of the original scripts she wrote, the character was called "The Mark Sheppard." I was laughing my butt off. First time I met her, she was writing wearing an Adama (Battlestar Galactica
) '08 t-shirt. I mean, we're all there and that's the thing, I think as well it's a genre where it's very equal where there is no huge gender gap. A lot of the most sought after writers in sci-fi and fantasy are women, in that context."
People's outlook on science fiction has continued to change as it is becomes more and more mainstream. "I remember when I was in X-Files
, I was in first season X-Files
, I was in the actual episode when they got picked up. I was standing next to Chris [Carter] when he got, I think it was literally, a telegram, from I think Ross saying, "Don't worry about the numbers; you're picked up for the year."
"I think the first airing of my The X-Files
episode - I did X-Files
in '93 - aired very soon after I had done it. It actually aired in December; I had done it in November. It was one of those really strange, really fast turnaround shows, and they were still finding their way. I think it was the 11th shot. It might have aired twelve, but I think it was the 11th episode shot, literally.
"I think the ratings were something close to less than three million people who watched the show and back then that was a big deal; that was not a lot of people, you know. That was really low numbers on a brand new network. And I think the first repeat was six million, and it just kept on growing exponentially. I remember when it moved to Sundays, it actually got more numbers. I mean, usually that would kill a show, but it did better and better. It was a phenomenon.
"It's amazing to be a part of these things for one, but if you look at it historically, great story will endure. In that context I see no difference between Leverage
and the other shows. I don't see any difference at all."
It seems that ratings aren't always everything, and having freedom with a show can often lead to its success. "There's an amazing story that when Battlestar
was on, The Powers That Be essentially didn't really get it. I mean that's probably why it was left alone so much. It's probably why it able to be what it was, because it was protected by the fact that it had nothing to measure itself against...You didn't know if it was or wasn't a success, so you really couldn't really do anything with it. I mean the numbers were truly pitiful for a show that once I had been on, I couldn't walk down the street without being recognized in Los Angeles. They were telling me that 1.6 million people were watching it. There's no way the numbers matched the popularity."
Sheppard thinks that TNT does a good job with keeping good television and giving it its freedom. "I'll tell you something about TNT that is fascinating to me...as a fan of really good television...think of the shows they've put together in the course of that first year where they got started to get big in drama: you think of The Closer
and all the shows that they were promoting, and then putting Leverage
in and taking a risk with all this stuff. I think it's brilliant...They were really given the autonomy and the support, that's the important part, the support to try to make the best show that they possibly could.
"These kind of things used to be very unimportant to a viewer, but what's amazing now is that we have a more and more intelligent viewer. We're fascinated to hear, "How did the show come about?" I mean how many shows have you seen or watched episodes of, that in six episodes and it's dead or thirteen and out...Then you get a channel like TNT that's willing to commit and put that amount of effort into these shows and promote the heck out of it. I think it's amazing."
Be sure to watch Mark Sheppard tonight on the season finale of Leverage