Minnesota native dives into a challenging role

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 6, 2008 - 5:07 PM

Actress Beth Riesgraf, who hails from Belle Plaine, flips and dives into the pop-culture scene with a starmaking role in a new TNT series.

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Beth Riesgraf

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LOS ANGELES -

If the crackerjack caper series "Leverage" serves as the small-screen version of "Oceans 11," you might assume that Beth Riesgraf would be stepping in as Julia Roberts.

The Minnesota native is, after all, a former model with an easygoing, delicate grace which suggests that she'd hesitate to swat a mosquito. But in the new series, debuting tonight, Riesgraf is more than one of the boys. In a group of daredevil delinquents recruited by a former insurance investigator (Timothy Hutton) to use their talents for good, her Parker character is the unpredictable, unstoppable standout, cartwheeling over desks, shimmying through vents, rappelling down stairwells and turning up her nose at anything remotely feminine, like high heels. The closest thing she has to a love scene is rubbing a wad of money against her cheek.

"That's 20 pounds of crazy in a 5-pound bag," says a bewildered comrade as she jumps off a skyscraper with a "Yee-hah!" that would shatter Bruce Willis' eardrums.

"The role of Parker is a tough one to play," said director and executive producer Dean Devlin, who as producer of "Godzilla" and "Independence Day" knows a few things about action heroes. "She has to be tough, capable, athletic, funny and dangerous. Beth not only nailed all of that, but she brought some wonderful complexity to the part and ended up creating a character unlike any seen on television before."

Not that Riesgraf had much time to find her inner wild child. The 30-year-old actress, best known previously as the ex-girlfriend of "My Name Is Earl" star Jason Lee (they have a son together), was cast in the part just three days before the start of filming.

Her first assignment: hanging from a harness 40 stories high.

"I have a 4 1/2-year-old, so I hadn't worked out in a while, except for lifting his 40-pound body off the ground," she said, taking a break from an all-star party in a Los Angeles hotel garden area. "But I was like, 'Yeah, no problem. I can totally hang on that upside down.'"

That kind of can-do attitude also served her well this past summer when she spent several months in Minnesota filming the independent movie "Nobody." Co-star Sam Rosen, cousin of local sportscaster Mark Rosen, said he was bowled over when Riesgraf, playing a schizophrenic artist, had to perform a ridiculous song on the very first day of work.

"You don't expect someone to come in from L.A. and instantly be willing to make a fool of themselves," Rosen said. "Maybe that's something you have to do to really make it. You can't hold back. I would never imagine her as a kick-ass action star, but if anyone is going to do it, it would be her."

Riesgraf started trying on multiple personalities in Belle Plaine, where she lived as the youngest of six girls until her family moved to Las Vegas when she was 13. She remembers telling wild, outrageous stories into a tape recorder at age 8, using seven different voices to tell the tales of witches and mad scientists.

"I always had a weird imagination," she said. "My next oldest sister was 13 years older than me. We lived on a farm. I was kind of left to my own devices."

Helping to fuel her creative side were visits to the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres and Children's Theatre, where she specifically recalls the vividly painted sets and outrageous costumes in "Hansel and Gretel."

"I was fascinated by that world," she said. "I wanted to be back there. I wanted to be in the cast."

Before committing to acting, though, she dipped her toes into a modeling career, but found it less than rewarding.

"Modeling is not very fun, at least not for me," she said. "You've got a lot of people doing things to you, but you're not able to give anything back. I mean, that's not true if you're a successful model, but at the time, I felt like I needed to have more of an outlet."

With her high-energy role in "Leverage," she has that -- and then some.

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431

  • LEVERAGE

    When: 9 p.m. Sundays

    Where: TNT

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