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‘Leverage’ actress Riesgraf steals show

She’s stolen priceless works of art, a jury trial and a room full of orphans. She’s stolen the Hope Diamond and put it back, all because she was bored. And she’s stolen — cue the schmaltz in three … two … one — the hearts of viewers.

She’s Parker, the single-named cat burglar played by Cimarron-Memorial graduate Beth Riesgraf, and she’s back for a second season of “Leverage” (9 p.m. Wednesday, TNT).

The series focuses on a team of thieves and grifters under the guidance of a former insurance investigator (Oscar winner Timothy Hutton) who at various times sought to bring each of them to justice. Now, though, the reluctant partners have gone all Robin Hood and are using their specific skill sets to help the proverbial little guy.

Reminiscent of both AMC’s “Hustle” and George Clooney’s “Ocean’s” movies, “Leverage” is more fun than the rest of TNT’s other original dramas combined. (Not necessarily better, mind you, just more fun.) That’s mostly thanks to Riesgraf, who comes across like Traylor Howard by way of Judy Greer. And if you’re unfamiliar with either actress, that’s a very good thing.

Like some of her mono-monikered TV forebears — Kramer, Gilligan, Gonzo — Riesgraf’s Parker is the show’s wildcard, capable of doing pretty much anything at anytime. She’s fond of flinging herself off buildings and spends possibly too much time alone crawling through air ducts.

And like fellow one-named wonder MacGyver, she’s been known to circumvent some of the most layered, state-of-the-art security with nothing but a glass of ice, some eye shadow, chewing gum, aluminum foil and a healthy dose of cartwheels.

“She’s definitely not the most predictable person around,” Riesgraf says, on the phone from Portland, Ore., where “Leverage” moved its production for season two. (The city stands in for Boston, the team’s new home.)

She’s also unencumbered by the niceties of normal human interaction. “What’s wrong with that one?” Parker asks a kindly woman showing off pictures of her grandchildren. “It looks like a dog in a baby suit.” As a result, she varies between seeming just a little off and full-blown, bat-excrement crazy.

“I like that she seems childlike,” Riesgraf says, “and I like that, you know, some people think she’s crazy or they think they can expect one thing from her, but then she gives you another.”

Born in Minnesota, Riesgraf moved to the valley while she was in junior high. Her parents have two construction companies, and once her dad began working here and in California, it only took one visit for her mom to move the rest of the family away from the frigid winters.

Riesgraf was a member of the Cimarron-Memorial class of ’96, and you can’t Google her without coming across her list of extracurriculars that would make the villain in any teen comedy blush: student body president, prom queen, voted most admired senior. She sounds mortified as each accomplishment is ticked off, as though they were AV squad, mathletes and varsity Dungeons & Dragons.

“I have no idea how that got online. You know what? It’s totally embarrassing is what it is,” she says, collapsing into laughter. “I don’t know who felt the need to put that on there.”

She also was involved in photography and sports in high school — pretty much everything but acting. “Acting I always loved, but I think I was always just kind of a character in real life,” she says. “I was always goofing off and having fun.”

Riesgraf is an accomplished photographer, sponsored by Swedish clothier WeSC, and her work has been exhibited in London, New York and Los Angeles and published in the likes of GQ, Jane and Nylon magazines. She moved to L.A. at 20 and took up modeling to learn more about photography from the other side of the camera.

Eventually, her agents started sending her on commercial auditions, and she found her calling. When she wanted to make the leap to movies and TV, Riesgraf was told she had to take acting classes. “And I was, like, ‘Why?’ ” she says. “Not like in a cocky way, but it was just more like, ‘Oh, OK. That’s the way they do it.’ ” After only a two-month introductory program, she told her agents she was ready and booked the third audition they sent her on.

Now she’s finally gaining more attention for her acting than for the name of her son with actor Jason Lee: Pilot Inspektor. (“I just liked it, man,” she says of the choice. “I just liked it.”)

And she’s working almost nonstop, taking time out to call while scrambling for some caffeine to help recover from a 19-hour day. Then she was off to rerecord some dialogue before producers hanged her off the side of yet another building.

“We’re working hard, working long hours. It’s a lot of work,” she admits. “But it’s awesome. It’s fun.”

Christopher Lawrence’s Life on the Couch column appears on Sundays. E-mail him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com.

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