The new face of National Treasure : Lisette Olivera on succeeding Nicolas Cage in Edge of History

·8 min read

Nicolas Cage looms large over the National Treasure franchise, even now, close to 15 years after the release of the second movie in 2007. Lisette Olivera felt that shadow when the actress of We Need to Do Something landed the lead role in the Disney+ spin-off series, Edge of History.

"After my casting announcement had been made and the whole world knew it was me that was gonna be at the forefront of the franchise, there were some people that were disappointed, but there were a lot of people that were very supportive," Olivera tells EW over Zoom in August. But Olivera, an optimistic person by default, wasn't dragged down by the discourse.

National Treasure: Edge of History
National Treasure: Edge of History

Disney + 'National Treasure: Edge of History' poster

"It's a scary thought to have to follow someone's performance like Nic Cage," the actress admits. "It was daunting, but I kept trying to reframe and focus as if it was just a challenge. I really loved the movies, and no part of me wanted to stray away from what they had already created. It was the same voices behind the movies — the same producers, same writers, Trevor Rabin, who is the composer for the films, came back to also do our show — so I knew I was in safe hands. They were guiding me, especially when I had my own doubts of what I was capable of."

Olivera's Jess Valenzuela is only like Cage's Ben Gates in the sense that both become entangled in familial mysteries involving treasure and both are puzzle box history nerds. Beyond that, it's a brand new face for the franchise for reasons that remain close to the creators' own family histories.

"The story of telling the history of America is so interesting because it depends on the point of view," notes Marianne Wibberley, who returns with her co-writer husband from the original films, Cormac Wibberley, to run Edge of History. "We haven't really covered that in any of the movies."

Cormac's father, the late The Mouse That Roared author Leonard Wibberley, was an Irish immigrant living in the United States with a green card but was never granted citizenship. According to Cormac, Leonard first learned Irish history in Ireland through the fourth grade and was taught to see the English as the bad guys. Then his family moved to England where schools made the Irish seem like the villains. Then he moved again to America and found another alternate telling of events: the English were the bad guys and Americans were now the good guys.

"He just kept getting different histories as he was growing up, so that's what really made him obsessed with it," Cormac says.

NATIONAL TREASURE: EDGE OF HISTORY
NATIONAL TREASURE: EDGE OF HISTORY

Disney/Brian Roedel Jess (Lisette Olivera_ embarks on a journey to find a lost treasure in 'National Treasure: Edge of History.'

Marianne's own family tree goes back to Mexico. Her great-great-grandmother was among one of the first Mexican families to settle in Arizona. It was this shared immigrant experience that became the first kernel for Edge of History. "One day we were trying to think of the show and Cormac was like, 'Let's do it from the point of view of a person that's trying to get citizenship and that's why they know American history,'" she recalls. "Cormac was like, 'I like the idea of someone who's trying to become a citizen, reading an American history book, trying because they love our history.' That's when we spun it into this story that was not a Ben Gates story."

Viewers meet Jess in season 1 of National Treasure: Edge of History (premiering on Disney+ this December) as a Mexican-American and a Dreamer who's grieving the death of her mother. She doesn't know her father, who died when she was young, but had always been told by her single parent that he was a reckless, good-for-nothing thief. That is, until she's set on a course to find a lost treasure with ties to her own family history. "She starts to go, 'Wait! Maybe I don't know everything,'" says Marianne.

As a Mexican-American, "Her heart feels like she's a part of both worlds but belongs to neither," explains Olivera, who also has Mexican roots. "I relate to that very heavily. I'm always trying to figure out where my place is. So I was really able to learn more about my culture through the show and really appreciate it more because I was able to understand the perspective that she has through my own body, in a way."

NATIONAL TREASURE: EDGE OF HISTORY
NATIONAL TREASURE: EDGE OF HISTORY

Disney/Brian Roedel Harvey Keitel returns as F.B.I. Special Agent Sadusky in 'National Treasure: Edge of History.'

The reprisal of Harvey Keitel's F.B.I. Special Agent Peter Sadusky from the first two National Treasure movies was a crucial part of the new series. He's in Edge of History "a lot," Marianne confirms. "His presence plays through the whole thing." Part of that is the fact that Olivera's castmate Jake Austin Walker plays Sadusky's grandson, Liam.

Also among the new generation of treasure-seekers is Zuri Reed as Tasha, Jess' best friend and roommate. "If you took [Justin Bartha's] Riley Poole and split him into two people, she's the tech person," Marianne notes. "She's really tech savvy and socially conscious." Tasha's boyfriend, Oren, played by Antonio Cipriano, embodies the other half of Riley, the conspiracy nut side who spends chunks of his days falling down rabbit holes on Reddit.

"[Jess] honors the amount of love that she receives from her friends, because she doesn't wanna put them in danger," says Olivera. It's especially dangerous for Jess as a Dreamer living in America. "But it just goes to show how important this treasure is to her and her bloodline," the actress continues. "She's willing to risk it all to go after that. She just makes the decision within herself that she wants to find a place to call home when she had been told her whole life that she belonged nowhere."

NATIONAL TREASURE: EDGE OF HISTORY
NATIONAL TREASURE: EDGE OF HISTORY

Disney/Brian Roedel Zuri Reed stars as tech-savvy Tasha in 'National Treasure: Edge of History.'

Ethan (Jordan Rodrigues), who Marianne dubs "the lawyer and the skeptic," is the other member of this group. "He's the voice of reason, but he gets drawn into the treasure hunt, too," she says. "I guess he's kind of like Jon Voight in a way."

Voight doesn't make a return appearance to National Treasure with Edge of History. Neither does Cage or Diane Kruger. (The Wibbs mention "there was lots of talk of trying to get Diane and Jon at certain points" for the show, but "it didn't work out.") Should Cage, however, make an appearance in a future season of National Treasure: Edge of History, the creatives have a plan. Cormac describes this hypothetical meeting between Ben and Jess as "Tony Stark gets to visit Peter Parker."

"That's basically how we saw the relationship if Ben Gates ever showed up," he adds. "She's basically Peter Parker to him and would be like, 'Oh my God, it's Ben Gates! What do I do?' That's how our universe is. We would love to bring any of the other veterans if we get another season. We have roles for all of them."

Someone who does appear in season 1, however, is Bartha's Riley, now a superstar along with Sadusky in the world of National Treasure. Riley, the author of The Templar Treasure and Other Myths that are True, has a popular podcast and landed a juicy Netflix deal in the context of this new story. Marianne remembers Olivera sharing scenes with Keitel and Bartha for the first time over the five-month shoot in Baton Rouge. Olivera has "a whole episode" with Bartha, the showrunner says. "She was like one of them right from the beginning. It was all so natural."

NATIONAL TREASURE: EDGE OF HISTORY
NATIONAL TREASURE: EDGE OF HISTORY

Disney/Brian Roedel Justin Bartha reprises Riley Poole alongside Lisette Olivera's Jess in 'National Treasure: Edge of History.'

It's this positive reinforcement that Olivera clung to when facing the pressures stemming from the National Treasure fandom and the biggest role of her career thus far.

"I had a lot of support from my family and friends, and from everyone that I was able to work with," she says. "Just reminding me that it was my creative input that won me this role. It was my heart that I put into this. I didn't wanna forget that. It's really easy to listen to the voices that wanna tear you down. But I also know — and this is something I relate to Jess about, how stubborn we are — that's not gonna stop us. It's not gonna stop me. It was just being really clear on my intention. I wanted to make sure that I told this story to the fullest of my ability, and it really allowed me to forget about the rest of it."

Olivera didn't want to disappoint herself, either. The role of Jess meant so much to her, beyond the National Treasure of it all. "We don't really get to see Dreamers being portrayed on TV in such a positive light," she mentions. "I wanted to make them proud."

"We always said it's like a person who's come here who feels like they belong here, but they never knew what their roots were. We felt like everyone could relate to that," Cormac says. "A lot of people don't even know their great-grandparents' names. They just don't go back that far in history, but we're doing 23andMe for our character. We felt like everyone watching can go, 'Oh yeah, I came from somewhere, too.'"

Correction: An earlier version of this story mentioned Cormac Wibberley's father was an undocumented Irish immigrant. While he never became an American citizen, he did have a green card.

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