National Treasure: Edge of History: Justin Bartha Talks Riley Poole

National Treasure: Edge of History: Justin Bartha Talks Riley Poole

DISCLOSURE NOTICE: This story contains spoilers for “Charlotte,” the fourth episode of “National Treasure: Edge of History,” now streaming on Disney+.

Rest assured, “National Treasure” fans: Justin Bartha knows some of you were hesitant to embrace Disney+’s new spin-off series “Edge of History.” He was too.

After all, it’s been 15 years since the sequel “National Treasure: Books of Secrets” hit theaters in 2007, marking the last time audiences spent time with Bartha’s Riley Poole.

The tech-savvy, sarcastic right-hand man of Nicolas Cage’s treasure-hunting historian Ben Gates remains one of the defining roles of Bartha’s career, along with “The Hangover.” It’s also the only one he gets to watch with his daughters, so fans have them to thank for overriding his initial skepticism about guest-starring in the show’s fourth episode.

“To be honest, I didn’t jump on board right away,” says Bartha Variety. “But after talking to [the producers] and when I looked at my daughters, it was hard to turn my back.”

In the last decade, making a third film that would pay off the cliffhanger from the second film – what “life-changing” American secret is on page 47!?! — has proven more difficult than stealing the Declaration of Independence.

Writer Chris Bremner was the last to take a turn at a script in 2020. But since then, momentum has shifted to “Edge of History,” the Disney+ episodic that follows Jess (Lisette Olivera), a DACA recipient living in Baton Rouge who finds herself in a race against an antiquities dealer (Catherine Zeta-Jones) for a Mesoamerican treasure linked to her lineage.

Justin Bartha and Lisette Olivera.
Courtesy of Disney+

Despite existing in the same world as Ben and Riley, Cage is not scheduled to appear in the series, even though it shares crucial DNA with the original. It comes from Cormac and Marianne Wibberley, the writers of the films, and counts original director Jon Turtletaub and executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer among its producers.

This week it also features Bartha, whose presence immediately gives fans hope that the movies aren’t dead — and he didn’t come alone. In the show’s premiere episode, Jess’ journey began after a chance encounter with a sickly Peter Sandusky (Harvey Keitel), the FBI agent who hunted down Ben and Riley in the movies. FBI colleague Hendricks (Armando Riesco) also returns.

In the episode, Riley arrives in Baton Rouge to attend Sandusky’s funeral – just in time to help Jess and company decipher a clue from Elvis himself that they stole from Graceland.

Thanks to some helpful exposition, the audience learns that Riley has translated the book “Templar Treasure” into a hit podcast that is being adapted into a streaming series. He’s also 15 years into a new treasure hunt with Ben, one Riley not-so-subtly confirms is connected to Page 47.

As for Ben, Riley reveals that he is still with Abigail (Diane Kruger), with whom he shares a dog named Charlotte (a nod to the sunken ship that opened the first film).

But where Riley goes, mishap follows. In the aftermath, he and Jess are trapped in Sandusky’s secret clue room, which is programmed to suffocate intruders unless they decipher his password. With only his wits and Jess’s knack for solving puzzles, the pair embark on an old-fashioned “National Treasure” quest to find clues down to their last breath.

Bartha spoke with Variety about reuniting with Riley for the ticking clock episode, the franchise’s generational fandom, the latest on the third film — and whether he knows what’s on page 47.

Before the series offered you the chance to reprise this role, had you ever considered where Riley Poole might be now 15 years after the last film?

Not really! But in a storytelling sense, we’ve been trying to get the third movie going for a while. Jon Turtletaub, the director of those films, and I at the time wanted to write some stuff together and play around with what a third in the series would look like. So there were times when we asked what was really going on in the world, and what that meant for the treasure they wanted to hunt. But we never got as far as answering questions, like if he’s married or things like that.

Did you buy into the new series’ reveal that Riley is the host of a successful podcast being adapted into a streaming series?

I think it definitely makes sense that he tries to gather as much as he can from this very important experience in his life in finding these treasures. He’s kind of defined by it. Podcasting seems like the natural progression from writing books about his experience and just trying to keep the spirit and adventure alive. I’m not sure there are many other outlets where you can do that these days, so it kind of seems like a perfect extension of him. I’m sure some will groan, “Of course, he’s a podcaster.” But everyone is a podcaster these days!

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) Left to right: Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Nicolas Cage
Courtesy of Disney

Unfortunately, the audience doesn’t get to hear Riley’s podcast on the show, but one has to imagine it’s incredibly dense and scattered, just like he is.

“Dense and scatter-brained” is the perfect description for Riley Poole, and might even be the title of his eventual autobiography.

You’re obviously still itching for a third “National Treasure” movie. So what were your first thoughts when you heard Disney was focusing on this new spinoff series instead?

I was skeptical at first, to be honest. But once I looked past my initial skepticism, I was excited to see what it was going to be. I have kids now and I’m really desperate for something to watch with them. We made the original “National Treasure” almost 20 years ago, and those two movies are basically the only two movies I’ve ever made that my kids can watch. Being able to do something that my daughters can see is what got me past my skepticism. And I’ve known the Wibberleys for a long time, and Jon and Jerry were involved. I knew the heart was in the right place and they would respect the spirit of the franchise. To be honest, I didn’t jump on board right away. But after talking to them and looking at my daughters, it was hard to turn my back.

Considering it’s been almost 20 years since the original film, what has this franchise meant to you? You seem very protective of it.

I love this character – he means a lot to me. He really does. Not a week has passed in the last 20 years without someone stopping me and talking about “National Tax”. And the response has developed over time. It really is a special thing, and I think any type of expansion that touches it, no matter what it is, is great.

How has the response developed?

It’s wild. I made these movies when I was a kid in my early 20s. To begin with, it was such a great opportunity as an actor and it gave me a launch pad for my career. But as I got older, you realize that the fans of the movie also get older and have kids, and it becomes this generational fandom. I have had the most profound experiences with these fans. They told me they watched it in the hospital with their dying mother and it’s their favorite movie. I swear I had dinner with someone whose son got into antiques because they were obsessed with the movies as a kid. People have named their children after Riley, and have tattoos of him.

Now, as a parent, you see the value in a really specific type of family entertainment that can provide this shared experience that feels very rare now. Like nothing else I’ve done, not even “The Hangover,” connects in such a real way, and it’s been a gift to me and continues to be. Therefore, I had to be involved in some way in the show.

When you first signed on to guest star on “Edge of History,” what was your reaction to reading the script and realizing they were planning to almost suffocate Riley in an escape room nightmare scenario? They didn’t make the return easy for you.

Look, I threw myself into it just like Riley does. It was such a fun episode and I thought it was clever to mirror an escape room, which wasn’t a thing when we were making the movies. Now that I think back on it, I almost passed out a couple of times during filming, trying to look like I was running out of air. It was just a nice way to dip in and out for Riley in the series.

What was it like to have Lisette Olivera as your scene partner after working so closely with Nicolas Cage in the films?

She is amazing. She is a super talented actress and game for anything. Working with her really brought me back because on the movies we spent so much time breaking down the script and making sure these seemingly ridiculous situations made sense and were entertaining and compelling. With the Wibberleys, we really locked ourselves back into our old ways of trying to get it just right, and Lisette seems like a great leader for this new group of young actors. It’s strange to say that I was the oldest actor on set that day – because I was the youngest actor on set for the films.

For fans of the movies watching this episode, your ears are going to perk up because you’re nodding to Page 47, the mysterious cliffhanger from the second movie’s Book of Secrets. In the wake of Harvey Keitel’s character, you specifically say you have 47 reasons to keep quiet about your and Ben’s current project. Was this a tease for what could potentially be the subject of a third film?

The Page 47 reference was something I threw in when we were filming. I just had to. But listen, there’s still hope for a new movie. Nic is obviously doing well, one of the best ever. Jerry just had a big hit with “Top Gun: Maverick” and he’s doing well. And the constant drumbeat from fans for a third film just makes it a no-brainer for me.

Did Wibberleys ever tell you what was on page 47?

Oh, I know everything, but I can’t tell you. You’ll have to write to your local Disney representative and get the movie made to find out.

For the past year, Jerry Bruckheimer has said that a script for a third film written by Chris Bremner is finished. Have you seen this script?

It’s a script. That’s all I want to say. There have actually been a few different scripts, but the only thing that needs to happen is for all the stars to align. I had seen some a while ago and it was solid, but the unsung hero of these movies that doesn’t get much mention is Jon Turtletaub. These films are truly an extension of his being. He is very smart and funny, and has a buoyancy to him that mirrors the tone of the films. I think he has to feel very comfortable and feel like he can see the movie before it happens – and it’s getting close.

With all of this circulating for a decade and a half now, and your initial skepticism about the series, are you glad you stepped back into Riley Poole’s shoes for this episode? Before flying off, he gets a microphone moment, telling Jess that one of her friends might be a traitor, thanks to an off-screen tip from Ben’s mother, Emily (played in the 2007 film by Helen Mirren).

I am thrilled to be able to participate in any way. I love this guy and this world. I’m only in it for this one episode and we only shot for one week. But it was this wild experience to go back to it after all these years and have it click right back in. And it was a lot of fun to play off new energy with this cast.

Maybe it was just teasing you for what’s to come with the franchise.

We’ll see. Depends on how many write Disney Congressmen.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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