'National Treasure: Edge of History' Star Lisette Olivera Unpacks Following in Nicolas Cage's Footsteps and Her Character's Complicated Family History

The actor talks to Metacritic about leading the next wave of the 'National Treasure' franchise.
by Annie Lyons — 

Lisette Olivera in 'National Treasure: Edge of History'


Warning: This story contains spoilers for the first two episodes of National Treasure: Edge of History, . Read at your own risk!

History has always been at the forefront of the National Treasure franchise. But while the films draw inspiration from both the seismic events that get written about in textbooks and the legends in the margins, they also delve into the importance of personal history and how family shapes us. 

The new Disney+ series National Treasure: Edge of History continues these themes as it follows Jess Valenzuela (Lisette Olivera), a Mexican-American DREAMer who's grieving the recent death of her mother when she unexpectedly receives a clue for a centuries-lost treasure. As the puzzle-obsessed Jess searches for answers, her journey also forces her to reflect on her relationship with her mom — and her long-dead father that her mom warned her about. 

For Olivera, this focus on family was part of the appeal of stepping into Jess' shoes. 

"I have a really strong connection with my family and what they mean to me. I think they make me a better artist because of how they operate in the world and their experiences," Olivera tells Metacritic. "So when I think about Jess and I think about how she thinks about her mother, it's almost as though a piece of herself left the day that she had passed away. Because for me, in Lisette's life, I would describe my mother as almost like my heartbeat. She's my champion, and somebody that has always helped me move forward." 

National Treasure: Edge of History comes from Cormac and Marianne Wibberly, writers for both National Treasureand sequel film National Treasure: Book of Secrets. The show serves as a continuation of the films but focuses on a new story and new characters, though there's a few recognizable faces: Harvey Keitel reprises his role as F.B.I. Special Agent Sadusky and Justin Bartha guest-stars as Riley Poole. Plus, composer Trevor Rabin returned to score the show's music. 

"Funny enough, Trevor Rabin was on my Spotify Wrapped lineup because I was listening to him the entire year," Olivera says with a laugh. 

Becoming the new face of a franchise can be daunting, especially considering how closely associated the National Treasure films are with their leading man, Nicolas Cage. But though Jess certainly shares some key characteristics with Cage's Ben Gates — namely, their knack for puzzle solving and love for American history — the two remain distinctly unique characters, and Olivera doesn't seek to emulate Cage with her performance. 

"I am really grateful that the [Wibberlys] were so adamant about giving me creative liberty for Jess," says Olivera, adding that she is a "big fan" of the original films. "What makes Jess so special to me is that she is this woman who doesn't let adversity get in her way. She's always willing to search for a deeper meaning in life and where she stands in her world."

"She's torn between two worlds: of listening to the analytical, puzzle-solving part of herself, and also the deep-rooted heartache that she experiences and the big love that she has for her chosen family," she continues.

Jess' status as a DACA recipient also brings a new perspective to the franchise. Part of what started her passion for American history is studying for the citizenship test. 

"I have all of my respect for DREAMers in the United States," Olivera says. "I got to learn a lot about people's stories, and as I was listening, I realized they all had a lot of similar qualities. And that's that they're very determined, hardworking, they have really big hearts and just a desire to contribute, and I think that's who Jess is. I could only hope that people see themselves reflected because, honestly, for me, she's what represents the American dream."

The series traces its titular treasure back to Emperor Montezuma. Rumored to be lost or a mere myth following the conquistadors' invasion of the Aztec Empire in the sixteenth century, National Treasure: Edge of History imagines that the treasure was secreted away by a network of women, who divided clues to its location into three relics. When Jess was a baby, her father found one of the relics but double-crossed his ruthless boss in the process, leading to his death and to her mother fleeing with Jess from Mexico to the United States. 

The now 22-year-old Jess "has no recollection of who her father was," says Olivera, who shares her character's Mexican-American heritage. "The only thing that she knows is that her mother would always tell her that her father was a reckless good-for-nothing. I think she respects her mom enough and loves her very much to not push her buttons, and try to get inclined to listen to that curiosity." 

All that Jess has of her dad is a necklace with a strange symbol on it, a talisman that tethers her in moments of thought — and, as Jess puts it, reminds her to not be a reckless good for nothing. 

"Mira Nair, who directed the first episode, actually kind of gave me the permission to say, 'Hey, let's do that detail. Let's have her touch her necklace or acknowledge the necklace whenever she's thinking about her family,'" Olivera says. "The fact that she can't hug her mother or her father in a way kind of resembles how she has a tendency to want to touch something so close and personal to her."

But the necklace contains secrets of its own. When Jess, who works at a storage facility, is tasked with finding the owner of a seemingly abandoned unit, she tracks down Sadusky, who now has Alzheimer's and is estranged from his grandson Liam (Jake Austin Walker). He reveals that the necklace is worn by a secret network of treasure protectors, then entrusts her with a letter that gives her a clue that leads to the first relic, which also shares the same symbol. 

And, in "The Treasure Map," the second episode of the show's two-episode premiere, Jess discovers that her dad isn't her only parent involved. After teaming up with the semi-reluctant Liam, a local musician whose dad also died in the pursuit of treasure, she learns that the unpublished academic paper that might've started it all was written by her mom. 

"When she realizes her mother was a part of [the mystery], it's like all of her world just gets flipped upside down," Olivera says. "She has a belief of who she is and what her life is. She wants more. But with the moment that she realizes her mom was also involved and lied to her, I think she realizes, 'Well, maybe it's time to honor my parents. Maybe they were hiding something to protect me, maybe it's my duty and my mission to go after this to respect them and honor their story.'"

National Treasure: Edge of History streams new episodes Wednesdays

Get to know Lisette Olivera: 
National Treasure: Edge of History is Olivera's first leading role in a television series. Previously, she appeared in the comedy web series Total Eclipse and in the psychological horror film We Need to Do Something (Metascore: 48).