Timothy Hutton, Leverage

For Oscar-winning actor Timothy Hutton, agreeing to star in TNT's Leverage wasn't a tough decision — at least not after he read the script.

"It was a real opportunity to play a person who had these awful things happen involving his son and the destruction of his marriage — someone who needed a real breakthrough in their life," Hutton says. "I wondered how this tragedy would manifest itself in him and the choices he would make."

Look back at Hutton's most memorable roles

Hutton plays Nate Ford, the leader of a crack team of cons who use their skills to take from the rich and powerful and give back to those they've wronged. But despite Nate's noble intentions, he hasn't always made the best choices. Case in point: When Season 3 begins (Sunday at 9/8c), Nate is in jail. "The team has a plan to break him out, and to their amazement, he doesn't want them to," Hutton says of the premiere episode. "What we see right away is there's a determination in Nate that's always been there, but not at strong as what it's become. It's become extreme — he's committed to taking on anybody that is conning others. It's become his sole purpose."

Though his father was the actor Jim Hutton (Ellery Queen), he never imagined he'd follow his dad into the biz. His sister talked him into taking a theater arts class, which led to a role in Euripides' The Bacchae. He continued in theater, where an agent saw him and asked him to audition for the 1979 TV movie Friendly Fire alongside Carol Burnett and Ned Beatty.

That role caught the eye of the casting director for Robert Redford's Ordinary People, who hired Hutton to play Conrad Jarrett, an affluent teen who attempts suicide after his older brother dies in a boating accident. At just 20 years old, Hutton won both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for the performance. "I felt incredibly lucky to be there and wanted to work very hard and approach it in such a way I felt it deserved," Hutton recalls. "It was quite an amazing experience, an isolating experience because of the type of work we were doing and the type of character I was playing."

Check out photos of the Leverage cast

After Ordinary People, Hutton had no trouble finding work, but the resultant films had trouble finding an audience. The two exceptions were 1981's Taps, a military-school drama co-starring newcomers Tom Cruise and Sean Penn and 1985's The Falcon and the Snowman, also with Penn. Otherwise it was a string of high-profile box office disappointments: Iceman, Daniel, Turk 182!, Made in Heaven and Q&A all came and went. "You hope a movie gets seen by people and impacts people — that it moves people or makes people laugh. You hope that'll happen every time out," Hutton says, acknowledging the rough patch. "But I was never under any illusion that every experience would have the kind of reach that Ordinary People had."

Hutton says that film is still the experience of his career, for reasons that go beyond acting. "It affected people and touched people in a way. That was the most amazing thing to me," Hutton says. "In some ways it went beyond being a movie. It became a useful tool for people, and instigated a change in pattern some people had in their lives."

The actor had a similar emotional reaction to his character after reading Leverage's pilot script. "The one constant is his focus, his drive, and his commitment to helping other people," Hutton says of Nate. "But when you put that against the fact that he still has unresolved areas in his life dealing with the death of his son and the collapse of his marriage, it continues to be interesting."

Exclusive: Look who's playing Nate's dad on Leverage

Nate's team — grifter Sophie (Gina Bellman), hacker Hardison (Aldis Hodge), muscleman Spencer (Christian Kane) and thief Parker (Beth Riesgraf) — becomes his family, more than ever in Season 3, Hutton says. "They've become a family, a dysfunctional family," Hutton says. "The roles are always shifting now, and they still have trust issues with each other. They all worked well alone, but never as good as they are as a team."

Viewers will also finally meet an actual member of Nate's family when Tom Skerritt shows up as Nate's father. And how will Nate deal with Sophie's return to the team? Nothing will break his focus, Hutton says. "The Nate-and-Sophie story is one that will continue to be filled with unresolved feelings for one another," he says. "But the third season is so much about his determination to avoid addressing anything having to do with personal issues, unless it's on his terms."

Like Nate, Hutton's career has been on his own terms. He's an actor, screenwriter, director and producer who has chosen jobs and roles and characters that speak to him, regardless of the medium. For now, he couldn't be happier than he is to be on TV.

"It was the right situation at the right time with the right people," Hutton says. "I'm here and have a true appreciation for being able to do this show and work with these people. It's a very good time to be doing this; the programming on cable is extraordinary right now. Hopefully it will continue to grow."