Exclusive Interview: Hilarie Burton (WHITE COLLAR)

Hilarie Burton - White Collar

Daemon’s TV recently got a chance to talk with Hilarie Burton about her upcoming six-episode arc on USA’s WHITE COLLAR. With her first episode airing on Tuesday, August 10 at 9pm, she had plenty to dish about her character, Sara Ellis, an insurance investigator, who has a past with Neal and Peter.

Hilarie Burton talked about coming back to television after taking a year off, her experience working on ‘White Collar,’ what’s coming up for her character, the previously talked about possible romance between her character and Neal, and much more. So enjoy the interview and don’t forget to watch White Collar on Tuesdays at 9pm on USA.

You mentioned that you were a fan of the show beforehand. I’m guessing it’s exciting to be now on it.

Hilarie Burton: Yes. It’s a show that’s really smart. I like the procedural crime shows overall. I went to college and was interested in psychological forensics. I thought I was going to chase serial killers for a minute. So I like the TV shows where you don’t actually have to do the dirty work because it’s a really depressing profession. But the shows like ‘Criminal Minds’ and all the ‘Law & Orders’, even the ‘CSI’s’, all that stuff is interesting. ‘White Collar’ is smart like a lot of those shows but also has a sense of humor. So it’s not totally depressing. You can watch a marathon of it and not want to slit your wrists afterwards. So I’m happy to be a part of the show that has dark and light sides to it.

How did you get involved with ‘White Collar’?

Hilarie Burton : I left ‘One Tree Hill’ and took some time off to get a life and then… I love working. I especially love working in television. There’s a camaraderie and a teamwork element that’s different from film. Film is fun. Film is like summer camp. You go away somewhere for a couple of weeks and you make new friends and you get to stay somewhere you’ve never lived before, if you’re shooting out on location. It’s camp. When you work in TV you’re in it for the long haul so that teamwork element and that family environment develops. That’s what I really like about television. I was kind of having a hankering to get back into that. I started auditioning slowly and I think that ‘White Collar’ was my third or fourth audition. It just worked out that I got the job. I ended up going back to work much quicker than I anticipated. Normally you have to audition for a while before you start landing stuff again. I was really pleasantly surprised that I was what they wanted and it was just a great fit. They’re such nice people there and every actor says that. Every actor tries to sell you the whole, ‘Oh, we have the best time and it’s the nicest people.’ Most of the time they’re lying but these guys are really phenomenal and so gracious and kind and talented. It’s a really awesome team of people. I was a fan, too, and so as a viewer it’s so much more fun to watch when you know that they really are good guys in real life. The worst thing is when you have a crush on someone on TV or you just think someone is an amazing actor and then you find out that they’re mean to their crew or that they’re a diva, but these guys are so awesome. It makes you root for them even more, like, ‘Yeah, catch him Neal!’ It really makes it that much more fun to watch.

Can you talk about your character on the show? I understand that she’s an insurance investigator?

Hilarie Burton: Yeah. This has been a very big change for me professionally because I’m used to playing moody artist types or the quirky friend, the screwball character, the one that’s a mess. There’s nothing messy about this character Sara Ellis that I’m playing on ‘White Collar’. She’s an insurance investigator which basically means that she’s doing the same thing that Peter does but she works for a private company. So Peter chases white collar criminals for the government. I chase them for an insurance company. My character looks up to Peter quite a bit. I kind of work on the other side, the private side of things. She is well dressed and very fast paced and can be bitchy and can roll with the boys. There’s nothing wilting or emotional about this woman. She’s tough and if she’s going to show her soft underbelly to someone she’s got to really trust them. It’s interesting to watch the dynamic, not only between Sara and Neal but also Sara and Peter, who’s someone she looks up to. So I’ve had a lot of fun working with Tim [DeKay] and Matt [Bomer] because with them every single take is different. I get to try different angles myself which is such a refreshing workplace to step into after having not worked for a year.

I’m sure that was a nice break though.

Hilarie Burton: It was great. You have to stop and regroup and figure out what you want and I think that I have a clear sense of that. I actually said to my team, I said, ‘Look, I want to work on a show that already exists. I want to do an arc so that I don’t have to feel the responsibility of having to carry every episode of something and ideally I’d like to go to work back on the east coast. I miss New York.’ Then all of a sudden this job showed up out of nowhere. It’s that whole ‘Field of Dreams,’ if you build it, it will come situation. I feel good about that.

How does Sara get involved with Neal and Peter in the first place?

Hilarie Burton: The second that we meet Sara we understand that she has a past with both of them. Peter is someone who because they work in the same kind of field, they’re both going after white collar criminals, they’re very aware of each other and I’m sure they’ve crossed paths in the past going after the same guy. Neal on the other hand is one of the most notorious thieves in Manhattan and so as someone who chases thieves he’s a target for my character. It’s really hard when your target is super good looking and really charming and now all of a sudden is being endorsed by the FBI. My character I think has a lot of trouble wrapping her head around the fact that this guy that she’d love to put into prison is being escorted around and teamed up with someone like Peter who she respects so much. So right away when we meet her you know that there’s a past between all the characters and she has definite opinions about how she feels about Neal.

There’s been mention that she might be a love interest for him. What about that?

Hilarie Burton: I think that’s the question that everyone asks. I think that every girl who gets cast on ‘White Collar’ has high hopes that she’ll be the one that Neal falls for after Kate’s death and I’m no exception to that at all. He’s dealing with a very huge tragedy and so I think it’d be tasteless for him to automatically hook up with another woman. I think it would invalidate his feelings for Kate which motivated him for the whole first season. But having said that I’m signed up for six episodes so who knows what happens over the course of six episodes. That’s a half season. I have high hopes for it. We’ll see what Jeff Eastin wants to do with it, but Matt is a lovely man and so nice and so fun to work with. So it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if I had to go to work and pretend that I loved him. I’m sure that there are worst things that I can do in the world.

Right. ‘It’s season two. Let’s move on from Kate.’

Hilarie Burton: Yeah. ‘Enough of this Kate lady. I’ve got so much to offer.’

Also, he’s not only now partnered with Peter but he’d also have a girlfriend that’s walking the right path. It would be interesting.

Hilarie Burton: The women that he’s been tied up with in the past, Kate and Alex, are both on the wrong side of the law. So it would be a huge jump in Neal’s lifestyle for him to buddy up with somebody that would make him walk the straight and narrow.

How many episodes have you shot so far?

Hilarie Burton: I’ve shot two and they’re shooting them kind of out of order. I’ll be totally honest with you, aside from the two that I’ve shot I have no clue what they have planned for me. It’s exciting because now I’m watching the episodes that I’m not in and I’m like, ‘Oh, okay. That makes sense now.’ I like the secretive element to the production of this show because as an actor when you have all the answers two weeks into production you get bored. That happens a lot of times when you work on a movie. You know everything that’s going to happen. When you work in TV you don’t. For six years on ‘One Tree Hill’ I never knew what I was going to do the next week. So on this show, especially because it’s got that undercover element to it, you never ever know what’s going to happen and it makes it that much more fun when you get your script the night before. It makes going to work exciting.

How do you prepare when as an actor you might be going in the opposite direction you thought your character was going to go?

Hilarie Burton: There are different actors for different kinds of job. I’m an actor that I think does very well under that kind of pressure. I attribute that to a lot of my training at MTV. We did live television and they would flash a cue card at us and say, ‘Learn this information in the next thirty seconds and go,’ and you’re live and you only get one take. That adrenaline rush is something that I really thrive on. Having those last minute script changes and the improvisational element reminds me a lot of theater. I grew up doing theater and so I love it. I think it’s great. Some people might hate it. People that have trouble learning lines probably hate it. That’s not to say that one way is better than the next but I have a lot of fun with it and don’t find it frustrating. The challenge is cool. So, yeah, it’s a show that’s a nice fit for me.

Was it hard to jump into the middle of a show that had one season under its belt, being the new girl on set?

Hilarie Burton: Totally. I had never been on that end of it. ‘One Tree Hill’ was one of the first things that I auditioned for and I got it. It’s still on the air. I did it for six years. I never had to do a pilot season. I never had to test for anything. There’s this whole part of the industry that I was blessed enough to not have to deal with. To jump on a show that’s someone else’s, I was very intimidated and nervous that I wasn’t going to do a good enough job or that they weren’t going to like me and so quickly those fears were squashed because Tim DeKay and Matt Bomer are the most welcoming and kind men. They’re everything that leading men on a series should be or leading anybody on any project should be. They’re positive leaders. They keep the crew morale up all day long. They’re so kind to the new people like me who could very easily be intimidated. They’re beautiful and funny and really, really talented and they make you feel good about your work. So I’m very in love with those guys. I have a big old crush on them.

That’s good because you have four more episodes to shoot.

Hilarie Burton: Yeah. Wouldn’t it be terrible if it was the opposite and I was like, ‘Yeah, they’re all right. They’re actors.’

Can you talk about the difference between starring in a network show like ‘One Tree Hill’ and then a cable show like ‘White Collar’?

Hilarie Burton: In my experience so far I think there’s just a lot more freedom on ‘White Collar’. ‘One Tree Hill’ was always on the bubble. It was always under the microscope. It was always, like, ‘Are we going to pick this show up? Are we not going to pick this show up?’ So as a show we kind of had to cater to the powers that be to try to make them happy in an attempt to try and get picked up. So there’s a lot of nervousness on that show because we never knew what our future was. ‘White Collar’ has been such a supported show on USA and I think that Jeff Eastin is so well respected that they trust his vision. So even when we’re on set and one of the actors has an idea or wants to change a line or wants to experiment with something it’s not a big deal. It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah. That sounds neat. Let’s try it.’ That freedom and liberty to be creative and express yourself, that’s what makes the day fun. That’s what makes acting fun, that journey that you take. So the first day on the set I was nervous to make suggestions and then by the time that I was done it was like, ‘Can we try this,’ and everyone was on board. It’s just that open line of communication really makes the difference in how the day goes and makes you feel good when you go home.

Would you want to be a regular another network show or are you just wanting to keep guest starring?

Hilarie Burton: I love television. It’s really fun and I like stable work. As an actor it’s such a rare thing and I’m not afraid to say it. I’d love to get a couple more movies under my belt but where I’m at right now I’m really happy and so if something was developed that came along that was I really into, perhaps a procedural where there was crime to be solved like all those other shows I love so much, I’d certainly be into that. I was very fortunate that in my career the right thing has always come along at the right time and has fit my lifestyle and fit where my head was at. I had no doubt that that’s a thing that will continue to happen. I don’t want to push anything or make predictions that’ll throw me off course but I like TV.

Do you have any other projects coming up or just the show?

Hilarie Burton: I’m in contract negotiations right now. There’s a little romantic comedy that’s going to be shooting in Chicago once I wrap ‘White Collar’. My contract isn’t done with it and so I don’t know if I’m allowed to mention that I’m doing that but it’s very much in the same vein as ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’, all the John Hughes films. It’s definitely got that nostalgic Cameron Crowe, John Hughes feel to it. I didn’t get to do a whole lot of funny stuff on ‘One Tree Hill’ and so I’m trying to play around with some of that. That project is called ‘One Small Hit’ and then I have my production company [Southern Gothic Productions] that’s still based out of Wilmington, North Carolina and we’ve got our hands in all different sorts of things. It’s just all about raising money right now. We took a little hiatus from that because no one has any money in our current economy but we’re getting back into that and in the meantime we’ve been helping a lady we were introduced to named Mary Jo Shipman develop a southern design show. She’s an incredible interior decorator and so I’m using more of my MTV skills, my hosting skills, my production skills from MTV to script out her show and help her with format and all that kind of stuff. So we’ve been keeping busy.

If you could guest star on any other show which one would it be?

Hilarie Burton: God. That’s really hard. Listen, I never used to watch television and then I started dating my boyfriend and he made me fall in love with TV again. You figure as someone who works in television, that I’d be addicted to it. Season one of ‘True Blood’, I was so infatuated with. I haven’t gotten to see any of the new season because we don’t have HBO where we’re staying. So I don’t know anything that’s going on there. I really love ‘Criminal Minds’. That’s so good. All we watch is criminal shows. Any place that I can play a badass cop, that’s where I want to be. All of those shows, if any of that crazy intro music is there count me in. I’m ready to catch some bad guys.

Hopefully you can get your very own procedural show.

Hilarie Burton: We’ll see, yeah, and then I can come home and try to talk the talk and everyone will laugh at me, like, ‘Hilarie, you’re not a real cop. It’s ridiculous.’ I’ll feel like I’m making a tiny dent in the criminal world. We’ll just catch fake criminals.

Hilarie Burton