Hilarie Burton Talks Becoming a Regular on White Collar!

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On Friday, I had the opportunity to take part in a teleconference Q&A with White collar’s [USA Network, Tuesdays, 9/8C] newest regular cast member, Hilarie Burton. Burton is charming and articulate so the experience was an enjoyable one – and unlike some of chats, stayed pretty much on target throughout.

Some of the participants in the call hadn’t seen the season premiere, so some of Burton’s required tactfulness might seem a bit odd, now. Just go with it…

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Hey, Hilarie. Thanks for taking the time.

Hilarie Burton: Yes, man.

So tell me about the full time gig. How did that come about? And did they just say, “Hey, we love you so much. Stay.”

Burton: Yes. I mean there was a rumor about it last year like, “If you play your cards right kid, you might get to stay.” So I tried to be on good behavior. You know, I think that Neal getting over Kate’s death was certainly at least a full season story. You know, the first season was all about him being in love with her. The second season was about him getting over her death.

And now this third season I kind of look at myself as a tool to allow the audience to get to know the, you know, that intimate side of Neal that I think a lot of people have been aching to see. You know, they probably hat me because I’m the girl that’s luck enough that gets to do it. But yes, I mean it’s about time they see him being all cute and such.

All right. And speaking of that, how distracting is it working with Matt and Tim?

Burton: Oh, isn’t it just a terrible job, the two of them. They’re just kind and talented and what’s a girl to do. They really are so much fun. But, you know, aside from just being, you know, fun guys, they make you laugh on set, they’re so professional. They make work really, really easy. And they make it go by very quickly.

So yes, I mean it is a dream set. Everybody who visits – everybody who visits says so. So they certainly have bragging rights over White Collar. It’s a well-behaved group.

I wanted to ask you, do you think it’s possible that Sara and Alex teamed up to put the U-boat loot in the storage unit for Neal to discover?

Burton: Well, what I will say is that I really, really love Gloria. You know, I think the girl team ups on the show are every bit as important as the boy team ups. You know, you have this lovely bromance Neal and Peter. But I’ve gotten to do some really fun work with Tiffany and with Marsha and there’s some great day players coming up. You know, (Diane) I got to do a scene with recently.

So, you know, I think the female relationships on the show are just as important because the women aren’t there just to service the boys’ story. They really are interesting characters in and of themselves. And so yes man, a girl team up, that’s something to plant in Eastin’s ear, isn’t it?

My follow up is if Sara and Alex didn’t put the treasure in the (story) unit, do you have any guesses on who might have done it?

Burton: Well of course I do, but I can’t necessarily share that now can I? That wouldn’t be very covert of us.

You know, I think what’s great about the audience for White Collar is that they are a really, really smart bright audience and they’re very analytical. And so there’s certainly been clues planted all along whether it’s stuff that we’ve been shooting that people have seen us out shooting or it’s stuff that Eastin has plugged on Twitter.

So we have a really smart audience. And I would hate to be the one that gives away anything that ruins that element of surprise. Because if I tried to be coy, I’d just give it away and it would ruin it. So, you know, our premier is coming up very quickly. They’ll see who it is soon enough.

So you were a recurring character is Season 2 but we don’t know much about you. What can we look forward to from Sara in Season 3?

Burton: Well, you know, I think the beginning of Season 3 there’s still a little bit of that cat and mouse between Sara and Neal. You know, she doesn’t necessarily trust him right away. But I think that as they get closer and start to have just more fun together, a friendship, a bond builds where you see her lighter side.

And, you know, we’ve done little things along the way to try to make her more approachable. You know, the wardrobe isn’t as glamorous as it was last year. We certainly were trying to create an esthetic that created a wall. You know, she – her language isn’t necessarily as clipped. You know, she’s not as formal as she was last year.

And so hopefully, you know, the audience will start to feel more comfortable with her as someone who’s around more often as she peels back the layers.

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Since the episodes are so lean on fat and plot driven and because Sara has a slightly different relationship with Neal, how much of your scripts have been about your character’s life away from White Collar Division?

Burton: Not a whole lot. You know, I mean there’s a lot of people to service on the show. There’s a lot of, you know, characters that have stories to tell. And one of the really wonderful things that our writers are doing this year is they’re kind of giving each character their own spotlight episode.

And so Sharif has gotten one. Marsha’s gotten one. Willie’s gotten one. There’s an Elizabeth one coming up. You know, each one of the characters we’re delving more into their back story. And right now I feel like at least the first half of this season I’m there to kind of help other people tell their story, in particular Neal.

And that’s fine for me because I really love working with this cast. And the fact that I get to work with all of them now as opposed to just a couple of them like last year has been really exciting.

So I think maybe later in the season, you know, we’ll see more of Sara’s colors, more of her past because it’ll help Neal connect with her. You know, that’s how you develop and bond with someone.

You have shared experience and then you have shared histories. You know, you let each other in on your deep dark secrets. And Neal is certainly someone that it’ll take a minute to trust but I think in the end he should be someone that Sara trusts with her secrets.

Besides Matt, what other actor would you say you have the most screen time with?

Burton: Well this year I’ve been spending a lot of time with my dear friend Willie Garson, which, you know, it’s kind of a two for one deal. When you’re with Neal, Mozzie’s always around.

And so I get to spend a lot of time with Mozzie, which is a treat because Willie is a friend outside of work as well. And, you know, I’m his mascot. I just follow him around and laugh at him because he’s a funny dude. So I have been having a lot of fun playing with the boys. They’re a good time.

I was wondering what’s been your favorite scene or episode to shoot so far?

Burton: Oh man, my favorite. God, that’s really hard. During Burke’s Seven, that was really fun. That was a – that was a episode last season where practically every single character was in the Burke home and we were planning this heist. And I think that was the first time that I’d really gotten to work with everybody.

And that was – I don’t know. It was nice. I was really intimidated going into that day of work because I was the new kid. And I shouldn’t have been because there’s never been a more inclusive group of people professionally in my life.

They are kind and warm and really supportive and yes, that was a really fund day at work. I felt like that was a little bit of a turning point for me where I started to feel like oh, this could be something more than just a little reoccurring thing. And fortunately it turned out to be just that.

I wanted to ask if you can tell us more about the relationship between Sara and Neal in the beginning of the season. Like will we get to see them explore their relationship in the beginning or will their work get in the way of it?

Burton: No. I’m going to kiss him. I’m going to kiss him if that’s what you’re asking. I don’t – I think that at the end of last season Sara turned a corner and made a clear decision that she wasn’t going to be intimidated by his relationship with Alex and that she wasn’t going to step aside.

I mean she’s a very assertive woman. And she sees something in Neal that she finds redeeming and attractive and maybe a little bit dangerous. And those are all things that suck her in. Whether those things get her in trouble down the road, that’s yet to be seen. But, you know, with Neal’ track record, you look at all the women he’s been involved with, Kate and Alex and by way of their involvement with him, they’ve gotten hurt. And so, you know, there’s an element of danger when it comes to dating Neal and Sara needs to be aware of that.

Could we maybe delve into some of the relationship that you have with Peter or Sara’s relationship with Peter? Because, you know, we know that everyone’s relationship has kind of been reset after, you know, the treasure has been kind of stolen. So there’s that lack of trust. But how’s Sara’s relationship going to be with Peter given that he’s suspectful of, you know, Neal being behind it?

Burton: You know, I think Peter is very, very supportive of a Sara and Neal relationship because he thinks that Sara will be a good influence on Neal. I think what he doesn’t expect is the possibility that Neal could be a bad influence on Sara.

Clearly, you know, Peter has known Sara for years before he and Neal teamed up together. And I think he believes he has a very good understanding of what she’s about. But, you know, Neal is someone that you can get totally swept away with. And it would be a mistake to underestimate that.

So I think, you know, as much as I love having fun scenes with Tim DeKay, I think there might be some tougher scenes to do with him. I don’t ever want Peter to be mad at Sara because Hilarie Burton thinks Tim DeKay is so great. And I would hate for him to yell at me. But it might happen guys. It might happen.

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The premier On Guard essentially sets up the major arc for the next part of the season. And it’s mostly Peter, Mozzie and Neal. When you appear, which I assume will be in the second episode, what are the circumstances under which you first appear and what can you tease about that?

Burton: Well I think that is – that’s very closely related to the question I was just asked about my relationship with Peter. You know, he obviously has suspicions about what Neal has been up to and what Neal’s involvement is. And his first reaction is to call Sara to verify Neal’s story. And Neal’s first reaction is to call Sara to ask for an alibi.

And so in a way she’s being used by both sides. And both people think they have the greater influence over her. And I think that will be my character’s storyline over the course of this season is to see, you know, whether she walks the line of good and evil and who she decides to give her allegiance to.

It’s a very tricky spot to be in because she’s got so much respect for Peter but she is, you know, maybe begrudgingly very, very drawn to Neal and trying to decide what’s the best for everyone is a tough thing for a little girl to decide all on her own.

I wanted to ask if you could talk a little about what it’s like working with Sharif Atkins and Marsha Thomason because they seem like they would be hilarious.

Burton: They – listen, Marsha and I met – I think I told this story in the last blog call we did. Marsha and I met at a photo shoot my first season on One Tree Hill. And she was doing Las Vegas. And when I walked in to just audition for the part of Sara, Marsha came running up, you know, it’s like nine years later and remembers. And it’s like, “Hey, what’s up? How have you been?” And was so awesome and great.

And, you know, people in our industry try to be cool, you know. And oh, I think I remember you. You know. Marsha she is just cool. She doesn’t have to try to be cool. And Sharif is such a huge talent. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen his episodes of – he did an episode of like Criminal Minds and he did a – like a Law and Order episode. He’s done all these great guest spots that were on TV non-stop during the winter.

I think I saw him on other shows like four or five times over the winter. And he blows me away with his dramatic stuff. So I think it’s really wonderful that he has this duality where he can do really fun comedic stuff and make the most of these, you know, these scenes in a van. And meanwhile he’s got this ace in his pocket of this powerful dramatic acting.

So the episode that they’re shooting right now he’s very heavy in. And I’m really excited to see that. He’s – we always joke about the boys came up with White Collar nights, which is the Jones spin off where Jones is up to no good at night. And I’d love to see that man. Sara Ellis would visit that in a heartbeat.

Absolutely. So can you tell us do you have any stunt scenes that you’ve been doing or any that you’d like to do? Stunts.

Burton: Stunts. Oh every day’s a stunt. Yes. I mean is it a stunt to make out with Neal Caffrey? Probably. Takes a strong woman. Yes. I haven’t had to get into any scuffles quite yet. But that’s not to say that that won’t happen later. Sara might be jealous. Wouldn’t that be great if she just got really jealous and started punching all the other chicks?

Absolutely awesome.

Burton: To get to Neal. You know, I don’t know if Sara’s that kind of woman or not. I’m sure Jeff Eastin will steer me in the right direction as far as my aggressiveness with the character.

So that is something that you would like the writers to put in?

Burton: Well I mean when I was on One Tree Hill man, I was always fist fighting somebody or getting thrown into a coffee table or getting attacked by a stalker. And that was a teen drama. So now that I’m doing, you know, a crime solving show, it makes sense that I should probably up the ante. And I’ve got these supreme muscles now. I’ve been doing pushups. And yes, I should probably put them to use.

There you go. Yes.

Burton: Way to plant that seed. I’m into that. This is what those interviews are really, really great for. Just planting seeds and then you see what sprouts. You guys can take credit for a lot of stuff, you know.

Last season in Countermeasures Peter and Elizabeth were absolutely amazed when Neal sang with June, is there a moment this season where Sara learns something that would be equally unexpected about any of the other characters?

Burton: Oh boy. You know, I think she is definitely dazzled by the romanticism that Neal carries. I think she always knew he was a con man. But we’ve never seen him really actively swoon a woman. And he’s very capable of that. And I think it probably catches her off guard how effective he is.

You know, last year we had surprises. We were surprised when Peter jumped on a horse. That was very exciting. You know, Mozzie always has something up his sleeve. And I think there is just a general acceptance from all the other characters now that well of course Mozzie can figure that out.

So, you know, each episode lends itself to shining the spotlight on a different character. And so we see some really cool stuff from Diana this year. And like I said too, Sharif also has a really big episode where he’s got a bunch of big stunts and stuff like that.

So this is the year of everybody getting a big show, getting to show off what they can do, which is fun. It’s fun for all of us.

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Knowing that Neal might be on the straight, you know, on the right path is probably why maybe Sara opens herself up to a relationship with Neal. But if there’s a possibility that he may have stolen this treasure or had a part in it, do you think maybe investigating inside Sara’s head would she think differently of him?

Burton: I think as with any relationship, you know, how many of your friends have hooked up with people they thought they could fix or they thought they could steer in a brighter direction? You know, that’s kind of a female bad habit that’s universal. You meet a man and you think you can influence him.

And I don’t think Sara’s any different from any normal girl who’s at home watching the show. I think she knows what he’s capable of. But I think she perhaps foolishly or not foolishly hopes that she would be and his new lifestyle would be incentive enough for him to behave.

So if he does go to the dark side, how crushing, you know, how absolutely crushing. But if he doesn’t and he, you know, chooses to stay with the FBI and be a good boy, how rewarding.

So I mean it’s – the consequences either way are pretty big. And so I think the season is becoming a little more dramatic. I think we’ve had certain arcs in the show that have been more comedic. But I think that there is some pretty serious stuff coming up in Season 3.

Okay. And then one thing that’s kind of been troubling to me as I try to think of whether or not Sara could be a suspect in getting the treasure. What would have been her motive? I’m not saying for you to say that you did or you didn’t but if she were to be the one, what would be her motive to get that treasure?

Burton: To assert herself. You know, Sara is someone who knows all of the same tricks that Neal has but she uses them for good, not evil. Do you know what I mean?

Yes.

Burton: She spies on people. She recovers treasure and then turns it over instead of keeping it for herself. You know, and so she certainly has all the skills to be able to pull something like that off. But it’s a conscious choice to walk the straight and narrow.

Has she fallen so hard for Neal already that she would pull something like this off to show off? Maybe. Or maybe she tests him to see what he would do. You know, I think she’s a really powerful woman and her emotions might get the best of her.

And so we’ll see, you know, whether she’s black and white or gray this season. It’s going to be, you know, as an actor having to play certain scenes, it’s very hard to decide how far you’re going to go with the emotional involvement or with the enjoyment of maybe doing things that aren’t necessarily legal. Because, you know, she is in a huge time of transition. And Neal is a huge factor in her decision making this year.

Is – can you talk about Eliza Dushku guest starring?

Burton: Yes. She’s a babe, right?

Right. And another threat.

Burton: Oh, I mean, look, there’s always going to be threats. And, you know, Jeff Eastin and I were talking the other day and I was like, “Look. I’m used to breakups. I was the queen of breakups on the show I used to work on.” So, you know, I – Hilarie Burton isn’t threatened by another girl coming on because it gives me someone else to play with. And she certainly is someone who had some really wonderful shows and she’s beautiful girl. And her boyfriend Rick Fox worked on One Tree Hill with us.

And so, you know, it’s all, you know, two degrees of separation here. She worked with Matt on Tru Calling. And so it should be fun, you know. Anytime you bring a new variable in, it’s a really good time and it energizes everyone else.

So, you know, to have another girl come in and maybe have a catfight like we talked about earlier in the interview, that’s not a bad day at work. That’s fun.

It sounds great.

Burton: And hopefully all you guys will enjoy it. We like spicy, right.

Exactly. Well thank you very much for taking the time and good luck on the (show)…

Burton: Certainly.

Photos by Robert Ascroft and David Giesbrecht/courtesy of USA Network