White Collar Star Tim DeKay Talks Directing Himself, Peter’s Marriage and Going Over the Edge!

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Tonight on White Collar (USA Network, 10/9C), Special Agent Peter Burke and Neal Caffrey, his con man partner in thwarting white collar criminals, take a brief detour from digging into corruption in the police department (and higher up the food chain) to deal with taxi fraud – and visit the iconic Cotton Club along the way.

Star Tim DeKay, who also directed the episode, Empire City, spoke with a group of journalists/bloggers about the ep (and his good fortune in directing two eps with iconic New York settings).

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Tim DeKay: Thank you. How are you?

I’m good. How are you?

DeKay: Good, thanks.

Great. So, let me ask you, was it difficult for you to direct yourself on screen during this episode?

DeKay: No, it’s not too difficult to be honest with you, because we’ve got a – the writer, Channing Powell, who wrote the episode. She was there the whole time. And also, I look to my DP a few times. And it’s open enough so that – on our set that I can talk to Channing of whether or not the moment works, I can talk through Matt, my – Matt Bomer or Willie or Tiffani, whomever, and say, “Does that work? What do you guys think?”

And then, the other thing is 90% of the time I’ll know whether or not my – the moment is right for me as far as acting. So, it wasn’t too difficult, no.

And — excuse me — what were some of the biggest challenges you faced while directing this episode?

DeKay: I think the biggest challenge for any of these episodes is the clock. You have – the writers always write a wonderful big episode, so it seems, and you always want to be able to have a lot of coverage. You want to – you think of all these cool shots, but there just isn’t enough time in the day. So, the biggest challenge is a mixture that you tell the story within those seven days that are – where there is 12 hours allotted and you tell the story in the White Collar fashion, and make sure it’s snappy, it’s fun, it’s clever, and all those other adjectives we can think of for the show.

It makes sense. And let me end with this, do you have a favorite moment from shooting the episodes for this season?

DeKay: Oh, for the whole season? No. But, I will tell you one of my favorite moments for the episode that I directed was – it takes place in the Cotton Club and – I don’t think is too much of a spoiler. No. Diahann Carroll sang two songs at the Cotton Club, so I got to direct her to sing a couple songs.

Fantastic.

DeKay: Yeah.

Well, of course last season you made your directorial debut filming in Yankee Stadium, and this time you’re in the Cotton Club. There – where would you like to shoot it the next time around?

DeKay: I’m aiming for the White House, so we’ll see…

Oh.

DeKay: …if that happens. No, I’m kidding… I don’t know. We’ll see. No, I – that wouldn’t…

That would require you to be out of state, right?

DeKay: It would be. I don’t know, some other iconic place in New York, maybe Madison Square Garden. There you go, that’s my aim for next season… Madison Square Garden.

That would be awesome. Having played Peter Burke for four seasons now, is there anything that you’ve learned about Peter or anything that he has done that has most caught you by surprise?

DeKay: That’s a good question. What has caught me by surprise with Peter? I’d have to say that I’m always surprised at his – well, I’m surprised and challenged at his ability to balance doing what’s right for Neal and doing what’s right for the FBI. The writers have been able to continue to have Peter walk on that – walk that line of being a friend to Neal, and yet having to answer to his job as an FBI agent.

Okay. This season has been very much about Neal’s backstory, and I don’t…

DeKay: Yes.

…the writers have convened for Season 5 yet, but are we likely to see more of Peter’s backstory? Do you think he’s got some dark and seedy past that we’re going to discover in Season 5?

DeKay: I’ve talked to some of the writers about this, and I would love to have some things uncovered about Peter that would be surprising to the audience. I think we have to be careful with any backstory as long as it keeps the action moving forward. I think that’s important, so I would – how we would delve into Peter’s backstory would only be so that we could keep the story moving forward.

Okay. And one last question, you’ve done a lot of theater work, would you ever consider doing like an international tour with a theater company and bring your performance down to Australia?

DeKay: I would. I would love to do that. There was a very famous production of – maybe I’ve told you this before, and forgive me I have, but there’s a very famous production of Our Country’s Good that was done in Sydney. I think it was near the Opera House where like the back of the stage came up and you could see out into the water. So, the audience was looking out onto the stage, and then back to the water, and it was – I believe it was in a warehouse or something like that. But, I would love to do that play in Australia; although I don’t think that would ever happen, but still I’d love to take any play and tour the world. Sure.

All right, so I’ve seen the episode you directed, which you did a great job with by the way.

DeKay: Thank you. Thank you.

And I was wondering if you could talk about – well, Neal, as Peter keeps point out, has kept things from him the entire time, but this is – he – Peter seems very focused on this is the first time that Neal has lied to his face.

DeKay: Yes.

I was wondering if you could kind of explain more of what Peter means by that?

DeKay: Yeah. If you go back, Neal has – and Peter have never lied to each other to their faces. Now, one might argue that there’s been many lies of omittance, there have been a lot of lies, in so far as not coming forth and telling the other person what’s going on. But regardless, if Peter has ever asked Neal a point blank question, he has never lied to his face. But, I think with this particular – in this particular instance, Neal was given the green light by Peter’s wife to lie.

So, I think the writers did a great thing there. I would have loved to have been in the room at that moment when one of the writers, “Well, how can Neal lie to Peter’s face? What would allow us to say that was okay that he did that?” And I don’t know who came up with the idea, probably – maybe Jeff Eastin.

But, I think it’s important, and it’s great that we have it that there is always that dynamic. Peter and Neal are always on the case enjoying each other’s company; although, they’ll never admit it. Two dear friends, best friends, and yet there is always a secret. There’s always something going on. There’s a chess game going on and they’re not quite revealing everything that needs to be revealed. And most of the time that – those reveals are not given to each other because they think it’s benefiting the other person by not telling them.

White-Collar - Marsha

Yeah.

DeKay: It seems like I’ve said many times as Peter, I’m not going to tell Neal about my investigating this, that, or the other thing for his own good.

Yeah, it’s definitely a fish to throw in the whole trust issue, because they’ve done that a bunch. I don’t know if they’ll ever…

((Crosstalk))

DeKay: Yeah. I don’t think it would – I just don’t – I think the trust issue is just – will always be there. It just never is 100%. It can be. Neal’s a criminal. No matter how much we love him, he has stolen a lot of things from a lot of people, and Peter is an FBI agent, so that’s wonderful. We – it – there’s – inherently we have a – there is a trust issue when it comes to that. When it comes to other things they can trust each other implicitly, but when it comes to that, when it comes to those kind of dealings, they’ll never trust each other implicitly.

No, Peter wouldn’t be very good at his job if he did.

DeKay: Exactly, and neither would Neal. We wouldn’t want that. We wouldn’t – we don’t want to trust Neal completely. That’s half the fun.

Because what would Marsha do.

DeKay: Exactly.

And lastly, can you share anything that you’ve just enjoyed about some of the upcoming episodes? Anything you can tease? Any fun moments?

DeKay: Sure. I said it earlier, it was just such a hoot to direct Diahann Carroll at the Cotton Club. There was a wonderful moment where we had pre-recorded her singing the song so that she didn’t have to sing it live the day we shot it, and I had musicians there just in case. And we started rolling for her to sing the song and she had the earpiece on and she started singing, and we – I looked at the sound guy and he brought down the pre-recorded version and the other musicians started playing, and she just sang that whole song live and it was – we – the whole cast and crew got a mini concert. It was great.

She has a lovely voice.

DeKay: Yes, she’s…

Well, great.

DeKay: …I don’t want to give you a number, but it – she looks and sounds amazing for a woman who’s, I’ll say, been on the stage as often as she has.

I thought Bill Bellamy gave a really nice performance. What was it like working with him?

DeKay: Well, it was wonderful. I’ve known Bill for quite some time, and his name came up. I don’t remember if I gave – if I brought it up first or the producer did, but either way I thought it was a great role for him. And I thought that he and Marsha Thomason-Sykes had a wonderful chemistry there on screen, and it was also fun to see Marsha in that kind of outfit with that wig, so it was great.

I didn’t even know if – I didn’t know they were going to do the wig, but I was just walking down the hall, and this is before we started shooting the episode, and I walk into hair and makeup and there she’s got that blonde wig. And I thought, “Oh, that’s fantastic. You’ve got to wear it.” So…that was her idea.

Oh, that’s great. And on that line, because you touched on working with Diahann Carroll and Marsha Thomason, but I think a lot of the supporting actors a little more play in this episode, which was nice. Was that on purpose because you were directing, because even Tiffani and…

DeKay: Right.

…Willie did too. So…

DeKay: Yeah, we…

…and how was it to work with them on the other side of the camera?

DeKay: Oh, it’s great. I was able to do it last year with the baseball episode at Yankee Stadium. But, it’s great it – to work with them because they’re incredibly supportive. We have a very supportive cast and crew, and everybody’s rooting for you, and you’re rooting for them. And they – it’s – we’re all in this together. And I – the writers try to have it so that Peter is a little bit lighter in the episode. Usually Peter is a little bit lighter in the prior episode so that I have time to prepare, but I also like…

Was that why Peter got into the car accident?

DeKay: It’s – that was part of it, yes. Yes.

Okay.

DeKay: Let’s put Peter in a hospital so Tim can go out and scout certain locations. But, I also like these kind of episode where everybody is involved. And I think it’s rather enjoyable to watch an episode, like last week’s, and I think this week’s coming up in Empire City where every character has at least one clever moment where they cleverly either divert the bad guy or figure out something that helps move the case along. It’s just – it’s great fun when everybody on the show has a clever moment, at least a clever moment.

So, I know you’ve talked a little bit already about the trust between Peter and Neal, and how we’re really never going to see that change. But, what’s interesting now is the fact that Elizabeth is involved, and that, like you said, brought a whole new level to it. How long are we going to see her kind of being this third wheel with them?

DeKay: We’re going to see it for a while. It plays out all the way to the end of the season. And I think it makes sense because Neal and Elizabeth – actually if you go all the way back to the pilot you can tell that those two had a connection as well, and a connection which I thought was great, but that was not sexual. I thought it would have been too easy and convenient to have that go on, and it actually would have muddied the waters too much for Peter and Neal to have that happen. But, you’re going to see the force of Elizabeth and her request to Neal play out through the rest of the season.

Wow. Wow, that’s sounds great. Now, you just revealed that part of the reason that Peter got hurt last week is because you need the time to go off and scout locations, but is that – which I think is great. But, as far as Peter having that happen to him, it’s interesting that it seemed to nothing but strengthen his resolve to get these people. The fight started out being basically for Neal, but would you say that because of what’s happened it’s now about Peter as well?

DeKay: Oh, completely, yeah. And I think, at least for me in playing Peter, the accident was – the – yeah, it angered Peter and was a pain, pardon the pun, but what really set Peter off was having Reese Hughes fired. That’s what did it for him. That – because it hits something that Peter is such a believer in the Bureau and what it stands for, and to have somebody from – in a political position have that happen and be able to do that, it just – it unnerves peter. He – it’s – to tarnish the Bureau like that just infuriates him, and personally too, he’s always like Reese Hughes. So now it’s personal, you know?

I was wondering, I missed the first calls, I hope I – this wasn’t asked already, but were there any particular challenges in directing the episode?

DeKay: Only the ones that I seem to face every time, and that every director faces, and that is the clock. You only have so much time to shoot so many pages, and you want to do it right. You want to serve the text as best you can. And you don’t have the luxury of shooting 15 hours or extending the shoot another two weeks or something like that. No, you have seven days and 12 hours in each of those seven days. You’d better get it done.

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What would happen if you found that you ran out of time? What would happen?

DeKay: Well, what happens is then you start having to look at the script and decide, “Okay, is this scene really needed? How can we cut this scene?” Or, “Do we really need to see the – a certain scene from another angle? Do we have time to set up a camera angle from another position?” And so, really you have to prepare the week before as soon as you get the script and know your locations. Know what shots you want to take. And, you know there are many people in the production and directing department that help you with, “Well, it looks like we should be two hours on this scene, two hours on that scene, only an hour on this one, four hours on this one,” and you try to stick to that timeline. You try to budget your time. It is. It is extremely helpful. But, the whole – the wrench in this is that it’s a creative process, so as you’re shooting a scene you think, “Oh, it would be so cool if we put the camera up here, way up here on top of this whatever.” And, you know then the first AP looks at you and says, “You only 45 minutes left. There’s no way you’re going to get it.” “Yes, but it would be so great if we shot from,” you know (unintelligible) one of those.

Well, you know New York always plays a big part of this show, but I also felt like it played an even bigger part of your – of Empire City. Even with like the montages of the city going into different scenes, it almost seemed kind of rhythmic and especially with the way music also played a big part. Were you involved with that or…

DeKay: Oh, I’m so glad you caught that. Oh, that’s great. Yes, it was. And it was part of the script to a degree. It was part of the editor and part of what I saw for the episode. Just – it’s funny, each episode that I’ve directed or short-side directed, I get a – there’s like an image of something that I see for each episode. And in this particular one I just saw like a lot of people snapping their fingers for whatever reason. So, the – I try to get that in the cuts and the rhythm of the – you know of the transitions and seeing people on the streets.

I’m glad you saw that.

Oh, thank you. And, you know these – the three episodes that have returned so far that I’ve watched, they’ve all been really good. Why is the – you know White Collar, it’s in its – what season, fourth season? It’s still…

DeKay: Fourth season, yeah.

…so great. Why do you think that is?

DeKay: …I think because the show is about characters, and the longer we get to know these characters, as an audience, I think whether it’s conscience or unconscious, subconscious, we anticipate and we look forward to the anticipation of Peter’s reaction. We’ll see Neal do something and we know what Peter’s going to say to this, and there’s something fun about that that we get to know these people.

I also think though, that the writers continue to do a great job in moving these stories forward and in keeping the stakes high, and keeping the show clever. That’s the thing. It’s – there is certain cleverness to this show that’s – is of its own ilk, and I think is refreshing to see. And it’s – what did Bonnie Hammer call it, intelligent escapism perhaps; something like that.

I was just wondering, in determining who’s going to direct what episodes, was the decision for you to direct this purely luck of the draw, or was there something about that episode that spoke to you personally in advance or what?

DeKay: It was luck of the draw. What they try to do is help me out, which in turn obviously helps the show out in figuring out what’s the best time to schedule my directing episode. Specifically, one of the producers, Jeff King, is responsible for this, and he’ll figure out maybe after an – a hiatus when I’ve had a little rest, then it might be a little better for me to come back and be able to direct an episode after that. It – a certain number of factors, other directors’ schedules, but I just got lucky.

I – the two episodes I’ve directed have both been in iconic places in New York, so it was the luck of the draw.

And… oh, it just went away.

DeKay: Sure.

When you’re directing…

DeKay: Sure.

…how would you define your style? I mean, the show has a certain style you have to stay within, but each director brings something unique to it. And I was just wondering, how do you play that end of it?

DeKay: That’s a good question. I think it’s one of these things that we do as storytellers or even artists that put our vent on it or our style. It’s something that we just have to trust is – will come out no matter what. I think if you consciously tell yourself, “I’m going to put my mark on this,” it’s too fabricated. If I were to – in retrospect, I think most of my episodes and the stories that I’ve done as a director have to do quite a bit with relationship, because as an actor that’s something that is – we key into.

Also, there are moments that we watch on – in a movie or TV that we really like. So, you know after a movie you say, “Oh, I liked that moment where she turned around told them, you know get out of the house.” Whatever. And I find myself directing those moments or creating those moments in a scene where maybe they weren’t there, but all of a sudden I see them as I read the script. And I – and so I think, “I want to put those in there.”

But, at the time I don’t think consciously, “This – I’m going to put my mark here. This is going to be a Tim DeKay moment.” No, it’s just how we like to decode stories. It usually is how we like to tell them as well.

My question is there are a montage on your most current episode. (Unintelligible) of the montage (unintelligible) required (unintelligible), and can you tell us more about that? Did you do some of the (unintelligible), and the episode?

DeKay: I’m a having a little trouble understanding because of the technically, but I think you were asking about the montage with June?

Yeah.

DeKay: Okay…

Can you tell us (about that)?

DeKay: Sorry?

Can you tell us more about that? Did you…

((Crosstalk))

DeKay: Sure, yes…

Yeah. Okay.

DeKay: …we had – it was great. We only had – we had very little time to shoot that. That’s another instance where she pre-recorded that song. And in this case, because she didn’t have any musicians with her, we – what I did is during all the sequences in that montage I would play the song over the – throughout the whole stage so that the – myself and Matts and Willie, and certainly June could hear it throughout the whole time.

So, they just had a sense of that music being played. Certainly, Willie could hear her because – or Mozzie could because he had the earphones on. He was listening to the song. Now, Matt and I couldn’t hear it, or I should say Neal and Peter couldn’t hear it, but I still wanted us to get a sense of the rhythm that song was giving us throughout the scene. So, I wanted that to inform all of the actors as to how they just moved about during the montage, and I think it helped.

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Okay, and my next question is, the second half of Season 4 has introduced James Bennett as (unintelligible) (to really decide your if your) relationship with Neal moving forward?

DeKay: Has introduced who, James Bennett?

Yeah.

DeKay: (Unintelligible) moving forward and…

((Crosstalk))

DeKay: Wait a minute. Say that again?

(Unintelligible) your relationship with Neal moving forward in Season 4?

DeKay: James Bennett’s relationship to Neal?

Yeah, moving forward…

((Crosstalk))

DeKay: Do you want me to – moving forward? Oh, okay. Clever. I’m not going to give you any spoilers, but it is intrinsic to the rest of the season. And it – what information is revealed and how it’s revealed and where they find this information is directly related to James Bennett and to the Senator and it’s fantastic. It’s right up there with the music box and the Nazi sub.

All right. Okay. So, as a fan of the show I would love for Peter and Neal – for Peter and El to have a kid. Is (unintelligible) open to discuss with the writers?

DeKay: I’m sorry, you’ll have to say that again.

Yes, one other things was I would love to see Peter and El to have a kid. Is that a subject that is open for discussion with the writers?

DeKay: Oh, you would love Peter and Elizabeth to have a child?

Yeah, (unintelligible) to discuss with the writers?

DeKay: I think – I’m sure that’s been talked about. Well, I’m going to say, yeah, that – there has been discussion about that. I don’t think we’re going to address it right away. I don’t – I’ll plead the 5th and say that that’s up to the writers, whatever they come up with.

So, the – as this season is progressing, and particularly in this kind of really more – I want to say that this particularly (sic) episode seems to be so interesting and engaging in how you’ve plotted – how the writers have plotted it out. And obviously, because you’ve been directing it, you’re sitting there going how are you going to do all this, and you’ve managed to put all these things together. Where’s the next episode going to take us?

DeKay: You’ll have to watch two Tuesdays from now.

Oh, come on.

DeKay: Well, as far as the mythology is concerned, you – it’s going to take us – by the end of the season we’re going to end up where that last image of Empire City shows us. Does that make sense?

Okay.

DeKay: Yeah, that’s where we’re going to end up. That’s where a bit of the busy action is going to take place.

Okay. So, and then let me…

DeKay: Oh, see you’re really good. See, you’re very good. You just kind of say, “Okay,” as if, “That’s not enough, Tim. Speak more,” but I can’t. (That’s all I can say).

You got me, okay? You got me. I think I’ve been interviewing a long time. The – okay, let’s talk about where Tim DeKay would like to see his character go in the next episodes and into the next season?

DeKay: Well, into the next season, I would love to continue to have Peter do more and more undercover work. I just – I love getting out there and having Peter go undercover. It’s fun. I also think that, you know Jeff Eastin and I have been talking quite a while about having some kind of scene where it’s just Neal and Peter for nearly all or most of the episode, and I think that’s going to come into play. You know, I’ve always said an elevator scene where we get stuck in an elevator, but Jeff’s got to a different space for us, which I think might even be better.

But – and I also think – I like it when – I liked it when Neal and Peter are just simply working case – each case and – the case of the week and they are constantly pursuing it in a clever, clever way, and a clever and intelligent way. I think that’s – it’s interesting when they do that. I also want to see just more of Peter and Neal while they’re enjoying the case at hand. There is always something underneath, something’s going on where there isn’t quite 100% trust between the two of them.

That’s what – it’s always been interesting, and that’s what it’s been throughout, in terms of them – the question about trust, and particularly in that one episode where Neal went off the deep end. But…

DeKay: Yeah.

…you being undercover is so underutilized, because…

DeKay: Oh, thank you.

…you don’t get to do that…

DeKay: Yeah.

…you have to be the street guy.

DeKay: Yeah. Yeah. It – you – it’s funny you – while you do need that, you – for the tension to be right between the two of them, I’ve always contended that Peter can go undercover and still be – and in a way still be the straight guy, especially when it comes to Neal and Peter in that relationship. So – and the writers have come up with some good stuff for Season 5, so we’ll see.

As much as I love the suits that they make, that they – they make and they buy for me, it’s just sometimes I’ve got to say it’s nice to go into work and not put on a tie as Peter Burke.

It gives Peter a new dimension.

DeKay: Yeah. Yep. Yep.

Just thinking on what that last person said, I was wondering, do you think we’ll ever see a case where it’s Neal who’s the straight guy, the voice of sanity, when Peter, as the one who goes a bit off the deep end?

DeKay: I think that’s a possibility. I’m not quite sure. It would have to be very – there are times where I think that’d be really interesting to see where Peter does something, maybe an act of passion where revenge or something like that, and Neal’s the one to day, “Peter, you can’t do this.”

((Crosstalk))

DeKay: I also would love to see an episode where we – we got to see Neal one time get to play Peter Burke in the FBI offices. I think…

Oh, that would…

DeKay: …it’d be – yes, we got to see that. Just for a bit he was Peter Burke at the FBI offices. I think it would be great if Peter gets to play – gets to be Neal at Neal – in Neal’s apartment. I think that would…

I was just…

DeKay: …be fun.

Yeah, I was just thinking about that, because even when Elizabeth was kidnapped, Peter somehow didn’t go over the edge. And I was just thinking, what kind of event would it take to do that?

DeKay: Right. Right. Peter – I don’t know. I don’t know. However the writers – I think Peter’s certainly lost it a couple times with Neal, but kept trying to keep it – kept trying to hold it together when Elizabeth was kidnapped. But, what would put Peter over the edge? I don’t know if he can go completely over the edge. I don’t know if he can.

Cool.

DeKay: Yeah. That’s a good – that would one for the writers in the writers room for quite some time.

Oh, yeah. That could be a long arc.

DeKay: Yes.

So, as the relationship between Peter and Elizabeth has kind of changed, but not changed, is there any thought about – you know like typically in a relationship where you – where two people are married, you talk about having kids or whatever, or just fights. I mean, and not that Elizabeth and Peter haven’t had their disagreements, but…

DeKay: Well, I think Peter and Elizabeth have a fantastic relationship, but — excuse me — I have talked to the writers about this. I think in order to truly show how fantastic a relationship they have, I think it would be great to see an episode or two where they are in not great conflict, but a fairly strong conflict for a couple episodes.

And I think it would be interesting because Peter would have to go to Neal for help on that. And I think it would be great to see – you know you see how great a relationship these people have with how they handle a conflict. That’s when you truly see how good a marriage people have is when – is how they handle a conflict.

And then the thing about the baby, well, that’s – or the issue of the baby, or whether – that’s something the writers would have to bring up. I don’t know. I think I’ll just hold off on that for now, because I don’t know, I’ve got a bunch of different thoughts on that that I – I’ll – I’ve – we’ve gone back and forth with the writers on this, so…

Oh, okay. So, it’s…

DeKay: I agree with you, at some point I think somehow it’s got to be addressed, whether – you know and there are all different possibilities with that whether they have tried in the past and can’t, or whether they want to and – that would be an issue. It certainly would be fun to see.

Or whether – what – whether…

DeKay: You know, Neal could babysit…

…she could do this knowing that Peter is not always going to be around.

DeKay: Well, the – and that’s – yeah, exactly, and that’s the thing. I mean, Peter is now a workaholic and loves his job, and I think she loves that he loves his job. But, if – it’s – if you have a kid you’re not longer a workaholic, you can become a bad dad. So, it’s tricky and would she want – would Elizabeth want to bring a child into this kind of world? Yeah, where he’s not going to be around? I don’t know. It’s great juicy stuff. I don’t know, maybe that would be like bringing that up on the seventh or eighth season, let’s say that.

Sounds awesome. Thanks again. I really appreciate your time.

DeKay: Thank you.

Photos by Charles Sykes and David Giesbrecht5/Courtesy of USA Network