Hilarie Burton is best known for her role as Peyton Sawyer in One Tree Hill, but last season on USA’s White Collar, she made a splash as Sara Ellis.
This season, she’s returning as the insurance investigator who has unfinished business with Neal Caffrey played by Matthew Bomer.
I talked to Hilarie on a conference call where she talked about the show and her character, working in New York City and a whole lot more.
White Collar airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on USA.
What elements of Sara’s character are the least like you and are they the most fun to play?
Hilarie Burton: Oh boy. I’ll tell you what, when I first read for the part, you know when they give actresses sides to audition they rarely give you what will actually be on the show because they don’t want any spoilers put out there. So the part I originally read for was, I think it was a district attorney that wasn’t making that much money so she was jealous of Neal’s very fancy lifestyle. Then I get the job and I go in and they want to dress me in the fanciest outfits and, and have me play a very high end character. And that’s a world that is very foreign to me. And so I was fortunate enough to go in there and have a really wonderful wardrobe department educate me very, very quickly about what is in fashion; what is not in fashion, and help me create that air of bravado and self-importance through one’s physical appearance.
How do you balance—because it films in New York, are you based in New York or do you have to travel all the way and then fit that into your schedule that way when they give you the call?
Hilarie Burton: I play everything by ear. Last year there was a lot of back and forth, because my son’s father was working in New Orleans and we had been down there. This year I think we’re a little more East Coast-based and so, it’s just one week at a time. That’s how I have to look at my life at this point, so I’ve been really lucky. We try to take turns working and I think we have a really good system at this point.
With the show filming in New York, is the city itself is like a second or third character, has that impacted how you’ve taken on your role as far as how she has her mannerisms and, and where she knows she is in—within that city itself?
Hilarie Burton: Oh, sure, sure. I mean the difference between Los Angeles and New York is so staggering. And I had been in North Carolina for seven years before that. I really only spent, a year in L.A. before I started working on this show and the stature of the women in New York, it’s just very different. I lived in New York when I was going to college and so women like Sara Ellis, the character I’m playing were—they were just statues you’d look at on the street and kind of marvel at these things that could be so well put together every day of the week. And so it’s fun for me to play someone that’s trying to put up that image and also get an opportunity to play her when she isn’t fulfilling that image, you know when Neal sneaks up on her in her house, or when she starts to become a little bit more vulnerable. I like dissecting those people I used to watch on the street.
Do you think Sara is going to have a happy ending on this show whenever she leaves?
Hilarie Burton: The journey for Sara has been really fun for me. I think Jeff Eastin writes for women very, very well. I think he writes them like he writes men. He respects them and thinks that they’re clever and interesting and I think he sees the things in Sara that I like in Sara, so even if her world isn’t roses, it’s interesting. And as an actress, that’s great for me and I think for the audience that’s great. So even if she just dies in another fiery plane crash it will be interesting and good. So I’m all for whatever they decide to do with me.
The relationship between Sara and Neal is a pretty interesting one. Can you talk about what it’s like working with Matt and your thoughts on exploring a romantic relationship between the two characters
Hilarie Burton: Well, I tell you what, I’ve been very, very lucky. All the boys that I’ve had to kiss during the tenure of my career have been really wonderful and very kind. But when I went in and read for the part of Sara, Matt Bomer is in every scene of this television show and he stopped what he was doing in the middle of his work day; he had one scene off. He came upstairs to where I was with the producers to do this little audition; he had already memorized the scene he wasn’t even shooting that day, it was just my audition scene so it was never going to be used on television, and he’s so committed to my audition he made me look so good.
He was just dazzling and approachable and open right away. And I really credit him with me getting this job because the chemistry was there and that was because of the effort on his part. Once I got the job and got to work with him on a regular basis —I’ve yet to see a flaw in the man. He’s so generous and so hard working and so family oriented and really dedicated to all aspects of his world. So he’s sets a very good example for me and, and I like being around people like him.
What are your thoughts on exploring a romantic relationship between the two characters?
Hilarie Burton: Oh, it’s so fun. I think that’s always an awkward thing at work when, when you don’t know how far to play that card or how much you should give away. And I think as we’re figuring that out as actors, it gives the writers back in L.A. something to play with, you know they see what works between us and what doesn’t. There is an element of discovery with each other, so I don’t want to say that we’re going to rush into falling in love and being together in every single episode right away, but I know that the Sara character is very, very curious about him, begrudgingly perhaps. But it’s, it’s a fun day at work hanging out with Matt, so sign me up.
Was there any research that you needed to do before you actually began shooting for your role?
Hilarie Burton: Oh my god, yes. I mean, well, once I found out what her profession was I did not know what an insurance investigator did necessarily.
I looked that up and it certainly is a real thing. So I had to learn about that and then I also just wanted to take a look at, at what the New York scene was. And so I hadn’t lived in New York in a lot of years and I started looking at the time out in New York, and all the New York centered magazines and the Harper’s Bazaars and all of the publications that kind of glorify all things Manhattan. And, I really like Manhattan. It’s a wonderful place and I liked it when I lived there, and I liked coming back as an adult and having an entirely different experience than I did the first time around.
As an actor how do you prepare when you might be thinking your character is going in one direction and then, then the next episode you find out that’s not the case?
Hilarie Burton: Yes, it’s— I’ll be honest, it’s an exercise in endurance working on a show like this. And I was very fortunate that when I worked at MTV, I’d been acting for years in the theater and so I kind of had been trained in that, but I’d never been trained in live television before so you get one take and you sink or you swim. And you only have 30 seconds in the commercial break to learn all the information that you have to put out there. So on a show like this where we get new scripts the night before every single night, I think that training I received at MTV has really benefitted me. And that’s also part of the reason I love television.
When you do a movie and you read the script you’re excited about it when you first read it and you’re excited about it on the first day of set. Well, four weeks into shooting when you already know what the end is and you already know everything that’s going to happen, are you still as excited? In television, especially on this show, we get a new script every night so that excitement is consistently there. And I think that’s what makes it, makes it fun working on something for this long.
If you had to give one bit of advice to actors, what would that be?
Hilarie Burton: For actors I would say you have to go where the work is. I had a really big scholarship to go to a school in Virginia when I graduated high school and everyone thought I was crazy for not taking it and going to New York, but I knew what I really wanted out of my life wasn’t going to happen where I had that scholarship. And I probably would have had an awesome career in something else and been very happy, but acting is what I’d wanted to do since I can never remember wanting to do anything else. So you have to go where the work is, and you have to meet like-minded people and you have to create your own opportunities.
Find other people who are at your same level, but are trying to make it as well. So if you’re an actor, find a new filmmaker. You just scour the colleges, whether it’s Columbia Film School, or NY, find the photographers that need people to sit for them, find the musicians that need people in their music video. Go to, go to screenings for short films, I think having a curious disposition and also having he confidence to be an explorer will be things that will service you when you’re in a city as big as Manhattan, because the more you dig the more treasures you’ll find. And those treasures are other people that will help you get what you want.
What would you say has been the biggest changes in Sara and her development as a character since you began playing her?
Hilarie Burton: I think when the audience first meets Sara she is very black and white. She likes Peter, doesn’t like Neal. She agrees with this, she doesn’t agree with this. She’s just very frigid and angular, I think she starts to soften her edges as the course of the story goes on, and I think that’s attractive to Neal. Obviously Neal is someone who likes—I don’t want to say to manipulate situations, but certainly to color them. Neal is someone who can make things happen and so being able to affect Sara is probably something that is fun for him and I think being affected is probably something that’s fun for her.
There are very few people that can get to her and all of a sudden there is this man in her world that drives her nuts. And sometimes it’s in a good way, and sometimes it’s in a bad way, but it, it always affects her and that’s something that’s new for her. And so watching someone perhaps fidget in that nervous anxiety that you get when you’re around someone that is dynamic like Neal, that’s fun for me. I think Matt Bomer is fantastic, so it’s very easy for me to play someone that is drawn to him, and yes, I mean I think Sara is just going to start peeling layers.
After being on One Tree Hill for years, what has White Collar done for your confidence as an actress?
Hilarie Burton: Oh man. I tell you what, there, there is always that stigma of, “You’re never gonna work again.” And I was nervous about that. And I deliberately took some time off because my identity as Hilarie Burton got so wrapped up in one job. And so I had already planned on taking some time off to myself to figure out what I liked to do, and make sure that I can be in a room by myself and like the person I’m sitting there with. And so, I took some time off and when I did start auditioning again, White Collar was like my third or fourth audition and I remember being nervous
I didn’t know what to wear to the audition, and so I wore sneakers and a skirt into the building, but before I went in to go tape for it I put my high heels on and walked in the room and did the audition and it went great and everything was cool. And then when I left I went back in the lobby and was changing my shoes and the casting director came out and just kind of laughed at me. It was like, what are you doing? Oh, you didn’t think I was going to walk around in those, did you? So, I felt really good about getting a job quickly after I started auditioning.
And it’s a grown up job. It’s with people who like I said before have really figured out how to exist in this industry wholesomely. And so they do set a very good example for me as to how I can have everything I want, how I can have a great family and also a career that I’m proud of and so I feel at home on this show. I like being there.
What other types of things have you learned from Matt and Tim that you weren’t expecting?
Hilarie Burton: Oh boy, they have an energy that’s infectious. One of them is in every single scene of the day, and so one of them is representing the show at all times. And the crew’s momentum, and the rest of the cast’s momentum and mood is, is largely influenced by the leaders on set. And Matt and Tim and such positive leaders and it doesn’t matter how tired they are, Tim will work all week long, not get off work ‘til very, very late, hop on a plane and then go coach his son’s Little League games. And then fly back on Sunday and go right back to work not having slept. And I think everyone really, respects that and it sets a good tone and it makes work really fun and it makes everybody want to work hard for each other. When you see someone else working that hard, it makes you want to live up to that.