Interview: White Collar’s Willie Garson Talks On-Screen Deaths and How He Creates Memorable Characters

White Collar's Willie Garson: "I want each character to have a life of its own and that becomes the joy"

Willie Garson is one of those actors who’s work elevates any show or film he’s in. He played Carrie Bradshaw’s best friend, Stanford, in the Sex and the City series, Meyer in the underrated John from Cincinnati and has a résumé of guest star roles as long as your arm.

For the past two season, he’s played Mozzie on USA’s White Collar. Mozzie is an expert in most everything. And if he’s not, you can bet he soon will be.

I talked to Willie in a conference call about his character, what its like being killed on-screen and how he creates his memorable characters.

White Collar airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on USA.

What excites you about playing a character like Mozzie?

Willie Garson:  I said this before, and  it’s become more true, what’s great about me playing Mozzie, for me, is that it’s the closest to myself that I’ve ever played.  His world views and his wry sense of humor are very in tuned with my own.  So that’s been really just a treat to play.  And the collaborative effort of the show where they let us bring a lot of ourselves to our characters makes it really fun and very personal to us when we’re playing it.  So it has a little more depth for us when we’re playing it.  It’s not just this other guy.  It actually comes from inside our hearts and that’s what I’m finding is great to play Mozzie.

So you couldn’t reveal your characters  state during the hiatus.  Are you good at keeping secrets or was it really hard to never tell anybody what’s going on?

Willie Garson: Well this one was really hard.  Also, we got a little ridiculous because obviously they were thousands of pictures on the Internet of me shooting scenes after it had been shot.  So it got a little silly after a while.  Also, the reality is that there’s not many of us on the show so it probably was not going to happen that they were going to get rid of the character of Mozzie.

So, in general, when I’m shooting I’m kind of used to it from other jobs.  Obviously, Sex and The City had very strong gag orders as to what we could say and not say.  So I’m used to that.  You play a little kind of cheeky game with the audience about what they know.  It’s very hard now with the Internet.  I mean everyone knows everything all the time.  So it’s very hard to get away with.  So if people were really paying attention they would have known that obviously I survived.

Could you describe what it’s like to almost die and then come back.  What it was like filming?

Willie Garson: It was very interesting.  I have died a couple of times before on film but this one’s really interesting.  I love the way—Kevin Bray was the director of the shooting and I love the way he shot that … what looked like my death was shot so beautifully.  Then coming back was interesting mostly because those days my son was there on set.  So it was very interesting.  He kept on asking me who he’s going to live with now that I’m dead, which I … was fantastic.  So, it was good fun and I love those days too because you get to be lying down a lot.  So I’m all for being shot all the time.

Your character is sort of a jack of all trades.  I was just curious, when you look at the script for the things that you have to do, is there something specific that you’ve had to do to prepare for your role?

Willie Garson: Not really.  What I do is I look at it and then I immediately walk over to the properties department and have a conversation about how is this going to work.  The problem with the things that Mozzie does is that a lot of them are very prop heavy and so it’s like, “Really?  How did this work?  How am I going to do this?”  They just kind of show me.  The thing about television is that it moves so fast that the more important thing about learning how to do something is actually learning how to release the knowledge of doing it because you’re right on to the next scene right away.  So, while we have specialists who come in and, obviously, this is there specialty and they want to work really hard and you have to be a master of this.  It’s like, ” Just tell me what I need to know to do the shot because I have another six to eight scene right after this and it has nothing to do with this.”  So, for me it’s about I want to fake it.  I want to do a really good job, make it completely believable and then move on.  So, they just keep doing throwing them at us and hopefully it can fall off of me, quicker than it would be learning everything about it.

Since you guys film so fast, is there one thing that you bring specifically to your character that maybe wasn’t in script that means something to you?

Willie Garson: Without getting in too much trouble, I would say every third or fourth line comes directly from my demented head.

You played a lot of different characters, obviously.  What would you say or who would you say has been your favorite to play?

Willie Garson: Wow.  Every character, obviously, has benefits to it.  You love every character you play, for something.  I would say Henry on the NYPD Blue was a very, very special time for me, certainly Stanford, mostly because it was the time spent with my dear friend Sara Jessica.  I love playing Lee Harvey Oswald, which I did a number of times because I love playing real people, is a real gift to actors cause there’s so much research you can do and it’s interesting just to delve into that.  It’s really hard to pick them out.  Generally, for actors—at least for this actor—it’s the one you’re playing at the time because that becomes a part of your life.  So, right now it’s Mozzie.

What would your dream role be?

Willie Garson: There’s a great play called The Entertainer, which is about an old English music hall entertainer.  And it’s kind of my goal role for when I’m 80.  That’s what I’m shooting for to play at the end of the day is a guy who lived his life entertaining thousands, and thousands of people.  And that’s the role.  So, I’ll get there some day.  I’m 78 now, so in just a couple of years.

You create such a great memorable characters in everything you do.  And I know you said earlier that this character is the closest to you.  Which do you prefer doing a character that’s close to you as a person or something that’s totally different?

Willie Garson: Well, they both have benefits.  The big joke—they did it on Ricky Gervais, Extras.  The big joke is if you want to earn an Oscar play a holocaust victim or someone in a wheelchair or someone who’s mentally incapacitated and they’re fun.  Those characters are fun to play because there’s really something to chew on.

As far as playing something close to myself that has different benefits.  I get to create more of it.  It becomes more collaborative.  So everything has a benefit to it.  I just like to make each character as different as possible from the one I played for.  That’s what keeps it alive and it keeps doing this for a profession, interesting.  So, I hope to be doing it for a good, long time and I hope to just keep making them as different as possible.  I don’t want anyone say, “That’s so similar to blah, blah, blah.”

Michael Cain, whose one of my favorite actors, he just said in his new book, “If you’re watching me in a movie or a TV show and you say, ‘Oh my God, that Willie Garson is a great actor,’ than I’m not really doing my job really well.”  I want each character to have a life of its own and that becomes the joy whether it’s something far away from me or whether it’s something close to me.  Mozzie is close to me but he’s certainly not me.  So that’s the joy, it’s what can I bring to it?  So I like all of them.

What’s your advice to actors?

Willie Garson: My advice to actors is … I actually teach an acting workshop and my general advice is bring yourself to the role.  No two people are doing the same role the same way and there’s a reason for that.  You have your reality, your physicality, your hairline, your life experiences, and that is what makes acting interesting.  That’s what makes people interested in actors is them bringing what they bring to the role.  Not to do it like someone else do it.

How did you get on White Collar?

Willie Garson: I started working on White Collar by fighting really hard to get the role.  FOX television studios had sent me to do an episode of the show called Mental in Bogotá, Columbia, which was made for the international market.  And I came back and they said, “You’re really great on that episode.  We’d love to see you on our new show that we’re developing for USA.”  And then I went through about two months of absolute torture of trying to get the role.  So that’s how I started to work on White Collar and I was really happy to go after it.  I, fortunately, get a lot of opportunities but this was one that I really had to fight for and I was happy to do it.

Any spoilers you can give us?

Willie Garson: Yes.  Mozzie’s going to have a sex change. It might not be an accurate spoiler.

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