Interview with Hilarie Burton of 'White Collar'
Interview with Hilarie Burton of 'White Collar'
Staff Writer, BuddyTV
For many years, Hilarie Burton entertained television viewers as spunky cheerleader-turned-record label producer Peyton Sawyer on One Tree Hill. Now she's back making waves on the small screen as insurance company investigator Sara Ellis, a recurring character on USA Network's White Collar. Though it's not certain how long she'll remain on the mystery drama series, Burton, who returned Tuesday's episode "Burke's Seven," has plenty to say about what her character brings to the table and her chemistry with Neal (Matt Bomer), as well as her plans for the future. Check out Burton's Q-and-A from a recent conference call, which included BuddyTV's Carey Proctor.

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What can you reveal about your character's story line that would get viewers excited to see you come back?

Hilarie: I think in the first couple episodes the fan base, particularly the female fan base that loves Neal is a little put off by Sara. And it wasn't my job to come in and play somebody likeable right away. I think over the course of my arc on the show, it's my job to present this person that is very much her own woman and then give the audience the explanations as to why she is the way she is. So, hopefully over the course of my time on the show all those people that are like Neal can't love her, it's impossible; maybe just a couple of them will like me. 

Considering how Sara was introduced last season, is it safe to assume that she is capable of being considerably more ruthless than Neil or Peter?

Hilarie: Well, I think what Sara has going for her is that she's not confined by the boundaries of working for the government. She gets to be a little bit more creative in her research methods or her repo methods as opposed to the boys who have to answer to Johnny Law.  So, yeah, I think she has more freedom and I think she can use that gray area to help these guys that she's clearly drawn to, whether it's Peter as a mentor and friend or it's Neal as an adversary, who is also really attractive.

What would you say has been the biggest changes in Sara and her development as a character since you began playing her?

Hilarie: 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. 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.

Can you tell us two truthful things, and then one lie about your role as Sara in the upcoming episodes?

Hilarie: Sara might be attracted to Peter. There is one. Sara is hiding a mystery of her own, and Sara likes making out with Neal.

Will Sara come in on the assist for Neal and Peter in their pursuit of Vincent Asler?

Hilarie: Sara's line of work allows a little more gray area; perhaps she's allowed to use tools that aren't necessarily sanctioned. I think she's allowed to be a little bit more creative in her attack, or her investigative skills. And I think she really likes these guys and probably doesn't have much of a life outside of her work, and so the excitement of being around people like this could be very intoxicating for her -- so I'm going to say it's a possibility.

Do you think Sara comes up with ways to try and get involved with the White Collar team?

Hilarie: I think as she spends more time with them, it becomes an enjoyable process for her. I think there will always be that question mark of what's she really in this for. The same way there's that question mark about Neal. I think they both have that in common; their motives are always going to be a little questionable.

What do you think your character brings to the table that's so different than the other female characters on the show?

Hilarie: I think what my character brings that's a little different is that I don't have any tie to the FBI. Marsha's character, Diana, works for the Bureau, Tiffani has to kind of mind her p's and q's because she's an agent's wife. I can do whatever I want. The difference between Gloria's character and I is that she's a criminal and I'm not. I can kind of walk both lines. I can walk into the FBI office; I can also walk into a seedy underworld, so there's a duality in Sara that I think opens a lot of doors for the characters.

Where would you say the trust has gone between Sara and Neal?

Hilarie: I think that there is an appreciation between the two characters because we've saved each other's life a couple of times in a way. I think the nature of the relationship is that they're both trying to prove themselves to one another. I think they were enemies for so long, for so many years, that the idea of winning over your enemy can be very seductive.

Do you think Sara is going to have a happy ending on this show whenever she leaves?

Hilarie: The journey for Sara has been really fun for me. I think Jeff Eastin writes for women very, very well. I think he sees the things in Sara that I like in Sara, so even if her world isn't roses, it's interesting. 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.

If there's one thing you'd like to happen for Sara, what would it be?

Hilarie: Right now, all you see of Sara is how she exists in Neal and Peter's world.  And I don't think she's a woman without a past. Clearly someone with that many walls up has had some stuff go down. So, down the road once, what Sara has found her fit within the group I think exploring more of who she was before and what exists outside of the White Collar circle could be an interesting, interesting place to go.

What's it like working with Matt Bomer?

Hilarie: He was 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 I like being around people like him.  

What are your thoughts on exploring a romantic relationship between Matt and Sara?

Hilarie: Oh, it's so fun. I think that's always an awkward thing at work 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 a fun day at work hanging out with Matt, so sign me up.

What can you say about the other girls on the show? And who do you think is your biggest competitor?

Hilarie: I think what's been really wonderful for me is that during  my arc on the show, Jeff Eastin, the creator has allowed me an opportunity to interact with all of the other characters.  And I have had so much fun in my scenes with the other women, even my competition for Neal's affection, Gloria, who plays Alex, the girl that's from the dark side of Neal's life is one of the funniest, kindest, most beautiful women. And so I don't take it personally if Neal is going to pick her over Sara. In fact, that's a question mark. Neal's always a question mark.

How is your character Sara Ellis different than your One Tree Hill character, Peyton?

Hilarie: Oh my god, she's so different. I think I'm much more self-conscious playing Sara because she's so far removed from Hilarie Burton. I could go to the creator of One Tree Hill and tell him stories from my high school experience and he would integrate those into the story line and so I always felt very connected to that character. This character has a history that is so different from mine and a frigidness that is so far -- I mean -- I'm a little bit Vaudeville and, and Sara Ellis is very high-end Broadway. And so having to class it up is very fun for me, and I think it's helping me become an adult.

Is there any chance for you to return on One Tree Hill?

Hilarie: I have such a fondness for that period in my life, and I love all the people there. Unfortunately it gets to a point where your personal life doesn't necessarily allow a whole lot of room anymore for just jumping on a plane and going wherever.  So while that's a place that I love and it's an experience in my life that I really love, I don't think that it's going to work out, and I still communicate with everybody back there.  And I love them as a whole, but no I don't think it's going to work out. I'm sorry.

What are your plans for the future? Is there anything big happening in the next six months to a year?

Hilarie: I am going through a growing phase in my life. I went through one when I first went down to North Carolina. I went through one a couple of years before my run on One Tree Hill ended, and I'm going through one now where I'm starting to look at what do I want out of the next five years of my life? I think I'm really, really happy with my personal life, that everything there is sewn up and I'm very happy in that.

So now, you know I've got a job that works perfect with my personal life. It's in a place that I love, and it's with people that I really, really like. And so I'm going to ride this train as long as I can. My business partners at Southern Gothic and I still are talking. Definitely the climate in the film industry has changed and so we have to grow with that, but there is a new television network that's approached us about producing some stuff for them.  And so it's definitely a ball that's still rolling. I just have to decide what direction I want it to roll in.

What's your dream project?

Hilarie: I grew up doing musical theater. And so I think there is a part of me that one day would like to step back into those outrageous shoes and dance and sing and be the obnoxious little theater kid that I was when I was 5.

(Image courtesy of USA Network)