The USA Network drama series WHITE COLLAR constantly asks the question of: whether an FBI agent and a con man can ever truly be friends? Time and time again, Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) and Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) have proven that they can. But the issue of trust between them remains the last wrinkle in their relationship. Will they ever be able to get past the fact that they hide secrets from each other? Given the shifting sands of alliances and the simple desire to protect each other, there will always be secrets. Yet despite that thread of distrust, Peter and Neal remain strong friends through it all. That remarkable friendship has been the secret ingredient of WHITE COLLAR from the first episode. In a recent press conference call, star Tim DeKay talked about this week’s new episode “Empire City” and the challenges of directing his illustrious co-stars and the joys inherent in bringing a directorial vision to the show
Did you find it difficult to direct yourself on screen during this episode?
TIM: No, it’s not too difficult to be honest with you. Because the writer, Channing Powell, who wrote the episode, she was there the whole time. Also I looked to my DP a few times. On our set that I can talk to Channing on whether or not the moment works, I can talk to Matt [Bomer], or Willie [Garson] or Tiffani [Thiessen], whomever, and say, “Does that work? What do you guys think?” The other thing is 90% of the time I’ll know whether or not the moment is right for me as far as acting. So it wasn’t too difficult.
What hat were some of the biggest challenges you faced while directing this episode?
TIM: I think the biggest challenge for any of these episodes is the clock. The writers always write a wonderful big episode, and you always want to be able to have a lot of coverage and 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 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.
What would happen if you found that you ran out of time? What would happen?
TIM: 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 a certain scene from another angle? Do we have time to set up a camera angle from another position?” 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. 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 extremely helpful. But whole 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 when 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 . . . ” It’s just one of those calls.
Do you have a favorite moment from shooting the episodes for this season?
TIM: No. But I will tell you one of my favorite moments for the episode that I directed. It takes place in the Cotton Club and Diahann Carroll sang two songs. So I got to direct her to sing a couple songs.
Can you share anything that you’ve just enjoyed about some of the upcoming episodes?
TIM: 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 on the day we shot it, and I had musicians there just in case. We started rolling for her to sing the song and she had the earpiece on and she started singing, and 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 the whole cast and crew got a mini concert. It was great. She looks and sounds amazing for a woman who’s been on the stage as often as she has.
Bill Bellamy also gave a really nice performance. What was it like working with him?
TIM: It was wonderful. I’ve known Bill for quite some time, and his name came up and I thought it was a great role for him. I thought that he and Marsha Thomason-Sykes had a wonderful chemistry there on screen. It was also fun to see Marsha in that kind of outfit with that wig, so it was great. I didn’t know they were going to do the wig, but as 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.
How was it to work with your co-stars on the other side of the camera?
TIM: Oh, it’s great. I was able to do it last year with the baseball episode at Yankee Stadium. It’s great to 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 we’re all in this together. 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.
Was that why Peter got into the car accident?
TIM: That was part of it, yes. “Let’s put Peter in a hospital so Tim can go out and scout certain locations.” But I also like these kind of episodes where everybody is involved. I think it’s rather enjoyable to watch an episode, like last week’s and this week’s coming up in “Empire City,” where every character has at least one clever moment where they cleverly either diverting the bad guy or figuring out something that helps move the case along. It’s great fun when everybody on the show has a clever moment.
How long are we going to see Elizabeth tagging along with them?
TIM: 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.
Would you say that because of what’s happened that it’s now about Peter as well?
TIM: Oh, completely. I think, at least for me in playing Peter, the accident 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. Because it hits something that Peter is such a believer in the Bureau and what it stands for, and to have somebody in a political position have that happen and be able to do that, it unnerves Peter. To tarnish the Bureau like that just infuriates him, and personally too, he’s always liked Reese Hughes. So now it’s personal.
New York always plays a big part of this show, but it played an even bigger part in “Empire City.” Were you involved with that?
TIM: Oh, I’m so glad you caught that. Yes, 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. It’s funny, each episode that I’ve directed, 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 I try to get that in the cuts and the rhythm of the transitions and seeing people on the streets. I’m glad you saw that.
Last season you made your directorial debut filming in Yankee Stadium, and this time you’re in the Cotton Club. Where would you like to shoot it the next time around?
TIM: I’m aiming for the White House, so we’ll see if that happens. (Laughs) No, I’m kidding. I don’t know. We’ll see. Some other iconic place in New York, maybe Madison Square Garden. There you go, that’s my aim for next season.
What do you think is key in making this season of WHITE COLLAR so particularly good?
TIM: 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. There is certain cleverness to this show that I think is refreshing to see. And it’s — what did Bonnie Hammer call it – “intelligent escapism” perhaps; something like that.
How would you define your directing style?
TIM: 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 and 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. 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 we key into. Also, there are moments that we watch 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 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. So I think, “I want to put those in there.” But at the time I don’t think consciously, “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.
Why do you think that Peter and Elizabeth do not have the normal fights married couples usually have?
TIM: I think Peter and Elizabeth have a fantastic relationship, but 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. I think it would be interesting because Peter would have to go to Neal for help on that. I think it would be great to 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 how they handle a conflict.
Where would you like Peter go in the next episodes and into the next season?
TIM: Well, into the next season, I would love to continue to have Peter do more and more undercover work. I love getting out there and having Peter go undercover. It’s fun. 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. 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. I also liked it when Neal and Peter are just simply working the case of the week and they are constantly pursuing it in a clever, clever way, and a clever and intelligent way. I think 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. For the tension to be right between the two of them, I’ve always contested that Peter can go undercover and in a way still be the straight guy, especially when it comes to Neal and Peter in that relationship. So 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 and they buy for me, I’ve got to say it’s nice to go into work and not put on a tie as Peter Burke.
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?
TIM: That’s a good question. What has caught me by surprise with Peter? I’d have to say that I’m always 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 that line of being a friend to Neal, and yet having to answer to his job as an FBI agent.
This season has been very much about Neal’s backstory, how likely to see more of Peter’s backstory?
TIM: 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 how we would delve into Peter’s backstory would only be so that we could keep the story moving forward.
Neal, as Peter keeps point out, has kept things from him the entire time, but Peter seems very focused on this is the first time that Neal has lied to his face. What does Peter mean by that?
TIM: If you go back, Neal and Peter have never lied to each other to their faces. Now, one might argue that there’s been many lies of omission. 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 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, 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 those reveals are not given to each other because they think it’s benefiting the other person by not telling them. It seems like, as 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. I think the trust issue will always be there. It just never is 100%. It can’t 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. Inherently 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. We wouldn’t want that. We don’t want to trust Neal completely. That’s half the fun.
What’s next with James Bennett’s relationship to Neal?
TIM: Clever. I’m not going to give you any spoilers, but it is intrinsic to the rest of the season. 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.
Where’s the next episode going to take us?
TIM: You’ll have to watch two Tuesdays from now. As far as the mythology is concerned, by the end of the season we’re going to end up where that last image of “Empire City” shows us.
To see this momentous episode “Empire City” directed by Tim DeKay, be sure to tune in for an all new episode of WHITE COLLAR on Tuesday, February 5th at 10:00 p.m. on USA Network.
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