White Collar – Willie Garson Set Visit Interview
In case you haven’t heard of USA‘s new show White Collar (well, you’re about to hear a lot about it here), let me give you the quick rundown.
To solve the hardest crimes, hire the smartest criminal! USA NETWORK’s new series, White Collar, premieres Friday, October 23 at 10pm/9c. WHITE COLLAR, stars Matt Bomer (“Chuck,” “Tru Calling”), Tim DeKay (“Tell Me You Love Me,” “Carnivàle”), Tiffani Thiessen (“What About Brian,” “Fastlane”) and Willie Garson (“Sex and the City,” “John from Cincinnati”). WHITE COLLAR is about the most unlikely of partnerships between a con artist and an FBI agent. The story unfolds after charming criminal mastermind Neal Caffrey (Bomer) is caught by his nemesis, G-Man extraordinaire Peter Burke (DeKay). Rather than returning to jail for this daring getaway, Neal suggests an alternate plan – providing his expertise to assist the Feds in putting away infamous and elusive criminals in return for his freedom.
I recently had a chance to visit the set (sort of) and get some face time with the stars. The first of these I’m going to put up is the group chat I got to take part in with Willie Garson. You probably know him from Sex & The City. He plays Mozzie, Neal’s friend who works behind the scenes. He has (apparently) deep connections to the underworld, and whatever Neal may need, Mozzie is the guy who always seems able to get it, somehow.
I have to start out by saying that Willie is just a fantastic guy. Clever and funny, he had us entertained the whole time he was in room. He threw out witty stories, and just had a way about him.
The questions are only listed as “panel,” so there you go.
Also, stay tuned here for several more interviews between now and the shows launch, and be sure to check back tomorrow for an incredible White Collar prize pack giveaway that will include some really great items. And, of course, don’t miss the show on Friday, October 23rd.
So, Willie walks in and sits down and the head of the table -
Willie: So I bet you’re wondering why I called you all here.
Panel: Because you’re fabulous.
Willie: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Panel: So what’s up with him describing Mozzie as lacking charm and charisma, which I think he has oodles of.
Willie: Oh, that’s very nice of you. Yeah, he’s lacking television charm and charisma. That’s different.
Panel: Moreover, what’s up with him naming him Mozzie? Where does that come from?
Willie: I have no idea. I don’t even know if that’s his first name or his last name. That hasn’t really been established yet. We’re just kind of going with the gods of Jeff Eastin and what’s coming out of his brain. What’s pouring out of his brain right now.
Panel: What did you think of the character when you first initially read about it on paper? Did you think you’d like this kind of person?
Willie: Yeah, I did because it’s very different from anything else I’ve ever played. Although—how do I make this not sound the way it’s going to sound? I guess because it’s me, he’s somehow becoming more stylish. All of a sudden, he’s looking—wearing pretty cool clothes. And I don’t know how that happens to me, but I am blessed with always wearing cool clothes.
But I was really drawn to kind of an under-the-radar kind of guy rather than an out-there kind of guy. And it also gives a lot of opportunities to play with, you know, me pretending to be other people and working scams behind the scenes rather than in front of the scenes. So that’s pretty cool. And I just thought—I’m also a big fan of all those shows that I grew up on, and this is—it’s Huggy Bear, it’s Angel from Rockford Files. It’s that subversive guy in the background, the brains behind the brain. And that’s very—that was interesting to me.
Panel: Gotcha. And what, aside from the totally style in clothes, do you feel like you brought to the role from your own personality?
Willie: Well, I definitely have a wry, not-trusting view of the world and of, you know, corporate America and governmental agencies. So I have that in me, so this is right into a lot of things I believe in. So, you know—
Panel: Oh. So you [get married then]. [laughter]
Willie: I also just didn’t—no, I also—look, I’m from New Jersey. I come from working people. And I was really taken by, this is such a good show for this time, as we’ve certainly seen a lot of really hard-working people lose their livelihood, and we all are interested in who are these people who are finding out ways to steal money and stuff without going out and working for a living? You know, I’m fascinated by people who will just come up with more and more ways to screw people out of money, instead of just getting a job.
Panel: Well, isn’t that what Neal is?
Willie: Well, that’s what he was. He is no longer. He came to the good side. I mean, it’s just very interesting. I’m amazed at how obviously the obvious, the big elephant is Madoff, but just that this goes on all the time. I’ve worked as a dishwasher for $3 an hour, and it wouldn’t occur to me, like, “Oh, well, what if I came up with a dishwashing scam and I can make $50 an hour and do nothing.” I just don’t understand that this is—not to get too heady about it, but that this is where our planet is at that we’re all here to screw each other?
And so I like that this show takes a viewpoint that’s like, well, you can try, but there are people out there with their eyes on you to make sure that, you know, do the right thing. So that’s a real underlying thing of the show. And it’s like we have a scene in an upcoming episode where we get drunk and we’re talking about, “Why do you do this,” Peter says,” Is it because of all this stuff?” And I’m like, “It has nothing to do with the stuff. It’s so we feel alive.”
I mean, I could steal from you or you, or I could steal and give it back to the good guys, you know. It doesn’t matter. It’s about feeling alive and having something going on. That’s what drives Mozzie and that’s what drives Neal. And it’s like it doesn’t matter. I don’t need another car, another painting. It’s about doing it. So if we can do it for the good guys, you know, good for us.
Panel: Are you going to be lurking in shadows for the rest of the season, or are you going to be out and about, interacting with [inaudible]?
Willie: I will be lurking. Well, you know, it’s funny. We know as much as you know as the scripts come in, but I am more out in the field, so to speak. But, you know, there’s a lot of question of how much is the FBI aware of me. So it’s coming that eventually Peter’s going to have to eventually know who I am, and then can we use him, and what’s the legality of–how much can the FBI actually use me to do anything. And so that’s actually developing right now on this last episode, so.
Panel: We’ve asked Tim and Matt about their back-stories, and so how did Mozzie hook up with Neal? Like, how did they get together? I mean, do you go into that in future episodes, or is that something that you just sat down with the writers and talked about?
Willie: No idea.
Willie: No idea. I mean, we’re getting clues because we talk—you know, now we’re starting—things come up. It’s like, “Oh, remember that scam in Morocco.” You know, so it’s been—we do know that it’s been a long time. And I like to think of it—because I’m so rakish and wonderful, I like to think of it as like a Butch Cassidy and Sundance thing, that we’ve been together forever. And it never really comes out how—what was the first scam? How did we hook up?
Panel: I kind of like how they’re together just because Mozzie is not exactly subtle or smooth, really, in what he does. I mean, that scene with the cigarette cracked me up [indiscernible] filter off of it. I mean, I don’t think he could have been more obvious [indiscernible] if he just handed him a scroll and said [indiscernible].
Willie: Exactly. I mean there’s a scene coming up where we go and we try and—we basically steal a car. Borrow. And we act as police agents who are going to impound the car. And of course Mozzie takes it way too far, and the guy goes, “Hey, hey, just take it, you know. This is out of my pay scale.” And I write him a fake ticket, and I go—just as a parting shot, I just added, “And just say no to drugs.” Like, Mozzie just always takes it to the wrong extra level. He’s such an idiot. But that’s why he’s kind of been in the background I think most of the time.
Panel: Well, yeah, he also wasn’t in jail for the past four years, so he’s got to be doing something right.
Panel: Do you ever wonder how people get like that? Like, I watched this pilot and thought those ear-to-the-street conspiracy theory people—you must have thought about it because your character’s like, “How do people get like that?”
Willie: Well, I see that. I mean, I do everything usually starting with ‘look’, so when we first were talking about it, I would come and go to—like, you know those guys playing chess in Tompkins Square Park? You know, it’s like they live, they’re fed, they live somewhere, they’re clothed, they’re clean. They must do something for a living. It’s just that’s Mozzie. Mozzie is one of those guys, those guys you see, especially in a city like New York, and you see them and you wonder—or you read in the paper, “Oh, rents are horrible,” whatever. These guys are living here, so they’re getting paid somewhere. And so that’s—I just kind of look at them and then go from there.
Panel: So how was it as an actor to delve into a role like this, especially now that you’ve been in such a recognizable role? Does it change your process at all to make sure that you’re like, “There is no Stanford in this character.”
Willie: Well, it’s interesting. I truly do try to make everything exactly different. As different as possible. I went straight from Stanford, I went straight back to David Milch to play a nerdy, Jewish lawyer, you know, badly dressed, you know, living in San Diego. I mean, it couldn’t have been more opposite. And then this was like, obviously it’s—there’s an issue with me on the street in New York back in New York, and it’s—but I—everyone is totally different. They’re all always different.
A big question that always comes up is always, “Dude, are you careful about typecasting,” or whatever. But typecasting for actors is kind of like what you do to yourself. I mean, I can tell you, my desk for many years had, every flamboyant, high-fashion character on the planet was sitting on my desk, and I could have made a fortune. But what’s the point? God bless Kelsey Grammer, but I didn’t want to play—you don’t want to play Frasier Crane for 25 years or however long he played him. It’s a choice. It’s a choice to make, and fine.
I just—it’s kind of why I like to make TV. I’m one of the few actors who enjoys doing TV more than I like making movies. I like that it’s a new script every week. I like that it’s totally different. And for as long as that goes, great. But how long is it really going to go? I mean, I don’t work in the world of a soap opera where I’m going to be on a show for 35 years, playing Dr. Wilbur Heffington for 35 years.
Panel: Who’s died 14 times.
Willie: I would kill myself. It just has no fascination for me. But yeah, I do long periods that I can. I mean, NYPD was three or four years. Sex is much longer than any of us thought that it was going to be. I mean, it’s unbelievable. I mean, we shot a scene yesterday with all of us in it on Sex and the City, and it was like—we go to say—at the end of the scene, everyone’s like, “So, should someone make a speech that this is the last time we’re all together, again?” I mean, it just seems so weird to us. We shot that pilot in 1997. I actually had some hair. That’s how long ago it was.
So I would love to sit here with the new—there’s so many scams and so many places to shoot and so many weird, different rules that can be broken that we can sit here easily for seven years. I don’t have a problem with that. But when we get into the 15th season, I’ll be ready for a new show.
It was a wonderful—this is a sidebar. It’s my favorite sketch ever on SCTV, which was the great comedy sketch show from Canada, there’s an amazing sketch and it’s about a television show. The sketch is called “That Darn Rusty,” and it’s about a television show called That Darn Rusty that’s in its 27th season, and Martin Short is playing a seven-year-old boy, and it’s the 27th season. And it’s behind the scenes of That Darn Rusty. And he comes in, and he’s all bald and fat and gold chains and a cigar, and he reads, “We did this in Season 18.” So that’s something I never want to feel.
Panel: Regarding that Sex and the City scene, would it be a wedding scene?
Willie: Honestly, are you drunk? Do you have any idea the legal documents we have to sign? I mean, you know. We’re talking about millions of dollars from me opening my mouth in the wrong way.
Panel: I’ll keep your secret.
Willie: It’s my post-op transsexual scene. They all come to the hospital room, and they all wish me well. I go under the name—I change my name from Stanford to Lil Santa Monica.
Panel: Next question.
Willie: You’re all speechless.
Panel: What’s the dynamic like between you guys? Because Tiffani seems to be your biggest fan and said for us to give you a hard time—
Willie: How dare she.
Panel: And then Tim and Matt seemed to get along really well. So I don’t know how often all four of you guys or the whole cast is really with each other, but what’s the dynamic like?
Willie: Well, the dynamic’s really good. I’ve known Tiffani for a long time, and I’ve known Tim for a long time. I’ve never acted with Tiffani. And that’s going to be weird if that ever happens. I don’t know how those two characters are going to come together. But now we’re doing scenes where I am with Peter. Tim was on a show—the show I had before Sex was called—a very long-lived Fox show called Ask Harriet. And Tim guested, so I’ve known him for a long time.
And Matt, I had never met before. But we all—you guys know because you write about television a lot. The quality is not there that much right now. So we were all brought in together to do something good. And it was like, “Wow.” So that bonded us more than anything right away. It was like, “Oh, wow, what a blessing. Really? A script showed up that was good?” It was actually shocking.
And to be—look, I had a really long, beautiful run for two pilots and two gone-to-series at HBO. I was there for 13, 14 years, I was at HBO. And they’re a fabulous place to be, but I’m thrilled to be at USA now. USA’s a very exciting place, and people are watching, and that’s a really exciting energy to be around. You can read the paper every day about the death of television, the death of network television. And the broadcast networks, they backed themselves into a corner, and USA was like, “We’re going to make a brand, and we’re going to make a good brand. What about that?” You know.
There’s certain networks, even in our own NBC Universal family, that can have a glorious show, very elegant, and it’s next to cat shaving, you know, This Week on Cat Shaving.
Willie: I own it. Don’t steal it. My pitch. But USA has—they’re really careful. They’re really smart. And it’s like, for lack of a better word, they’re not screwing around. It’s like, “This is our brand.” And it’s not just like, “Oh, this works.” I mean, the Food Network works. They’re showing you how to cook. But this works because it’s good. And so that’s an exciting energy to be around. I love these guys.
Panel: On that note, we were talking earlier about how it seems that USA shows kind of thematically fit together. That it does seem like they’re all under one brand. And I was talking some of the other writers about how when we were watching the White Collar pilot, it thematically struck us similar to Burn Notice, which obviously is another huge USA hit.
Willie: And not for nothing, from Fox Studios. So Fox Studios took a long time to develop this with USA, like, what would be a great—it was almost like, “What’s our next one? Where do we go from here? Do we spin off a character from Burn Notice and make Burn Notice 2? Or do we do something—or do we go smarter than that and make something along the same brand, but it’s different?” And so that’s what they’ve done. And I think that’s great.
They don’t—they’re not having misfires, yes. And who knows, maybe we will be the one, and it tanked the network. It’s Superchain for USA. I’m an old person. That’s an old television reference. That’s a very old television reference.
Panel: How much latitude have you had with ad-libs and things like that for your character?
Willie: That’s a sticky question. I’m kind of a master at it. What’s the best way to say this? I’m very good at it. And not that that can always be a good thing. Not everyone is. And because—maybe because I realize I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I plan on doing it for another 40, I don’t—it’s never about getting more real estate in the script or anything. It’s always, look, I’m playing the guy, I’ve thought about this, this is the next thing he should say. Or, he shouldn’t say anything at all. Or, does he even need to be in this scene? It doesn’t make sense.
So I do talk a lot with Jeff. And also, you never know when you’re in the scene what’s going to change and what’s going to happen. My battle cry is always Dustin Hoffman working on the street, the cab pulls up and almost hits him, and he hits it and says, “Hey, I’m walking here.” Now, that is a classic of American cinema. Had nothing to do with any script. It was never in any script. It was never set out to be that way. It happened.
So if things happen, especially when you’re shooting on the street in New York, Mozzie will comment or move to it. And that’s the same thing as when you walk in to do a scene and you start rehearsing it. If it’s just—I’m not going to fit a square peg into a round hole. I’m going to make it work. So that’s—I do ad lib, and they’re pretty good about if it works for the scene.
Listen, I’ve worked with crazy actors who have ad libbed for the sake of ad libbing. You know, where you say, “What time are we going to the bank,” and the guy ad libbing turns and says, “I like roast beef.” It’s like, really? Does that really do anything to propel the scene at all?
So, you know, I choose my battles, and my battles are usually—they’re chosen for a reason. It’s not to be a jerk or anything.
Panel: Do you have any specific examples of you slapping hoods of taxicabs in New York? I mean, what is a good example?
Willie: Yeah. I mean, not so far so much on this show. I mean, we had a very funny—we had a late-added scene that was just a run-and-gun, just on the street. We didn’t make any plans for it. The pages came in very late, and it was just we shot it, just put the camera up on a crane, and we’re working on the street. And it is a beautiful shot. It’s me and Matt walking, and it’s a sea of New Yorkers. We didn’t own the street. We didn’t block it off. They were not [indiscernible].
Panel: What street was this?
Willie: It was on Park. I want to say Park, in the 40s. And we’re walking. I mean, it looks like Tootsie, it’s that cool. It’s that shot. And we’re walking. Now, there are issues with me shooting on the street in New York. I mean, it’s like being on the Yankees. So it was fine. We were getting away with it. We were getting away with it. But literally it was getting every person that passed us was then turning around. So we’re doing the scene, and I’m dressed like this. I mean, who am I? I’m dressed like this, so I’m not dressed as me, and Matt and I are talking. And then he walks away, and I’m looking away at him, thinking—which is something, yeah, you see people do that every day, like, just watching someone walk away. And the guy who just walked past us literally walks up—we’re rolling, obviously, and he walks up, and he says, “You’re the guy from Sex and the City.” And I was like, “Not right now I’m not.” You know, so things like that.
I mean, on Sex and the City it was all the time. People in the middle of scenes asking you for a quarter. I mean, it was like crazy things would happen.
Panel: You have more experience shooting in New York than anyone else on the cast, really.
Panel: And has it been—have you noticed that it’s a harder transition for them? Because they all seem to love it so much that [indiscernible].
Willie: It’s great. Listen, there’s no—there’s never any hating it. There’s nothing that beats the energy of shooting a scene on the street in New York. Nothing better. I hate being in the studio because personally, I live in California, if I’m going to shoot in a studio, why am I not shooting in Burbank, five miles from my house so I can see my son every night?
But I would shoot on the street in New York every day. And it never gets old. The only times when it gets annoying, like on Sex and the City it would get annoying, it was more the paparazzi. And it was like, okay, people who are fans and just want to watch, they’re great. “Listen, would you people just stand over here? Great.” Paparazzi are like, listen—we used to yell at them. They would rent apartment windows from people so they could get up there and take—and now, what if the shot is us lovingly caressing the building and coming down? It’s like we would scream at them, like, “You’re driving us to Brooklyn.” Because if we can’t shoot, we can’t shoot. It costs money.
And so that’s the only problem, but we don’t have that problem here. I mean, no one’s chasing us around with cameras yet, so.
(That’s my bald head there)
Panel: Would you be interested in co-writing an episode?
Willie: I don’t know. It’s so hard. I see what they go through. It’s so hard. Actors, I find that actors are good dialogue editors. But to come up with a blank piece of paper? If you told me the line, I could tell you the next line, but I could never come up with that first line in a scene, ever. I just don’t know.
I think down the road, second, third season, I’d love to try to direct an episode. I think I’m almost ready for that. And literally is after 30 years. I’m almost to the point where I think I could maybe direct an episode. Maybe. But it’s not—the writing, God bless them. God bless writers.
And I’ve been really blessed from Milch and Michael Patrick King and now Jeff. I just—I’ve gotten to work—David Kelley. I’ve gotten to work with really good writers. Thank god. Because I’ll tell you, as an actor you go after, you know—how do I say this? You go after Gilligan’s Island as hard as you go after ER when you’re trying to get a job. So it’s just the luck of the draw that you happen to get the good one. So hopefully—
Panel: About that, for somebody who lives in L.A., you shoot a lot in New York. And I think a lot of people consider you to be a New York actor just because they’re so used to seeing you and the [indiscernible] thing behind you.
Willie: I carry it [indiscernible].
Panel: Do you seek out parts that film in New York?
Willie: No, no, no.
Panel: Or do they just kind of find you? It just happens that way?
Willie: It just happens. I mean, NYPD doesn’t shoot in New York, but people thought it did. The public thought it did. I don’t know. I guess I feel that I am like a—I’m a safe, user-friendly New Yorker. I’m not threatening or intimidating, but I seem like I could from here. And I am from here, so that helps I guess a little bit. Maybe it’s my horror at living in Los Angeles that comes across in meetings.
Speaker: Any more questions, guys? Can we wrap it up and do the group photo?
Panel: Well, it [indiscernible] this show, but you were in John from Cincinnati, and I think it perplexed a lot of people. Do you have any insight personally or from Milch?
Willie: No one more perplexed than us. Yeah, I mean, he was going somewhere. We just don’t know where. And as David will always say, and what he says about anything he does, is, “You give me 100 episodes, I’m going to tell you a hell of a story.” Sadly, ten was where we drew the line there. But it was very perplexing, and we didn’t—we never knew what was going on. I didn’t even know. I shot the pilot, and I didn’t even know that John was an alien. I had no idea what was going on.
Panel: So now you [indiscernible] CW, so.
Willie: That’s right. [It is on the] CW. Is he on One Tree Hill?
Panel: He is.
Willie: My favorite show. I only watch USA shows.
Panel: Doesn’t everyone?
Willie: Apparently, if you read the papers, yeah.
Panel: You should ask your TiVo question.
Panel: Oh, yeah. So this is a question that I’ve been asking everyone else. Obviously, our readers are really into television and movies, so what’s on your DVR, or what do you watch?
Willie: Wow. Everyone says the same thing. I watch Mad Men. I really like Rescue Me when they’re not trying to be too cute. I really like Rescue Me. Even when they’re trying to be cute, there’s one scene every episode that’s like, “Holy crap.” It’s really like wrench your heart out. I do watch Entourage. I feel guilty. And I watch a lot of really crappy reality TV.
Panel: Such as? [crosstalk]
Willie: I’m a food guy. I’m a partner in two restaurants, so anything—Top Chef obviously is fabulous. But anything. Anything. The best, and it seems to come and go at will, but the American Kitchen Nightmares is so fantastic.
Panel: It’s very randomly scheduled.
Willie: Yeah, it’s very randomly scheduled. But also it’s been coming out that all of his restaurants have been closed, like, within a week after. As a former owner of failed restaurants, I could see how that could happen.
And my latest obsession is Real Housewives of Atlanta. It’s so bizarre.
Panel: I reviewed that for our site
Willie: Oh, it’s fantastic.
Panel: It’s a train wreck.
Willie: And Real Housewives of New Jersey is great because I’m from exactly there.
Willie: I grew up in Highland Park. It’s next to New Brunswick.
Panel: Oh, yeah. Sure, I know. [inaudible].
Willie: What other reality? Oh, oh, my favorite show. Little People, Big World. That’s the best show on television. I can’t believe I didn’t say that first. That’s the best show on television. And my friend lives in Oregon, and to torture me, sends me pictures of him leaning on Roloff Farm’s sign. Yeah, I’m obsessed. And what else? I watch Burn Notice. Oh, and Randy Jackson’s America’s Dance Crew. What? I’m fly like that. I’m getting my crew together. We’re working up some stuff. Hopping.
Panel: JC will be tough on you guys.
Willie: Oh, yeah, he’s very tough. He’s so—it’s like he doesn’t belong on the show or something. Like he’s doing a different show. He’s doing a very serious show. And the others are like, “I like when you fly like that.” And he’s like, “I was thinking on the third beat of the second stanza—” I mean, it’s really bizarre. It’s like he doesn’t belong on the show. I love the show. I’m obsessed.
Panel: He likes the slo-mos, too.
Willie: Oh, yeah. We call it a slow jam in the industry. In the industry.
Speaker: All right, guys. Oh, I’m sorry, go ahead.
Willie: No, anything else?
Speaker: We’re going to do a quick group photo like last time.
Panel: You just missed it.
Willie: Well, it’s like blogger’s summer camp.
Willie: Do I sit or stand? I stand. Okay. Wow. This is so bloggy.
(I’m not as tall as I look… which makes no sense, but is true nevertheless)