She may play an insurance investigator and tough cookie as Sara Ellis on USA’s White Collar, but in real life, Hilarie Burton is an actress working to find balance between her work and private life.
During a conference call last week, Burton gave a great deal of insight into her character Sara Ellis and her interactions with Neal (played by Matt Bomer).
Burton joined the cast of White Collar during the ongoing second season of the series last year. She’s playing Sara Ellis, an insurance investigator that once testified against Neal in a burglary case. Burton discussed her character at length about what she brings to the show, and what she has enjoyed about playing Sara so far.
“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 (played by Tim DeKay) as a mentor and friend or it’s Neal as an adversary, who is also really attractive. I think she has a lot to offer the FBI team as a whole and, being the new kid at work I also have fun bringing what I have to the table to help these guys out, because they are, they’re really wonderful people to work with,” Burton said.
“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.”
She spoke later in the call about the character development of Sara, and how she sees her character and Bomer’s character affecting one another.
“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,” Burton said.
“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.”
Burton is aware that some of the female fans aren’t thrilled with the idea of Sara being paired up with Neal, but she hopes to win them over throughout the course of appearing on the show.
“It wasn’t my job to come in and play somebody likeable right away. Does it still drive me nuts when people are like, aw, she’s the worst. Neal can’t be with her. Yes, because, Hilarie Burton is a people pleaser and I really want people to like me, but Sara Ellis isn’t. She could give a shit if people like her and so 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,” she explained.
“I think the core of Sara Ellis is that she is a good person and she believes in right and wrong and she has morals. I think she genuinely cares for the people she cares for and I think you’ll see that in her friendship with Peter. I think she respects him so much. And it’s hard to enter her world because she has a lot of defense mechanisms up. But once the audience does enter her world, I think she’ll be a very likable person for them.”
Even though the female fanbase may not have warmed up to her character yet, Burton does enjoy the possibilities of some kind of relationship between her and Bomer’s characters.
“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. In our first episode there was some danger going on and I think the nature of the relationship is that they’re both trying to prove themselves to one another,” she explained.
“I think they were enemies for so long, for so many years, that the idea of winning over your enemy can be very seductive. And so a lot of the angst and tenacity in the relationship—that’s what makes it interesting and that’s where it stems from, this want that Sara has to prove to him, look, I’m not an uptight bitch and the want that Neal has to prove to her, look, I’m not a bad guy, okay? So, yes, that whole effort of wanting to change someone’s mind can be a great motivator.”
Burton spoke quite highly of all her cast-mates. She talked about Matt Bomer in particular, who was on-hand for her audition. She goes as far to credit him for her being cast on the show.
“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,” she said.
“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.”
In part two, Burton discusses what she loves about her cast-mates and the examples they set for her, advice she has for those wanting to act, and whether or not she has plans to return to her old stomping grounds at One Tree Hill.
You can catch Hilarie Burton as Sara Ellis on White Collar, Tuesday nights on USA at the show’s new time 10/9 Central.