‘White Collar’: Well tailored for all involved

Source: USA Today
Date: October 21, 2009

NEW YORK — Actors Tim DeKay and Matt Bomer emerge, gingerly, out of a sidewalk grate, from a ratty basement on a cobblestone-lined street here. They’re playing a G-man and his reluctant con-man helper in USA’s new series White Collar. But they’re not getting too dirty.
The crimes their characters solve are purely of the upper-crust variety: a stolen prayer book, missing jewels, counterfeiting schemes. “What’s the biggest violence? We chase someone through Central Park and tackle them,” DeKay says.

But DeKay’s Peter Burke needs help. And Bomer’s Neal Caffrey, recaptured after escaping from jail, has a motivating factor: the search for his lost girlfriend.

“It’s really the thrust of the character for the first season,” Bomer says, and “the reason he’s so complicit with FBI. He knows by aiding them he can get closer to her and pursue her on the side. It factors into everything he does.”

The back story, minus the FBI part, echoes the real-life hurt of creator Jeff Eastin, whose wife vanished one day after 11 years of marriage: “She literally disappeared from my life; it was tough to try to make sense of that.” She got back in touch only last month, three years later; Eastin promises closure in the story line as well this season.

He designed Caffrey as “somebody who’s good at what he does but sort of has this Achilles’ heel, which is sort of how I felt. What’s the one thread that if you pull it, it’s going to bring the whole thing crashing down? I wanted to give him more of an edge than this standard charming con man.”

And Eastin was careful not to make the two heroes antagonists, but begrudgingly respectful pals, who never quite manage to trust each other.

“It’s not about a bumbling FBI agent and a hyper-intelligent con man,” says Bomer, 32, who starred in ABC’s short-lived Traveler and was the catalyst for the unfortunate events that befell the title character in NBC’s Chuck.

“We both are hopefully the smartest guys in the room, and we carry very different skill sets and complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

The relationship varies: “It’s father-son sometimes, it’s sibling, sometimes we’re like an old married couple together,” says DeKay, 46, who has appeared in HBO’s Carnivale and Tell Me You Love Meand was Jerry’s opposite in the “Bizarro Jerry” episode of Seinfeld.

“Antagonistic would be too strong,” DeKay says, “but the tension is always there because the underlying theme here is trust: At any time, he can run, and we’re both aware of that.”

The irony is, “the person who ultimately took away what I did for a living is the person I trust more than anyone else,” Bomer says.

But at its heart the show isn’t all that emotionally complex, befitting the USA template.

“The idea is having a fun show, an escapist show. The Shield is one of my favorite shows,” Eastin says of FX’s drama about brutal, corrupt cops, “but this is the anti-Shield. As dark and heavy as The Shield was, we’re doing the opposite. They’re two guys you want to hang out with.”

In the episode filmed last week, Caffrey is suspected in a jewelry heist he’s helping to investigate. He leans against a tree outside a store in the fashionable Meatpacking District, staring at his photo on the front page of a fake tabloid newspaper, as taxis rumble by.

“This is criminally fun,” Bomer says during a break. “Neal really has this sort of quixotic mercurial streak. For an actor, that gives you such a sense of permission. He’s always testing his boundaries with Peter. He’s sort of like a 3-year-old that way.”

He’s helped by Willie Garson (Sex and the City), who plays a side sleuth unencumbered by legal technicalities, while Burke turns to his wife (Tiffani Thiessen) for advice.

And in half of the first season’s episodes, Diahann Carroll plays a wealthy matron who provides refuge (and luxe living quarters) for Caffrey, and eventually turns to him for help when she’s seduced by another slick charmer. “He has a hustler mentality,” Carroll says of Caffrey. “He reminds her of her past, and she takes him under her wing, remembering she has a beautiful granddaughter who lives with her.”

But she’s onto Caffrey’s charming, conniving ways: “Whenever he’s playing his game, she smells it coming and enjoys it.”