Date: October 22, 2009
In White Collar, Matt Bomer quickly makes the transition from bearded and clad in orange prison garb to clean shaven and wearing vintage suits designed by the legendary Sy Devore.
The quick change occurs because the show, which debuts tonight on the USA Network, has to hastily establish its premise: Bomer plays Neal Caffrey, a master con artist who gets nabbed twice by the same FBI agent (Tim DeKay).
After sending Caffrey back to jail, agent Peter Stokes strikes a deal with him. Caffrey can have his freedom in exchange for helping the FBI solve crimes. On paper, it’s a little like Numb3rs with a con in place of the mathematician.
And if the show finds an audience like Numb3rs has, it could finally make Spring native Bomer a star.
The young actor has a lot to work with on the show. Caffrey has enough mystery to make him compelling over the span of a season, and he and the masterful DeKay (Carnivale, Tell Me You Love Me) have an edgy but often humorous chemistry.
“We had a quick and easy camaraderie,” Bomer says, “which isn’t surprising because he’s such a great actor. And there are great complexities to their relationship. There are obvious differences but also things they respect and admire about each other. It’s not a story about the bumbling agent and the genius con.
“Their skill sets complement each other well. And they like each other at the end of the day. The guy who took Neal’s freedom away is the only guy he ends up trusting.”
For Bomer, the role follows some close calls. After some daytime soap work he was a regular on Tru Calling and had a prominent role in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning in 2006. TV casting types seemed to take notice, as he won the lead in the short-lived Traveler, followed by an arc of several episodes in Chuck.
Bomer, 32, says he fell into acting in the sixth grade, “Miss Crowe’s class called theater arts,” he says. “It was really a form of escapism for me.”
He maintained what he calls “a normal high school existence” at Spring High, serving on the student council and playing football.
His senior year he landed a role at the Alley Theatre in A Streetcar Named Desire and dropped out of football, even though his father, John, played at Memphis State and was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. Bomer would go to school, drive the half hour to the Alley, do his homework during intermission and then drive back.
“It was difficult, but I loved it,” he says. “My parents keep asking when I’m going to do another play at the Alley.”
He became good friends with two other actors in his school, Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies) and Lynn Collins (True Blood, X-Men Origins: Wolverine).
“We’ve always had each other to lean on,” Bomer says. “They’re some of my most treasured relationships because they’ve known me since I was a kid. I can’t get away with anything around them. We keep each other down to earth.”
It’d be a surprise if Bomer has much time to talk to anyone these days. He’s on the set of White Collar five days a week, with another day often spent doing press.
“I’m the kind of guy who could spend all day on four lines,” Bomer says, “but some days we’ll do eight or nine pages. I’ve learned to come prepared.”
Unlike Numb3rs’ sibling partnership, the relationship between Caffrey and Stokes is riddled with tension and anxiety because Bomer’s character is A) a crook and B) something of a mystery.
Bomer enjoys playing up the latter. He talks about how he envisions Caffrey as a romantic but one with childlike tendencies. He also hints at a poor background that makes it “important for him to affect privilege. He’s a bit of a peacock.
“But I don’t want the audience to know everything in his head. It’s a risk, but you don’t see a lot of leading characters in shows that you can’t trust.”
When: 9 p.m. Fridays
Where: USA Network