Transcription by Katrina King. Katrina built the music box.
Willie Garson has made his mark over the years featuring as a guest-star and recurring character on any notable series such as NYPD Blue, Sex and the City, The X-Files and CSI. He famously portrayed Lee Harvey Oswald in the fifth season premiere of Quantum Leap and was the fan favorite character Martin Lloyd in three episodes of Stargate SG-1. Since 2009 he has played Mozzie, friend to con artist Neal Caffrey on the hit USA series White Collar. The series returns for its third season this week and I caught up with Willie a few days ago to chat about the show and what we can look forward to this year.
WILLIE GARSON: Hey, Joseph, how are ya?
PCZ: I’m doing great, how are you, Willie?
WG: Very well, thank you.
PCZ: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me today.
WG: Oh, no worries.
PCZ: Congratulations on getting season three and coming back for another year.
WG: Yeah, it’s all amazing to me. If you’re lucky in this business, you get it one time, and I never thought that this would happen to me again, and it’s just great.
PCZ: For this new year, you’ve got Hilarie Burton joining full time as maybe Neal’s love interest, but a new kind of con artist maybe?
PCZ: How’s it feel having her a part of the regular team now, after having her being a recurring character for last year?
WG: [tone is tongue in cheek] Well, you know, the problem is, ’cause I’m so good looking, they had to even it out with the ugliness of other characters. The hideousness of Matt and Hilarie balances that gorgeous facade of mine on camera. [more seriously] It’s been great. Hilarie’s fantastic and she’s a great fit for the show. We’re dear friends and this is all a treat. [chuckles] Every step they seem to be making with the show only makes us better and makes us all happier. We haven’t had any hiccups yet.
PCZ: Looking back over the last couple seasons, and forward to season three, how surprised are you at some of the stuff that Jeff Eastin and the writers come up with for not only Mozzie, but the show in general?
WG: Well, it’s something that you don’t see on TV any more, so you don’t expect it. You don’t expect it to happen. And then the script comes and these are the scripts of my youth. From Mission Impossible and Columbo and the good episodes of, which there were great ones, of Hawaii Five-O. These are really complex psychological capers with a lot of intelligence behind them, which you just don’t see any more. I’ve said this before, and it’s true, one of the great bonuses of this show is that it doesn’t assume that the audience is stupid. Which has become a very easy way to get a show on the air, to dummy it down because “we want to hit as many people as possible, and get the widest audience possible”, but that doesn’t mean that that audience is dumb. And this show has really latched onto that, which is great.
PCZ: One of the things that I’ve always said about the show that was refreshing is that neither the criminals nor the FBI agents are stupid. They’re all extremely intelligent, so it makes for very smart scripts and a smart show.
WG: Right. And for better or worse, and I’ve certainly seen it for the worse, but for the better in this situation, the show is very collaborative. So we catch things on set that they’re always open to us catching. Y’know, like “really? How would they not have figured out that that’s the guy.” And they’re like, “oh yeah, you’re right, we should fix that.” Y’know, they’re really great about that. I’ve worked a lot in both genres and this show, I mean this in a positive way, works almost like a sitcom. In a sitcom, you’re standing on a soundstage and you’re constantly refining the jokes and the lines, to make it better all the way up until you’re done with it. Usually, hour long shows, you get a locked script and then you go and shoot that script. Our show doesn’t work like that, our show works like a sitcom. It’s like, “Well hold on, what does this mean in here? Why is he saying that? Can I fix this? Let me make this better.” And we all work on it together with them, which is just a delight, it’s common good but no one is trying to get more lines or whatever. It’s just to make a better show.
PCZ: Well, it definitely shows on the screen and makes for a very sharp show. All the episodes seem to really shine. It’s very much appreciated as a viewer!
WG: Ah, well that’s great! That’s the goal.
PCZ: And speaking of collaboration, I understand we get a Mozzie origin story this year, and it’s partially inspired by your real life, is that true?
WG: It is! It’s a really great episode, which is a cliche thrown around too much, but this is actually a really special episode, there is no B story, there’s just one hour about Mozzie being a foster child who is never adopted, and in his foster home, and it’s great. You see baby Mozzie, five year old Mozzie, twelve year old Mozzie, and it’s really great. It was conversations I had with Jeff Eastin about adopting my son. We finalized almost a year and a half ago. Jeff was quite moved by that and wrote this really special episode; it’s just great. And we’re actually filming a public service announcement next week, our whole cast, about foster care and adoption, featuring my adopted son. It’ll be very fun.
PCZ: Oh that’s really great, that’s fantastic!
WG: Yeah, it’s gonna be great.
PCZ: So when we first met Mozzie, he was sort of this kind of shadowy guy that showed up every once in a while to provide information and has gradually become part of the family. How does that sit with Mozzie? Does he finally maybe kind of accept that he’s part of this family now?
WG: Well, I mean, it’s really the glory of our writers that they have ever so slowly, and carefully, much more than I would have noticed that they were doing it, let Mozzie start to trust these people and be comfortable being with them. As you know, Mozzie is not really a people person. So it would have rang really false if, right away, it was like, “Oh hey, Peter, what’s up?” So they really do it very, very carefully. And as I notice how they do it, you understand why good writers are good writers! They slowly let Mozzie open up to these people, but it’s never too fast and it’s never too abrupt. It’s very organic. As the actor, it’s lovely to watch. I really feel fortunate with these writers.
PCZ: I also wonder if part of the appeal for Mozzie is he gets to continue doing what he always does, but it’s almost legally sanctioned now.
WG: I guess it was the second season, there was that drunken episode, where Mozzie and Peter and Neal get drunk together in Neal’s apartment and Mozzie has that monologue about how it really doesn’t matter who we’re doing it for, as long as we get to keep doing it. We’re lifelong criminals, but it’s not about stuff. It’s not about getting money and stuff. It’s about getting to do it. So if we’re doing it for the good guys, so be it. As much as that might be distasteful to us, at least we still get to do it. So that is definitely a bonus, I think for Neal and Mozzie.
PCZ: You mentioned before in a conference call that Mozzie might have the ulterior plan of bringing the FBI into his world, is he still trying to maybe corrupt Peter a little bit?
WG: Well, I think that happens naturally, because what’s been great is to watch Peter’s slow, growing respect for Mozzie, which is just great to watch, and it’s great to watch Tim play it. Because he plays it so wonderfully. But, somewhere deep down, he really is starting to appreciate Mozzie. Mozzie stands for absolutely everything that Peter doesn’t stand for, and yet he finds himself respecting him and learning to use him to help them out.
WG: Absolutely, I love what they’re doing with Mozzie and Elizabeth’s relationship. They share recipes and they have like this whole private life outside of Peter. Probably a somewhat deeper relationship than she has with Peter, she has with this weird guy. With someone who she would never come in contact with in real life, it’s fantastic! [laughing]
PCZ: Exactly! It would be nice if we got an episode sometime that was just Mozzie and Elizabeth – what they do when Neal and Peter are out solving crime…
WG: I believe in this episode that we’re shooting right now, that we go out to dinner. Elizabeth and Mozzie. Which is pretty awesome.
PCZ: Toward the end of season two, we pretty much wrapped up the overarching mystery of the music box, and what happened to Kate. Does the very little twist at the end of season two kind of propel the mystery for season three, or is there something new we can look forward to?
WG: Well, there’s always new stuff, but yes, y’know that’s what cliffhangers are for! [laughter] So, yes, we’ll definitely be exploring what happened at the very end of season two, when you see the fire and then you see Neal standing in that warehouse room, surrounded by all the riches of the world. So yes, we’ll definitely be exploring that, a lot!
PCZ: Excellent! The only last question I had for you, is there an opportunity any time soon where you’ll be playing Lee Harvey Oswald again? You played him three times!
WG: Well, y’know, I played him three times when I was a little closer to his age? I’m a little long in the tooth to be playing him. Y’know people forget because I looked a little older when I was young as well, but I think he was only, I think he was only 23 or 24. Everyone thought he was an older man because he had the receding hair and he looked so old. I played him three times, and I have to say none of them particularly well, but it was certainly fun, and it’s always fun to play a real person. It’s a bit of a cheat, for an actor, because basically all your work is done for you, but it was certainly good fun while it lasted. I don’t know who would be the real character that I would play next, but I think Oswald as a nearing 50 year old man would be interesting, somewhat.
PCZ: That would definitely be a different take!
WG: Yeah, exactly!
PCZ: Well, definitely looking forward to season three. Thank you very much for taking time out of your day to talk to me today!
WG: Oh, no worries. And thank you, for helping us spread the word, it means a whole lot to us, so thank you for what you do!
White Collar season three airs Tuesdays at 9:00 PM on USA