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‘White Collar’: Interview With Willie Garson

by Lynn DeVries on January 24, 2011 · 0 comments

in Interviews,White Collar

Willie Garson

Fans of White Collar know that Mozzie is played by a very talented and versatile actor, Willie Garson. And it was a thrill that I had the chance to take part in a conference call interview with him for the second time. As he was in the first interview I took part in, he was quite charming and fun. He adds his own characteristic dry sense of humor to the answers too.

Here is the conversation with Willie Garson as he talked to us about his character, his own experiences and the rest of this season. Be sure to tune in for White Collar on USA network on Tuesday evenings at 10/9c.

Q: We find out from this new episode a bit about how you and Neal meet on the show and I was wondering, are we going to learn more about Mozzie’s past as the season goes on?

Willie Garson: Yes. In the upcoming episode, we do find out how we all actually meet each other. Most exciting to me, an earlier partner of mine, we will find, is actually my real life son, Nathan, who plays the role of … in this upcoming episode. But, yes, as the season goes on, we always— What’s great about the writing on the show, so far, is that they just give out little tidbits, slowly but surely. We found out last season just in the line that Mozzie was a foster child. So slowly, things will come up as we go along, as usual.

Q: The relationship between Neal and Mozzie is, well I guess you could describe it as kind of complex. I was wondering what’s it like working with Matt and how do you see the relationship between the two characters evolving as time goes on?

W. Garson: I think it’s more for the audience to catch up to the evolution of the relationship. Our relationship is pretty solid. We’ll see in this upcoming episode how we meet and what bonds us, what brings us together. Then we can just assume as our closeness and certainly through the shooting and everything that we really, really need each other. So I think, as far as we evolve, we’ve been doing crimes together for as long as we’ve been doing them. We just now are doing them for the good guys. It’s not really that different. So I think we’re just lifelong partners, crime partners from the day we met, and we’ll see how that develops at the beginning in this upcoming episode.

Q: Fans want to know when they are going to see you do Dance Central with [Tim] DeKay and [Matt] Bomer?

W. Garson: Wow. Well, hopefully we’ll be—on the show. Hopefully, we’ll be attending some sort of convention or fair in character and Mozzie will be found out for the amazing dancer that he actually is.

Q: Which of Mozzie’s paranoia’s or conspiracies are your favorite?

W. Garson: My personal favorite of Mozzie’s would have to be the moon landing as a—that is a total fabrication. I think that’s amazing and hilarious. Of course, it comes out of reality there is someone, somewhere who believes that, that it’s completely a fabrication. Still, I love that one.

Q: What was it like getting to be shirtless this time around on White Collar?

W. Garson: Oh, come on, really? Well you mean shirtless covered in blood? It’s not like I was shirtless because I was having a hot and sexy time. No, it was fine. I can tell you this, the synthetic blood was very, very cold. So, it was annoying, actually to be shirtless and covered in cold goo for many, many hours.

Q: Matt said that he likes the shaggy [one] of your toupees. Which toupee from your flashback episode is your favorite?

W. Garson: I like the one—I don’t know how to describe it—it’s more like a bouffant. I kind of look like a Christopher Guest character with a goatee. There’s one look—I have it actually on the screen saver on my cell phone and it’s absolutely ridiculous. It looks so bad. It looks like I’m wearing a Russian cossacks hat. That’s how bad the hair piece is and I love that one. That’s my favorite one.

Q: Talking again about the toupees, how does it feel looking in the mirror and seeing yourself as you probably looked as a young man?

W. Garson: Well, it was really hard because they were supposed to be bad toupees, which really doesn’t sit well with the man who supplied them because he actually supplies wonderful hair pieces. So we wanted the absolute worse one. It’s interesting; I have one from a movie I made that actually looks like me as a young man. I don’t know if that movie was ever released. The only other one I’ve worn was in Something About Mary, which was supposed to be ridiculous, like heavy metal hair. So, me looking—with hair just looks completely foreign to me. I’ve been bald for so long that I don’t have the face anymore to support the hair. So none of the hair pieces actually look like me because I never did that. When I started balding, I never did that thing like, “I’m going to get away with a hair piece.” It’s just not my thing. They all look weird to me.

Q: How about the little goatee? Did you ever have a goatee in your life?

W. Garson: I never had a goatee. The goatee was very strange to me and I don’t understand facial hair. I understand the little scruff but that’s about it. My brother who looks very much like me has had the same mustache for 35 years now. It’s very Magnum P.I. oriented and I don’t understand it. I find them to be itchy and annoying and they trap food. I was constantly rubbing it which much to the dismay of Allen Weisinger our fantastic makeup key.

Q: What was your reaction to find out they were going to shoot Mozzie. Where you at all in fear for your job or did you know you were going to come out okay?

W. Garson: Oddly enough I was not in fear for my job. I thought it was going to be very exciting. I knew it was going to be really exciting for the fans and that’s, again, I said this before, that is who we make it for. I knew it was going to be a big deal. Luckily, Mozzie has become a very beloved popular character and I knew that was going to really freak our audience out, which is great and it really did. I mean certain things that I don’t understand like trending, Twitter and things happen so fast after the New York airing of that episode that it was very satisfying to us. It was like, “This is great that people enough about these characters.” So it was great. Anything that can throw them for a loop, obviously, if something—in certain shows you see like the lead character’s really in danger, but you know the lead character is not going away. I think there is always the possibility that a supporting character, like Mozzie, could go away to the audience and we have a lot of fun with it.

Q: You guys have uncovered one of my favorite actors that I haven’t seen in a long time in Andrew McCarthy. Do you get to see him later this season and what’s it like to work with him?

W. Garson: My character and Andrew McCarthy are … each other on the show but we don’t have scenes where we speak to each other and it was great to have him around. We’re not young men and I’ve known Andrew for many, many years and it’s been an amazing experience on this show to have the level of guest stars that we’ve had. Andrew was a great one and a real treat for us to have him and I think people are really going to be into these episodes that he’s in.

Q: As an accomplished actor as you are what excites you about playing a character like Mozzie?

W. Garson: I said this before, and it’s become more true, what’s great about me playing Mozzie, for me, is that it’s the closest to myself that I’ve ever played. His world views and his wry sense of humor are very in tuned with my own. So that’s been really just a treat to play. And the collaborative effort of the show where they let us bring a lot of ourselves to our characters makes it really fun and very personal to us when we’re playing it. So it has a little more depth for us when we’re playing it. It’s not just this other guy. It actually comes from inside our hearts and that’s what I’m finding is great to play Mozzie.

Q: If someone had not yet seen an episode of White Collar, what would you say to them to draw them in?

W. Garson: I would say that they’re really, really stupid for missing it. No, to draw them in, I’d say, “It’s fun, fun characters, real characters, solving really interesting capers that are not keen on television anymore.” We’ve all talked about this, the entire cast, it was about episode 5 or 6 of season 1 when we realized that we could be solving a caper of the missing tape dispenser and it would be interesting because they’ve written these characters so strong. I think anyone could jump in. Obviously, it’s a new caper pretty much every week. So while there is an on-going story line we don’t’ hit the audience over the head with it. Each episode has a standalone really, really great, deep caper, a la Colombo, or Mission Impossible and then you could easily catch up with the rest of the on-going story line. And I just think the writing is fantastic especially considering what else is on TV right now.

Q: You couldn’t reveal Mozzie’s state during the hiatus. Are you good at keeping secrets or was it really hard to never tell anybody what’s going on?

W. Garson: Well this one was really hard. Also, we got a little ridiculous because obviously they were thousands of pictures on the Internet of me shooting scenes after it had been shot. So it got a little silly after a while. Also, the reality is that there’s not many of us on the show so it probably was not going to happen that they were going to get rid of the character of Mozzie.

So, in general, when I’m shooting I’m kind of used to it from other jobs. Obviously, Sex and The City had very strong gag orders as to what we could say and not say. So I’m used to that. You play a little kind of cheeky game with the audience about what they know. It’s very hard now with the Internet. I mean everyone knows everything all the time. So it’s very hard to get away with. So if people were really paying attention they would have known that obviously I survived.

Q: Now we know the timeframe for how long Mozzie and Neal have known each other, it goes back eight years. Had you thought you might have gone back even farther?

W. Garson: I actually did, but then—when I—if I thought it out, logically, I just think everything’s farther because of my advanced age. I’m in my mid-70s now, so I … assume that I would have known Matt for a long time, but the reality is that Matt is a young man. So, eight years is about right. That puts Matt at about 24 or so.

Q: You guest starred on two of my favorite shows, The X-Files and Stargate. Can you talk a bit about that?

W. Garson: Those shows are great. I love science fiction because of the fans. The fans are passionate and anytime fans are passionate, it makes our job much more delightful to do, which is the situation we have with White Collar. The X-Files was an absolute delight. I was friends with David. We worked together before and then I’m actually, for real fans, I’m actually the only person who guest starred on two episodes of X-Files as different characters, which was a big deal to the fans.

Then Stargate was just pure fun. I love Richard Dean Anderson a lot and we had a great time. Then they kept bringing me back every five years to bring the character back. And I thought that was great. Those episodes end up being fan favorites, which is very satisfying to me.

Q: You’ve been a guest star on a lot of different shows. What show that’s on the air now would you really love to take part in, besides White Collar?

W. Garson: Well it’s ending now but I love Friday Night Lights, but I think that ship has sailed for me. I would love to do Modern Family. I have a lot of friends on the show. And I’d love to do so many other USA shows. My dear friends show just got picked up yesterday by USA called Necessary Roughness. I’d love to see some kind cross over with Burn Notice. We’re very close to the guys on Psych. I’m very friendly with … McCormick …. So, I’d love to do some cross over if we can find any way to do that. And I’d certainly love to go out to the Hamptons with Mark. So, who knows? I’m a big fan of television. So, I like stories. I love characters. And we’re in a good place now. There’s a lot of good shows coming up.

Q: Tim DeKay in the return did some horseback riding. We know that in the future episode Matt is going to be singing. Is there some hidden talent that you have that you would love Mozzie to reveal that he’s also an expert at?

W. Garson: I’m actually an internationally ranked badminton champion and—no, I’m not. We haven’t found Mozzie’s secret talent yet because Mozzie is so good at everything that he does. So we haven’t found it yet. I hope in the episodes that we will be shooting, but I don’t think that I do anything wildly shocking skill-wise in the upcoming episodes. I don’t really remember, but stayed tuned is all I can say.

Q: Could you describe what it’s like to almost die and then come back. What it was like filming those kinds of events?

W. Garson: It was very interesting. I have died a couple of times before on film but this one’s really interesting. I love the way—Kevin Bray was the director of the shooting and I love the way he shot that … what looked like my death was shot so beautifully. Then coming back was interesting mostly because those days my son was there on set. So it was very interesting. He kept on asking me who he’s going to live with now that I’m dead, which I … was fantastic. So, it was good fun and I love those days too because you get to be lying down a lot. So I’m all for being shot all the time.

Q: What do the fans commonly say to you when they meet you and what do they always want to know about Moz?

W. Garson: Well they always want to know if—obviously, the past few months, am I alive. That’s been pretty much the constant question. And they want to know what my favorite capers are? They always want to know back story, which we’re going to give a lot of them this week. Pretty much stuff like that. The basic questions: Is there a caper that we would like to do that we haven’t done? Things like that. It’s very interesting fans assume that the actors actually have anything to do with writing those shows, which we actually don’t. There are very highly paid, very smart people who write everything. So I always am amazed of them asking what’s going to happen next. It’s like, “Well, we don’t really know until they hand us a script.”

Q: What would you think makes Mozzie so enduring? Why do think so many people like him?

W. Garson: I think that it’s a really well drawn character and I think there’s a lot of heart by Mozzie. Also just, in general, in the world of theater and drama, Mozzie’s a vulnerable character. Those are the kinds of characters that audiences throughout time have been drawn to. There’s a vulnerability, a sweetness to that Mozzie that people find very attractive and lucky me I get to play it. So, I think those are the things that draw people to Mozzie.

Q: [What about] love interests for Mozzie. Who’s your number one pick?

W. Garson: I’m talking out of school, but I’d love to see Judy Greer step up. I think she would be great for Mozzie. In the world of absolute hotness, I would love to see Jennifer Grey as a love interest for Mozzie, but I’m still working on that one.

Q: She could teach Mozzie how to dance. After all, she did win Dancing with The Stars.

W. Garson: Absolutely. I think Mozzie and Jennifer could make a beautiful dance couple together, exactly.

Q: Your character is sort of a jack of all trades. I was just curious, when you look at the script for the things that you have to do, is there something specific that you’ve had to do to prepare for your role?

W. Garson: Not really. What I do is I look at it and then I immediately walk over to the properties department and have a conversation about how is this going to work. The problem with the things that Mozzie does is that a lot of them are very prop heavy and so it’s like, “Really? How did this work? How am I going to do this?” They just kind of show me. The thing about television is that it moves so fast that the more important thing about learning how to do something is actually learning how to release the knowledge of doing it because you’re right on to the next scene right away. So, while we have specialists who come in and, obviously, this is there specialty and they want to work really hard and you have to be a master of this. It’s like, ” Just tell me what I need to know to do the shot because I have another six to eight scene right after this and it has nothing to do with this.” So, for me it’s about I want to fake it. I want to do a really good job, make it completely believable and then move on. So, they just keep doing throwing them at us and hopefully it can fall off of me, quicker than it would be learning everything about it.

Q: Since you guys move so fast, I just wondered is there one thing that you bring specifically to your character that maybe wasn’t in script but it’s something that means something to you?

W. Garson: Without getting in too much trouble, I would say every third or fourth line comes directly from my demented head.

Q: You played a lot of different characters, obviously. What would you say or who would you say has been your favorite to play in the last ten years?

W. Garson: Wow. I’d say, Mozzie is definitely up there even in the last 25 years. A real favorite—every character, obviously, has benefits to it. You love every character you play, for something. I would say Henry on the NYPD Blue was a very, very special time for me, certainly Stanford, mostly because it was the time spent with my dear friend Sara Jessica. I love playing Lee Harvey Oswald, which I did a number of times because I love playing real people, is a real gift to actors cause there’s so much research you can do and it’s interesting just to delve into that. It’s really hard to pick them out. Generally, for actors—at least for this actor—it’s the one you’re playing at the time because that becomes a part of your life. So, right now it’s Mozzie.

Q: What would your dream role be?

W. Garson: There’s a great play called The Entertainer, which is about an old English music hall entertainer. And it’s kind of my goal role for when I’m 80. That’s what I’m shooting for to play at the end of the day is a guy who lived his life entertaining thousands, and thousands of people. And that’s the role. So, I’ll get there some day. I’m 78 now, so in just a couple of years.

NOTE: Willie is actually 47 years old. :-)

Q: You create such a great memorable characters in everything you do. And I know you said earlier that this character is the closest to you. Which do you prefer doing a character that’s close to you as a person or something that’s totally different?

W. Garson: Well, they both have benefits. The big joke—they did it on Ricky Gervais, Extras. The big joke is if you want to earn an Oscar play a holocaust victim or someone in a wheelchair or someone who’s mentally incapacitated and they’re fun. Those characters are fun to play because there’s really something to chew on.

As far as playing something close to myself that has different benefits. I get to create more of it. It becomes more collaborative. So everything has a benefit to it. I just like to make each character as different as possible from the one I played for. That’s what keeps it alive and it keeps doing this for a profession, interesting. So, I hope to be doing it for a good, long time and I hope to just keep making them as different as possible. I don’t want anyone say, “That’s so similar to blah, blah, blah.”

Michael Cain, whose one of my favorite actors, he just said in his new book, “If you’re watching me in a movie or a TV show and you say, ‘Oh my God, that Willie Garson is a great actor,’ than I’m not really doing my job really well.” I want each character to have a life of its own and that becomes the joy whether it’s something far away from me or whether it’s something close to me. Mozzie is close to me but he’s certainly not me. So that’s the joy, it’s what can I bring to it? So I like all of them.

Q: Just in general, what’s your advice to actors?

W. Garson: My advice to actors is … I actually teach an acting workshop and my general advice is bring yourself to the role. No two people are doing the same role the same way and there’s a reason for that. You have your reality, your physicality, your hairline, your life experiences, and that is what makes acting interesting. That’s what makes people interested in actors is them bringing what they bring to the role. Not to do it like someone else do it.

Q: You are such a great actor and you are so established. Do you have any interest in doing any work behind the scenes in writing, or developing shows, or plays, or anything like that?

W. Garson: Yes, I do. I actually developed shows with my—I have two partners and we developed and sell—we’ve sold a couple of reality shows and we have some scripted stuff that we’re working on. And I also am starting to explore directing, maybe in the future in the world of White Collar. So that is something that is talked about all the time and because I have a personal investment in White Collar I think it would be a good place for me to get my feet wet directing. So it’s something we’re talking about right now. As we speak it is being discussed.

Q: Can you talk about any other acting projects that you have going on right now or is White Collar your main focus?

W. Garson: I don’t have any other acting projects because we’re busy making White Collar.

I did double duty last year, shooting White Collar all day and Sex and The City 2, all night. I don’t know if I can do that again. She almost killed me. It doesn’t help me serve either project to its best.

Q: In the first conference call that I did with you a while ago, you were asked if there was a favorite episode that you had and your response was, it was in the first season when you met Neal and Peter and you were drunk in Neal’s apartment. Has that answer changed now?

W. Garson: I haven’t seen it yet, but I think the flashback episode is going to be a really special episode. So I will see it on Tuesday with everyone else. I’m very much looking forward to that episode.

Q: What are you reading now because I know you like to read?

W. Garson: I’m reading—oh, I can’t say what I’m reading. I can’t say because it’s almost illegal that I have it. I’m reading something that it’s such a piece of garbage that I am so happy to be reading it. I will tell you what I’m reading. I’m reading If I Did It by O.J. Simpson.

Q: Seriously? That’s very interesting.

W. Garson: I am. Someone got me for Christmas a boot leg copy but there are no copies available. So that’s what I’m reading.

Q: Can you tell us how you started working on White Collar?

W. Garson: I started working on White Collar by fighting really hard to get the role. FOX television studios had sent me to do an episode of the show called Mental in Bogotá, Columbia, which was made for the international market. And I came back and they said, “You’re really great on that episode. We’d love to see you on our new show that we’re developing for USA.” And then I went through about two months of absolute torture of trying to get the role. So that’s how I started to work on White Collar and I was really happy to go after it. I, fortunately, get a lot of opportunities but this was one that I really had to fight for and I was happy to do it.

Q: You said earlier that as an actor you guys don’t have really input on what goes into the story, but if it was up to you what’s something that you would like to see happen to Mozzie or for them to reveal about Mozzie?

W. Garson: I would always want Mozzie to get married and have children. But that’s not going to happen probably on this show. Other than that, I would love to see Mozzie date about a million hot, hot girls, but that also is probably not going to happen on this show. So, it’s basically what I want, really, has no purpose.

Q: Do you have any thoughts about …Mozzie’s been kind of working with the suit now for a couple of years. Is he starting to see maybe the value in doing things on the straight and narrow or doing things legally, at least?

W. Garson: I think Mozzie is more interested in turning the FBI evil. He’s planning to go on the inside and make them turn to the dark side. I think that would be more up Mozzie’s alley.

Q: Since you’ve been developing the character in the last couple of years, in this upcoming flashback episode, did you find yourself think back to what Mozzie might have been like before he is the man he is now?

W. Garson: Absolutely. Mozzie was definitely operating on a very different level before he hooked up with Neal. Again, you’re going to see something that’s personally gratifying to me. You’ll see my son Nathan in those scenes as we find out what Mozzie was actually involved in before he hooked up with Neal which is just great.

Q: We seem to see Mozzie more in the context of Neal or in the context of Peter but then in “By the Book,” it was more Mozzie centered. Will there be other episodes coming that will also be Mozzie centered?

W. Garson: Yes. Absolutely, Mozzie has turned out to be a very popular character with the audience and also with the world of the show. There’s something about Mozzie that Peter responds to as well. So, I think Peter’s going to find ways to use Mozzie more and certainly the show writers are going to find ways to center things around Mozzie and possibly where Mozzie will need some help again. I think those ideas work really well in the world of the show and we’re certainly very aware of it, so, yes.

Q: Any spoilers you can give us?

W. Garson: Yes. Mozzie’s going to have a sex change.

Q: I’ll pass that along and you’ll get a lot of response.

W. Garson: It might not be an accurate spoiler, but—no, the biggest spoiler that I want to spill is my son Nathan on this Tuesday’s episode.

NOTE: Cool! Be sure to watch for him. :-)

Q: Whose idea was it to have your son Nathan on the show and whether or not he has acting aspirations now that he’s had a taste?

W. Garson: Whose idea was it? It was Willie Garson’s idea. It actually worked out just right. There was just a little bit missing in a scene to kind of point out with level of criminal Mozzie was. And I had an idea and I wrote it down and I sent it to Jeff Eastin and he said, that’s awesome and let’s have Nathan— I wanted to have Nathan on the show. I just thought it would be great for him discipline wise and to understand what dad does.

As far as aspirations, I don’t know. It’s still a police officer because they carry guns; baseball player because they make a lot of money. Now I just pointed out to him that baseball players make a lot more money than actors. So it might tip the scale towards baseball player.

Q: Mozzie has a lot of great little piece of advice or little quips that he gives. Do you have a favorite?

W. Garson: I don’t have a favorite. Every time I have one, they write another one. So, what’s that one—he says, “I love a New Yorker who won’t take the subways … a New Yorker you can trust,” which is actually something I agree with. As a subway rider, I totally agree with that. So a lot of them I agree with.

Q: What’s something that fans would be surprised to know about you?

W. Garson: Probably that I’m more athletic than I seem. I’m a boxer. On the flip side of that or that I eat like a pig 24-hours a day. So the people will think that I’m heavy and overweight will be surprised that I’m an athlete. And the people who think I’m skinny will be surprised at the amount of food I eat.

Q: How will Mozzie’s shooting impact his character in the rest of this season?

W. Garson: We do reference it, obviously a lot. Mozzie is—it’s going to take him awhile to not be so cautious. He’s a little skittish right now about danger. So we will address that.

Learn more about Willie Garson and other White Collar cast members here.

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