Interview with Willie Garson from White Collar

Willie Garson (John from Cincinnati, Sex and the City) spoke the other day with the press about season two of White Collar. He was all too happy to talk about his character, Mozzie. Mozzie, Neal Caffrey’s most trusted friend and co-conspirator, Mozzie has deep ties to the criminal underworld and can get just about anything for Neal, from classified secrets to cutting edge technology.

Mozzie’s encyclopedic knowledge of cons and schemes, along with a wealth of shadowy connections, allow Neal to play on both sides of the law. With each case Mozzie’s expertise helps solve, he further entrenches as an invaluable ally to Neal, but also a useful source for Peter Burke and the FBI.

Don’t miss the season premiere of White Collar tonight on USA at 9/8c, and jump with me to read the great interview with Willie Garson!

What can you tell us about where Mozzie is going in Season Two, what happens with his character, moving forward?

Willie: One of the biggest challenges that the show had was – we saw the … in Season One – how much the FBI was allowed to be aware of Mozzie and what Mozzie, and the way he operates, within and about the law, is available for use by the FBI. They solved that early on that this is Peter’s party, and he can run it as he likes. What we find at the beginning of Season Two is that now Peter can actually use Mozzie in moderation, more at his discretion as to how much he can get away with using him. So, we’ll be playing a lot more with that and how much I can be involved actually with the FBI.


As a follow-up then, what, as an actor, excites you the most about playing the character like Mozzie? How does he differentiate from some of the characters you’ve played in the past?

Willie: I love that he gets to play act all the time. So, Mozzie gets to play around as being different people, different characters, which is awesome. Probably, with his— I don’t want to say “intelligence,” because that sounds egotistical, but I mean, he definitely has a lot of my cynicism. He’s very well read, which I like to do. He definitely has his strong opinions, which is probably one of the closest roles to myself that I’ve played.


One question that I had for you was, initially, how did you actually get involved with this particular show and playing this character?

Willie: Actually, it’s very bizarre. Fox Studios, which produces the show, asked me to do an episode of a show they were shooting in Bogotá, Colombia, called, Mental. I read it. I enjoyed it. I went down. I thought, “When am I going to get down to Bogotá, Colombia, ever?” So, I went down there. I shot it. I got back. They had called me and said, “You were great. We loved working with you. Would you like a … series?” I said, “Of course. I’m looking for a new series. I love to be on television.” I love doing weekly television more so than movies actually. I read the script. Then, the process started … for it. Never an easy process at all. Then, I fought for it and worked hard and tried to get it. It took about a month or two to get the part. That was it.


As a follow-up, Mozzie’s look is just fantastic on the show obviously. Do you have any input, any say into how the character is done on the show?

Willie: We definitely talk about wardrobe a lot. Stephanie’s amazing. She got what we were going for. She had her ideas; I had my ideas. We did have to fight the issue that it is me playing it. And me playing it is loaded with some baggage. So, people do expect me to be dressed. That’s a thing that just— Whatever. I have some kind of fashion, iconography – so, I can’t be just some shlumpy guy. So, while Mozzie is definitely interesting and studied and can never look homeless, we call it homeless chic. His stuff— He could have found it in a dumpster or he could have bought it—for $5000 shirt. So, we do work very carefully and closely to the other. She picks out items. I generally know what looks best on me. We do it together, but she’s wonderful. She’s … done a great job. So, I’m always amazed that another shirt, she comes up with. Then, for her, sadly, because she then has to take everything that Mozzie wears and then has to be washed about 700 hundred times to get it look like that homeless chic look that we’re going for.


Will we see more of Neal and Mozzie’s past in Season Two?

Willie: Our show doesn’t do a lot of flashback situations, but we definitely, in these scripts that we’re shooting now, are getting more information about past things in their lives and individually also: where they come from, how they got to be this way, and also, very deeply, what’s important to them, which is a great thing. So, it’s not that this show is especially about that. It is truly the glory of a show having some level of success. It just gets to go on longer. As time goes on, it’s like peeling the levels of an onion. You’re just getting more and more information as you get to know these characters for a longer amount of time. So, we got lucky. So now, we get to see more.


What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about conmen or criminals, …?

Willie: It’s interesting. I can’t say for all criminals, but for these criminals, what is interesting to me is how much they do it for the act of doing it rather than, “Oh, I love her new car,” or “Boy, I wish I had some more jewels lying around.” It doesn’t really matter. I mean, we’ve addressed that a couple of times on the show that it doesn’t matter what the crime is. It’s actually the act of doing it is what’s exciting to them. That is interesting. I guess it makes sense. I guess you could say that about captains of industry and whatever. It’s an ongoing discussion I have with my brother. If I had $10 million in the bank, good luck remaking the second $10 million because … people that – just like, “Oh, that’s what turns them on, is just doing it.” So, that’s what I’m learning about these kind of criminals.


Based on your filmography, you’re like the Forrest Gump of pop culture. You’ve appeared in everything.

Willie: Only slightly retarded. So, you mean I’m slightly retarded? No, no ….


If you could appear on any television series, past or present, what would you choose?

Willie: If I could be on any show? I would have to go with Playhouse 90 – all those shows from the 50’s with live theatre and the impact that those shows would have. Cricket was the new medium. There were three channels. Literally, every single person in the country was watching it. It was a collective consciousness about, “Oh, did you see blah, blah, blah, last night?” That would have been unbelievable. Those guys were kings. I would have loved that.


Is there any character that you’ve ever played, even if it’s just one shot or a guest spot, that you would want to revisit?

Willie: Gosh, they’re all so great. I had a lot of fun, actually on a weird show called Quantum Leap. I used to have a lot of fun on that show. I did one that was just great. X-Files wrote me a great one where I was the luckiest man alive. That was just a—You could have made a whole series about that guy. I’ve been very fortunate. I have a lot of repeat customers, characters that I’ve played. Then, I get a call a couple years later to come back anyway. So, I try to make each one interesting for me to be there. Basically, I’m just entertaining myself. So, that’s what I try to do with every role is just to have a ball being there by myself.


How do you feel Mozzie will develop as the series continues? Will he be even more involved this season?

Willie: So far, he certainly is in what we’ve shot so far. We’ll see. We get the scripts, not very long in advance of shooting them. So, I always feel like, whatever they write, there’s a reason. We’re all working for the common good. So, it’s never about, “Oh, you have more this episode. You don’t have anything this episode.” It’s never about that, but Mozzie is now able to work a little closer with the FBI. So, yes, we’ll be seeing him working more intrinsically with the cases. We also have all the stuff with Kate to deal with – how we ended last season. So, there’ll be plenty of Mozzie this year.


What do you like the most about White Collar and working with Jeff Eastin?

Willie: I have to say, one of my favorite things about the show is that it doesn’t assume that the audience is stupid. While that sounds like a big statement, it does make a difference. The show really is as smart as the audience is. That’s a great thing. I don’t like to knock other things on television, but it’s a rarer thing on television than it used to be. So, for that, I am forever grateful for Jeff, for just not assuming that the audience is stupid.


Now that Mozzie and Elizabeth know each other and seem to click, will they be spending more time together this season?

Willie: Well, we’re dating. No. Yes, there’s actually some stuff in the script that we’re doing right now where Mozzie and Elizabeth work quite closely together. So yes, there is some stuff. It’s great. I’ve been friends with Tiffani for a long time. So, this is fun that we get to do this together. So yes, absolutely.


Matt and Tim have such great chemistry. We’re wondering what it’s like working in a scene with them.

Willie: With Tim, it’s terrible. They’re hammy; they’re horrible people; no, it’s always great. I have become very close, obviously, to Matt. We do most of our stuff together. I’ve been friends with Tim for 20 years, so we have an awful lot of fun on this show. We’re very musical. A lot of singing on this show, which I’m sure people would be shocked. We’re doing a crime version of Glee, but you’re not going to see all that on screen.


That’s a shame. I would love to see that on screen.

Willie: It is a shame, for us, not for you. But it’s a shame for us.


We saw the Season Two premiere during our set visit. The scene that I loved in the season finale last year was the going away, the goodbye, between Mozzie and Neal because Mozzie seemed to understand Neal’s desire to want to get away with Kate. Now, you see, in the season premiere, this time around, how closely Mozzie is working with Peter. In your mind, does Mozzie still understand Neal’s desire to walk that line between black and white, or is he more wanting to see him keep him away from that life of crime?

Willie: I don’t think it matters. It’s more about he doesn’t want him to have to go away. So, he would love for us to continue to work together. So, whatever that takes. It doesn’t matter to Mozzie if we’re doing good or evil. All that matters to Mozzie is that we get to keep doing capers.

So, that would have to be up to the interpreter. I mean, if doing good means that we’re going to get to do more, then yes. If we can do better capers and not get caught and still continue, then that would also be great. So, it’s a double answer.


A quick follow-up to that. Jeff Eastin mentioned, last year, that he might be writing more this season about the characters Mozzie is connected to in his other life, off screen. Are we going to get to see more of that this year?

Willie: We are. We’re slowly seeing every episode, a little bit more of what Mozzie’s about, what makes him tick, how he got this way. We’re going to see where he even stays in this episode that we’re shooting right now, which is very intriguing, so yes.


Mozzie and Neal have such a different kind of relationship. They’re such different people. I was wondering, what’s the glue in their friendship? Why do you think it works so well?

Willie: There is that thing about how opposites attract. Both of the characters give each other street cred in a way. Obviously, socially, Neal gives Mozzie a lot of street …. He’s not really a people person. Mozzie has a very, very good, criminal mind. He is an amazing technician in terms of getting things done. Neal really appreciates that about him. So, it ends up being a perfect partnership. There’s definitely certain dirty work that Mozzie takes care of that Neal would not even go near. So, that’s important to his character. So, it ends up being a nearly perfect arrangement between the two of them.


Has there been a favorite episode that you’ve had so far, either favorite to view or favorite in filming, and why?

Willie: Wow, that’s hard.


They’ve all been great. Loved them.

Willie: Thank you. They all have been great. We just got an e-mail this morning from USA. They just watched another … watched Episode 5 or something from this …. They just got the cut. They wrote to us this morning, “Well, that’s five for five so far.” That’s how I feel. Each one has certain, great things to recommend.

In the first season, I would say, it was probably that first meeting with Neal and Peter and I when we were drunk in Neal’s apartment. I just thought a lot of information came out. It was, “This is who we are. We’re going to be honest with each other and say why we’re all here.” I just thought that was a great scene. So, there’s always great scenes, there’s great scenes in every episode. So, it’s hard for me to say.


I’ve heard that Diane Farr is going to be guest-starring as a romantic … for Mozzie. What was that like? Have you done it yet? Is it just for the one episode?

Willie: Well, it was only one episode so far, which is odd because her name is Diane Farr, but we’ve shot already. I don’t know if there will be more, but it was great. I’ve known her for a while. We did a pilot together many years ago. So, we are friends. It was great. We had a great time. She was fabulous in it; she is a great actress. So, it was lovely to have her.


You’ve mentioned before that you’d like to try to directing. Is that something you’ll do for White Collar?

Willie: It is something I would like to do. We’ll see. There’s nothing contract things. We don’t have it in the contract yet, but maybe in the next one, we will. We’ll see how things progress. They are aware that it is something I’m interested in. So, we’ll see how it goes.

It’s a hard thing because you decide, “Is that really something that I am dying to do as opposed to acting?” It is not. So, I have to figure it out. I have a good take on the show. I would like to explore maybe getting behind the camera for one ….



I was wondering if your son ever watched the show and what he thinks about it all.

Willie: My son watches the show every week with me. He often explains it to me, what’s going on. He loves it. A lot of his friends watch it, too, at school. Yes, it’s great. He was very upset when I was the sick dog. That was not a good episode for Nathan.


Since you’ve been in the business for so long, I’m sure you’ve met many of your different fans, but do you have a crazy story or something where you’re like, “I can’t believe this just happened”?

Willie: Things happen all the time. So, that’s a hard thing. There’s nothing ever that’s really crazy when it comes to someone who likes what we do. It’s a great … that affects what you do. I have to say, certainly, from my other show, we got a lot of— You’ll be walking down the street. You see someone coming towards you. Certainly after 9/11, you could see it coming. You see a woman coming towards you, or a guy coming, mostly women, towards you, saying, “Every Sunday night, we watch Sex and the City, and I lost my husband in the towers.” You can see it, 50 feet away. You know the look on their face that they‘re coming up and what they’re going to say to you. That was very silver in terms of— It’s nice that what we do can have meaning other than just filling the time between dinner and bedtime. So, that’s really important to me.


You were just talking about Sex and the City. I wanted to know how your experience on that show compares to working on White Collar.

Willie: Oh, it’s apples and oranges. I mean, very different, but on the other hand, it’s also similar in that the city is such a strong character and that we get to shoot in these amazing locations. New Yorkers are New Yorkers. So, that’s exciting, but 180 degree difference. Our show is not strictly a comedy whereas Sex and the City, at its heart, let’s not forget, was an absolute comedy. So, this is just a whole different ballgame, which is great. To be honest, I would have it no other way. It’s exactly how I like things to always be completely different.


You had mentioned that you and Matt had been friends for years and years. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship—?

Willie: No, no, no. Matt and I met on the pilot. I’ve been friends with Tim for many years, and with Tiffani for many years. I had never met Matt before the pilot.


Can you talk about how you met Tim and Tiffani?

Willie: I met Tiffani just around campus, like in L.A., at events and things. We have always been working around the same time because we’re both very, very old. Then, Tim: I had a show before Sex and the City called, Ask Harriet, on FOX. Tim guested for us and was just amazing. So, that’s how I met Tim.


I’m not sure if the word “operation” is the correct word in this question, but we’ll see. If Mozzie could lead an operation, what would he do? How would he go about doing that?

Willie: If he would lead a caper?


Yes, a caper. That’s a better word. Yes, a caper.

Willie: It’s a great word. Oh, who knows? What we’re finding out this season is that it would probably have to do with wine. So, there’d be wine involved. It would be more elegant than you would think Mozzie would be. So, Mozzie considers himself to be more of a dandy than maybe the audience considers him to be. So, it’s be a higher end caper, definitely.


Okay, so he’s not about at all trying to get dirty at all.

Willie: No, no, no.


Mozzie seems to be a jack-of-all-trades, like anything you’ll ask him to do, he does it and finds a way to do it. Is there anything Mozzie cannot do? Is there a weakness that he has?

Willie: We don’t really know yet. We don’t know. We will have to find out. I don’t know.


Sounds like some character exploration.

Willie: That’s up to Jeff Eastin.


How does your son feel about having such a famous dad?

Willie: Nathan really likes it. He’s into it. He plays with it. He loves to see when people are recognizing me on the street and all of that. It’s exciting. Look, if someone’s a great plumber, it’s rare that people are pointing at them on the street and talking about them. So, it is a real benefit of the job that what we do for work makes people happy. That’s a great thing. Hopefully. Hopefully what we do makes them happy.


Has any of this given him the idea to become an actor one day, a performer?

Willie: I don’t think Nathan wants to become an actor. He wants to work, right now, as an eight-year-old who would like to work in law enforcement. But, we’ll see. The hardest thing to teach a kid in this situation is not to have a sense of entitlement that, just because people like us and are so nice to us out in the world, doesn’t mean that we’re entitled to the best seats or the best back door entrances and all of that. So, a level of normalcy is very important. That’s the hardest thing to keep telling him when people are so nice to us all the time.


I wondered, finally, if, with SJP being such a close friend of yours, and it is a New York-based TV show, is there any chance of seeing her guest star on White Collar?

Willie: I would say probably when pigs fly. My friendship with SJ goes very deep, so deep that we wouldn’t even consider asking each other something like that.


Oh, we just love seeing you as a duo.

Willie: That’s how you protect those kinds of relationships is by not asking for things like that. We have talked about it many times in terms of, “Isn’t it sad that we can never” – it’s a real decision. If we ever were to appear on camera together again … would take you out of the scene. “Oh, look who it is, standing next to each other.” So, that’s something you have to think about. It’s sad because I would love to work with her every day of my life, but I just don’t know if we can get away with it.


Oh, well, you’ll forever be Stanford and Carrie to us then.

Willie: I guess, for better or worse, that might be true.


In your career, you’ve played so many different characters. You’re on one set and then another and another. Now, one thing that you … is concentrate on the characters. Could you give us three words to describe Mozzie as a character?

Willie: Complicated, trustworthy, and educated.


What gets Mozzie out of bed in the morning?

Willie: Oh, the chance for a new experience, always, and possibly a good meal. A good meal and a glass of wine … lust for life which is a great thing.


You mentioned that you’re well read. What are you currently reading, or what was your last read?

Willie: Being that I’m lying on my bed right now, and there’s a book right next to me, I’m reading a book called, “Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann. It’s great. Right before this, I read, “Water for Elephants,” which I liked very much.


You mentioned that there’s a lot of yourself in Mozzie. Is he also based on anyone else, or primarily yourself?

Willie: He’s definitely not based on anyone else. I would say I am a lame enough actor that I generally work from the outside in. My initial thoughts about Mozzie was those guys like playing chess in Tompkins Square Park. They look like they’re homeless, but they’re obviously not homeless. They’re obviously wildly intelligent because chess is a difficult game. They must live somewhere. They must have some source of income. So, that’s how I started the character. Then, I fill it in myself on the inside.


My son is a big fan of Imagination Movers. I was wondering how you went about getting to play Pants Armstrong on that show.

Willie: I’m very close to the Disney organization. My business partner’s wife is a network executive for the Disney Channel. So, I do a lot of the Disney shows. I love them. It’s really fun. I’ll give you the even cheesier answer: I like to have fans of all ages. For a character actor, certainly, that’s what gives you a long career. Basically, if you get them early, you have them for the rest of your life.

When I was growing up, the actors that we know and knew our whole lives and now know everything they’ve ever done were, of course, Dick Van Dyke and Gene Wilder. There are reasons for that. They knew what they were doing. So, I like to do things that are not just for one kind of demographic. I also am just a big kids’ guy. I love kids. So, that show was real fun. Those guys are awesome. I loved going down to New Orleans and doing it with them. I would do it again, anytime.


You talked earlier about the characters being peeled back, like an onion, over the course of the series. Would you like to see Mozzie have some more serious moments, or do you prefer the fact that he is just this light character?

Willie: Well, the thing is, I love both. In your saying that, you just have paid me a wonderful compliment because there are very serious moments in Season One. What’s great is that we get the chance to bop back and forth seamlessly. The whole point is that Mozzie does have a lust for life. He’s a fun guy.

However, he can very easily be serious when things need to be serious. So, he’s not an idiot. That is important to the scripts and how they’re structured. So, I like to be both. Luckily, I guess I am somewhat of a funny guy, so it comes easy, but comedy can be hard. Drama, for me, comes actually easier. So, I love what I felt about the show is that it can switch gears. Obviously, we don’t shoot the show in order, but we shoot the locations in order. So, we can be doing a very funny scene, completely written around a joke. Then, the next scene, we shoot five minutes later is a very serious scene. We get to shift gears all the time. That’s glorious. That’s what I love doing. So, this show gives us that opportunity.


The note you made earlier about Mozzie living in more than one place, does this tie into him being a conspiracy theorist?

Willie: Well, probably. Sure. I mean, Mozzie is a hidden guy. So, I don’t think it’s going to be any surprise that he lives in more than one place.


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