Published: Friday, 04 March 2011 10:11 | Written by Karen Moul
By Karen Moul
Tiffani Thiessen's acting career spans three decades and includes starring and guest roles in more than a dozen TV shows. Now starring as Elizabeth Burke in USA's White Collar, Thiessen says she's finally found a role that mirrors her own personality.
"In the 20-some-odd years I've been [in] this business, this crazy business," says Thiessen, "I feel most like my character this time. I aspire to be Elizabeth Burke every day."
"I love that she really is a very career-driven woman, I love that she puts her relationship and her marriage first. I love the relationship that she [has] with her husband (played by Tim DeKay). There's a lot of love between the two of them, there's a lot of trust, but there's also a great friendship."
Thiessen shares a similar relationship with her own husband, actor Brady Smith, and she says it was the Burke's strong marriage that drew her to the role.
"It's one of the first scripts that I've read in a really long time, that [included] a marriage that actually works. Most of the time marriages on TV are filled with drama and affairs and distrusting each other and it's all the opposite with the Burkes, which is what I really, really enjoy about the relationship."
"You don't see a lot of strong women have strong marriage relationships on TV," she continues. "You just don't see it very often, so that was one thing that I really, really enjoyed reading [in] the script and really falling in love with Elizabeth."
The finale of White Collar's second season airs Tuesday, March 8 on USA. Very few episodes are available online, so new viewers should probably wait for the DVDs.
Thiessen recently sat down for a conference call with digital media writers. Read the transcript of that conversation below.
TIFFANI THIESSEN: I'm so sorry you guys, everybody, for me being a little late. I'm kind of here by myself with my little girl, so she was a little fussy, so I had to be a little late and I apologize profusely.
QUESTION: Oh, it's no problem at all. So, let me ask you, your character of Elizabeth, in what ways would you say you are most like and least like her?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: I think I've said this before in an interview that as one of the first characters that I've played in the 20 some odd years I've been doing this business, crazy business, that I feel most like my character this time. I aspire to be Elizabeth Burke every day.
I love that she really is a very career-driven woman, I love that she puts her relationship and her marriage first. I love the relationship that she does have with her husband where there's a lot of love between the two of them, there's a lot of trust. But there's also a great friendship between the two of them, so I definitely feel like a lot of those aspects, I definitely feel like I have in my own life.
The really only difference that I see, and a big difference, is the fact that they don't have children and I, of course, now have a little seven-and-a-half-month-old myself, so I think those are the only real big differences.
QUESTION: What keeps challenging you about playing your role?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: What's been challenging about playing the role? It's hard; it's actually one of the nicest, you know, I think I had said this in the first question that was asked to me that it's one of the closest roles to myself that I've played in my, probably in my entire career. So, I have to say it's not really been a tough role in this sense because I do feel like it's kind of close to home for me.
I think probably the hardest thing is the juggling aspect of my personal life, now having a baby and going to work and I think that's really the hardest thing right now is just the juggling of baby and work and doing all that, you know. Everything else has been really quite nice and fun and it's really one of the nicest jobs that I've had in a very, very long time.
We, I feel very blessed to have the cast and crew that I do.
QUESTION: There's some amazing guest starts coming up. Is there anyone you'd like to see come on that hasn't been on?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: Oh, we welcome all great actors to come on our show. I think any show that's been running for a few years, I think they tend to always love to have some really interesting, fun people...
...we have Billy Dee Williams coming on next week. And he was so much fun. I actually had done a movie with him years and years ago. I did a movie called Ladies Man, which was a Saturday Night Live movie. And he was in it and so it was really nice to actually see him again and work with him again. So, I can't even say anything specific, but it's nice to have legends like that, too, to come onto our show.
QUESTION: One of the things I love most about your character is you actually have a normal, healthy marriage on TV, which we never see anymore.
TIFFANI THIESSEN: That's exactly what I say all the time. I said it's one of the first scripts that I've read in a really long time, when I read the pilot, that it was actually a marriage that actually works on TV because most of the time marriages on TV are filled with drama and affairs and distrusting each other and it's all the opposite with the Burkes, which is what I really, really enjoy about the relationship.
QUESTION: What's that like to play for you on a weekly basis, you know, building that relationship with Tim and so on?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: Oh, Tim is - I'll tell you he is such an amazing man. I fell in love with him the moment I met him. I was always such a big fan of his work, watched a lot of his shows in the past and so when we had our first chemistry read we hit it off from day one.
And, funny enough, it's like he and my real husband, they have a lot of similar qualities about each other, so it actually kind of just fits and it was just a really great relationship that took off from really day one.
QUESTION: After all of your experience on various sets, so you have a chance to offer your input or say into your character?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: We have a great relationship with our writers and our producers and creators of our show and they always welcome our ideas, which is actually really nice because not every show is like that.
And there's been a few little inputs that I have - at the very beginning they had Elizabeth have a different career. At the time I think when the pilot was written she was an accountant and they ended up scratching that during the pilot and shooting and that's why in the pilot you really don't know what she does for a living because they couldn't figure it out.
And so when the show got picked up I sat down with Jeff Eastin, the creator, and we kind of went around some ideas of what possibly could be her job and her career and I've always thought that if I wasn't an actor I always wanted to be an event planner, an event coordinator. So, that's where that idea came from. I told him and he was like "I love it," so [that ] was definitely a big input of mine...I've always dreamed about doing that if I stopped the whole acting craze. I always thought that it would be such a fun kind of thing to do.
QUESTION: I really enjoyed Elizabeth's role in the "Burke's 7." And I was wondering what it was like to finally get to be part of the con?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: It was actually really fun and you actually get to see even more of that towards the end of this season. I was a little absent the first half of the second season because, of course, I was pregnant and I had my daughter at the time. But I always love to get into the mix with the guys. I mean, how much fun is it to work with Tim on his actual business/career side of things? And with Matt [Bomer], he's adorable.
And then Willie [Garson], you know, they've actually started doing more and more scenes with Willie, which has been really quite fun.
We all have really great chemistry. It's actually a very – it's a rarity. I believe that all of us really have such great chemistry and we actually really enjoy each other, which makes work so much nicer.
QUESTION: I was wondering if you had taken your baby in to see the set and how they all reacted?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: Oh, no, my child goes with me everywhere. I made a little joke actually on a [baby noise in background] – I see you, sweetie – as you can hear her.
Yes, but wherever myself goes she goes and she's pretty much attached to my hip these days and has been from day one. So, she and my mom, who helped me a lot last year when I came back after having her, they came to the set with me every day because I was nursing and I'm still nursing, so she goes with me everywhere. So, she's a definite little veteran already on set.
QUESTION: Do you think that if Peter and Elizabeth ever had children that they would have more reasons, well, not reasons, occasions to fight? Because Elizabeth said before that they never fought.
TIFFANI THIESSEN: You know, it's funny. I even look at my own marriage and really my husband and I really don't fight. We bicker, of course, we have disagreements, but that's normal in every marriage and I think that's the same with the Burkes.
I do think, though, when you add children definitely I think there's more stress put into, you know, I can speak for ourselves right now, we're so tired because when you have an infant you don't sleep, and so that definitely puts more stress in a relationship ... but I love the way Jeff has created this relationship between the two of them, that they have such great communication skills and they really are there for each other and that's what's important.
QUESTION: That would be a great addition, actually, to the show when you think about it because it would give them, it would give Peter more to worry about, having a kid.
TIFFANI THIESSEN: But I really actually enjoy them not having children. Interesting enough they remind me of a few friends of mine who have been married for a long time and have such a great relationship that their dog is their child and each other is their priority and it's kind of just their relationship and I actually really enjoy that.
QUESTION: What's the best thing about being in White Collar and what would you say to recommend the show to someone who isn't already watching it?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: Oh, wow. My favorite thing about the show is my cast, the guys and people, the actors that I get to work with every day are really what is the pure joy for me. It's one of the greatest casts that I've ever worked with, so.
And for people who aren't watching the show, it's one of the most entertaining TV shows on TV right now. It has a lot of suspense; it has a lot of comedy. It has a little bit of everything and it's a really fun show and I think there's a reason why it's gotten such good reviews and I think that's why the show is doing so well is it's got a little bit of everything, which is nice.
QUESTION: What's the best advice you could give to a struggling actor who's just starting?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: I think determination, being resilient is probably the only thing that you can really tell somebody because it really is one of the hardest businesses to make it and to crack, but the more that you can kind of push yourself and stay into it, the better chances you have.
QUESTION: One of my favorite scenes in "Forging Bonds" is when I get to meet Elizabeth and puppy Satchmo. What did you think about that episode and about the back stories of all the characters?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: You know, it was fun because at the beginning you kind of come up with your own story of how things started, the characters and the relationships that started and things like that. And sometimes they're different than what the creator had envisioned.
So, it was actually kind of fun to see what his true vision was with all the characters and how Elizabeth and Peter met and how their relationship started and how the whole relationship with Neal's character and my husband and all of that, and Willie, and all of that it was actually quite fun. It was one of my favorite episodes as well.
QUESTION: Are there any surprises in it for you?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: Any surprises; no, it's funny, I never thought a mustache would be part of the episode, but I think Tim looks great in a mustache. I don't know why we actually got rid of it.
QUESTION: Your character has emerged as a strong and very positive role model for women. Did you approach the role with this potential in mind or did it just happen organically as a result of the writing?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: Well, it was definitely written that way and that was one of the reasons why I loved the character so much and I go back to the fact that, and I've said this a few times that you don't see a lot of strong women have strong marriage relationships on TV. You just don't see it very often, so that was one thing that I really, really enjoyed reading the script about and really falling in love with Elizabeth in that sense.
So, absolutely, it was the writing for sure and then of course every actor puts their own two cents into a character to make it their own.
QUESTION: I wanted to know if you could go ahead and tell us the differences between working in L.A. versus New York.
TIFFANI THIESSEN: The weather! That is the biggest difference as it's like 75 degrees here today and it's freezing back in New York City. That is probably the biggest difference. But what's really nice, I've always wanted to be bicoastal, it's so funny; and then, so when this job came about I kind of had like a little wish come true where we get to spend six months in New York and six months in L.A. and two great cities, I think.
And now that I have a kid it's even fun to be able to have her kind of really have both cities because they are so, so different in the sense, the noise and the lights and the excitement of New York City. It's such an amazing city and the restaurants and everything that it has to offer, the arts and all that.
And then L.A., we have great weather. I mean, it's like 75 degrees year round it seems like here in Los Angeles and it's beautiful and you're outside all the time. So, she's got the best of both worlds, so it's just really nice.
QUESTION: Do you find that being an actress it's easier to work, though, in one city versus another or the attitudes are different?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: Yeah, it used to be that it was easier to find work in Los Angeles, but that's really shifting now. It's shifting a lot, where I find a lot of my friends who are actors are not even shooting in Los Angeles anymore, which is, I think, actually a very big problem.
As you know and everybody knows, our state is broke. So, hopefully, the big guys will kind of figure something out and try to get our entertainment industry here in California up and running again because it really has, it's hard for a lot of people, the economy and stuff, and so it's funny that every single one of us from the show is from Los Angeles and we technically all live in L.A. and so we actually commute and uproot ourselves to New York City every time we go back for the show.
QUESTION: I was interested in watching "Burke 7." Elizabeth plays that small role in the con. It was interesting; it came so spontaneously and so naturally to her. I'm wondering where do you think that comes from in Elizabeth?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: Well I think for her it's been that she's been around her husband's business their whole entire relationship and if you did season one, you would actually even from the very beginning, from the pilot, you saw that she was the kind of wife he would bring home his work a lot and actually bounce a lot of ideas off of her.
So, she was very, very involved with a lot of his cases and got involved and knew very much about Neal being that he was a character in both their lives for a very long time. So, I think it did come naturally because I think she's around it constantly with him. And that's kind of where I take it from.
QUESTION: Think we'll see her play a bigger role in some future cons?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: I think so. Last year, I told everybody I had a baby and so I had to miss a lot of the episodes and I was gone and back in Los Angeles having the child and then when I came back after six weeks of having her, you know, it was still kind of a big transition for me, so you'll see a lot of me towards the end of this season, because I am back after having the baby and then we actually start season three in like six weeks, so.
QUESTION: When you do a show for a long period of time how do you keep your character fresh for you?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: I think it's a dance between the writers definitely keeping the words fresh and ... constantly exploring the character as you kind of peel the layers back like an onion almost and really kind of digging more and more, which is actually kind of funny how the last episode of White Collar was very much that way of kind of going into the past of a lot of these characters and figuring out how the relationship started and stuff and I think that has a lot to do with keeping characters interesting for the audience to watch.
QUESTION: I really enjoyed seeing the friendship between Elizabeth and Neal develop over the show and have you enjoyed playing that dynamic?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: Oh, absolutely. Well, who wouldn't want to stand next to Matt and work with him?
QUESTION: Really! Is there any good stuff between them coming up soon?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: There is actually. Towards the end of this season, I think it's either the second to the last episode or the last episode – I can't remember the order number, I have a little baby brain still these days – but we actually do the whole entire episode pretty much the two of us together, which is actually quite fun and I don't want to give it away because it's actually a really great episode, but we actually work a lot together.
QUESTION: Some of the former cast of Saved by the Bell have done Dancing With The Stars. Have you been approached or is it something you'd ever consider doing?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: I've been approached quite often and it's not something I'd consider, actually. It's just, it's not in my future I see. I give a lot of credit to people who actually do it because it looks like it's a lot of work, but right now for me my life is about my show and acting and my kid now and my husband.
That's not really a part of my world at this point.
QUESTION: You have an extended resume on some of the most iconic shows of the last 20 years perhaps. Do you think maybe we'll get to see a little wink or reference to any of the shows?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: You know, honestly I'd never even thought about it. I don't know if the producers have thought about it either. That's a good question. It wouldn't be really a question for me, it would be a question probably for Jeff Eastin.
QUESTION: And who would be your dream guest star for White Collar?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: My biggest guest star, oh wow. We've had a lot of great guest stars and we have more. Like I just had mentioned that Billy Dee Williams is on the next episode and he's such an icon. It was quite fun to actually have him on the show and work with Diahann Carroll and the two of them, actually they have such a real history together where they actually went to high school together, which was actually kind of fun to learn.
I mean he's amazing and I had done a movie with him years ago, so it was really fun to actually work with him and see him again.
QUESTION: You grew up in the business. I think you've been working since you were maybe eight years old or something like that. And now you're a mom. And I'm wondering how you feel about maybe getting your daughter started or if she came to you and wanted to get started at such a young age?
TIFFANI THIESSEN: I know! I've actually gotten asked this a lot lately and it's nothing I would encourage. And the reason being, you know, 20, 30 years ago when I was in the business it was a lot different than it is nowadays. And nowadays, with the tabloids being as aggressive as they are and people making money off of the misfortunes of actors, I just would not want her to be susceptible for that kind of stuff.
I mean, when she's old enough and over 18 and can make those decisions then, of course, I would support her in whatever she wanted to do. But when she's under 18 I would definitely not advise it. It's not something I would wish for her at this point.