USA Network Photo: David Giesbrecht
Some fans will never be able to get beyond Tiffani Thiessen’s past. As a teen, she was America’s Saturday morning sweetheart Kelly Kapowski on Saved by the Bell. In her twenties, she switched up her image by playing bad girl Valerie Malone on Beverly Hills, 90210.
A string of unsuccessful shows that followed including Fastlane (with former 90210 co-star Jennie Garth’s husband Peter Facinelli), Good Morning Miami, and What About Brian. But nothing stuck until 2009 when she was cast as FBI agent Peter Burke’s wife, Elizabeth Burke on White Collar.
More than just the token wife, the smart and sassy Elizabeth seems to be getting a little more involved in her hubby’s affairs. And her friendships with con men Neal Caffrey and Mozzie deliver some of the funniest and touching moments of the series.
In real life, she’s a new mother, finding the balance between mom and actress. In a recent interview we spoke with Tiffani about her character, Swedish fish, and singing on the set of White Collar.
White Collar airs on USA Network on Tuesdays at 9:00 PM.
Q: Heading into the season what were some of the things that you were looking forward to, that you were excited about for Elizabeth?
TIFFANI: It’s a very different season for me than it was last year. I just gave birth… almost five weeks ago, so I actually have been away. What we did was because I couldn’t travel or fly because I was really, really pregnant when the season started, we actually ended up shooting, which I’m sure you might have seen on the premiere episode this season, my one scene, a lot of those episodes in the first six episodes I shot here in Los Angeles on a studio with a green screen behind me. The two scenes I did with Tim and then the rest of them I did where I was pretending to be in San Francisco, that’s where you’ll start to see my character on an event, because I couldn’t be right in New York City to shoot with the rest of the cast.
I’m a bit away, I’m not in the first six episodes that much, but it was really interesting to see how they can maneuver me in the sense of making me look like I’m not as pregnant and shooting me from the waist up and not really showing. I actually haven’t seen the cast and I actually leave next week to go back to New York and finish off the season with them, so I’m excited.
Q: What do you like most about Elizabeth?
TIFFANI: I think probably the biggest thing that I was drawn to her character, even from the beginning when I read the script and even more so now that we’ve gotten to know her a lot more on the show, is that she plays a woman that I strive to be every day. She really is a woman who takes her marriage, it’s very important to her and her relationship with her husband and her home life, but as well really balances her career. And I strive to do that every single day of my life, and now that I add the title “Mother” to it it’s even more so.
She’s very diplomatic, which I really like. She’s very reasonable. She seems to be a person that has a sense of knowing where to go down the middle when she’s helping the relationship between Peter and Neal, and I like that about her a lot. She’s almost like a little therapist or something. She always takes the middle road of really trying to get the boys to see both sides and I like that about her a lot. She’s very diplomatic. I like that she’s passionate. She’s extremely passionate about everything that she does, and her marriage, her career, and her relationships…. I don’t know, I really admire her a lot.
Q: What would you like to see happen with your character as the season progresses? Maybe some extra back story?
TIFFANI: I think definitely being that I haven’t been able to get into that back story this first part of the season because I’ve been away, I definitely would love to explore that a lot more. I would love to explore a little bit more of the history between Peter and Elizabeth and how they met. And possibly maybe a little bit more, I think what they’re wanting to do, which I’m excited about, is really starting to see me interact more with Matt’s character as well as Willie’s character. You saw that toward the end of last season, where I was working a lot with Willie, which I think the audience really likes. So I think they’re going to continue probably doing that this season when I get back to work.
Q: What has been your favorite scene or episode and why?
TIFFANI: Wow, that’s hard because I have quite a few that I really like. But I will say towards the end of the season the episodes, like the last three episodes where I did get to work with Willie and I got to work with Matt a lot more and just all the conflict that was happening and the suspense that was happening with the Fowler character, that was actually probably the most fun. There was so much going on because I was pregnant at that time and I don’t think anybody knew at that time, or maybe my cast just found out and the producers and stuff. But it was a lot of fun because I was working with Willie finally, which I had never gotten to work with in the beginning of the season, and I’ve known Willie for a while. So it was really fun to finally actually get to work on screen with him. I definitely would say those are probably my favorite episodes for sure.
Q: Neal Caffrey is such a charming, handsome man, but Elizabeth Burke is a married woman. Do you think it’s possible for men and women to be friends without there being a sexual connection?
TIFFANI: I do believe so, being that I’m married myself. I think it’s quite easy, actually. I think if your marriage is strong and you have a good trust basis between the two, which is a lot of what we try to portray the relationship between Elizabeth and Peter to be, then I absolutely think you can. They’ve been married for ten years and they have such a good rapport with each other and it’s a marriage on TV that I really quite enjoy to watch, because you don’t see a lot of TV couples like that.
I think it definitely shows a lot that she can be friends with someone like Neal. He’s definitely a very charming, beautiful man, which is always fun to look at. But I always have this funny, cute saying that I always tell reporters that I say you definitely want to date Neal, but you want to bring Peter home to your family. You want to marry someone like Peter. Do you know what I mean?
Q: It seems sometimes like Elizabeth trusts or believes in Neal even more than Peter does. Why do you think that is?
TIFFANI: I think it’s the case of when someone’s out of the tight loop when a situation’s happening they can actually see it a little clearer. I think that’s the case with Elizabeth. I think, like I had mentioned before, I think she’s a very diplomatic, very honest woman who can see both sides.
Last year I think you saw a lot of scenes where she was definitely trying to get her husband to see Neal’s side, and I think you’ll start to hopefully see a little more where I’m going to be doing the same thing for Neal, where I’m going to get him to really see my husband’s side on a lot of things. I think she’s that kind of woman. I do think there’s a side of her that’s almost like a little therapist, that she’s the voice of reason, where she sees everything a little clearer because she’s not quite in the loop that tight.
Q: What do you think Elizabeth really thinks of Mozzie and Neal?
TIFFANI: Oh, wow. I think she thinks a lot of things. I think there’s a part of Elizabeth that really feels a sense of, I don’t want to say the word sorry... but I think there’s a sense of her that feels that there’s a part of him that really wants a little bit of what Peter and Elizabeth have. I think he has such a hard time trying to gather that, or even process that, that I think there’s a part of her that feels bad for him because in her mind everybody deserves that, everybody deserves to have a great relationship in their life.
And then Willie I think is just pure entertainment. I think she finds him quite enjoyable to hang out with. I think they love the banter between the two. I think they love to test each other. I think it’s another form of the relationship between Neal and Peter and I think you can see that a little bit with Elizabeth and Mozzie, which is kind of fun.
Q: What do you think about the relationship between Peter and Mozzie? Are you going to be interacting with them as the season progresses?
TIFFANI: I’m hoping. Yes, I love that. I think Willie really is a great addition to the show. He really brings a whole other side to the show, and I love working with him. I know the guys love working with him. Matt and Tim love working with him. So I would love to continue working with him, and I think that’s what their plan is. I haven’t been able to be in the first part of the season just because I was pregnant and I was just gave birth almost five weeks ago. So I’m actually leaving next week to go back to New York to finish off the season with them. I’m really excited to see everybody and get back into work again. It will be interesting to juggle the whole motherhood and work, but I’m ready for it for sure.
Q: How do you think Elizabeth feels about Peter working with Neal and Mozzie? They’re not your normal FBI fare.
TIFFANI: Yes, I know. I think probably in the ten or so years that they’ve been together that she’s probably seen so many types of things that her husband has had to go through that I think she takes everything with a grain of salt. I think that’s actually really the smartest thing she can do.
Q: What do you think of Elizabeth’s career? Were you involved in deciding what she was going to do as a career?
TIFFANI: I was completely. It was my idea, absolutely. I brought that idea to the writers and our executive producer, Jeff Eastin. In the original pilot she was actually put as an accountant and… USA didn’t care for it, so they took that out and didn’t mention what she did for a living in the pilot. If you go back you don’t even know what she does. So once it got picked up we really tried to explore what exactly would be the best fit for her and for the show, and they went into different arenas like being an actual probably a psychotherapist or all different types of things. I came up with the event coordinator… [for] many reasons. One was I always wanted to do that and personally if I never acted again that was what I wanted to do for a living.
But secondly, I thought it fit really well with the city in the sense and also just the stylish aspect of our show and also to use her at times, to bring her in, which they have used her before, with events and things like that. Because… Neal goes in and does a whole fake thing half the time. He’s going in there playing and portraying someone else with these big parties and these beautiful events and things like that, and so she’s very aware of that kind of social high life thing in New York City, so I thought it would fit really well and so far it fits great.
Q: Was there any conversation when you found out you were pregnant about keeping the pregnancy in the script and giving Peter and Elizabeth a baby?
TIFFANI: Yes, we did talk about it loosely. But it was really a decision that we all agreed upon, and I was actually happy with it too… They’ve been married for ten years, and I think they’re just one of those couples that don’t have kids, that they are very much involved in their careers and each other and they like the way things are. And I don’t think they need to add kids to make their marriage any more successful than it already is.
The other thing about it is that it’s a show that, I guess it’s so much about the characters, but we never really envisioned Peter and Elizabeth to have children. I don’t envision seeing scenes with Peter and a child and all that, even though it’s so funny that in real life he has kids and now I have a child. But it’s their characters. They’re so young at heart and I don’t know, I find them to be a cool, sexy couple. They remind me of my aunt and uncle who never had kids and they travel freely and they get to do what they want, and that’s how I see them.
Q: Even though Peter and Elizabeth don’t have children, Matt’s character is kind of like their child.
TIFFANI: I think we definitely both feel like he’s partially our child, yes. And at times I think we feel Willie is as well.
Q: Peter makes a great dad.
TIFFANI: Yes, he actually does, even in real life. He’s got two of the greatest kids.
Q: What’s a typical day on the set like for you?
TIFFANI: Last year was just I would come in to work, makeup and hair. My average is I would work two to three days a week at the most, because I’m a supporting character… But this year is going to be very different. This year is going to be juggling a new baby on set, having to go back and forth from working from the actual set to the dressing room to make sure the little one’s okay and nursing and all of those kinds of things. So it’s going to be a very different season this year for me.
Q: Could you tell us about something funny that happened on set?
TIFFANI: There’s so many it’s hard to pick one. Every day there’s something funny. The guys, one of the things that they do constantly all of the time, is they break into song. They’re always singing and playing around. So that’s a daily thing with them. Then any time you have scenes with Willie you’re always laughing. The ad libs that he comes up with and the zingers, as you would say, it’s quite enjoyable and very entertaining. It’s hard to say specifically anything, especially these days with my baby brain, as I call it, because I can’t remember anything anymore. But it’s definitely a very fun set. It’s hilarious. We do tons of things.
Here’s one thing I do remember. We have this thing where one of the guys, I think one of our camera operators is in love with Swedish fish, the candy, and we would constantly try and do a take where we would hide a Swedish fish somewhere in one of the episodes, in one of the scenes. Of course it would always get caught and taken away, so I don’t think any of them made it actually to film. But we were constantly trying to do that, whether we put it on our shirt or have it on our plate or have it in the background somewhere or whatever. It was really funny. That was one little thing that we used to do last year. It was just some entertainment that we would have in between.
Q: Do you ever join in the chorus on set?
TIFFANI: I don’t think they’d want me to. The funny thing is, and Willie doesn’t really either that much, but he does every now and then, but Matt and Tim actually have a lot of theater background, so they actually have good voices. It’s very different to play around like that when you have a good voice and then someone like me who doesn’t have a good voice at all. I’m there to listen and laugh.
Q: Was there ever anything that maybe got cut from the show that you wish they’d kept in? Or maybe something that you wish they’d cut out?
TIFFANI: I don’t think there was anything that I wished they’d cut out. I think most actors always feel that if there are scenes that are cut, they always tend to be a little sad about that because you usually shoot more than you need time-wise on a show, so usually it’s always cut down more and not added, even though there have been one or two episodes I think where we did have to add stuff to the show because it was definitely too short. But most of the time the shows were longer and so they had to be cut.
I do remember that there was one scene, it wasn’t so much that it was cut, it was changed. It was a scene between Peter and I where, and I’m trying to remember the episode again and with the baby brain I’m not going to remember the title of the episode, but it was a scene where it was, it correlated with the episode with Diahann Carroll’s granddaughter and it was a scene where after the park, at the very end of the episode where Peter… [is] supposed to run up and meet me in a café and we’re supposed to play this banter where we don’t know each other.
We ended up having to change it and put it in our home, and to me it worked beautifully and no one would notice the difference between the original way it was written and how it was supposed to be at a café, and it was so beautiful. I think we both were a little sad that we couldn’t pull it off. But again I prefaced that no one would know the difference and the scene turned out just as great in our minds because we knew where it was supposed to take place and how it ended up was very different. Stuff like that happens all the time, though.
Q: Do you watch the show yourself?
TIFFANI: I do watch the show. It’s funny, it’s actually a show that I would normally watch even if I wasn’t on it. It’s the kind of TV that I absolutely love. It’s the type of films that I go and see. I’m a total James Bond fan. I love the buddy cop films. I love when you have shows and film that have the combination between comedy and drama and suspense, and to me when you have something that has all of that it really makes for good entertainment.