Tiffani Thiessen On ‘White Collar’

The former 'Saved By The Bell' star opens up about her latest role on the hit USA Network series.

Blair Marnellby Blair Marnell

Tiffani Thiessen On 'White Collar'

For a generation of young men, Tiffani Thiessen will forever be known as Kelly Kapowski, the female lead of "Saved by The Bell."

But in addition to her iconic role, Thiessen has had memorable stints on "Beverly Hills: 90210," "Fastlane" and "What About Brian."

More recently, Thiessen has been cast as Elizabeth Burke on the hit USA Network series, "White Collar." Thiessen’s character is married to Tim DeKay’s FBI Agent Peter Burke who routinely teams up with former criminals Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) and Mozzie (Willie Garson) to take down high class thieves who would ordinarily escape punishment.

With the second season currently airing, Thiessen took the time to speak with the press about her return to the series, her character’s new relationships with Neal and Mozzie and what she wants to see happen as the series goes forward.

Q: Can you talk about how you started on the project? Did you audition?

Tiffani Thiessen: Oh, yes, I auditioned like everybody else. It’s kind of a funny story. It’s kind of a long process, which I’m sure a lot of actors say is the case. But I went in and I read the script and absolutely fell in love with it and just really was adamant about wanting to do everything I could possible to try and get the job. So I went in and auditioned for it and I was put on what they call a short list, but they wanted to cast the husband first, which they hadn’t found Tim yet. 

I think about a month or two goes by and they finally cast Tim, and so I was waiting to get that phone call again to come back in, and what they do is like a chemistry read. I never got the call, and so I called my agent and I was like “Whatever happened to White Collar, that show? I was supposedly on the short list.” And they said, “Oh, they actually wanted to go a different route. They thought you were too young.” Then I started hearing some of the girls that were actually going in and auditioning with Tim and they were actually younger than I was. So I was like, wait a minute, that doesn’t sound right. 

So I actually thought I lost the job, but then supposedly they never found the girl, they were definitely trying to go younger and it didn’t work, and so they called me back again. I did a chemistry read with Tim and we totally hit it off, and I knew it was my job, I knew I was going to get it, I had a feeling in my gut, and I did. It was, again, like a long process but definitely worth it because in my mind from the moment I read the script I really wanted this job.

Q: Heading into season two of "White Collar," is there anything you’re particularly excited about for your character?

Tiffani Thiessen: It’s a very different season for me than it was last year. I just gave birth five weeks ago, 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 "White Collar" and your character, Elizabeth?

Tiffani Thiessen: 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 [seriously], 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 and all that. I don’t know, I really admire her a lot. 

Q: Do you enjoy filming "White Collar" in New York?

Tiffani Thiessen: I do. I absolutely do. I’ve always had such a love for New York City ever since I was young and going there when I was younger, and to be able to say that I actually live there half the year, I absolutely love it. It was my husband that I really had to get him to fall in love with it as much as I do. He’s from Texas and it’s very, very different than California and Texas, but he’s actually really starting to fall in love with it as well. And we’re excited that we get to raise our little girl half the year in New York City and half the year in Los Angeles. They’re two great cities and I’m excited for her to be able to really get the culture from both.

Q: Sometimes it seems like Elizabeth trusts or believes in Neal even more than Peter does. Why do you think that is?

Tiffani Thiessen: 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: Your character’s friendship with Neal is interesting, especially since Elizabeth is married. Do you think it’s possible for men and women to be friends without there being a sexual connection?

Tiffani Thiessen: 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: What would you like to see happen with your character as the season progresses?

Tiffani Thiessen: 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 Thiessen: 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 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: What are the challenges for finding roles for women in their 30s? And are there more opportunities for women now than there were ten years ago as far as programming?

Tiffani Thiessen: Absolutely. I think there’s definitely much more in 30s and 40s both. I think you’re starting to find people really seeing that – here’s the thing. It’s hard for me to say and know the experience how it was ten, twenty years ago because I was only in my teens and my 20s, but I know from watching TV myself and watching film myself I see a lot more 30s and 40s on screen, which just makes me very, very happy. It’s what we should be watching. 

We’ve got different niches. We’ve got the Disney kids and that whole teenage niche, and we’ve got the young adults, and then we have the age of 30s and 40s, which is where I am right now, and I think it’s important to portray those ages and those roles. And like I had mentioned before, one of the things that I really admire about the writers is that they’ve really made the relationship between Peter and Elizabeth a strong marriage, and I don’t think you see that on TV very often. I really admire them for keeping it that way.

Q: Would you ever be interested in writing or directing for the show?

Tiffani Thiessen: I would. I’m not a writer at all, and I’ll be totally honest with you it’s nothing that I want to pursue because I’m just not a great writer. But directing is something that I actually started quite a few years ago actually. I did a short film that actually got into the Tribeca Film Festival and quite a lot of the prestigious film festivals, and so being that it’s been a little busy working, and now with a child it’s been kind of hard to pursue that. But I would love to, and "White Collar" would definitely be on my list that I would love to do. There are more and more women directors out there, which I love working with, and I think we always can use more women directors out there and in every position as well. So I think it would be really nice.

Q: How do you think Elizabeth feels about Peter working with Neal and Mozzie? They’re not your normal FBI fare.

Tiffani Thiessen: 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 Elizabeth really thinks of Mozzie and Neal?

Tiffani Thiessen: 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 she’s really trying to understand Neal’s — I think she does understand it, 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 Thiessen: 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 they’re 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.