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Before June is over, USA Network will have one of its busiest summer slates with eight original scripted series on its schedule. Next on the docket is White Collar, about former con man Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) and straitlaced FBI agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay), which launches its third season less than three months after Season 2 wrapped in March. At the end of the finale, things between Neal and Peter, whose dysfunctional friendship is the beat of the entire series, were left unresolved. With Neal stumbling onto a roomful of treasure and starting a new fling with Sara Ellis (Hilarie Burton), what does the future hold?
Creator (and active Twitter user) Jeff Eastin — who revealed to The Hollywood Reporter that Eliza Dushku would be guest starring — talked about the change in direction for the new season, the latest on an Anne Rice collaboration and who Bill Clinton would play on the show.
The Hollywood Reporter: You’ve said that you knew how the arc would play out in the first two seasons before they aired. Did you already have an end game for Season 3?
Jeff Eastin: When I first pitched the show, I pretty much had up to the moment [in the Season 2 finale]: the Nazi sub and Neal’s smile, that was as far as I let myself dare to think I could get to. The tough thing was that this really was a game-changer and the idea now was we’ve moved away from Kate [Alexandra Daddario], the music box and the mythology that really got us here. I’m more nervous about this particular season premiere just because it is a reset.
THR: Has that been difficult going in a new direction?
Eastin: The real challenge has been that [the show is] about Peter and Neal – and not completely screw that [relationship] up. The pre-reviews I’ve read have all said the same thing, which was “I hope we can trust the writers. I hope they’re not screwing up the show.” [Laughs] In that last moment, we left Peter and Neal on the outs and a lot of people were like can we jump over this? For Neal, he started as a con man and he will end up as a con man. I’ve said this in interviews before: He wants to be good but he was born bad. This is the season where we put that theory to the test. Which side is Neal going to choose?
THR: Could one argue that up to this point Neal’s entire life has been a con?
Eastin: To a certain extent. I think the difference in this season is it really becomes about conning himself. Adler [Andrew McCarthy] has a line in the finale where he says, “Nothing’s sadder than a con man conning himself.” That was something that we took into this season. All your life has been built upon this idea of the ultimate con and you have a billion dollars worth of treasure, you can take it and run but you’ve built up a life here that you never foresaw. This season is more about his internal struggle. Where does the con end? Has he conned himself into believing that his life should be with Peter or with Mozzie on an island somewhere sipping drinks?
THR: Have you received ideas from Twitter followers that you wished you thought of or wanted to incorporate?
Eastin: A few. There were a lot of people wondering what was behind Neal’s smile at the end, which we find out very quickly in [the season premiere]. The answer is pretty easy: He’s suddenly realized I’ve got the greatest treasure in the world right here. There was a theory floating around that the reason he smiles is because Kate is standing on the other side. We kind of went, “Oh, that’s a neat idea. We’re not doing it but it’s a cool idea.”
THR: You’ve mentioned the possibility of co-writing an episode with Anne Rice this season. Is that happening?
Eastin: Probably not this season. She’s been working a lot on a book of hers and she submitted an outline which we really dig. As the season broke down, USA is airing 10 episodes in the first half instead of nine and that one switch pushed up our schedule a little bit. We’re going to do one but it’s going to be in Season 4.
THR: How has running the show gotten easier or harder as the seasons have progressed?
Eastin: It’s gotten easier because as the seasons move on, I’ve found a writing staff that clicks. Everyone here really contributes so that’s taken a lot of the day-to-day work off my plate, which has been nice. It’s harder in a sense that it’s tough to try to strive to make it fresh; it’s a natural tendency to fall back on what works and we’re constantly trying to push and do something different than we’ve done but at the same time not change what the show inherently is.
THR: Has there been a scene or story line that you were surprised by how people reacted?
Eastin: “Vital Signs,” which was in Season 1. It was where Neal had doped up. A lot of people still reference it as the fan favorite. That one surprised all of us because we thought it was a decent episode, but the reaction on that was huge. We spent a long time why and ultimately, I think it was because Neal – in an unguarded moment – says [to Peter], “Of all the people in my life, I trust you.” Last year, we did an episode where Peter and Neal flip-flopped roles. That was one of those where we went this is probably broader than where we would normally go, but it’s a good idea. We were worried it might’ve been a little over the top but again, it turned out to be a fan favorite.
THR: Will we see more of that this season?
Eastin: A little bit. This season, we have the Mozzie flashback. We didn’t do it the same way as last year’s so this one actually involves Mozzie as an infant. We see him at 6 years old, we see him at 12 years old. We got Lena Headey in that one to play Mozzie’s girlfriend; Mozzie finally gets a sex scene. [Laughs]
THR: Will we find out more about Jones [Sharif Atkins] and Diana [Marsha Thomason]?
Eastin: We finally do. We did an episode last year where we learned a little bit more about Diana and this year, we have one where it definitely focuses more on her. We finally meet Christy [Moran Atias], her girlfriend. We just finished wrapping up the Jones episode where we meet a lost love of his and we find out he was in the military — we see him in Marine whites. Brady Smith, Tiffani [Thiessen]’s husband, is playing the bad guy in that one.
THR: Can you tell us the rest of the guest stars that you have lined up?
Eastin: We have Neil Jackson, who is in the first one; Chris and Danny Masterson in the second episode, along with William Sadler and Anna Chlumsky, who will recur. Third episode, we have Jane Atkinson and Moran Atias. In 304, we were lucky to get Ernie Hudson in for a quick pop.
THR: Is there anyone you can’t get?
Eastin: I keep saying I want [George] Clooney to come and play Matt’s dad. We heard Bill Clinton is a huge fan of the show and we would love to get him for a cameo. We think he should play Bill Clinton. [Laughs] It’s a White Collar world; we can have him thank the guys for saving the world.
THR: Are there any crossovers planned with Covert Affairs?
Eastin: We’d love to. Usually the problem with those is the schedules. The idea would probably be Matt can go over to their show or Auggie comes to us. The question is are they shooting, can they live without Chris Gorham for a week? Could we live without Bomer for a week? If that did worked out, yea, I’d love to do it. We tried desperately to do one with Burn Notice, but we can never work out the timing. But Covert would be great.
THR: If USA asked you to create a spinoff series or a prequel movie like they did with Burn Notice, what would that look like?
Eastin: They haven’t asked, but that would be very interesting. We’ve jokingly said we should do White Collar: Chicago. Team up another CIA agent and another criminal in another city and just let them go. Mozzie can bounce between cities. [Laughs]
THR: You’re active on Twitter. Has being on it on a daily basis affected you?
Eastin: If they’re following me on Twitter, they’re probably hardcore fans of the show. That immediate feedback we get by searching the White Collar hash tag as the show airs, it is very valuable. I can usually predict – by the volume of tweets – pretty accurately what the ratings will be.
THR: Are you going to be starting any feuds on Twitter? [Editor’s note: Eastin has been known to participate in friendly feuds with other showrunners, including The Chicago Code’s Shawn Ryan and Burn Notice’s Matt Nix.]
Eastin: Kurt Sutter kind of took a swipe at us the other day. He said, “Check out the new White Collar trailer. It looks really good.” When you click on it, it took you to the Smurfs trailer. [Laughs] So then I created a fake Sons of Anarchy new main title that involved really old guys on motorcycles.
THR: In the back of your mind, do you have a series finale plan?
Eastin: No. Hopefully I don’t have to think about that one.
White Collar premieres its third season Tuesday at 9 p.m. on USA.
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