Meet Matt Bomer, Pittsburgh Native and New Star of USA Network's “White Collar”
Matt Bomer, hot new star of White Collar, credits CMU for preparing him for the real world
By Leslie Hoffman
I first met Matt Bomer on a Sunday afternoon, at home, reading in my living room. Without even knowing who he was, I stared into his bright blue eyes on a full-page advertisement in The New York Times. He mesmerized me.
The thing is, I could have met him long before he stepped into the starring role of White Collar, the hit new series on the USA Network that was being advertised. I could have bumped into him and his friends at brunch at the Shadyside Pamela’s. I could have run into him late night, ordering French fries at the Original in Oakland. Or, I could have caught him onstage in a production of And the World Goes Round at Carnegie Mellon University, as he belted out a crowd-rousing version of “Wilkommen” from Cabaret.
Bomer is one of many CMU alumni that populate prime time, such as fellow actors and friends Zach Quinto on Heroes and Cote De Pablo on NCIS, as well as many more, including Aaron Staton on Mad Men, Abby Brammell on The Unit, Rhys Coiro on 24 and Entourage, and Alex Cole and Van Hansis on As The World Turns. The soft-spoken gentleman from Texas credits CMU, saying that the school’s drama program “prepared me for the real world.”
“It was a real departure for me. I thought I was going to go straight to New York, and I’m glad that I didn’t,” Bomer tells me, actually calling from New York City, where White Collar is filmed. “Pittsburgh was a good middle ground for me. It is a city that grew on me over the four years I was there. It’s a beautiful city with an incredible history, and the more time that I spent there, the more that I loved it.”
On White Collar, Bomer plays Neal Caffrey, a con man who the FBI releases from prison in order to help them catch other art thieves, counterfeiters, and bank robbers. His “boss,” FBI agent Peter Burke, is played by Tim DeKay, Burke’s wife is played by Tiffani Thiessen, and Neal’s “partner in crime,” Mozzie, is played by Willie Garson, of Sex and the City fame. White Collar, which launched last fall as one of the top rated shows on cable television, is engaging and falls along the lines of other popular shows with a salient male crime-solving lead, such as The Mentalist and Castle. Bomer’s character is the standout: funny, charming, intelligent, seemingly capable of achieving the impossible, and, oh yeah, devastatingly handsome.
In that way, the character and the actor are the same.
“The show is fascinating; there is so much of the real Matt Bomer in White Collar. It’s a perfect fit,” says Gary Kline, Bomer’s voice and singing professor at CMU.
The actor’s CMU voice coach, Don Wadsworth agrees. “You know, he’s very right for a character like Neal in White Collar who has to be super charming. Although, Matt is sincerely super charming and his character might be a little more devious. But he’s figured out how to make that bridge between who he really is and a subtle adjustment for that character’s past and that character’s devious nature,” Wadsworth says.
Bomer concurs, but says, “Any character that you create is ultimately the product of your imagination and the writers’ imagination. So, they’re aspects of myself, but I wouldn’t say they’re all aspects of myself that I exercise in my daily life, they are just certain aspects of my imagination.”
In preparation for the character, Bomer read Frank Abagnale’s biography and The Art of Deception, by Kevin Mitnick. “I made Neal one part Danny Ocean from Ocean’s Eleven, one part Cary Grant’s character from To Catch a Thief, one part Catch Me if You Can, and one part Ferris Bueller.”
Bomer grew up in Spring, Texas, a suburb of Houston. As a young child, he spent time playing outside and cultivating his imagination. He recalls watching ET and knowing that he wanted to be like Elliott. “When I was about 8 or 9, I started asking my mom how I could get an agent,” he says. “Thankfully, my mom was like, ‘What are you talking about? Go play outside.’” He became more serious about acting as a middle school and high school student, eventually quitting the football team (his father, John Bomer, was a center for the Dallas Cowboys) to act in the Alley Theatre in Houston. “I sat my parents down and told them that was what I wanted to do with my life,” he says. “And, thankfully, they were very supportive of that.”
He chose Carnegie Mellon and says, “Fortunately, I got in.” Bomer was attracted to the faculty and the program. “I knew it had a very reputable program that helped people get into the business when they graduated, and that was very important to me,” he says. Moving to Pittsburgh in the late summer of 1996 was a big change for him. “The first thing I noticed was that not everybody had the heavy air conditioning that they had in Texas because it’s so hot all year round there. So, I was sweating half the time. But, after that first snow, I really fell in love with the city; it was the first time I experienced living in a city where it was going to snow pretty regularly.”
Bomer lived in Mudge House on CMU’s campus his freshman year. Later, he moved to Ivy Street in Shadyside, living just a block off of Walnut Street, where he and his friends loved hanging out. They went to Pamela’s for breakfast and Sushi II “if we were going to get fancy.”
“I love Shadyside,” Bomer says. “It was such a cool neighborhood. It was before Walnut Street got really invaded by the big corporations. So, it was just a charming block that had all these great restaurants on it and cool places to hang out. It was just great. All of my friends lived within a few blocks of me and we would have parties at each other’s houses and it was just a great time in my life.”
The actor describes his time at Carnegie Mellon as very intense. “We worked 60 hours a week sometimes. There were times that I would be doing a Shakespeare play, a scene from another play, two different monologues, a song, and everything else, all in the course of one day,” he says. The camaraderie of the program made it bearable, though. “We really became a family,” Bomer says.
One of those “family members” is Cote de Pablo, who plays Ziva on CBS’s NCIS. “My time with ‘Matchulo’ at CMU was amazing,” she says. “Not only is he a very talented actor and singer, but he is also a truly giving person. Many people may not know this about Matt, but he is drop-dead funny and a very gifted character actor. I’m sure if you putt Matt and me in the same room talking about our time at Carnegie Mellon, there would be a lot of laughter.”
While he was in college, he also impressed a Pittsburgh native, Gillian Jacobs, who is currently starring as the funny, quirky, blond-haired Britta in NBC’s Community. As a Mt. Lebanon High School student, Jacobs would observe the drama classes at CMU. She clearly remembers Bomer (later on, she also played a role as his girlfriend in a pilot for the now-cancelled show Traveler, but she was recast). “Way back, when I was 13, I would go sit in on acting classes at CMU. Matt Bomer is just the loveliest, sweetest person,” she says. “And — he has the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen!”
Among his turns on stage at CMU, Bomer relished his role in And The World Goes Round as well as his role as the father in Indiscretions, Jeremy Sams’s English translation of the play Les Parents Terribles by Jean Cocteau. Bomer says he was always playing the role of the father in plays while in college. “I was always in some sort of fat suit or another,” he says, laughing. “It was just the way it turned out. It wasn’t always the case. I got to work on ‘Romeo’ and a lot of the other great roles as well. I loved it. To me, the great thing about college was that I got to work on the things that I knew I was probably going to be cast for in the real world but I also got to stretch myself out. So any time that they were like, ‘Here’s a fat suit and a mustache,’ I was jumping at the opportunity. I was like, ‘Well, this is probably the only chance I’ll get to do this, I may as well stretch myself out now.’”
Those roles that he has been cast as in the real world are far from the 50-year-old father type. Following college, he moved to New York City and worked in theater, quickly breaking into film and television, getting cast in soaps All My Children and Guiding Light. Notably, he has appeared in movies Flightplan and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and many television roles, including 18 episodes of the Fox show Tru Calling, where he played Eliza Dushku’s boyfriend, eight episodes of the show Traveler on ABC, and a recurring role on NBC’s Chuck. It has also been widely reported that he was the favorite of director Brett Ratner to play Superman and Clark Kent in the movie Superman Returns, but that when Ratner was replaced, new director Bryan Singer cast Brandon Routh in the role.
Bomer says that he was instantly taken with the character of Neal Caffrey in White Collar. “From the moment I read the script, I just fell in love with the character,” he says.
Wadsworth, who also teaches a class called The Business of Acting, says that Bomer is “so castable. Looks-wise, you could put him in a lot of things today, but the other thing about his resumé and his background is that he’s got CMU there, so casting directors will trust that he’s well-trained and if they give him adjustment, correction, some idea about how to play the part, he’s going to be able to do it.”
The business of acting is at the forefront of Carnegie Mellon’s school of drama. From the moment the students arrive, the school is intent on training its students and preparing them to graduate, to be ready to enter the “real” professional world, as actors and actresses on Broadway, on television, on film.
Wadsworth says that when the school’s professors are auditioning students, they travel the country looking for kids who are flexible. “We see a lot of really great kids, but in order for us to have a four-year relationship, they need to be very flexible,” he says. “They need to try lots of things. As Matt has certainly said, [as a student], he’s going to play lots of roles that maybe he wouldn’t necessarily play in real life, in the professional world that is, so we want to stretch them as much as we possibly can.”
Bomer of course, agrees. “The great thing about the conservatory is that you are working on all the best plays. It’s a really safe environment to work on the trickier roles, and you will never get another chance to do that in the real world, certainly not all at the same time. It’s just a great place to stretch you out as an actor and grow and challenge yourself.”
“It was four grueling years full of everything from voice and speech to dance, movement, singing, acting and everything in between, but the program at Carnegie Mellon gave us the correct tools to be able to walk into this business fully prepared,” de Pablo says. “They also gave us the freedom to explore and have fun creating. It is safe to say they were very special years.”
Each year, the school’s professors take turns organizing a showcase in New York City and Los Angeles, to introduce their new crop of actors to the entertainment industry. “We put them in front of quite a few — hundreds — of agents and managers and casting directors,” Wadsworth says. “And that is a huge help for these students because they get to be seen by those people. We’re lucky enough that those industry people recognize the quality of the program, and because of the reputation, we’ll get lots of people to come, which is no small feat, and we get very good responses. That’s how people get their foothold in the business.”
Kline remembers the piece that Bomer performed the year of his showcase. “Matt chose an understated, beautiful song, ‘Marta,’ from Kiss of the Spiderwoman, and while there were many big songs with big notes, Matt chose to sing a soft, stunning ending to his song. The results of that simple, quiet honesty were outrageously successful. It seemed everyone wanted to sign him from that early beginning audition. It’s amazing to see him go from that beginning to where he is today.”
The student-teacher relationship continues long after the actors get their first jobs. Bomer contacted Wadsworth for voice coaching when a couple of episodes of White Collar required him to speak with French and Italian accents. Wadsworth is an actor himself, appearing in Smart People and Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and also provided voice coaching for young Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road while it was filming here. “It usually happens for auditions. It’s like, ‘I’m going in tomorrow, so sorry to press you for this, but I need it quick.’ That sort of thing does happen,” Wadsworth says. “I do think it was incredibly kind of Matt to go to his producer and say, ‘Let’s bring Don in on this production, because I need a little dialect help.’ I never expected I would be teaching my students so they would give me jobs.”
Bomer’s star is taking off. He’s rapidly becoming well-known, which is easy to do when you’re filming a television show in New York City, and your likeness is “plastered all over the island,” as Wadsworth puts it. The advertising campaign, as I mentioned, appears to be widely effective. Bomer is fine to be in the public eye, though. “The funny thing is, if I’m wearing a T-shirt and jeans nobody says anything to me,” he says. “If I’m wearing a jacket and a tie, I get a couple of comments when I am walking down the street. So yes, people do say things and they are always very kind and it’s always very flattering and I’m always open to it. It’s a little odd to lose your anonymity; I’m not going to lie. But if it’s the cost of getting to play great parts and having a great gig, then I am happy to give it up.”
Wadsworth is convinced that no matter how big a star Bomer becomes, he will always remain level-headed. He’s convinced of his success, though. “You know, he’s going to win the hearts of everyone who watches because of who he is. Not only because of what he looks like — which is pretty devastating — but how incredibly charming the guy is. All of that matched up with technique to be able to do the thing that people ask you to do, you can call that luck, but you turn lucky situations into jobs when you’re ready for them, and he is certainly ready for them.”
Ready for the business
“The program at Carnegie Mellon gave us the correct tools to be able to walk into this business fully prepared. They also gave us the freedom to explore and have fun creating. It is safe to say they were very special years.” — Cote de Pablo, NCIS
“I’m not surprised at Matt’s success. His good looks, warm voice, Southern charm, and most of all his integrity as a human being shows when he acts or performs.” — Gary Kline, CMU
“The other thing about Matt’s resumé and his background is that he’s got CMU there, so casting directors will trust that he’s well-trained and if they give him adjustment, correction, some idea about how to play the part, he’s going to be able to do it.” — Don Wadsworth, CMU