Born and raised in Virginia, Hilarie Burton is one of four children in a tight-knit family. Early on, she developed a passion for acting, so when she grew up, she went to New York to pursue her dreams. She got her start as a VJ on MTV, which lead to a guest role on an episode of “Dawson’s Creek.”
Quickly after, she landed the role of Peyton Sawyer on “One Tree Hill,” which lead to movies in films like “Our Very Own,” “Normal Adolescent Behavior,” and “Solstice.” Now she’s back in the South, living and working in Wilmington, North Carolina, renovating her home and learning to use power tools.
CC.com: How did you get involved with The List?
Hilarie: I lucked out! I was in the middle of the “One Tree Hill” season, and wasn’t looking for other work. I got a call from one of the producers of the film saying, “Hi, I’m calling to set up your appointment to meet with the director of The List.
I said, “What? I don’t know what you’re talking about!” and she said, “Yeah, it’s this project that’s shooting in town. We’d like you to come in for it.”
I told her, “I’m not really supposed to look at other things, but go ahead and send me the script, and I’ll look at it.” I got the script, started reading it, and was finished with it in an hour. I already knew that I really wanted to do this.
A large reason for that is I grew up in the church. I grew up trying to watch Christian films, but the women in those movies were always so dorky. They were portrayed as very stiff upper lip, turtleneck-wearing, crazy old biddies, or librarian types. So the idea of portraying a Christian woman who has a sense of humor is so much closer to who I am in real life, so it was very appealing to me.
I went in, met with the boys, we all fell in love, and it was one of the best experiences of my life.
We shot the film in Wilmington, North Carolina, which is also where we shoot “One Tree Hill.” It was a hectic time. I was shooting “One Tree Hill” on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, then shooting The List on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It was a couple of months of working every single day, but I was never tired.
I was so joyful for it that I couldn’t get tired. I was really tired when it was over, but during the shoot, it was fantastic.
CC.com: How did you manage to keep the two going? Continuity is a big concern when you’re filming, whether it’s for TV or film, so that must have been a huge challenge.
Hilarie: I had very good hair and make-up teams on both projects, so I left the aesthetics up to them. As far as playing two completely different characters, we’d joke that I’d go to work one day and be 17, then go to work the next and be 27. I’d age 10 years in a day.
It wasn’t very difficult for me to play the Jo Johnson character because it’s very close to who I am in real life, and felt very natural to get into her skin. On “One Tree Hill,” as I got older, it got harder and harder to play a teenager. Thankfully, we’re not teenagers on the show any more, so that’s become much easier.
At the time, I could just go to work and talk to Gary (Wheeler, the director) and the Whitlow family. It was really like being in their home, they made it such a family environment on the set. I felt comfortable in that. What Gary said when he cast me was, “I want this to be sanctuary for you. You have a very hectic life, you have a very complex life, and I want this project to be your sanctuary.” That’s exactly what it ended up being.
That was a little unsettling at first, to have someone call you out for being pretty transparent. He knew me for 2 days before he offered that to me. I thought I had my act together, and was pretty sharp and witty. For someone to ascertain in such a short period of time that sanctuary was exactly what I needed and was searching for, that was a little unsettling. Then you step back and realize what a huge gift that is.
I don’t know if anyone else would have picked up on that. I think Gary Wheeler has a gift for that. All the roads converged, and we all came together.
CC.com: You had some really strong actors to work with. What was it like to work on the set with them?
Hilarie: I was one of the few women on the project. It was very much a “boys’ club.” Gary was very aware of that and definitely did everything in his power to make sure that I was always empowered on that set. Sometimes it’s easy to get lost among all the mayhem of a bunch of testosterone, but Gary never let me get lost in it, and it was wonderful.
Malcolm McDowell is such a force. He’s so dynamic. I call him “Lightning.” He walks into a room and he just lights the place up. He cracks like lightning, and it’s kind of scary, but it’s also beautiful and fantastic to watch. The first week he had me on my toes. He was kind of testing me.
I was reading Nietzsche at the time, and I think he thought I was carrying the book around to be pretentious, so he quizzed me on it. After a week’s time, I guess I proved myself to him, and he and I became as thick as thieves.
It was a really wholesome, fantastic group to be around. I attribute that entirely to our leadership. Whether it was Robert Whitlow or Gary Wheeler, they had such a strong core about them that no variable could throw them. It was really nice to have that security in charge.
CC.com: You’re reading Nietzsche, working on a film about spiritual warfare, and working on “One Tree Hill” simultaneously. That’s very complex. How would you explain all those variables to someone you’re meeting for the first time?
Hilarie: I’d probably say, “Hi, I’m Hilarie Burton. I’m a mess. I’m all over the place.” I could look at that as a hindrance or as a gift. I think I’ve been blessed to be able to focus on lots of things at one time. That’s a skill that I was given, and I feel grateful to have it. I think it’s what keeps me excited about all the projects I work on. I can constantly rotate, and I can constantly stay enthusiastic about all sorts of things.
One of my biggest goals is to be a complex, layered person. I want to be able to offer as much as possible to people around me, and whether that’s through my countenance, or my energy, or my heart, I want to be able to offer as much as possible.
CC.com: What are some hidden talents that your co-workers on “One Tree Hill” might be surprised to find out about?
Hilarie: We’ve been working together so long, they know everything about me!
I love carpentry. I live in an old historic Victorian from the 1880s, and love to work on my house. I like building furniture. I’m a grandma. I like needlework, crocheting, painting. I never attended charm school, but I was treasurer of Future Homemakers of America in 8th grade.
I take a lot of pride in being the kind of woman who can do man jobs, but also do the very typical female jobs as well. I think there’s an art to housekeeping that has maybe gotten underplayed over the years. I know it’s not seen as a very feminine thing to do, but I love to clean and take care of my house.
It’s how our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were. When you look at as an art form, less of an obligation and more of a talent, I think it’s empowering to be able to do both.
I used to say when I was in high school that I wanted to be a good man, and an even better woman.
CC.com: You mentioned at the beginning that you like the film because it’s different than the Christian films you were used to seeing. Speaking from your professional experience, what’s some advice you would give to Christian filmmakers who want to make the kind of films that younger people would want to see and will get excited about?
Hilarie: What I would say not only to Christian filmmakers, but to audiences as well, is that in order to preach God’s word and make a Christian film, not every single person on the project has to be this puritanical, Bible-toting, judgmental Christian. What makes all of us God’s creatures is that we are human and that we do err.
The beauty of being a Christian is that we are human, and we can err over and over again. But when we find God, that’s when you can really start to cleanse yourself and start living life from a faith-based perspective.
I think the storytelling doesn’t have to be so “cookie-cutter,” and I think human error is the variable that allows us to see the grace of God. People ask me all the time, “Isn’t it weird when your character does things that aren’t necessarily moral?” and I tell them, “No, it doesn’t bother me at all.”
For one thing, it’s not ME, it’s the character who’s doing those things. And another is that I hope the consequences of her actions speak just as much to my audience as anything. So I think it’s important to embrace the fact that we are weak, and to show God’s grace through our own weaknesses.