You know her from One Tree Hill — but Hilarie Burton is a lot more than Peyton Sawyer. Burton’s appeared in a variety of film and TV roles since the WB/CW show. She’s currently filming Fox’s Lethal Weapon reboot, and her film Growing Up Smith hits theaters next Friday. Oh, and she’s married to Jeffrey Dean Morgan, a.k.a. The Walking Dead’s Negan — and they own a candy shop upstate with Paul Rudd.
Growing Up Smith tells the story of an Indian family who move to small-town America in 1979. Ten-year-old Smith is fascinated by every detail of the United States, including his neighbors, the Brunner family. Burton plays matriarch Nancy Brunner, a woman who finds her voice amidst chaos in her family life. Refinery29 talked to Burton about the movie and why she thinks One Tree Hill should stay in the past.
What drew you to the role of Nancy? How did you get involved with the film?
“I actually live in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, where the film was shot. And I’m a mom, like Nancy, and my husband’s off working, so I’m bound by some rules as to what jobs I can take and what I can’t. Because I want to take care of my family, much like Nancy.
“She can be a bit of a cartoon. When you first meet Nancy Brunner, she’s kind of a joke, you know? And then you peel back the layers and you see what’s behind the front she’s putting on, and it’s a lot of turmoil in her home. So you see this woman trying to keep it all together. And that was appealing to me, as a woman who tries to keep it all together. I think that’s what we all do!”
Was it difficult to get into character for this all-American, small-town role?
“I grew up in a small community, and I live in a small community now. It’s the environment that I’m drawn to. And so I liked that we were recreating an era in our country where a lot of people have nostalgia. But we were showing it from a totally different perspective. This was the perspective of an outsider who glamorizes all of the dorky little things about Americana: the Kentucky Fried Chicken, really just wanting to go as a Star Wars character for Halloween. There’s a collective memory that we have as a country, and so I think at this point in time, it’s really good for our country to see it from a different perspective.”
What was the inspiration for your character’s accent?
“I’m Southern. I’m from Virginia, and then I lived in North Carolina forever. And Jason [Lee, who also stars in the movie], he’s a good ol’ country boy, obviously… we just fell back on mimicking our relatives. I think about the glamorous people I would see in the early ’80s as a child, with the winged eyeliner, and the big hot-rolled hair. And the coral-colored fingernails. All these things are not necessarily cool right now, so I don’t get an opportunity to try them out, but this movie was my opportunity! It was great. I loved every single thing I wore. It was ridiculous.”
Switching gears to One Tree Hill — why do you think that Peyton and Brooke’s friendship was able to endure so much drama?
“Well, because they’re actually friends, they’re not fair-weather friends. I’d say the same goes for Sophia [Bush] and me. I think, underneath, there was an understanding between the two of us, like, we’re in this to win it. And we’ve got all these male bosses telling us how teenage girls should act and feel, and we’ve got all these different variables coming at us. And I think now, as grown-up women, we can look back, the same way Brooke and Peyton could, and be like, Man, we survived some stuff together, huh? And that’s a good feeling. I think when you’re in the trenches with someone, whether you agree with each other at the time or not, once you’re past it, there’s a bond there you can’t deny.”
With so many shows getting rebooted these days, do you think there’s a possibility of a One Tree Hill reboot or reunion?
“No, I’m on the Lethal Weapon reboot right now! I’m shooting guns, man! I don’t need to go back to kissing and crying!
“I think we’re all in such a different place, it wouldn’t be something that I would be into. That said, I would love to work with my cast mates on other things. Like, I would love to do one of my Christmas Hallmark movies with Chad. Or, I would love to do a kick-ass girl project with Sophia. Right now, on Lethal Weapon, I am actually working with Daniella Alonso, who played Anna. And we saw each other yesterday and just geeked out. Everyone’s like, ‘How do you two know each other?’ And we’re like, ‘Oh, we used to kiss each other on TV, it’s no big deal!’ So I would love to be able to play house with all my old family members. That would be fun.”
But not necessarily back in Tree Hill.
“No, no. Peyton’s story got the correct ending. And whenever you extend it, what happens is they have to tear it apart to put it back together again. And I just wasn’t into it…
“I think if you’ve done good storytelling, whether it’s a book, or a movie, or a television series, it’s cheating the audience to leave it unresolved. They stuck by you. End it! Give them what they want! And then, if down the road, circumstances present themselves where there’s more to be told, cool. But I don’t like stringing people along.”
Going off of that, I was wondering what you hope that people take away from Growing Up Smith‘s ending. Because it is left on an open-ended question — you don’t actually see him meet up with Amy.
“Well, you see him going to meet Amy. And that is the lovely part of the story, is that this guy is on a journey. And you’re part of the journey, you’re part of his childhood exploration into this weird world… there’s something at his core that tugs at him. And it’s Amy, and it’s this lifestyle that he had as a wide-eyed little kid. So I thought it was pretty clear that he was gonna go hook up with her. We all hope he does!
Do you think Nancy’s story had a happy ending?
“I always thought, there’s the coming of age story for the boys in the movie, right? But there’s also a coming of age story about the girls in the movie. This is really the first time women are going to work, and standing up for themselves to their husbands. And so I found Nancy’s story empowering in that I think she left him.
“I think she probably went and got a temp job somewhere, maybe got her real estate license. I think instead of being dependent, she became independent. And that’s a life lesson for her daughter… I think there is a secondary story about women finding their voices in this film that I was really drawn to.”
What do you hope viewers take away from the movie?
“Right now, the relevance of an outsider perspective of what it means to be an American is very important. We are a country that was built by immigrants, for immigrants. We all came from somewhere else, for the most part, unless you’re 100% Native American. We all came from somewhere else. And I think we need to honor that, and I think we need to cherish our differences and embrace them. And I think this movie does that. It embraces the differences, and it’s about two worlds colliding and respecting one another.”
That’s beautifully put. It is funny (and not-so-funny) how it does have this relevance.
“Oh my gosh, we had no idea when we were shooting it how topical it would be. And so now, I want everyone to look at immigration from the perspective of a nine-year-old, 10-year-old, 11-year-old boy. Put yourself in Smith’s shoes.”
Definitely. One last question for you: What’s it like being married to Negan? Do the two of you get a lot of fans at your candy store?
“I have the best dude on the planet. He is so sweet, he’s taking care of our son single-handed right now while I’m out working on Lethal Weapon. And he’s a very good partner. He’s a lovely man. He’s nothing like he is on Walking Dead.”