STUDIO CITY, Calif. — You can tell he's a Texan by the way he opens the door for the woman whose arms are full of packages, shakes the hand of one of the drivers in the parking lot and assaults the stairs to the deck of the coffee shop.
But there's no trace of the Texas drawl in actor Matthew Bomer, who's about as far from the cunning con man he plays on USA Network's White Collar, which returned this week, as anyone could be.
Bomer says he learned the hard way when he was fresh out of Carnegie Mellon University (he'd attended four years on a scholarship) and found himself penniless in New York City.
"I called my dad and said, 'Can I borrow ...' He said, 'Listen, I got you through college, you've got to figure it out now.' It was tough love, but it was good for me," he says, settling on a bench at one of the busy tables.
"It made me realize, 'OK, I'm my own man now. I've got to make my own way. It was hard. And I got upset, but I thought 'OK, well, I may go out there and get my own gig because nobody's going to make this happen but myself. I was staying at a friend's apartment in New York. It was more the general thinking of him saying, 'You're cut off.' But I think it was good for a man. I think tough love is good for boys."
Bomer's dad, John, played for the Dallas Cowboys until Matthew was born, and he passed on the competitive spirit to his son.
"One thing my parents always instilled in me was perseverance. That's the one thing I got growing up in Texas and having athletics. A lot of people have the talent. A lot of people have the right look for a part, but not everybody has the perseverance to hang in there and keep going for it. I think I've been really blessed. I can't complain. But when you love what you do, perseverance comes easy."
When he was 5, he saw E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, and that set his course. "I realized that's what I wanted to do. I didn't want the attention, I wanted to be part of the storytelling process. I wanted to be part of the good story. I wanted to be movie people and wanted to be part of stories that were affecting people. I remember coming home and asking my mom to get me a red hoodie."
Like his dad, who owns his own shipping company, Matthew played football in high school. "I did it for fun and the athleticism and the competitive aspect, but it wasn't something I ever saw myself doing long-term," he says.
"My talent was limited. ... I felt like if it was something I was really passionate about I would have invested myself to be better, so my senior year I got cast in Streetcar Named Desire at the Alley Theater in Houston, which was my first professional gig, and I quit the football team to do that."
Later, when he was faced with imminent poverty in New York, Bomer, 32, worked two jobs simultaneously, as a bell man and a waiter. "And then 9/11 happened and I lost my job as a bell man because nobody was coming to New York, and hotels cut staff. I said, 'Man, I'm going to have to figure something out here.'
"This casting director for a soap said, 'If you ever need a job call me.' I thought, 'Yeah, sure, I'm never going to do a soap opera.' But I called him and got a job on The Guiding Light for a year."
Then Bomer became the hot ticket to play Superman in Superman Returns. But directors changed in the eighth inning and he was out.
Still, all was not lost. He copped a job filming in Vancouver in a show called Tru Calling and signed a holding deal later with Fox. But when the role of the charming grifter in White Collar finally came along, Bomer was considering giving up acting.
"I looked into going to grad school to get a degree in psychology. I'd gotten the application sent to me and I think maybe two weeks later this audition came up," he shrugs.
"Lord knows I don't have time for that anymore. I've always been fascinated by human nature and human psychology. I think that's one of the things I find most interesting about acting and playing roles and finding the nuances of character."
So where does a nice guy like Bomer find the sociopathic bravado of his character in White Collar? "I'm always as attracted to the darker sides of characters and their flaws as I am to the light side of them, or their strong points," he says.
"So I thought it's something I'm really interested in and I could study it, and it would only enhance my ability as an actor," he chuckles, adding, "I have a hard time sitting still; I'm always trying to study something new, find something new, and grow and expand."