Hilarie Burton is only a little older than 22-year-old Peyton Sawyer, her character on the teen drama "One Tree Hill," but in conversation, Burton speaks with a wisdom, and a vision for her future, that would be a credit to someone much older—those she still calls "grownups." Chalk it up to her early start in show-business—at an age when most kids are watching the clock in Calculus, Burton was already a VJ on MTV. Or to running your own film production company while starring in films like the Christian thriller "The List," just out on DVD, and the upcoming screen version of Sue Monk Kidd's "Secret Life of Bees." Burton herself might say her taking the long view has to do with her Southern upbringing, and her belief in God.
For someone with a big role on a hit TV series, "The List" might be called an unusual project. What convinced you to sign onto a Christian indie film?
Partly I wanted to play Jo Johnston for my fans who know me from "One Tree Hill." My character on the show does some things I would not recommend. So it was nice to play someone closer to who I am. And for me, it was important because, growing up, you never saw Christian ladies in movies or on TV. Even today, when you read Christian stories or you watch Christian movies, the characters don't talk like normal people. They don't use slang. They're very formal. It was great to play a contemporary Christian and have her not be a geek. It's almost taboo. Playing a Christian woman is so much weirder than playing a drug addict or a friendly prostitute or any of those things.
Did you know that it was a Christian film when you read for it?
I did. I grew up in the United Methodist Church, and church was always a very big part of my growing up. After leaving my hometown, it became very hard to find a--I don't want to say a religious community, but a spiritual community. It wasn't until I worked on this film that I really met like-minded people. And to find a group of people who were working within the business, and also playing by their own rules and very successfully, it was very inspiring for me. Gary [Wheeler, director of "The List"] inspired me to start my own production company down here in Wilmington, which we call Southern Gothic, and we've already started on our first project, a dark comedy that's very human, along the lines of "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Juno," about a young guy who gets cancer.
Do you feel like it's easier to be open about having a life of faith in show-business?
Well, it's easier for me because I live and work in Wilmington, N.C., in a very family-oriented film community. That's not to say that, if I went out to Hollywood, I'd be bashful about my convictions. I've always been very vocal about my religion. It's a big part of who I am. I remember being told that part of your job as a Christian is testifying to that. You could be Christian all you want, but if you hide out in your room and keep it a secret, what good does that do God? I mean, it's a hard path to figure out, because you don't want to throw it in peoples' face. But I want the kids who watch "One Tree Hill" to know that it's all pretend, and that the person at the core of that character values morals, honor and things like that. You want to inspire them to look beyond what is superficial and try to find that greater thing.
The South—its uniqueness and traditions—play a big part in "The List." And it seems to be a theme with you. You were raised in Virginia—was it that kind of old South milieu?
I'm from northern Virginia, but I grew up next to the West Virginia border, so it was hills and farmland. We had that sense of adventure you get from growing up around old farmhouses and lazy, rolling hills, you know? That's something that translates into "The List," that love of what's ancient. It's funny, though: I was the southern kid on the set, but my character was the only one that wasn't from the South.
It's not evil so much as unexplainable. Throughout the centuries, whatever is unexplainable has been looked at as evil. And I think that exists in the film. That's the journey for the lead character, Rennie: trying to tell what's evil versus what he just can't figure out. There's been a lot of heartache in this area, whether it's the Civil War or slavery or even the Revolutionary War. Our huge, century-old trees have just soaked up the blood of people who died so we could live the life we want to live. That kind of permeates the environment. It's what makes the South an interesting place to create art.
The bad guys in the movie seem to represent Southern tradition, maybe of a particularly outdated kind. But you think the South's traditions in general are still important?
I think that tradition is important whether you're from the Caribbean or Alabama or the North or wherever. But I think it's our responsibility to make sure tradition doesn't exclude other people or hurt other people, that certain celebrations aren't celebrating something that's painful. We have to keep our ancestors' traditions alive, but we also need to make sure it's something we believe in.
"The List" deals a lot with the power of prayer, but the praying is aimed at some pretty typical Hollywood-style supernatural powers. Do you worry that the Christian message may get diluted in this kind of tale? I mean, Jesus didn't come here to fight zombies.
A film is always going to make some people ill at ease because it's never going to 100 percent match their experience. It's always going to leave people wondering, "Is my experience of God wrong?" or saying "That couldn't happen." Certain groups don't believe in speaking in tongues, and others do it all the time. I've had mystic experiences that have led me closer to God. Really beautiful, personal things that have happened. So, I am never one to say that, "Oh, that's impossible." There's an element of mysticism in "The List" like that. But I do think it helps tell a story. And ultimately, that's what filmmaking is about.
Have you ever had an experience where something came out of prayer?
You know, the Holy Spirit finds you when you're at your most vulnerable--when you let your guard down. I was supposed to be going to FedEx the other day. I've been praying over and over and over again about my path, trying to figure out what I should do. My little mantra was, Just tell me what to do. I found myself taking the really, really long way to get to FedEx. It was 6:00 at night. Everything was pretty closed down. But my favorite little bookstore happened to be open. So I went inside and there was an older gentleman playing the fiddle, and next thing I knew they were having a reading. I've been working on this novel for years and years, and I haven't been finishing it. And I'd stumbled on this community of artists, just sharing. And I realized, okay, this is what I want.
So being a TV star isn't the end of the road, then? You're going writing a novel and producing films—anything else?
When you love creating, it really doesn't matter what the medium is. I love telling stories as Peyton Sawyer on "One Tree Hill." And I love my writing. And Southern Gothic is really exciting thing to work on. And it allows me the opportunity to tell the kind of stories that I want to tell and to be my own boss, which is very hard when you're a little blonde girl in this industry.