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Welcome to E!'s Tales From the Top, our series on women who are leaders in their fields and masters of their craft. Spanning industries and experiences, these powerhouse women answer all the questions you've ever had about how they got to where they are today—and what they overcame to get there. Read along as they bring their resumés to life.
You could say Hilarie Burton Morgan doesn't want to be anything other than what she's trying to be lately. Which, at the moment, is being the multi-hyphenate (creator, producer, host) behind Sundance TV's true crime series, It Couldn't Happen Here.
Two years after detailing her departure from the entertainment industry, she felt called to return while watching a controversial criminal case play out near Rhinebeck, New York, where she and husband Jeffrey Dean Morgan settled to raise their two kids.
"A young woman, who had been horrifically abused ended up shooting her partner," she detailed of Nicole Addimando, who was found guilty of second-degree murder after shooting the father of her children. (Her original 19-year sentence was reduced to seven-and-a-half years under New York's Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act.)
Looking up the judge to speak out about his handling of the case, Hilarie "realized he went to all the same charity events I went to, we had a lot of the same friends, we ran in all the same circles. And I realized what a roadblock that is." And if the star of a very popular, incredibly beloved drama series felt that she couldn't speak out, "It was probably happening everywhere in small towns where we don't necessarily have the resources that you find in larger cities for people who are dealing with the judicial system."
A lightbulb moment, it was compelling enough to have the native of Sterling, Virginia consider uprooting her life on the 100-acre farm she shares with Jeffrey, their son Augustus, 12, and daughter George, 4, to help shine a light on criminal cases still in need of justice.
At least part time, anyway.
"For the most part, our kids are raised in the middle of nowhere," the 40-year-old shared in an exclusive interview with E! News' Francesca Amiker. "That's our life. And if I have to step out of that in order to help out these other families, I'm really happy to do it."
Speaking out, loudly and often, as a champion of women has become her M.O. she said, since she "quietly" departed her star-making gig as One Tree Hill's fiercely independent Peyton Sawyer in 2009. Because "other women were hurt after I left," Hilarie explained, referencing reported sexual harassment by creator Mark Schwahn (claims he's never commented on) and other allegations she and her costars have lobbied against him. "And there's a guilt there that you don't ever quite get over, and I wont ever do that again."
If Hilarie, the actress, content creator, advocate and mom of two could give her twentysomething self one piece of advice, it'd be simple, she shared, "Say what you think." And she certainly didn't hold back when speaking to E!, recounting the journey she's taken from MTV's Times Square studios and North Carolina's fictional One Tree—and the lessons she's gleaned along the way.
E! News: What was your interest in true crime before creating this show?
Hilarie Burton Morgan: I grew up outside of [Washington,] D.C., so all parents work for the government, or the military, or some branch of service. The FBI used to come and scout our science fairs and try to find interns. I was going to Fordham at Lincoln Center when I first moved to New York with the intention of going to their law school. And then MTV showed up and, you know, you take the fun job.
I never lost interest in this, but to me it's really important that I'm not a journalist, I am not a lawyer. I am a community member and speaking to people from that position is really important because if we're not coming at these stories with empathy, we're vultures. We're being entertained by the worst day of someone else's life. This is a show where you can absolutely help. Audience participation is a big, big cornerstone for our production.
E!: As "fun" as those early jobs at MTV and on One Tree Hill were, you worked hard. What was that experience like?
HBM: We worked seven day a week during those years—me and my team who had to prop me up. I needed to prove to MTV how badly I wanted this because they let me out of my contract to do One Tree Hill. And I needed to prove to One Tree Hill, like, hey, I'll literally do anything to promote this show, which meant staying at MTV. Your actions speak so much louder than your words. You get to say less when your actions back it up. So, do the work. And you can sleep later. Sleep is overrated.
E!: On the flip side, what has been your biggest work mistake and what did it teach you?
HBM: During our breaks on One Tree Hill, I very much wanted to please my bosses. They knew that if we took movies it would be a scheduling nightmare. And so I turned down lots of opportunities because I wanted to be a good sport. Since being with my husband, I've learned that it's okay to look out for number one. Because when you're good, the people around you are good. You don't always have to be the good soldier.
E!: What else have you taken from your husband's experience in entertainment?
HBM: Seeing the way he is able to say "no" to things, or the way he is able to let his hair go grey, or the way he is able to present himself in professional situations, I've learned quite a lot about saying what I think. And, standing up for myself and doing things in a way that feels authentic to the both of us because he is my partner in everything. Our production company, Mister Farm Productions, is a producer for our show and he's visited two of the cases we've filmed this year. We really try to work as a team on everything.
E!: Hilarie, that doesn't work for a lot of people!
HBM: I know!
E!: Has working together been the secret sauce to that successful relationship?
HBM: Yes, but not just on television. We had to build a farm together, we had to build a candy store that we own together. Raising a kid is a business, you have to make agreements. And so, you team up on smaller things so that these bigger things where you're bringing in crews, you're bringing in more variables, you've already practiced. We have practiced, practiced, practiced for 13 years now and we feel really good with the projects that we have on our slate. We've got a bunch of really exciting stuff that's coming out next year as well.
E!: Speaking of exciting collaborations—your Drama Queens podcast. You, Sophia Bush and Bethany Joy Lenz have really gotten fans excited about how close you still are. What is that bond like?
HBM: We're sisters, we all grew up together. There is no one else on the planet that understands what that experience was like. There's just a bond there that we feel really, really lucky we've been able to maintain. And I think if you look at a lot of casts from long-running shows, that's not always the case. We know how special what we have is.
E!: What would you say you've learned from them?
HBM: I grew up in a space with lots of brothers and a military family, and being soft was something that was looked down on. And I have learned quite a bit of softness from my family members on One Tree Hill. There's a lot of sincerity and kindness there, and they allow me to put some walls down.
E!: Do you still kick around the reboot idea or is that door completely closed?
HBM: We like working together in any capacity. I've already worked with so many of the cast members in Christmas movies that I've produced. Any time that we get to be together, we're open-minded to that.
E!: What would you say is your fondest memory from working on such a classic teen show?
HBM: I get teary-eyed when I see the River Court scenes that we're all in because those nights were magic. They were awful—they were either really, really cold or really, really hot and really damp and it was always, like, six in the morning. And when you go through the trenches with a group of people, you have a sense of humor about it. It was like having slumber parties. And we were such naughty kids too, you know? We're like "Who wants to take shots in my trailer?"
E!: How would you say being on One Tree Hill taught you to become this business savvy woman?
HBM: It was my experience at MTV that taught me that because at 18 years old, they pulled me up off the street and I very quickly had to learn how to do live television and think on my feet. I sat down with the vice president of MTV and said "I'd like my own show. I'd like a yearly salary. I'd like all these things," and I didn't think anything of it as a 19-year-old. I hang out with these guys now that I'm 40 and they tease me about it. They're like "Hilarie, we've never seen a teenager walk into a room and say, 'Give me my money.'" But, to their credit, they said yes and they made sure I felt confident.
E!: Now you're balancing so much. What is an essential step in your daily routine that you need to have a successful day?
HBM: You have to have a group chat with your girlfriends to bitch about your failures because I mess up so many times in the course of any day—whether it's with my kids or with food or with my job or whatever. Finding the fun in your failure is so vital because you're going to do it, so just find your team that thinks it's as funny as you do.
E!: What do people not see that's very crucial to your success?
HBM: The crying! You have to feel all the things. You have to feel overwhelmed because the balance of "I had to take my daughter to get vaccination shots yesterday, and my son is in seventh grade and we're trying to figure out his schedule" and all those things. The balance is hard and you have to let yourself cry. And those are the things we don't post online.
E!: Best business advice you've received?
HBM: My husband was the first person that was like, "Say no." And it has given me so much freedom and also opened the doors for me to do the things that I really wanted to say yes to.
E!: Confidence, do you have it, or is it something that you struggle with?
HBM: I am confident for different reasons at this point in my life. But I would say becoming a mother and becoming a business owner have been really important milestones in my life.
E!: How difficult is it for you to juggle motherhood and being a badass woman at the same time?
HBM: My kids are so awesome. My son watches every episode of our show, he's so invested in justice. When you include your kids in what you're doing, it doesn't feel like as big of a hurdle. They want to know that what you're passionate about is something you want to share with them.
E!: What is the proudest moment in your career thus far?
HBM: Being a cheerleader last year for Devonia Inman. Devonia Inman was the very first case we covered on It Couldn't Happen Here. The Georgia Innocence Project did an outstanding job of pushing for an exoneration for him, and our show just happened to air right before the state was making their decision on whether to prosecute him again or let him go. Right before Christmas, they let him go home to his parents and I cried so hard. I could not have been happier. There's that phrase, like, if you could just free one innocent person...and our show helped right out of the gate. If we could recreate that magic, there's just nothing like that.