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Tim Matheson Interview: An Intimate Conversation with the Star of "Killing Reagan"

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Image attributed to Kevin Thomas Photography

Tim Matheson

Actor, director and producer Tim Matheson is perhaps best known for his portrayals of the smooth-talking Eric “Otter” Stratton in the 1978 comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House and of Vice President John Hoynes in the critically acclaimed political drama The West Wing.

During his career that has spanned some 55 years, Matheson is also known for voicing Jonny Quest in 1964 and acted in many television shows including My Three Sons, Adam-12, The Virginian, Room 222, Here’s Lucy, Ironside, Medical Center, Rhoda and St. Elsewhere, directed episodes of Dirty Sexy Money, White Collar, Criminal Minds, Suits, Drop Dead Diva, among others, and appeared in several movies made for television.

“My mother and grandmother were from the south, and they were yellow dog Democrats. I was raised in the Civil Rights era. My mother worked for John Kennedy, campaigning. So, that’s how I grew up. I didn’t like Reagan as a governor because it seemed like the homeless population increased overnight when he closed all of the mental health facilities in California. There were budget cutbacks. I’m not saying that good or bad, but just all of a sudden, there were homeless people everywhere. It just seemed to be a direct correlation to him.”

Film appearances include Yours, Mine and Ours, How to Commit Marriage, Magnum Force, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, To Be or Not to Be, Fletch, Black Sheep, A Very Brady Sequel, The Story of Us and Redline.

Matheson plays President Ronald Reagan in a television film adaptation of the 2015 novel Killing Reagan. The film explores the events surrounding the assassination attempt on the president’s life by John Hinckley, Jr. Killing Reagan begins in the final months leading up to the 1980 presidential election and explores the challenges Reagan faced to define himself as a leader. The movie also stars Cynthia Nixon as Nancy Reagan and Kyle S. More as John Hinckley, Jr. and premieres October 16, 2016, on the National Geographic Channel.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tim, tell me about your research in preparing for the role of Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States.

Tim Matheson: I just read and try to surround myself with as much information about any character. With Reagan, there’s so much material and so much video material. I was working out listening to speeches, had a vocal coach. I don’t do impressions. It’s never been who I am, so I didn’t want to focus on that too much as much as just getting it in the ballpark, so that people don’t say, “Oh. That’s not Reagan. That sounds more like Jack Kennedy.”

I didn’t want to get caught up in that because I think that’s one of the traps of those things. A lot of times, we have English, Australian or South African actors playing American parts, and they get distracted by doing an accent rather than playing the emotion or the logic of the character. So, I just wanted to be mindful of that. I can’t act politics, so I was just trying to find out the most I could about the man, who he was, what made him tick.

Reagan was like my parents were at that same age. They were children of the depression and it had an effect on them. So, I readily understood as I got into him. He was very much like my mother, very relentlessly positive and optimistic like, “Gosh, this is going to be fine. Gosh, we can make this work.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was there anything you found in research that you had not known about him?

Tim Matheson: Yes. You know, Reagan was religious, but he wasn’t in an orthodoxy way. His father, I think, was Irish Catholic and his mother was Presbyterian, as I recall. But, there was a strong belief in a higher power. When he was shot, I think he quickly came to the realization that he had to forgive Hinckley, or he couldn’t go on.

He thought that he was spared for a higher purpose. Reagan was 70 then, but he spent the rest of his life imbued with this purpose that he wanted to bring about the escalation of the nuclear arms race. He did find direction out of that calamity and that near death experience of being shot.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I read that a couple of years after Reagan was shot, he wanted to meet with John Hinckley in person at the psychiatric hospital to tell him he forgave him.

Tim Matheson: Wow. Really? I didn’t know that. Jesus. Wow.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes. However, the doctors at the hospital gently told him that would not be a good idea.

Tim Matheson: (laughs) Oh, God.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Of course, it’s ironic that John Hinckley, Jr. was released from the hospital last month. It certainly makes Killing Reagan even more relevant right now. What is Reagan’s legacy?

Tim Matheson: My mother and grandmother were from the south, and they were yellow dog Democrats. I was raised in the Civil Rights era. My mother worked for John Kennedy, campaigning. So, that’s how I grew up. I didn’t like Reagan as a governor because it seemed like the homeless population increased overnight when he closed all of the mental health facilities in California. There were budget cutbacks. I’m not saying that good or bad, but just all of a sudden, there were homeless people everywhere. It just seemed to be a direct correlation to him.

So, I didn’t vote for him the first time, but I voted for him the second time. I must say that he’s the only Republican I’ve every voted for, and I voted for him the second time because I liked him. I liked what he did for the country. After Jimmy Carter, the hostage crisis and the economic calamities and all of the 1970s, here was an older man, a father figure, who came along and stabilized the country. Patriotism wasn’t a bad thing. He carried it to extremes, but looking back on it now, it wasn’t that bad at all (laughs). But, Reagan was a man with a purpose. It was really simple to him. He approached things in a really simple, positive way.

It was one of those things where he was the right guy at the right place at the right time, and I thought he was just what the country needed. I think that he fulfilled that promise. He did triple the national debt, but I don’t know that’s such a bad thing. There was an economic prosperity that happened, and I think that he was part of that. But, I think it was a balancing act between the right and left.

As I look back on it, FDR had his fireside chats, and Reagan, I think, was the first president to have those Saturday morning presidential radio addresses because he had that voice, and he had that kinship with the audience. He used that. I think that helped him get elected, but also helped him connect to the American people. That is one of the critical things that a president needs to do. If you don’t do that, you lose them, then that is disastrous. Carter was a lovely man, but I don’t think a very good president. You need to keep that relationship with the American people, and I thought Reagan did that better than almost anyone.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever thought about running for political office?

Tim Matheson: I don’t think that’s me. I think I’m better off writing a check or throwing my two cents out there. I do fundraisers occasionally and try to help certain people. I think there are more people focused and directed to doing that than I am. There are probably too many things about being an actor and too many things I’ve said or done that would come back and haunt me and maybe get in the way of that. I’ve tried to get involved in the Screen Actors Guild and a few other political organizations. I just find it … the pace is so glacial that it’s very hard to be reasonable (laughs). So, maybe it’s not my strong suit.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The difference between Republicans Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump?

Tim Matheson: Ronald Reagan was a team member and a team builder, and he was a very accomplished politician. He was an accomplished governor. He had deep principles, whether I believed in him or not. He had deep political principles and he acted upon them. He was a rational, caring human being.

There was this great documentary that David Brinkley did. NBC News did a “Day in the Life of the Presidency,” and it was Reagan. They did it with Clinton, too, I think. But, it was before the assassination attempt. It was about 30 days after he took office. They spent a day with him with cameras and followed Jim Baker and Mike Beaver around, the troika that ran the Reagan White House.

Reagan always had a joke because he’d been a movie star. But, he was kind of a “B” movie star, so he’d been humbled. He wasn’t Humphrey Bogart. He wasn’t John Wayne. He wasn’t Henry Fonda. He wasn’t that great an actor, honestly. He was okay. But, he made people comfortable. Reagan wasn’t an egomaniac, and it wasn’t all about him. He said, “You can accomplish anything if you don’t care who gets the credit.” I’m paraphrasing, but it was one of those things that’s like the quintessential Reagan.

He could work with Tip O’Neill. He could work with people, and he knew how to pressure them, but he always said, “If I can get 75 or 80% of what I want, why would I not take it? I don’t have to have everything. You can’t get everything.” He was a Union negotiator, and that’s where he had the patience because those contracts are just painful. It’s just painful to get involved with those things.

Mr. Trump hasn’t been vetted. He hasn’t been tested or disclosed. There’s so little that people know about him. And, he’s also temperamental. He seems very unstable in my mind. Reagan was none of those things. Reagan was very measured. He was very thoughtful, he understood diplomacy, and he understood negotiation. He understood politics. I don’t think anything like that applies to Trump.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Former Reagan, Bush official Robert Tuttle has endorsed Hillary Clinton, as other prominent Republicans have done.

Tim Matheson: Yeah. I think you’ve got to put country ahead of party. That’s the one thing that’s been lost in the last eight years perhaps. It’s like Reagan said when he was leaving office that he was going to continue to work. He wanted a line-item veto. He wanted an end to gerrymandering, the thing I think, which has brought about this horrific obstinacy of people getting elected just to oppose things and not really make deals in Congress. Congress is there to make deals and figure out some ways to help people in this country or advance policy.

Gerrymandering has brought about Trump and a Congress that is just these people that don’t want to govern. They just want to blockade everything. The third thing Reagan wanted was term limits. He said, “I’d go for a 3rd term in office. If the people want that person in office for a 3rd term, I think they should be able to have that.” I don’t know if I disagree with any of those things.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As a former Marine, how do you feel about sports figures and others protesting by staying seated during the national anthem?

Tim Matheson: Well, that’s what we fight for. You can burn the flag. You can sit down during the national anthem. I don’t care. It’s not what I’d do, but they have a right to their opinions and their demonstrations of those opinions. It provides us an opportunity to discuss it. I think that’s fine.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did it happen that you began acting at age 13?

Tim Matheson: My parents went though a divorce, and like they all are, it was somewhat traumatic. I used to go and hide out in the movie theaters on the weekends just to get away. I’d watch movies over and over again. It was a place of solace. It was almost like going to church for me. I got popcorn, and I’d sit there and watch them over and over again. I’d watch the serials and the cartoons. It was a great place to go and I just found solace there. It was comforting to me.

I guess when I was in the 6th grade, I just knew that I always wanted to be an actor. When I went into the 7th grade, we lived in Burbank. I just started reaching out and trying to become an actor, joined theater groups, took drama class. I also got an agent and started getting a couple of lines here and a couple of lines there. I was like the third kid through the door in many of those television shows.

It was a dream come true for me because we were a lower middle class family. I was looking for ways to make money and help our situation. It was to that end, but I always wanted to to be an actor. We shot movies around our neighborhood. My buddies and I would put movies together, write and direct them. I was just one of those lucky kids. I always knew what I wanted to do. It was never a question.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you have mentors in show business as a teen?

Tim Matheson: No. I didn’t really. I had good agents. I had people who believed in me. When I was 15 or 16, I started doing the voice of Jonny Quest in that ABC cartoon, and Joe Barbera was a good guy. I’d never done that kind of thing before. After Jonny Quest, I did Sinbad Jr. and Young Samson, so I did those two shows for him also. I wrote an episode or two for him, and I’d pitch stories to him. My interest was always behind the camera as well. So, in a sense, Joe was one of the people who encouraged me for that, and he bought a script I wrote and we shot it for Young Samson.

I think Joe was the first one to really encourage me to do that. My mom always encouraged me in whatever I wanted to do. She was just relentlessly positive about what my choice was. If I didn’t like it, she didn’t want me to do it. It wasn’t one of those stage mother stories in that I was forced to do those things. Not at all.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why were you interested in auditioning for Animal House?

Tim Matheson: You know what that was? I was 26. I’d been under contract at Universal. I’d done a lot of westerns. I was in The Virginian, Bonanza, in The Quest with Kurt Russell. Then, I was doing guest shots on all these television shows at Universal and fooling around, and they were all the same type of character. It would be a nice guy, kind of upper middle class, the kid next door.

I got so tired of playing the same crap over and over, so I started taking improv at the Groundlings out here in California. It gave me a freedom. I’d never really done any comedy. So, when I read Animal House, I said, “I’ve got to be in this movie.” It was the best script I’d ever read, the best comedy and a totally different kind of thing. I loved the Lampoon. It was rude and crude and funny.

I kept banging on that door. I couldn’t get in. I couldn’t get in. I couldn’t get it in. Finally, just out of desperation, they said, “Let him audition. Who cares? Then, you can turn him down.” I got to improvise with Peter Riegert, the audition went very well, and I got the part. It was like a dream come true because I was just tired of doing all that other stuff. I just kept looking for other ways out.

I discovered something for me that’s really true. Every five or six years or so, you need to mix it up and find a different way of working or looking at it or different style. You’ve got to shake it up because there are cycles, and if you just keep doing the same thing, you’re going to end up doing the same thing, then pretty soon, that thing gets out of fashion. Maybe it’ll come back in fashion, but then you’re doing it again 10 or 20 years later, so who cares?

I just wanted to keep growing and changing. As you age, the parts you get change and differ, so you want to still be doing interesting, challenging work. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to take up directing.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, you picked a film that was to become one of the greatest comedies of all time to mix things up a bit!

Tim Matheson: Oh, my God, yeah! Animal House holds up really well, and those were some of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with, Harold Ramis, Doug Kenney, Chris Miller, John Landis and Belushi. It was a wild ride and it was quick. We shot it in five weeks.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your directing on television goes back to 1984 with St. Elsewhere?

Tim Matheson: I started there, did an episode of St. Elsewhere, yeah. Then, I did a lot of TV movies and back into episodic. I did the pilot for Covert Affairs, then a bunch of pilots. Once I went into acting on Hart of Dixie, I was also directing there. Since I was in that show for four years, I got away from television directing. I’m now getting back into it a little bit.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is it difficult directing a TV show where you’re also an actor?

Tim Matheson: Yeah. It’s challenging. I’ve done it. But, you need a good cinematographer. You need good actors, cooperative actors. You just need the right circumstances. Otherwise, it can get very stressful (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your favorite character out of all that you’ve played?

Tim Matheson: (laughs) I think in comedies perhaps Animal House, but in dramas, perhaps John Hoynes in The West Wing. In horror films, I played in this little movie called Buried Alive that Frank Darabont directed for USA network many years ago. That was a great experience. All those were different kinds of roles for me. In Buried Alive, for half of the picture, I didn’t have any dialogue. It was all emotion and reaction. They’re all challenging in different ways. I just love mixing it up because it’s so much fun.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are your kids in the entertainment industry?

Tim Matheson: My son is an engineer right now at Boeing in Charleston, South Carolina, so he’s not involved in it. He’s a deep thinker. He’s fun. My oldest girl, Molly, is an agent at William Morris Endeavor, and she is part of the management team of their investment fund. So, she’s in a whole wing of the business, the digital division, that I’ve never been involved in. She’s doing really well. She was on that Forbes magazine list of the top 30 young people in the country to watch. Her sister, Emma, runs the marketing division of the Brooklyn Bowl in Brooklyn, London and Las Vegas. She’s got that organization. She plans music festivals and does all sorts of stuff. She’s really engaged and involved. She has a ball. I’d say that’s sort of show business too, yeah.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s coming up, Tim?

Tim Matheson: I’m working on a picture now for Netflix. It’s called 6 Balloons. It’s a heavy drama. I’m playing the father of a heroin addict. The father and daughter takes care of the son. Jane Kaczmarek plays my wife. It’s a little independent film, but it’s one of the best scripts I’ve read in a long time, so, it’s interesting and exciting to be involved in it.

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