Tim Matheson has spent the better part of his life in front of the camera. Beginning his career at the age of 13, Matheson appeared in Robert Young’s CBS nostalgia comedy series “Window on Main Street” during the 1961-1962 television season. His hard work and dedication to his craft would lead him to a gig providing the voice of the lead character in the cartoon program “Jonny Quest” as well as the voice of “Jace” in the original animated series “Space Ghost.”
He furthered his impact on the pop culture landscape when he landed the role of Eric “Otter” Stratton in the 1978 comedy “Animal House,” a film destined to become one of the most beloved comedy’s of all-time. but has had a variety of other well-known roles both before and since. Those roles include critical accolades for his playing “Vice President John Hoynes on the television series, “The West Wing,” which garnered him two Primetime Emmy award nominations for Best Guest Star in a Drama Series. Having now entertained audiences over the last 50 years, Matheson is a luminary in the business.
Matheson currently stars as “Dr. Brick Breeland” in The CW series, “Hart of Dixie,” opposite Rachel Bilson. He has and continues to direct several episodes each season throughout the series. Not limited to “Hart of Dixie,” Matheson has made a career of directing an array of episodic projects on some of television?s most prominent shows, including “The Last Ship,” “Burn Notice,” “Criminal Minds,” “Without a Trace,” “Cold Case,” “Numbers,” “Drop Dead Diva,” “Suits,” “Eureka” and “White Collar,” as well as pilots for Fox’s “The Good Guys” and the USA Network successful original series “Covert Affairs.”
One of the most fascinating parts of Tim Matheson’s ever-evolving career is work as a producer. One of his latest endeavors finds him option a script for an award-winning foreign film called “I Hate The Dawn.” His interest in bringing this material to American audiences sparked a fantastic relationship with the National Down Syndrome Society. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Tim Matheson to get a look inside his amazing career, his creative process, current and upcoming projects, work with the National Down Syndrome Society and much more.
They say a career in the entertainment industry isn’t for the faint of heart. How did you get started on your journey?
Very slowly! I always wanted to be an actor as a kid in the 1950s. I was in sixth grade and I used to spend all weekend at the theater watching movies over and over. My parents went through a divorce when I was 6 or 7, so I would sit and watch movies. In those days, you could just stay in the theater and watch them over and over and over again. I found a sort of solace in that. It just made me feel better. Every time you looked at a movie, it was exactly the same as it was the previous time or you might see different things in it. When I got back to LA, I had lived in San Bernardino for a year in the sixth grade, I said, “I want to be an actor.” One thing led to another and my mother’s boss had a son who had an agent. Through them, I got some auditions and finally got a part! I got a day here or a day there. I was the third kid through the door but not an important part. For me, it was exciting because I got to learn on the job and it led to bigger parts. I worked irregularly throughout my teens. Then I started doing cartoons and “Jonny Quest” when I was 15 and 16. It was a slow and steady thing. It was a lot of on the job training and I would take classes as well but I always knew I wanted to be an actor.
What really kickstarted your professional drive at an early age?
I was always studying but I did look at other actors as mentors. I found something early on that really helped me. I used to listen to music as I studied a script. It was a funny thing. The emotions in the music would sort of match the emotion in the script and, by listening to the music, it would put me in the mood and get my emotions going. I arbitrarily found that as a young actor. I found it really released my emotions and helped me get into the mood for the scenes. That is a technique that a lot of actors use. There was a point, though, when I was in my early 20s, that all of the technique and stuff I had developed as a young actor came together. I was doing an episode of a TV show, I think it was “Owen Marshall,” and it was a really emotional scene. For whatever reason, I hadn’t prepared properly and what I had done in the past didn’t work. The emotion wasn’t there, which I was very used to. It was always there for me. I went home feeling like I was stealing money. I had sort of faked it but I didn’t really give them what I consider my best work. Then I doubled my efforts and started studying again by taking Shakespeare courses, performing in Shakespeare, learning the classics and studying Stanislavski. I tried to spend the three or four years I was under contract with Universal as my college education or Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts study time. It was very instrumental for me to do that at that time because you really need technique. Technique is there to help you through the moments that emotion fails you. If you are doing a play every night, every night isn’t going to be 100% emotional. There will be some nights where you just don’t want to be doing the play, ya know? How do you do it when you don’t feel like doing it? What can lure you into it? Those are the things you learn when you study technique.
You have been working steadily since your youth. To what do you attribute your longevity?
Some of it is luck or as Kevin Ventura, the golfer, used to say, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” I think it is that. I think one needs to create good and healthy work habits and focus on how to prepare for jobs and auditions. There are two sides to it. There is the business aspect of it and a creative aspect of it. You need to have a good agent, a good manager and good business people helping to provide you with the opportunity to apply your creative inspiration to the work. It is a combination of those two worlds. I also learned from other actors. I remember saying to someone, “Every five to seven years you need to reinvent yourself.” The audience sort of gets comfortable with you doing a certain thing in a certain type of movie and, after five to seven years, they want the next thing! I went through various stages in my career. I was a kid actor and then I was in westerns like “The Virginian” and “Bonanza” or “The Quest.” That sort of ran its string and I was kind of tired of the parts I was getting in my early 20s, so I studied improv. Out of that came “Animal House,” “Fletch,” “1941” and “To Be Or Not To Be.” It really opened a whole comedic world that I hadn’t been used to doing. “Animal House” was my first comedy really. After that, there was a whole world of dramatic television movies I got into and then I transitioned to “The West Wing,” where I was sort of the villain of the piece. There were different kinds of things that jumped and re-jumped my career at those different junctures. Then I started directing and producing more, while now I have gone to “Hart of Dixie” with my rural comedic roots. I’m always looking for a new door to open and a new direction to take my career in. Change is good! I think that is what keeps it fresh and vibrant, as opposed to doing the same thing over and over again.
You mentioned “Animal House.” Obviously, I can’t talk to you and not ask if you had any idea it would become the classic it has and what type of impact did it have on you personally?
It really opened tremendous doors for me in Hollywood in terms of movies and recognition within the industry on a certain level. On the set, every day that went by it got a little more clear that this script was really good, these actors are really good, this director is really good and everything seems to be working very well. You would watch John Belushi at the food fight, where he is in the cafeteria eating all of that food, and all it took was one take. He was so remarkably funny, fresh and free as an improv actor. I think that inspired us all to go out on a limb a little bit more and take chances. It also showed us not to overact. It was all very realistically based and somewhat underplayed if you will. There was a realistic context to it all, so we didn’t mug and do a lot of broad schtick and stuff like that. It made me very nervous because I had never done it before but Belushi was very supportive, positive and helpful in helping me believe I could do it.
You mentioned making your transition from acting into directing. Was there a point where you knew directing was something you wanted to pursue and was it a difficult transition to make?
Every transition in show business is difficult. First off, there are always 900 people trying to get your job and get you out of the business every minute of every day. Then, if you want to do another job too, it’s like, “Who the hell are you? Every actor wants to direct.” It is always very difficult to get the first person to let you do that thing. Then the second person is even harder than the first! I bought the rights to a script, which was a thriller. I took it to Universal and they wanted to do it. I said, “I will let you do it but I want to direct. I’ll produce it and direct.” They said, “Oh no. How about you do the next one?” It is always the next one! [laughs] I said, “No. We aren’t going to do this unless I direct it.” Candidly, I sorta knew what I was doing but the first time you direct you don’t have a clue. There are certain areas of the show that are more challenging than others and we got into trouble a couple of times. However, you really learn to direct in the editing room. When I got into the editing room with a now Oscar winning editor, Chris Rouse, I learned so much, and another editor, Bob Ferretti. The more you do it, the more you learn. You say, “Oh. Next time I am in this situation I will just grab that shot. Then I will have it and that shot will bail me out of a bad situation if I don’t have the coverage.” You really sort of gain your chops in the editing room. Fortunately, as an actor, I am on a lot of different sets with a lot of different directors, so I have experienced a lot of sets. Where as, most directors don’t go on other director’s sets. That is the good fortune of being an actor.
Has the way you prepare for both acting and directing changed through the years? Is it always a learning process for you?
It is always new because you have never done the same scene before. Every character is a little different, so it doesn’t really get stale. It is always challenging and you always have the what-if factor. It’s similar to sports in a way. Take Peyton Manning for example, he has a couple of bad games and it’s, “Oh. It’s all over for Peyton.” Jeez! What have you done for me lately?! That is sort of my business and the sports world and show business. What happened yesterday in the old reviews, that isn’t going to help!
You have been a big part of “Hart of Dixie.” What was it about the project that attracted you and what has the experience been like as a whole?
It started out where they wanted me to be a recurring guest actor and I did. I did the pilot and I wasn’t a regular. Then things sort of clicked with me and the character. I was working with Jason Ensler, a director I had worked with on the Martha Stewart movie and a couple of other things. He and I sort of spoke the same language and I really liked the way he thinks and directs. As the character evolved and developed, they got more interested in me being a regular, so they added me as a regular. It was a fun character and a challenge! Then they asked me to start directing and it was like, “Wow! And it’s close to my home in Hollywood and I get to do all of these things that I love! What’s wrong with this picture?!” I have been doing it for four years and it has been very rewarding and fun. The show is a throwback to an old kind of TV series like “Mayberry” with Andy, Opie and Aunt Bea. It’s Mayberry with sex. It’s just a fun, fun show. It is great to go to work every day and laugh and find the jokes.
You certainly have a lot of irons in the fire at the moment. You are also serving as producer for the film you recently optioned, “I Hate The Dawn.” What can you tell us about the project?
It is a funny title. It is an Iranian film that was originally called “I Love The Dawn” but the Iranian government made them change the title because they thought it might be reflective of call to prayer in the morning, meaning, “I hate prayers in the morning.” Anyway, we are calling it “Weather Permitting.” It is about a young man that is an assistant to a famous director on a movie set. He is going through a terrible day in his life. He has broken up with his girlfriend and his life is in chaos. It is the events on the set during about a half a day with this amazing director and all of the characters, different personalities and eccentrics that are on a movie set. It speaks to my life because I have lived on a movie set for most of my life! It is how these people help this young man get through this day and help him realize that whatever he thought his problems were, they aren’t as bad as he thought. The other thing that is really fascinating is that two of the actors in the film, within the film, are actors who have Down Syndrome. That is another aspect of it that I found very interesting, charming, sweet and loving. It has also helped me learn more about people who suffer from Down Syndrome, what their life experience is like and how they can expand and enhance their life experience in spite of having this affliction. I am emceeing the fundraiser for the National Down Syndrome Society in New York at the end of this month. It has really helped me learn about that but, more than anything, it is a movie I fell in love with because it is sort of the story of my life. I could relate because whenever I had a hard time or when there were moments in my life that were challenging or emotionally devastating, I was going to work and into a situation that I knew and where people cared about me, took care of me, helped me and provided me a safe place to do the work that I did. That allowed me to work through my feelings. This movie is a story like that. It is a glimpse behind the scenes of making a movie and the people that are involved. It is a very sweet, lovely little movie.
How did you get involved with the National Down Syndrome Society?
Basically, when I got the movie I realized I didn’t know very much about Down Syndrome and I had never worked with anyone who had it. I called the experts who are the most knowledgeable about the situation. I reached out to them and they looked at the movie. We talked, talked and talked! If we are fortunate to get it into production, they’ll be even more instrumental in helping me find the right actors and make sure we deal with the subject in a sensitive and appropriate way, so that we are laughing with the actors with Down Syndrome and the situation rather than laughing at them. That is one of the things that is so wonderful about the movie. Of all the actors on the set, perhaps the most responsible and least trouble are the two actors who have Down Syndrome. The other actors are even more eccentric! It keeps it all in context! The film itself, “I Hate The Dawn,” has just gained entrance to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in the International Competition, so it will be entered into the festival this January.
You have been in the industry since your youth and built a tremendous resume along the way. What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to young creatives who look to follow a similar path?
Gosh, ya know, I just keep going. Some days are better than others. That is the crazy, wonderful thing about this business. You can be in the worst of a situation but then the phone rings or all of a sudden you have an audition and it works out. It helps to be very sort of spiritual in a way because you really never know what is going to happen. It is literally one of those worlds where the phone can ring and someone can say, “Hey, I want you to do this … ” or “Come in and audition for this … ” or “See if you like that.” It can be something you don’t even think will work out or is any good that can lead to something that is very rewarding. It is a crazy, crazy world and you just have to trust your talent and skill. I’m also a hard worker, so I am always looking for whatever else I can do to help provide me with other opportunities to go on. I always just keep looking ahead and that would be my advice to anyone.
I want to thank you so much for your time today, Tim! It has been a pleasure and I wish you continued success!
Dynamite! Jason, thank you very much! See ya!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.