Growing up in Hollywood is never an easy feat. But if you’re actor/director Tim Matheson it’s been a pretty sweet ride with no end in sight. While other actors who began their careers as kids oftentimes find life kicking them in the ass, Matheson has successfully proved time and time again that his mark in show business—the business he loves so sincerely—is all about the long haul and the impression you make over time.
Running down the list of hits, classics, and industry mark-makers he’s found himself both acting in and directing would prove to be a lengthy one. Therefore, to sum it up, I decided to catch up with actor Tim Matheson about his career, the importance of longevity, and how Hollywood continues to challenge him each and every day, from “Animal House” to the more recent “Hart of Dixie.”
The Smoking Jacket: You’ve been in the industry for a very long time. What would you consider your first noticeable role?
Tim Matheson: I was very lucky early on. I think I landed on my feet in “The Virginian.” I think that may have been the beginning for me, a ground floor. The show was done over at Universal and I was there for four years and used that time to study a lot. I studied classical theater, Shakespeare, voice acting, etc. That was my attempt to recreate my drama education.
TSJ: I don’t want to say you were typecast, but up until “Animal House” you did play a lot of the straight man roles. What changed when that film came along?
TM: It was such a different role for me. I read that script and worked so hard on thinking how I could do that character. I started taking improv classes at the Groundlings here in Los Angeles to try and break out of the mold I was in.
“Animal House” was the first comedy I had ever done really. Initially, they didn’t want me; they thought I’d be better suited for one of the Omegas. Yet, just out of begging they let me audition for Eric Stratton and thankfully it all worked out.
TSJ: I’d say so. You’ve since gone on to becoming an accomplished actor in both drama and comedy. I don’t know if people realize how difficult that actually is. You can surely see the different skillsets that are needed for each one.
TM: Oh god, yes. Almost anything is drama, but comedy is a very serious skill that one needs to learn and practice. When I started directing comedy I learned a lot about the structure and the pacing of jokes and such. It’s something I had seen acting in comedy but for some reason when I started directing I really noticed it.
I worked with Ryan Reynolds on “Van Wilder;” he’s a classic example of someone who wants to really study comedy to understand what makes things funny, and also, how to intertwine his own instincts in there. It’s amazing. I’ve found that the people who are successful at what they do…it’s no accident.
There’s a great special on HBO with Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and Louis CK…
TSJ: “Talking Funny.” I love that special.
TM: Isn’t it brilliant?! Just hearing them discuss what makes things funny and the different types of comedy they perform. They’re real craftsmen. Not that drama is easy but there are styles and certain specifics in comedy. If it’s not funny, it’s not funny.
TSJ: Someone like you, who has had success in both comedy and drama – playing anything from the goofball to the straight man and even villain – is there a favorite for you?
TM: I love playing the villain… so much. I was directing “Burn Notice” when they asked me to play the character of Larry Sizemore. He’s a really fun-loving guy who does really bad things, which is the best kind. When you find the opportunity to play the bad guy they generally have the best story. Also, the better the villain, the better the hero. To me, it’s important to have a strong villain, and it’s something actors can oftentimes sink their teeth into. It’s a challenge.
TSJ: You mentioned directing, how do you approach directing comedy as opposed to drama?
TM: It’s always critical where the camera is. Maybe less so in comedy. For example, a film like “Bridesmaids,” which I love, you could put Kristen Wiig in any scene and she’ll find funny.
What happened to me, I was doing a lot of procedural shows, so it was always the killing of the week or the hit of the week, and I just had enough. It was hard to go to work. So, I finally decided that since I had a strong background in comedy—and I had been building a name directing—I said let me focus on the thing I love to do the most…humor. From that, I started doing shows like “Psych” and “Burn Notice,” a mix of humor and action. That’s my favorite thing. I think that’s when I really started thriving as a director. But since having started on “Hart of Dixie” I haven’t directed many pilots…which is actually great because it keeps me here. I love it.
“Almost anything is drama, but comedy is a very serious skill that one needs to learn and practice.”
It’s interesting, the twists and turns of a career. I love that I’m able to do so many things – directing, acting, Shakespeare. I really approach each day as, Okay, let’s see what happens.
TSJ: Going along with that notion, since you’ve done so many things, when you go on a show such as “Hart of Dixie,” is it still a challenge at all for you?
TM: Oh, certainly! I think different material presents different challenges. It’s not unlike sports…you can get into a slump. You can have all of these different things going on—especially in your personal life—that can affect your work. And as one grows up in this business, it seems the different age categories affects your work as well. It’s an adjustment, sometimes an emotional adjustment.
With me, I was once a child actor, then a young leading man, then a leading man, and now I’m the dad [laughs] or the adult or senior, whatever. But the point is that you have to adjust. A lot of actors look that as a bad thing, but I don’t see it that way. I tend to welcome everything that comes my way. Longevity is key.
TSJ: I would say that’s a huge thing, longevity. It’s very cool to me that you have “grown up” in the industry. How many people can say that?
TM: You’re right. It’s true. I would say that I was lucky because I didn’t hit as a kid actor. I was always the third kid through the door in a scene or the leads’ friend. I was a working actor doing day-to-day things. No one treated me like a star. [laughs] But now, I think that’s a good thing.
TSJ: I would agree! It seems TV has blown up today with a lengthy list of outlets (Netflix, Hulu, etc.), is there a show on today you’d love to be a part of? Acting or directing…
TM: I personally found “House of Cards” to be exemplary television. I was also stunned by “Breaking Bad;” here we are as a group rooting for this guy to make meth. [laughs] I love that about television today. I hope I’m lucky enough to be involved in something like that in the future.
It’s funny; now that I’m acting more with “Hart of Dixie” as opposed to directing, I’ve sort of fallen back in love with acting. I think about the challenges of shows like “Breaking Bad,” “The Sopranos,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Homeland.” TV is just incredible!
TSJ: In talking to you it seems as if your view on showbiz is still child-like. You really do love it.
TM: Kyle, I really do. I’ve seen too many people become bitter and faceless in this business. I don’t want to be one of them. I still have a tremendous desire for challenges and excitement about doing what I do. When it stops being fun then I’ll just quit. [laughs]
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