Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tim Matheson: Actor, Director, Former Animal House Star

Photo by: Glenn Watson

Tim Matheson’s name used to be synonymous with the classic ‘70s frat film Animal House. But after enjoying almost 50 years in the entertainment business (not bad for a 63-year-old), Matheson has finally seemed to officially shed his Eric Stratton association.

These days, the actor/director is better known as the golden boy of USA Networks, where he frequently works behind the camera and makes the occasional guest appearance on shows like Burn Notice, White Collar, and Covert Affairs.

In a recent interview, Matheson talked about whether he considers himself more of an actor or a director, his role at USA, and the parts he’d like to explore at the network.

Q: Since you’re doing both the acting and directing, do you consider yourself more of an actor or a director?

TIM: I think at the moment—that’s so hard. I think right now I’m more of a director and just in a certain way it sucks up more time because you’ve got to prep a show and then shoot it and then post it. Whereas as an actor, you prep on your own and then you just show up for the production of it, the shooting, and then you’re done. So it’s shorter and sweeter.

Equally rewarding, if the part’s really good, but the rewards from directing; especially directing something like Covert or when I did the pilot for The Good Guys for Matt Nix on Fox it’s really a chance to be wholly creative. As an actor, you’re a member of the orchestra, even if you are first violin. But as the director, sometimes you are the conductor and sometimes the composer; you help the composer with certain passages, perhaps, shall we say.

And so it’s totally enveloping; directing. And acting, if it’s a great part, is equally as enveloping. One’s a performance art, one’s not, and so there’s total distinction and I’m just thrilled that I can do both.

Q: Can you talk about how your acting background helps you with directing episodes of the three shows?

TIM: Yes. I understand, I think, the problems, maybe, of the actors a little better than a lot of directors. And another great thing about being an actor was… I’ve been on a million sets and I’ve worked with and seen a million directors; good ones, bad ones, mediocre ones, middle, and great ones, and most other directors have not had that opportunity, because most other directors don’t go on other directors sets. They just don’t feel comfortable there. That’s my experience. I’ve seen that. I love going on other directors’ sets because I can always learn something.

And as an actor, I sometimes would give a great performance, or what I thought was like, “Wow! I nailed that!” And then I’d go see the film and I’d just realize, “Wow, it wasn’t well-directed because the camera wasn’t in the right place, it just didn’t look good.” And then I’d say, “Wow. Sometimes I didn’t do the best work I’d ever done, but it came across well because it was well-directed.” So I just want to provide the actors that I get to work with the best support and put the camera in the right place that emphasizes and enhances their performance, and create an environment where they can do their best work.

And that’s my job. You’re like the coach on the sidelines at a football game with a playbook, and you just talk to them and say, “Well, you could try this, you could do this, or what do you think?” And any way they want to work is fine with me. I don’t have one particular way of working so I’m just there for the writers and the actors, to get the best out of everything.

Q: So when you have an acting gig, in a sense, you’re like a double agent because you get to watch the director, right?

TIM: That’s right. And I realized really early on, “Should I pay any attention to this guy?” But you know what? I learned something from Donald Sutherland when I was younger. He said, “I give myself totally to the director on every job I do, and sometimes to great effect and sometimes not, but you really ultimately don’t have control. You have control over what you do, but you have no control over anything else, so why even pretend you do?” And I thought, coming from Donald, who I think is one of the finest actors alive, I took that to heart. And so I just give myself to the director’s visions that I work for.

Q: When you joined the White Collar crew, you directed and acted in the same episode. What is it like switching between actor and director?

TIM: I was more nervous on White Collar because it was the first time I had done the show as a director, and so I was a little focused on that, and you’re trying to balance—as an actor, you really want to stay inside the scene, and as a director, you’re totally outside of it observing everything and making adjustments.

So I was a little nervous, and the first day that I acted, I would say that it was a little rocky maybe for me... ith the way everything cut together, it worked well, but it was not the most comfortable day for me. But it all worked out. I love their crew. They’re so supportive and so helpful and Russell Lee Fine, the cinematographer, is a true artist, and he was very helpful to me.

I find somebody on the set; either the producer or the director; there were a couple of people on this show. But Russell was great, and Jeff King, the producer/director on this show, was very helpful to help me; guide my performance.

Q: What’s the key to playing quality bad guys like Larry Sizemore and the architect?

TIM: Well first, I’m fortunate enough to have good writers. And Jason Tracey and Craig O’Neill and Matt Nix on Burn Notice are just the best, and Jeff Eastin on White Collar, so I was fortunate to have those guys. Each show has a different style to it, and Burn Notice
you don’t know who that guy is. There’s more of a mystery to the character. On White Collar, the guy is sort of unmasked right from the start. So there’s a little difference in style there.

I don’t know that I approach it anywhere differently that what’s on the page, but I just try and bring some sense of reality and fun to the character, and Larry on Burn Notice—I’m actually going to go back down there, I think at the beginning of September. I’m acting in another episode, “Larry Returns,” which is going to be fun. I directed the episode right before that, so it should be a lot of fun.

Q: What type of character would you like to play on Covert Affairs?

TIM: A double agent. Anything to work with Piper… I’m such a fan of hers. She’s just the most talented, cooperative, creative actress I’ve worked with and she brings so much that… she was just great. And so was Chris Gorham, all of them were, but especially Piper. Anything that had a lot to do with her, I would be thrilled.

Q: Will you be appearing on any other USA Network series, or is there one that you really, really want to be on?

TIM: Gosh. I never acted in Psych. I just think James Roday is one of the most talented actors around, and having directed him and watched him… I’m always flabbergasted by how easy he makes it look. So he’s a performer that I would love to work with at some point.

Q: You’ve done all of these USA Network shows, do you approach directing each episode differently, for example, the Covert Affairs premiere versus an episode of White Collar?

TIM: Oh, totally. With Covert Affairs, there’s two separate things. When you come into a show like White Collar or Burn Notice, you are coming in as a guest in their house and you really just want to give them an episode that’s been established by their pilot director and in the mold of the shows that they have already established, and that was the case with White Collar and with Burn Notice and Psych, the shows that I’ve done prior.

And then Covert Affairs was the first time I’d ever done a pilot, and because I... had a good rapport and understanding with USA about the kinds of shows they do and the tone of the shows, they offered me the opportunity to direct that pilot, and it was thrilling and exciting for me to get to set the look and the tone of the show, and with such a wonderful cast. I was very pleased with how it all turned out, and I must say, just the opportunity to work with Doug Limon, David Bartis, and the guys over there at their company. It was a tremendous opportunity and it was a great script and I just had a ball creating the world that they all operated in and it was a real treat.

Q: What responsibilities do you feel you have as a director with establishing a show versus coming in and just directing an episode?

TIM: Great distinction. When you come in and do a show that’s already on the air and the look has been set, then my obligation and my function is to distill what that is, and to give them a version of that with some special topspin that maybe you bring to it.

I love working with actors and perhaps I’m good with actors because I am an actor and I appreciate what they do and… I’m there to help. I’m there to help them and I’m there to help the writers. When you come in as a pilot director, then I serve the writers first to try and find out and distill what’s the heart of the show, and then use the actors and support the actors to get to that part in their characters, and then use the camera to help tell the story so that the actors don’t get caught acting, and it sweeps the audience up in it and hopefully it will be over before they realize it and it will leave them wanting more.

Q: You’ve worked steadily as an actor from the time that you were a kid, so how did you become involved in directing?

TIM: Well,  the oddest thing is I always wanted to be a director, and there were periods—I made films when I was a kid, shot them on 8-mm, I shot them on video. I tried to get into film school on a couple of occasions, and what usually happened was that a good acting role would come up and I’d drop everything and just go off and do it, and then that window of opportunity would close and... I never got back to it.

In the mid '80s, I think I produced a movie called Blind Fury for Tristar, and I... got bitten by the bug, and so I just dual-tracked it; I kept producing and directing, ultimately directing on television movies and I’ve always wanted, always been fascinated by that and love it, and it’s so fulfilling to get an opportunity for where my thoughts and feelings about the way things should to be done... parallel the way USA feels that they should be done and to get on shows where they appreciate what I bring to it. It’s a great convergence.

Q: How did you become involved with USA and how do you feel about being seen now as a master of the blue-sky style?

TIM: Thank you… I’d done a lot of procedural stuff and a lot of really good procedural cop shows on television like Cold Case and Third Watch and Without a Trace, and I’d had some really good success with those. But… I got through a couple of years and I just wasn’t having a lot of fun with it, and I wanted to focus more on comedy. And… Mel Damski over on Psych… was very generous and invited me to come over, and… it just felt like home.

To work with James Roday and Dule Hill who I knew from The West Wing, and I had such a good time. And it’s so much fun to go to work and laugh and work with funny people, and… it was more my sensibility. And I mean, I love action-adventure, and I always wanted to do comedy-action movies; action-comedy movies, like Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

So it just fit perfectly into my desire to that, and going from Psych to Burn Notice and then to Covert Affairs; it’s just opened a lot of doors for me because it was a perfect fit and it came at the right time and I was just very excited and happy to be there.

Q: If you were offered, on a regular basis, to be tied down just to one of the shows, would you be interested in that?

TIM: Yes… the trick is to work with the right people, and in that situation, with talented people, yes. I decided a few years ago that after I’d... gotten my sea legs… because I think episodic is the best film school there is, and to go from show to show as a freelance director is the best training you can get.

But at some point I said, “I only want to work with the people that I like, that are good, nice people and fun people, and value what I do.” And everybody’s got different expectations and likes and dislikes. So, if there was a situation that wanted me to participate on a bigger level? Yes, that’d be fun. That’d be great.


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