Tim Matheson moving from the 'Animal House' to 'The West Wing' and beyond
Every so often a film comes along that defines, or redefines, a genre. What Star Wars did for science fiction, National Lampoon's Animal House did for teen comedy. It's the film that upon its release in the summer of 1978, opened the floodgates for all the American high school/college movies that would fill the following decade, and continue to be a pop culture reference in film and TV to this day.
So you can imagine my excitement at getting the opportunity to speak with Emmy-nominated actor Tim Matheson, aka Eric Stratton, aka 'Otter', a leading figure in the Delta house at Faber College.
Matheson has since gone on to perform across multiple genres with critical acclaim, including an Emmy nomination for his role in The West Wing, while at the same time developed a prolific career as a film and TV director. Clearly not one to rest on his laurels, lockdown has given him and his wife time to swap one House for another.
"We're very fortunate. We just finished the construction on a home that my wife and I built. It's a good test run of the place and it's holding up well, and we are too. Just like everyone else, it's challenging but we hope to just weather through it. As an actor, though, you're unemployed a great deal of your life anyway, so it's not much different. You fill your time and then all of a sudden you go back to work and think, "This is going to get in the way of my life." That's your first reaction, but then you think, 'I really need the job'."
It's a job that, broadly speaking, he has always felt the need to change up every few years. Matheson began acting on television at a young age, including many Old West-set series such as The Virginian and Bonanza, as well as voice acting on animated series such as Jonny Quest. Eventually he wanted to further test himself as an actor..
"You have that six or seven-year span of success or attention when you do a breakthrough role, but you can only ride that horse so long. I just think that in Hollywood or in the entertainment industry, you can't keep doing the same thing over and over again. I was doing mostly leading man roles, but just for episodic television. I was the nice guy, nothing edgy, nothing terribly challenging. I was looking to break out and to try and improve my craft in different roles.
"I was studying Shakespeare, I played Romeo at the Theater Festival in San Diego, and at the Globe Theater there. When I started out as a kid actor, it's all naturalism and I was approaching it just to try and make it real and honest. Having done Shakespeare, when you're playing a character that is outside of the realm of your experience, like nobility or royalty, I think that helped me broaden the range of characters that I could play.
"In addition to the classical training, I studied Stanislavski. Then I took improv classes at the Groundlings Theater here in Los Angeles, which was a totally different way of looking at acting. I just kept exploring and trying to broaden my own technique and my own skill set, so that whatever opportunities came up I could say, 'Let me try that'. I found that to be really valuable for me because sometimes you think, 'Well, I would never really do something like this', but then you try it and you learn a great deal from it. It helps in everything you do."
It was improv in particular that would leave an impression, especially for his work in Animal House. So much so, it's something that he recommends all actors experiment with, even if it's a style that ultimately they don't feel is right for them.
"With improv, instead of just studying the lines, the character, the play, and immersing yourself in it, which you do, you just go moment-to-moment and honour your other performers. Sometimes actors can be very selfish when you're in a scene with them, and they don't play well with others. Improv was really great in that sense. There's a great sense of trust and support from and for your other actor, your partner.
"I noticed that when I worked with John Belushi, he never judged anything that I did. It was my first comedy role, really. He was very supportive and very kind and generous with me. That's just part of being in an improv group."
However, it was his experience studying and performing Shakespeare that would serve him well when working on The West Wing, the U.S political drama series that now seems a world away from the political landscape we see today. The show was created by Aaron Sorkin, a writer well-known for demanding fluent delivery of copious dialogue.
"Handling mountains of text and knowing how to approach a part that is lengthy and complex helped me a great deal with The West Wing. You're dealing with a writer as skilled as Aaron Sorkin, and it's dense in language and pace. The classics really helped me approach that. Another of the challenges too – not unlike Shakespeare – was that you couldn't really change the lines. Aaron was from the theater, and as the playwright, you write it down this way, you say it this way. There's no negotiations.
"Having said that, you'd sit down for the cast reading week after week and you would think, 'Well, we just did the best episode of television I could ever do, I don't know how he's going to get anywhere close to doing it again'. Then he would top it the next week. It kept staying so good, so challenging and so rewarding. The characters had such depth and breadth of scope and verbal dexterity."
Despite Matheson's assertion that you don't change any words written by Sorkin, there was one occasion where he did have a hand in changing one delivery – perhaps something born from his experience in improv. It was a scene in which his character Vice-President John Hoynes was addressing the media.
"I was standing there and I had a very long speech to reporters. It's one of those highly paced, extremely verbal, smart-person-just-rattling-off-a-bunch-of-information speeches. In the middle of the speech, I decided I wanted to take a little pause and I added the word 'Uh', did a 90-degree turn with the emotion of it, and then charged off with the rest of the speech. I was trying it out in rehearsal to see if I wanted to bring it up to Aaron and say, 'Hey, I wanted to know if I could I do this.' What I didn't realise was that the cameras were broadcasting a video feed back to his office, and he was watching the rehearsal. Anyway, we did the rehearsal and I was thinking, 'Yes. That works for me. Maybe I'll bring it up if Aaron's around'. As I'm walking back to my dressing room, this white light comes through to the dark set as he comes walking through the door. He says, 'Hey, Tim, keep the 'Uh.' That was very good'. I thought, 'Oh, my God. He's everywhere, he's omnipotent' [laughs]!
"With Shakespeare you have to be totally on the text, and it's all about the text. A lot of writers in television and movies think that you should act that way towards their material, but I've only worked with maybe two or three that have really earned that right. Aaron certainly is at the top that list."
Across his career, Matheson has learned when to make suggestions on the script and when to keep his ideas to himself. It's something that every actor will have to consider and manage throughout their own careers.
"I think you have to honour the writer. You're there to play a character that a writer has created. Some actors are lazy and they don't learn their lines very well, which I find disrespectful. I think it's our duty and our job to say the lines as written. Try them and then if you've worked hard on the material then ask yourself, 'Do I understand it or do I not understand it? What am I missing here? Why does he say this instead of that? Would it not be better if I said this instead of that, or could I cut this line or do I really need to say this?' Things like that. I just think it comes out of the amount of work that a performer does with the text and then earns their right to question it."
Hearing him ask these questions out loud, it's easy to see why he's also forged a career as a director. Devoting so much time to the character as an actor, means understanding many, if not all, of the machinations of the story as a whole. This perspective naturally lends itself to directing, something Matheson pursued while still in his 30s, starting with an episode of hospital drama St. Elswhere and leading to shows such as Suits, Lucifer and Burn Notice.
"A lot of actors think, 'I could do this'. You have a lot of ideas about the way to play a scene. I always enjoyed reading about directors. I was a big Hitchcock fan, a Truffaut fan, and Bergman, De Sica, and Fellini. I realised early on that the reason I was good or better in certain performances than others were because of the director. I'd play a part and I think, 'Wow, I really got that part. I was so into it'. Then I'd see the project and it was not as good as it felt. Then I'd see a part that I played where I thought, 'Yes, I was pretty good but I missed a few beats here and there', yet the performance was better on film than I gave. It was like they put the camera in the right place. They cut it the best way. It was well directed.
"I wanted to take more control over those things and learn about that. It took me a while before I realised that there's a tremendous amount of range to being a good director. It's like different parts actors play, they get good at certain things. Directors can be good at certain things and not good at other things. I remember the first time I ever did any action in a movie and realised, 'I don't know what I'm doing'. I underestimated the amount of time it takes to safely do action. I'd underestimated the amount of material I needed to cut the sequence correctly.
"I was shooting a gun battle. I got a lot of shots of the people shooting at each other, but we needed shots of windows breaking and bullets hitting a car, and I just didn't have those, so the scene didn't cut very well. I was working at Paramount at the time and told my editor to look through some stock shots where I can get bullet hits then inter-cut those to make the scene work. It was one of those things. A car chase is different than a gunfight, and a skydiving sequence is different than a river rafting. There's all these tricks to making movies. Often, the main trick is just to hire the best people around and pick their brains, and let them do it. Let them tell you."
Speaking of picking brains, Matheson has worked with some of the best in the business, including Steven Spielberg and Frank Darabont, so he's had plenty of opportunity to learn from other directors. However, he's also learned from watching and studying as a viewer, and he's clear on what he loves most about telling his own stories.
"Even as a kid, I loved going to the movies and watching these great filmmakers. I would watch a Bergman film three or four times. I'd watch them over and over and over again. You realise some of the techniques that those filmmakers use to create the impact of their movie. That, to me, was the most exciting thing. When I get a script and I'm going to direct, I watch everything ever been made that had anything to do with the subject matter or the style of that. You're first attracted by the material, and then you ask yourself, 'How can I best tell this story? What is the most effective way that I can communicate what the author's intention is? How do I visually augment the story and emphasise this?' I think that, to me, is the greatest challenge.
"There are three segments of making a film. First, there's the writing of it. I love working with the writer to craft the material. Then, the director comes in and looks for the most effective way to tell that story, and chooses the lenses and chooses the actors, the sets, the costumes. All those things are elements of that director's vision. Then the most enjoyable time is editing. I've been pleasantly surprised by what editors can do many times. They can drop a scene, tighten them up, switch scenes around, put a new line in an actor's mouth instead of what they said. It'll give it a whole different feeling and it'll accomplish a lot more intensity.
"It's a very exciting process. Which is one of the reasons why I've not done so much episodic lately, because you really don't get to do all those things when you do episodic. You're sort of a traffic cop. You're trying to try to get this show done for the producers. The actors know what they're doing, they don't need a lot of help, generally speaking, unless it's a new show. You do your cut, which they either pay attention to or don't. You don't have anything to do with the music. You really don't get to do what I love doing as a director when you do a TV movie or a feature, which is create this whole world with everything involved. That's the real joy."
Going back to his work as an actor, we reach a part of the interview where I have a couple of self-indulgent questions. The first is about his experience filming Drop Dead Fred and working with the late, great Rik Mayall who plays the titular character - a childhood imaginary friend who returns to a now-grown woman played by Phoebe Cates. It's a film – I assure Matheson – that is still considered a cult classic here in the UK.
"I know [laughs]. It was so much fun. He was just the sweetest, warmest, funniest, brutally, funny guy. Sadly, I didn't really have that many opportunities to be in a scene with him, just a couple with him and Phoebe. The conceit of that movie I just found so charming. There's an invisible character, and it takes a very particular kind of actor to be able to play that. It's like Puck in Midsummer Night's Dream. He's a sprite, he's a spirit. Rik always found interesting and funny ways to play that. I just recall hardly any take was the same as the one before. It was always different, it was always fresh, which informed the whole scene. He lifted everything up. You knew exactly how to play what you did. It was difficult not to laugh, but he was a delight. Couldn't be nicer."
My next question brings us full circle back to Animal House, in reference to National Lampoon's Van Wilder, a 2002 comedy that helped to kickstart the career of one Ryan Reynolds. Just like Animal House, the film is a screwball college comedy in which Matheson features as the father of Van Wilder. I ask if his involvement was intended to suggest, at least spiritually, that this was a story about the grown up son of Eric 'Otter' Stratton.
"That's a great overview, and if there was any logic to this business, that would've been the way they approached it [laughs]. But what happened was I got an offer to do Van Wilder, but I had a conflict. It also wasn't a National Lampoon movie at that point. My agent couldn't make a deal, so that went away and they went ahead and started shooting with someone else cast as the father. Then they came back and said, 'Okay. We'll pay you what you wanted'. At this point, it still wasn't a Lampoon movie, then it became one when it came out. I didn't even know. Had I known, I would've asked for more money [laughs].
"But I must say, I just loved working with Ryan Reynolds. You spend a day with that guy and you would walk away thinking, 'This guy is the real deal'. He was not only charming and sweet and talented, but he studied comedy. He knew everything I had done. He wanted to ask about Chevy Chase. He wanted to ask about John Belushi. He wanted to ask about every comedy that I had worked on. He was a student of the craft and of the art form. I came away with tremendous respect for him, and was not surprised in the least that the movie was successful and he has since become huge star."
Follow Tim Matheson on Twitter: @Tim_Matheson