Introduction: by Robert Thoms
Tim Matheson has been in the entertainment business since the early sixties. He was in iconic shows like 'Leave it to Beaver', 'Space Ghost', and he was even the voice of Johnny Quest, himself. His career has taken him all over the industry and put him on sets with legends like Mel Blanc, Henry Fonda, Don Knotts, Chris Farley, and Chevy Chase. Despite his nonstop career, he generously took the time to talk to us about three of his most recent projects: playing Larry Sizemore on 'Burn Notice', Brick Breeland on 'Heart of Dixie', and Oliver Tate on the season premiere of 'CSI'.
TVRage (Robert): You have a long résumé with at least two hundred media credits as an actor, a director, and a producer. Is there a certain field that you prefer?
Tim Matheson: No. It’s always about the material – the best material. One of the exciting things about webisodes and television nowadays is that, as motion pictures contract and fewer movies are being made and fewer different kinds of movies are being made, television is getting exponentially better and more exciting. I think, as they said on the Emmys, “It’s a new golden age of television.” There’s such diversity and such intelligence and such fun happening on T.V. It’s exciting at this point to be working in T.V. because I think that’s where the action is.
Movies have a shrinking demographic audience that they’re looking for. Where the action is, where you can really get things done, and get things done quickly, is in television. Whereas, in movies it’s a very small group of people (directors, actors) that are even allowed to do them. It’s much harder to make any headway. I continue to push forward with projects that I want to make in the feature film arena, but I just find it’s really a long-term deal.
TVRage (Robert): Do you think [it’s] going to stay that way now that you have Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon trying to get into television? [In your opinion, will television remain] where it is or will that go down a little?
Matheson: I think that television is in a state of radical change because there are so many young people that don’t even own televisions. They don’t have cable. They don’t have DirecTV. They don’t have satellite. They don’t have anything. They get their television over the internet, and they get their content from the internet. They’re also watching YouTube, Hulu, VUDU, and Apple TV and watching it on their smart phones. So the audience is changing, and I think the medium changes to adapt to the receiver. If you’re watching something on your smart phone, you’re not going to have the same experience that you’d have watching it in an IMAX. Typically, the product will have a different effect on that audience. I think on an iPhone or a smart phone, you don’t spend two and a half hours watching something. You spend two and a half minutes or five minutes watching something.
TVRage (Robert): We’re liking our clips more, yeah.
Matheson: Yeah, or a short webisode or something. You’re filling time, rather than making time to get engrossed. It’s like the difference between looking at a newspaper or a novel.
TVRage (Robert): Have you considered getting into webisodes at all?
Matheson: I’m working on one, yeah. My company I work with – Generate, here in L.A. – we’re developing a webisode now. I look with amusement and appreciation at what Wilson Bethel from 'Hart of Dixie' is doing. He’s done two webisodes for The CW. They have been great. The issue is, as with all entertainment, how do you monetize it? I hate to be so crass, but how do you get something that makes any money? It’s an interesting device, because the entertainment business is based on drawing people to spend money to watch your show. So I think that’s critical because, if it’s entertaining, people will [pay money] to come see your show. Then enough people will do it, and repeatedly do it, to make it worth doing more episodes of or more sequels to...something of that nature.
TVRage (Kimberly): If you don’t mind me interjecting, I had a follow-up question [about the webisodes]. You bring up a very good point about “How do you make money?” from something like that. Would it be in advertising or product placement? Is there even a standard at this point?
Matheson: I don’t think there is. I think everybody is [still attempting] to figure out “How do we make money?” You can make a few bucks on product placement. When I’ve directed shows, like on 'Burn Notice' and we’ve done it on 'Hart of Dixie', you’ll have certain deals with a company. You’ll have to have their [product] in the show and featured in a certain way. Not to be obnoxious, but there is a tradeoff. I remember in 'Burn Notice' – it was Gabrielle’s car – Michael hit OnStar and asked it where some hardware store was. So it was in the story, it was innocuous and innocent, and it helped them defray some of the cost of making the show. I think that’s all well and good, as long as you don’t have your characters dropped in the middle of a commercial: “Boy I really like this OnStar!” You know what I mean? If it’s done subtly and smartly, I think it’s great.
TVRage (Kimberly): Right. When it’s organic and it doesn’t take away from the show. That makes sense.
Matheson: To my mind, in the way it’s changing so fast, Netflix has stood everything on its head. With their own content, such as 'Orange is the New Black' or 'House of Cards', and they’re also gaining exclusivity to shows, like 'Breaking Bad', or certain shows that you can’t get anywhere else except for there. It enhances their fan base, and it also effected the ratings of that show when it came back on the air. I think it was 'Breaking Bad' [that] had the greatest ratings jump they’d ever had, and it’s only been exclusively on Netflix for the past season. It’s all getting tossed up in the air and reinvented, and I think it’s great. I think the one thing that doesn’t change [is] it’s content-driven. Whether it’s comedy or drama, it’s the product. It doesn’t matter if you shoot it on film or shoot it on digital. It’s really about: who’s the writer, who are the actors, who directed it. Just because there’s cheap digital cameras doesn’t mean there’s going to be eight-thousand David Finchers. [Having] cheap access to formats or recording devices doesn’t, all of a sudden, make people become great filmmakers. It’s a long and arduous road. I think a few people can come out of that, but just because people got typewriters and computers didn’t make a lot of brilliant new writers pop out of the woodwork.
TVRage (Robert): True.
TVRage (Robert): You’ve said that being an actor helps with directing because you can relate to other actors, but does it complicate things when you step back into a peer role? Like when you were directing 'Psych', and then doing both [acting and directing] for 'Burn Notice' or 'Hart of Dixie'.
Matheson: When I did it on 'Burn Notice', I had the good fortune of working with Jeffrey Donovan and the other actors on that show – Bruce Campbell, especially – because they were very helpful and fun to work with. They would give me feedback, and Jeffrey really is a strong actor. When you’re in a scene with him, you just go off of what he’s doing – and Bruce too – you’ll always be right. I was fortunate enough to do it on 'Burn Notice' first, and it worked out and it was a really good character. It was very [nerve-wracking]. I just thought, “Oh great. One bullet could kill two careers with this one show.”
TVRage (Robert): Well, you did a good job with 'Burn Notice'.
TVRage (Kimberly): Larry was definitely our favorite character.
Matheson: That’s great. Thank you. Yeah, I had so much fun with that.
TVRage (Kimberly): The thing about Larry that was great for me is that you’re supposed to dislike him but, at the same time, he was so charismatic. [So], how could you? You knew better – your mind knew better – but your heart was like, “Aww...but he’s Larry.”
Matheson: That’s one of the great things about him. Thank you very much. That’s also one of the great things about T.V. [There’s] this new breed of protagonists on television. Starting with 'The Shield' [and] 'The Sopranos', continuing with 'Breaking Bad' and 'House of Cards'. They’re despicable people. You find yourself sympathizing with heinous acts that people do because of the complexity and the wonderful qualities of those characters, and I appreciate you saying that about Larry because it was really fun. It’s really nice to confuse an audience like that. They’re rooting for the bad guy!
TVRage (Kimberly): Exactly!
TVRage (Robert): There are more shows coming out where that’s pretty much the premise.
Matheson: Yeah, 'Dexter' is classic. You’re rooting for this guy to become human and laughing the whole way. They didn’t take themselves so seriously. They allowed it to have elements of comedy, which I think make it even more charming.
TVRage (Kimberly): That is something I love about this era of television. You [rarely] have a spoon-fed good guy and a spoon-fed bad guy [anymore]. There are so many levels.
Matheson: I’ve always operated from the premise, as an actor, that even if you’re playing a villain or a good guy (the good guys are usually the more boring characters), you have to try and find the complexity and the reality of what a good guy is. They always used to talk about bravery. Bravery – and this is a sidebar – but bravery isn’t the absence of fear. Bravery is action despite the fear. So I think the complexity of bravery is to see a man or woman is afraid, and feels the fear but is not paralyzed by it; and, despite the fear, takes action. I’ve always looked at characters and whatever their action is, whatever their role is, [and ask] “What are the other elements of that character that real people go through to make those decisions?” So even like [with] Larry, he would have normal human impulses that he has to overcome to take the actions that he does. I think that's what makes it fun. For all characters that I've ever played I always try to find the underpinnings of it, and the conflicting elements, despite what they end up doing. They’re not just acting a certain way because that’s who they are. We all have very complex things.
TVRage (Robert): You’ve had Matt Nix praise your creativity; and, with you being into art, have you considered writing?
Matheson: Yeah, I’m a terrible writer. I’ve done it to a lesser degree, on occasion, but it’s not really my strength.
TVRage (Kimberly): You guys had such a fun rapport, between Matt [Nix], and you, and Jeffrey [Donovan], and Bruce [Campbell]. It seemed like Larry was such an integral part of the show that when [Robert] told me today how few episodes you were actually in I was like “Are you sure?” You take such a memorable character like Larry and it just feels like he was there throughout.
Matheson: That’s great. Matt was the most generous and supportive person that I’ve ever worked with. He did more for my career, I think, than any ten producers. He gave me tremendous latitude and support and leeway in what I did as a director and as an actor. Then, because of my work on 'Burn Notice', I got the opportunity to direct the 'Covert Affairs' pilot. Because of that, Matt asked me to direct the 'The Good Guys' pilot, which was his second series for Fox. I thought [it] was really a wonderful show. Working with Matt Nix, he’s always the smartest guy in the room – often the quietest – but the smartest. He’s one of those...he cuts right to the heart of it, and he doesn’t come off as a know-it-all or a showoff. He’s just so to-the-point, and it’s a wonderful thing, and he handles the big work, the structure, the characters, so well. It was really an honor to work with him, and I’m eternally grateful for the opportunities that he gave me and encouraged me to thrive at.
TVRage (Kimberly): Was he the one who insisted they bring back Larry for the final season? How did that come about?
Matheson: I don’t know the backstage story to that. I just know that they called me and asked about my availability and we worked it out. I was working on ‘Hart of Dixie’ and they juggled our dates around and figured it out. I know we never saw dead Larry – we never had a body – but there had been a long time since the final episode where I had been killed. I knew this was the last season, so I assumed it might be a flashback or fantasy scene or something.
TVRage (Robert): That had to be fun to film too. You were yelling in his face.
Matheson: It was great. I remember the director was saying “I don’t know if this would happen.” I said, “It’s a dream! I can do anything. He could do anything he wants. There’s no reality to this!” So he goes, “Yeah, you’re right.”
TVRage (Robert): It’s a shame the show’s over.
Matheson: I know.