Tim Matheson (Covert Affairs)

Tim Matheson: The Interview (Covert Affairs)

Tim Matheson isn't an A-List actor by any means but he has a very recognizable face.  Known for his comedic roles in movies like Van Wilder and Fletch, Matheson recently took up directing on USA's Burn Notice and now tackles their latest hit, Cover Affairs.  We sit down and talk with Tim about the show and his career...

SHAKEFIRE: Do you approach directing each episode differently, like say, the Covert Affairs premiere versus what we saw in White Collar?

TIM MATHESON: Oh, totally.  And great question, Matt.  And first off, I’d just like to say hi to everybody.  I’m so happy to be here and talking about my favorite shows that I get to work on and my favorite network. 

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 sort of 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.

SF: Okay.  If you just had to peg yourself in one word, would you be more an actor or a director?

TM: 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 was—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.

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

TM: Well, you know 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’d just—honestly, I never got back to it. 

In the mid 80s, I think I produced a movie called Blind Fury for Tristar, and I sort of 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 sort of 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.

SF: As a director, you’ve become pretty involved with USA.  Tuesday, for example, as mentioned, you did both shows and so the evening was essentially a Tim Matheson double-feature.

TM: Sorry about that.

SF: I’m wondering how did you become involved with USA and how do you feel about being seen now as a master of the blue sky style?

TM: Thank you.  After I’d done it a couple of years—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 just said—you know, after 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 I was fortunate enough—Mel Damski over on Psych, it was very fortunate—was very generous and invited me to come over, and I just said—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 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.

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

TM: 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 try—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.

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

TM: Yes.  I understand, I think, the problems, maybe, of the actors a little better than a lot of directors.  And you know another great thing about being an actor was I’ve been—and especially as a kid actor; all my life I’ve been an actor –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 sort of 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.

Peter Oberth
Interview by Peter Oberth
Follow him @ Twitter