Tim Matheson on ‘Killing Reagan’ and Character Versus Caricature

Killing Reagan

Long-term fans may know actor Tim Matheson as “Otter” from the cult-classic Animal House, but new fans may recognize him for his portrayal as the 40th President of the United States in National Geographic Channel’s film Killing Reagan. Matheson slipped so deeply into the role, capturing Ronald Reagan’s mannerisms and charisma, that it earned him a Critics’ Choice Nomination for Best Actor in a Movie Made for Television or Limited Series (the film also earned a nomination, along with co-star Cynthia Nixon).

I had a chance to talk to Matheson about this role, the fine line between character and caricature, and whether he’s up for his next presidential challenge.

Congratulations on your Critics’ Choice Nomination. Was that a surprise?

Yeah! I was so thrilled and honored. It’s good company. They nominated a lot of presidents. (Laughs.) [Bryan Cranston was also nominated for playing LBJ in All the Way.] It was really a treat. I just thought it was fantastic.

I’m always amazed by actors who are able to take these prominent figures and make them more than just impersonations. How do you tackle creating a character without creating a caricature? You do it so well. I’m sure it had to be challenging.

Thank you. I find it’s very intimidating. What I really didn’t want to do was an impression. Yes, it has to have elements of the character, because he’s so well-known and revered by so many people. I just wanted to make sure that I honored that. But I thought the most important element for me was the heart. That, to me, was really what it was all about. You found out what was going on inside the man. It’s really a love story between Ronnie and Nancy. Of course, I constantly was listening to his voice. I had a dialect coach to work on getting the Midwestern accent, sanitized by Hollywood. He had a very distinctive, warm quality to his voice. So I would work on those things and the physicality of it, then I just let go of that and just tried to get his heart.

Killing Reagan
Courtesy of National Geographic Channel

You did an excellent job. Did you read the book before taking on the role? What kind of research did you do?

I started with the script. Once I felt there wasn’t a political agenda there, that it wasn’t slanted politically in one direction or the other, then I jumped in and read Killing Reagan and every book I could find on Ronald Reagan. There are libraries full of stuff. I also read most of the stuff that he personally wrote, like his autobiography. I read Nancy’s books, all of the books his advisers wrote. I just tried to get as much under the skin of the man and the backstage of it all. That’s really what our story was, a peek behind the curtain, into the palace. I just wanted to make sure we weren’t taking license and captured exactly what was going on.

You and Cynthia Nixon work really well together on screen, and she was also nominated for a Critics’ Choice award. What was it like to work with her?

She’s a champ. (Laughs.) I had so much fun working with Cynthia. She makes it very easy. She’s a wonderful single partner, if you’re just playing opposite her, or doubles partner, if you’re playing scenes with her opposite other people. It was wonderful. When we were together, we were this united team. I always felt she had my back and was protecting me as Ronnie. I could always count on her. They just had a very intimate connection, Ronnie and Nancy.

Personally, I didn’t realize how much of a role Nancy had in Ron’s campaign. In the beginning of the film, she fires someone. What surprised you when working on this film? Was there anything you didn’t know about Reagan until taking on this role?

I was surprised they were such a singular couple. She was his closest aid and ally. She was the bad cop, he was the good cop. That was in his nature. He was an optimist and didn’t like confrontations with people or firing people. But when he had to do it, he could rely on her to be a good judge of whether it needed to happen. She was that person who really was always so honest with him and he could trust her judgment in that regard. She had a good read on people. He’d see the best in people, and she’d see the truth in them.

You have a Netflix movie called 6 Balloons coming out soon, with Dave Franco, Jane Kaczmarek, and Abbi Jacobson of Broad City. What can you tell us about that?

killing reagan
Photo by Kate sZatmari

It’s a very intriguing story about codependency and how families deal with having a drug addict, what they do, and how they deal with those things. It was wonderful to do something so out of the ordinary and so unique. There are certain sequences in it that are ultra real, and then there are certain scenes that are fantastical. I’m always looking to do something new and innovative and daring. It was a great chance for me to play in a whole different way. I have high hopes for the film.

So you’ve played JFK. You’ve played Reagan. We have a new president now. Are you up to the challenge to play Trump?

Well, I think Alec [Baldwin] did the best. I’d like to put on a white wig and go back and play the early presidents. I think the Trump story is yet to be written, so we’ll have to see about that.

That’s true. Are there any other presidents you’d like to play?

I think they’re all fantastic and fascinating. Because it takes a singular individual to want to be president and then to become president. It’s really the American version of Shakespeare’s Histories. I love doing character roles. I just look for the next one to be hopefully as challenging as working on Reagan was, with as good of a cast and director like Rod Lurie.


Check your local listings for showtimes of Killing Reagan on National Geographic Channel. 

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