Tim Matheson on embodying Ronald Reagan in ‘Killing Reagan’

25/11/2018 Posted by admin

Taking on a real-life role for a TV movie can be tricky, but Tim Matheson owns the responsibility with aplomb.

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Mastering the voice, swagger and down-home affability of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan in Killing Reagan, Matheson fits the role seamlessly. At no point is his performance distracting, which is sometimes too much to ask for in TV biopics. At his side is Nancy Reagan, played by Sex and the City alum Cynthia Nixon.

Killing Reagan takes a closer look at the days surrounding the attempted assassination of then-President Reagan in 1981. We get up-close with Reagan and Nancy as well as would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. There’s also analysis of the political vacuum left after the attempt, while Reagan recuperated in the hospital. It’s fascinating to see how his White House team struggled for power and dominance while their leader was out.

READ MORE: John Hinckley Jr., would-be Ronald Reagan assassin, to be released

Global News spoke to Matheson about taking on this major role, how much pressure he felt, and why this particular story has resonance in today’s volatile political climate.

Global News: Ronald Reagan is a pretty iconic figure in history. Did you feel any pressure taking on this role?
Tim Matheson: Absolutely. It was a little daunting at first. Here’s a beloved American president, and not somebody who I was politically aligned with … but I’ve always been intrigued by him. The tendency you have when you act somebody, good guy, bad guy, whatever, you fall in love with them. The more I read about Reagan, I was very conscious of not doing a bad impression of him. I wanted to go to the heart of the character and find that. Yes, I wanted to sound like him and have his mannerisms as much as I could, but I don’t think those things are as important as getting the emotional beats right.

What sorts of things did you do to really get Reagan down?
I read every book and saw every piece of footage. Constantly listened to tapes and did vocal classes, coaching and all that. I came away with a tremendous respect and admiration for him as a human being. He was a superman, relentlessly optimistic, survived the Depression and did well for himself and helped his family. He got to a point in his life when most people retire from the entertainment industry when he felt he had something to offer to this country that he loved so much.

How much do you think Reagan’s acting past helped his success in the political arena?
I think it was vital. He said when he retired, “People always asked how an actor could be president. I don’t know how anyone could be president without being an actor.” You’re playing a part. You’re at a state dinner, a joint session of Congress, you have your role to play, and other people have their roles. He was constantly aware of his place.

READ MORE: Ronald Reagan shooter John Hinckley Jr. leaves DC mental hospital for Virginia

Cynthia Nixon plays Nancy, so at least you have someone by your side taking on the same challenges.
I looked at her one day early on and I said, “Listen. If you ever think “Oh god, that voice isn’t right,” just look me in the eye and tell me, “Don’t do that, Tim.” She said, “You got it. You too.” It’s one of those things, I put it on the table. We wanted to get this right, there’s no false pride here.

Did you discover anything about Nancy and Reagan’s relationship while shooting this?
Yeah, I think it was them against the world. They completed each other. Not to get gooey about it, but we all wish we had something as profound as this partnership. They were partners who could spend hours together, we all want a partner who gets you, fulfills you, helps you, supports you. They sustained it for decades through thick and thin, through turmoil … they both acknowledged that they wished they had been better parents. That bond somehow almost didn’t include enough room for their two kids, Ronnie and Patty. Ronnie and Nancy were all they needed.

He was 70 when he took office, so he’d try to get out of there by 6 p.m., and if he didn’t have to go to a function at night, he’d come home to the residence, they’d take a shower, get in their jammies and sit around in their bathrobes watching an old movie. That’s all they needed.

There are a lot of TV biopics right now. Do you have any idea why that is?
It’s our Downton Abbey. They’re our Shakespearean histories and tragedies. It’s our royal family, except we change ours every four or eight years. [Laughs] It’s the closest thing we get to the classics, and I think that’s why we’re drawn to it. You pull back the curtain and see the wheels of power, the conniving, the treachery … one vote can swing the whole thing. There’s an intrigue.

READ MORE: Former first lady Nancy Reagan dies at 94

Do you think this particular biopic has resonance in today’s political climate?
I think so. What resonated for me was that, so often, the pattern of thinking is “I don’t like your politics, so I don’t like you.” It took me a while to open up to Ronald Reagan and respect him as a human being, but as I said I really did by the end. I realized the politics were the politics, but it’s all about people as people. I came away with a reverence, a regard and a personal understanding that I respect this man, even though I completely disagree with him on a lot of things. It made me realize I can be more open, I don’t have to be so partisan.

Maybe one of the messages of this could be that we should work together to solve the people’s problems rather than be so divisive.

‘Killing Reagan’ premieres Sunday, October 16 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on National Geographic Channel.

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