|JD Cullum and Dakin Matthews in Misalliance.|
Dakin Matthews is nothing if not versatile: He moves from Shakespeare to “General Hospital,” from Shaw to “Desperate Housewives,” and back again.
Pretty impressive for a man who never intended to be an actor.
Matthews started life studying to be a priest but decided to become a professor. He was teaching Shakespeare at Cal State East Bay near San Francisco when a friend suggested he audition for a part in a summer Shakespeare festival. He decided to give it a try, and won the coveted role of Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 1.
“I thought, ‘Well, this will be interesting. I can teach year-round and then in summertime go do Shakespeare in festivals,’” he said. “And I did that for about four or five years, and then people started to offer me jobs during the day during the school year, and they were nice jobs, so I went to my chairman and said, ‘How about if I take all the 8 a.m. classes five days a weeks?’”
And for the next 20 years, that’s what he did—teaching all morning, and rehearsing and performing all afternoon and evening. Around age 50, he took early retirement and began working in film and television, eventually moving to Los Angeles.
Why the change? Partly for the money.
“One of the reasons I came to L.A. was because I had children who wanted to go to college, and I wanted to be able to afford that,” he said with a laugh.
“Another reason was that the regional theater movement by that time was about 25 years old, and that meant they had a lot of famous alumni. And those alumni were now coming back to the theaters that they left and playing all the lead roles. So that I, who’d put in my 20 years in the regions, was now being bumped out of roles that I wanted to play... I figured if I wanted to continue to progress in the theatre, into playing the roles that I wanted to play, I’m going to have to go down to L.A and get some TV and film cred.”
Northern California’s loss was Southern California’s gain.
Matthews has worked steadily in TV (besides “General Hospital” and “Desperate Housewives,” he has recently appeared in a couple of episodes of “True Blood”), film (he’ll be seen in the upcoming Coen Brothers remake of True Grit) and theatre. At South Coast Repertory alone, he has appeared in Major Barbara, Hamlet, Hitchcock Blonde and Shadowlands. Next he will appear in George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance, which starts previews at SCR on Sept. 10 and runs through Oct. 10.
In a break between rehearsals, Matthews sat down to talk about his career, falling in love with beautiful women and just how damn funny Shaw really is.
Tell us about your character, John Tarleton.
Well, he is kind of a self-portrait of Shaw. Shaw was extremely proud of his vitality in his age, extremely proud of his smarts, his learning, his knowledge. But [Tarleton] is kind of a little parody of himself, a little judgment of himself as well. And Tarleton, of course, is a bit of an iconoclast. And Shaw was certainly that. He never met a statue he didn’t want to break.
We were talking about this in rehearsal: Shaw has two older men in the play—one tired of years of government service and non-judgmental and one [my character] boisterous and having an opinion on everything and not the least bit diplomatic, personally or intellectually. And Shaw puts the two sides up [against each other]. Even though Misalliance is a comment about family more than anything else, and a comment about the young versus the old, it’s also a comment about approaches to life.
Do you relate to your character?
Oh, I relate to all my characters. I don’t necessarily like all of them, but I can relate to all of them. I like to feel like I’m still pretty vital at my age. I like having to be energetic. I do like to discover new things and learn something. Tarleton always is on a high learning curve. And I do like young, beautiful women. [Laughs.] Tarleton seems to fall in love with whatever young woman walks into the room. I can relate to that.
Why should people come see Misalliance?
Talk, talk talk! Shaw is just a great talker, that’s all, and you don’t get that kind of conversation in modern plays sometimes. You don’t get that many ideas thrown around. But on top of that, he is just excruciatingly funny most of the time.
I always find Shaw’s work to be a rewarding experience. It is like a banquet of ideas and words, and we are all sort of on a diet in this country, and sometimes it’s kind of nice to get just gorged…
It’s some of the greatest thinking, some of the greatest speaking and some of the greatest writing in the English language. He really is, after Shakespeare, the other truly great, great master of the English language in dramatic form.