On a steamy June day, I arrived at Infinite Energy Center just outside of Atlanta, invited by National Geographic Channel to check out the set of its production of Killing Reagan, the latest film based on Bill O’Reilly’s popular series of Killing books. This film revisits the 1981 shooting of President Ronald Reagan, who is played by Tim Matheson (Animal House, The West Wing). Relative newcomer Kyle S. More, who is mesmerizingly creepy in the role, portrays Reagan’s shooter, John Hinckley Jr., and Cynthia Nixon costars as Nancy Reagan.
Upon entering the building, I felt like I was back at the airport — the set was impeccably designed to film a scene in which Hinckley is basically disowned by his father. On closer examination, the early ’80s details — particularly Hinckley’s dad carrying around a jug of antifreeze with no questions asked by security — reminded me that we were, indeed, on a movie set.
Later, in another area of the cavernous arena that normally hosts everything from concerts to sporting events, I also witnessed the filming of a famous Reagan debate performance (featuring the then-candidate’s iconic “There you go again” line uttered to Jimmy Carter).
It was a flawless re-creation of the time and the man. Playback of Reagan’s original monologue echoed through the hall as Matheson stood in front of a podium trying to pick up the cadence, pauses and even misspeaks of the speech. The actor already looked astoundingly like Reagan (he even bears a resemblance prior to being made up; in 2011 he was cast as the ghost of the late president in an unproduced pilot called Talker). Coupling that with his makeup (including two hours of hairstyling each morning to capture that famous Reagan coif) and mastery of Reagan’s unique voice and speech patterns made it almost like watching a doppelgänger.
Witnessing the movie magic on set, and how the actors, crew and director Rod Lurie (The Contender) brought the story of Reagan’s attempted assassination by Hinckley to life, served as a reminder that this story revolves around a Hollywood actor who became president.
When Matheson had a few minutes to talk following his day’s shoot, he discussed that, and how the president’s background helped make Reagan so popular with many people.
“What’s probably most charismatic about him,” Matheson said, “[is] he made things very simple. His political philosophy was simple. His life philosophy was simple and he embodied that.”
But capturing the essence of the man was anything but simple for Matheson. Although Matheson did agree that it was helpful “having a character that is so well documented,” he admitted that some of the technical things were challenging to nail.
“I think the most important thing was to try and find the inner core of what his beliefs were because he had very strong principles about what he believed politically and personally and emotionally.”
Killing Reagan airs Oct. 16 at 8pm ET on NGC.