Virgin River star Tim Matheson on Doc's shocking family secret: 'It's got to be a scam'
Doc Mullins sure has a lot on his plate.
The local M.D. played by Tim Matheson on Virgin River ended season 3 facing the prospect of his worsening eyesight and the very real possibility that the love of his life, Hope (Annette O'Toole), might not survive injuries sustained in a car accident.
But there's another big surprise in store for Doc: Unbeknown to him, a kid claiming to be his long-lost grandchild has checked into the Virgin River B&B. If the show gets picked up for season 4, what will that mean for Doc?
"That's one of those giant surprises," Matheson tells EW. "My feeling is, first, he would absolutely deny it and reject it. That's impossible, the whole improbability of that situation. Because of what he knew happened in his previous life when he was going to medical school and his relationship with women in his life, at that point there were no grandchildren."
He continues: "First, [he'll think] it's got to be a scam; second, it's got to be wrong. If it proves to be that it actually could have happened or did happen, then it's like, 'Wow.' It's just such drama, such conflict, such interesting stuff to get into. Especially for a couple that never had children. He really wasn't ever a father, so now to have a grandchild — that's pretty radical."
Matheson has brought the curmudgeonly Dr. Vernon Mullins to life for three seasons on the hit Netflix series, and last season brought him no shortage of drama to sink his teeth into. We caught up with him to discuss Doc's health, what Hope's accident could mean for their relationship, and the time he decided Doc and Hope were having secret sex.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What would you say is Doc's biggest challenge going forward: his health or Hope's?
TIM MATHESON: In his case, he is faced with a challenge that would affect his career as a doctor. That's the biggest thing in his life, other than Hope. But Hope will come first over any personal issues. Believe me. He would focus on her.
This season we saw him retreat to some of his more brusque or crabby treatment of Mel [Alexandra Breckenridge] after they've come so far. For you, how did you justify that?
For me, it was just that we're coming from such different places. In his mind, she's a know-it-all and she doesn't listen. I just justify it out of self-interest and self-protection. Part of it was underneath at all, it's his defensiveness that he's got weaknesses and his human fallibility, and so he's pushing back against those things. It's more about that than it is about her, and he's just taking it out on her.
Doc's losing his eyesight, but he does seem to have a good care plan. What are your thoughts on his prognosis?
I don't think it's a debilitating illness. It's one of those things you live with. And it wouldn't affect his functioning as a doctor. Especially as you get older and you get into the third act of your life, you take those things with a stride that is not what you would do when you're younger. You're superhuman when you're younger, and when anything happens, my God. I think that's the story of Mel: She was young and healthy and had everything, and then lost it all. But what I love about that is, that kind of trauma gives you grit, strength, and character. It gives you a perspective that other people don't have, knowing that it's so easily lost. There's a silver lining to the cloud, which is we do come out stronger, ultimately.
We saw him launch a hunt for a potential replacement for the clinic, only to get cold feet. How much longer can he be the only doctor at the clinic?
It's a transition phase. It's time to bring somebody else in. I don't think that he wants to quit taking care of all his friends. What's really wonderful to me about a small-town doctor is you know everybody. Every time you walk into Jack's Bar, there's 20 of your patients. It requires a different kind of medical mind than somebody in a big city who spends 20 minutes with their patients and doesn't get personally involved. There's more invested in your patients because you know who they're married to, what's going on in their life, what their losses are and their suffering, and what's happening. Anecdotally I've heard from small-town doctors where you get chickens for payment.
Can Doc ever truly leave the clinic, or do you think he'd still have to keep like an admin position or something because it's this thing he built?
Oh, I don't think he could ever leave the clinic. Because you're taking care of the town, you're taking care of the people. And the reason he came there was to get away from that big-city thing where you don't get to know anybody and you don't have a moment for yourself. As Doc gets older, you reflect on your life and you want to focus more on the people in your life rather than the work in your life. So to make some space for more personal connection would be very important for him.
All your scenes with Annette O'Toole this season were virtual. Did you two film those live, or was it all done in post?
We did several versions of it. We tried to do it live. And then they needed to change certain technical things on her end or something, and I wasn't available to shoot it that time. It turned out to be very easy because I can act off of what she's doing. If she does a take, I can just look at that take and react to it. We thought live stuff would be the best way, but it's fine because you can always take out an overlap or a gap or something, if timing doesn't work out perfectly. But it was basically built into the story line, so it seemed very natural.
[Series creator] Sue Tenney hinted we were originally going to see your vow renewal ceremony with Hope this season but COVID caused it to change. Are you excited to bring that to life eventually?
Absolutely. This is something he's wanted his whole life, since he came to Virgin River. To just to have a person that you were that committed and that close to. In the first season, it was so funny because we were this couple and we were filling in the gaps ourselves in our relationship. We decided that even though it seemed like they were falling apart, they were having sex. We played it like friends with benefits. It's like, "You're upset with me that I did XYZ," and, "You're a pain in the neck," and all these things, but they still have sex. It added a little spice and fun and flavor to what we were doing. We never told anybody that's what we were playing. But little secrets like that, I always want to infuse the characters and situations with such added spice.
Doc finally has realized the mistakes he's made with Hope and is determined to not repeat them, but how much has her accident put that into perspective even further?
I think it would only enhance his relationship with her. It might be a little bit of a conflict because if she's not well, then it would maybe split who he could spend time with. Also from her point of view, this grandson is something that doesn't belong to her, doesn't mean anything to her. That whole emotional range with Hope will be fascinating stuff to explore, because how do you support your partner in this situation and yet deal with your own feelings about never having children and him being more focused on that?
Muriel [Teryl Rothery]seems all too happy to cozy up to Doc while Hope's life hangs in the balance. Are you worried about her and whether Doc might find her too comfy a shoulder to lean on?
I love Muriel. She's one of those people that puts it all on the table. What you see is what you get. There's no subterfuge. Muriel and subtlety aren't usually mentioned in the same sentence. But she's such a vivacious and talented and human character. It's that kind of relationship you have with somebody that makes you think about what you have and makes you think, "Wow, is this what I really want to be doing? Is this the best thing for me, or is it that?" That choice in and of itself creates tremendous conflict. You learn as you get older that you get stuck in ruts of behavior. What if I stopped doing that rut of behavior and get out of that lane and do something else? You do always have a choice. Do I stay on this side of the line or that side of the line? That's the interesting thing for Doc and Muriel.
How might this accident, no matter its outcome, change Doc?
If the person that you have tried to resuscitate a relationship with for the past 20 years or more transforms into something that is not available for them, what do you do? I don't think you rush into anything. I also don't think in a small town like that it's one of those things where you make these rash decisions. You honor your relationship, especially in a small town. You're there to take care of each other, and you're there to take care of the people that you've been through the most with. You don't just dump everything and then run off for the temporal excitement of the moment. So I think that Doc would be very cautious and supportive and careful in taking care of Hope before he put any of his own needs to the forefront.