It’s been a while since Matthew Fox was a regular feature on our television screens, gazing broodily into the camera as hunky doctor Jack Shephard in Lost. Three years on and he’s added a string of film roles to his eclectic CV, including his latest movie, Emperor.
Set in Japan at the end of the Second World War, Emperor sees Fox play military attaché Bonner Fellers, who arrives in the bomb-stricken country with General MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) and is tasked with determining whether Emperor Hirohito should be charged with war crimes.
Given just ten days to make his decision, Fellers’ choice had the potential to change history: under pressure to assign responsibility for Japan’s part in the war, he knew that the Emperor’s indictment and likely execution could have serious consequences among a people who believed their leader to be sacred.
Filmed last year in New Zealand and Japan, the film offered Fox the chance to bring the little-known Fellers back to life during a period so often omitted from our history lessons. RadioTimes.com found time during his fleeting visit to London to sit down for a chat about his experiences in Japan, why he’s avoiding a return to television and, er, Arsenal Football Club.
In Emperor you’re playing a real-life person, albeit one who is relatively unknown – did that change the way you approached the role?
This is the second time I’ve done that. I did a movie called We Are Marshall where I played a guy by the name of Red Dawson who’s still alive. That experience was really interesting because while I was making the film I was hanging out with Red so I felt an enormous obligation to him and the people in that community who knew him really well.
This film was a little bit different for me because no one really knows Bonner Fellers. They don’t know who he is and when I first read the script, I thought he was a fictional character used as a tool to move the narrative forward. There’s not a lot out there about him. He was essentially a spy – in 1945 and fifteen years prior to that he was working in the intelligence community.
You introduce a fictional love interest to the film in the form of Aya (Eriko Hatsune), an exchange student Fellers met years before in the US…
I wanted that to be a timeless, epic love between two people of two completely different cultures that then go to war. I wanted to try to capture an innocence and a chivalry in that relationship and then to try to get the broken Fellers in 1945 – a guy that’s been broken by the war, broken by the loss of the love of his life, broken by watching and sending men underneath him to death – I wanted to try to have a juxtaposition between those two people.
How did you feel watching the film back?
I don’t normally watch films that I’m in at all, but I felt I should see it, and I wanted to see it in Japan, so I stayed in the theatre and it was a very intense experience – it felt really rewarding, like a release for the audience. I heard a lot of emotion in the theatre. The Japanese are very quiet people and they don’t like to show emotion very much but there was a lot. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
Why don’t you like watching your own films?
They’re kind of ruined for me. I love going into a theatre or movie theatre and waiting for the lights to come down and to drop into a story – it’s one of my favourite things and when I’m in it, it just doesn’t have the same effect. Every day it’s such a big part of your life, the making of it and trying to create the illusion of it, that you can’t just then forget all of that and experience it the way I would experience it in a film I’ve had absolutely nothing to do with.
You said after finishing Lost that you’d never take another television role – do you still stand by your decision or will the current quality of TV lure you back?
I think the best storytelling is happening in television right now, and I think has been for some time. This new cable model of ten or thirteen episodes or even miniseries, and Netflix making a ten-story band, this is a great thing for storytelling. For me, what’s perfect about the way I’m working right now – I haven’t been on a set since Emperor, that’s almost a year and half – is the fact that I can do that. If I was working on Lost right now I would not have been able to go, “You know what, it’s time for me to take a year and half and just be at home and be with my kids and my wife and do things outside the business and completely drop out for a while.” That’s what’s really good about a film here and there, maybe a play – the flexibility. My being able to determine when I’m working and when I’m not – and the only reservation I would have about going back to doing television would be that structure again and that freedom being taken away from me.
What if a really meaty role came along…?
Yeah, it’s possible. I’m still hopeful that I’m going to continue to find those types of roles in the two-hour format like Emperor. And what I will start to look for after the first of the year is smaller, independently financed films where I am really excited by the director’s vision and I get to do something that I haven’t done before.
How difficult will it be to return to the regime of being on a film set?
It could be difficult. I struggle with it sometimes – it’s a lot of people who are leading you around by the hand. Being an actor, a lot of the time it feels like you’re regressing into some sort of childhood where somebody’s telling you where you need to be exactly and holding your hand all the time and I can’t stand that. So yes, it’ll be interesting to see how I react to getting back on a film set if that happens soon. But it’ll probably be like putting on an old glove.
You have two children (Fox’s daughter Kyle is 16 and his son Byron turns 12 next month) – what would your reaction be if they decided to go into acting?
There are two sides to that answer because I have such respect for actors and the craft of acting. I think if it’s approached in the right way it can be an honorouable and beautiful way of putting your time in your life. There’s such a fascination with fame these days – people just want to be famous for any reason whatsoever, they’ll just do anything. They’ll put the most embarrassing, horrendous videos of themselves on YouTube. That element of it I’m more suspicious of, but the actual craft of acting in the theatre and learning it there, and the desire to tell a good story and to collaborate with other people who are really passionate about it is an incredibly noble venture.
Your other passion in life is Arsenal Football Club – how did that come about?
I’ve been a soccer fan since meeting my Italian wife. When I was 20 years old I fell in love with soccer through her passion for Italian nationals and watching the World Cup, but I’ve always wanted to root for an English Premier League team because more soccer is better. I came here to do a play in 2011 in the West End. I was here for six months and I lived in Marylebone, so I asked around and they said, “You should be rooting for Arsenal.” So I went to an Arsenal match and I’m walking into the stadium and I meet Thierry Henry and Thierry Henry says, “Why don’t you come and watch the match in my box?” So we go into his player’s box and we watch the match and he says, “This is yours any time you want it.” So I spent the next six months watching Arsenal matches from Thierry Henry’s box…
Lucky you! Would you like to return to the West End stage?
If I continue as an actor, I think there’ll be a point down the road where theatre is all I want to do, and I absolutely would love to come back to the West End, but I just want to wait until my kids are off to college before I do that again. That was the hardest part for me – six months and they came and visited but still, I think when they’re off to school and it’s just Margarita and I again and we can hang in a city for six months and do a play, that’s when I’ll come back to the West End if I get the opportunity.
Emperor is in UK cinemas from 4 October – take a look at the trailer below…