One of the many films to premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was Peter Webber’s (Girl with a Pearl Earring) historical drama Emperor. The film takes place during the days following the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II and stars Tommy Lee Jones as General Douglas MacArthur, the de facto ruler of Japan as Supreme Commander of the occupying forces. Matthew Fox plays a leading Japanese expert on the staff of MacArthur who is tasked with deciding whether or not Emperor Hirohito should be tried as a war criminal. Fox’s mission becomes more complicated as he searches for a school teacher (Eriko Hatsune) who first drew him to Japan years before the war. For more on the film, here’s a clip and some images.
Shortly before the world premiere, I sat down with Matthew Fox for an exclusive interview. We talked about why he wanted to do Emperor, how the finished film compares to the original script, how he prepares for a role, if he prefers a few takes or a lot, and more. In addition, we also talked about Speed Racer (a film I love), his physical transformation for Alex Cross, World War Z, the reshoots, Lost, would he ever do a comic book movie, and a lot more. Hit the jump to either read or listen to the interview.
For the audio of this interview, click here. Otherwise the full transcript is below.
MATTHEW FOX: I’m doing well.
I mentioned Speed Racer before I started recording. I absolutely love that movie.
FOX: Me too.
So I’m going to start off with Speed Racer.
FOX: Yeah, good.
Huge fan of The Wachowskis.
FOX: Yeah, me too.
Love the film. It didn’t really do as well as I had hoped at the box office. When you look back on it are you sort of like, “it was ahead of the time”?
FOX: I think so. You know, who knows why certain films don’t commercially work out the way you hope they would. I think it was visually ahead of the time. I think people really didn’t understand – the sort of means in their minds of information gathering didn’t really understand it. And I think it was kind of, I also think that The Wachowskis made a kid’s movie with really, really big, sort of subversive adult themes in it. And I think that sort of threw Warner Brothers for a loop on how to market the movie. I think if you look back on how that movie was rolled out, you know, they weren’t sure on whether to market it for kids, or to market it as a family movie, or to market it as a Wachowskis movie. So I think that, you know I really don’t know, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it. Obviously I was really disappointed, because I just loved working with that whole group of people, and I was hopeful that there would be more of that story.
FOX: And so I wanted it to work commercially. But, you know that’s one of the mysteries of, sort of the film industry and stuff, you just don’t know. But I’m the biggest fan of The Wachowskis in the whole world. I can’t wait to see Cloud Atlas.
My favorite film here.
FOX: Cool. I’m so happy that – when we were doing Speed Racer Larry gave me the book and said this is something that I would like to make into a film some day. And I read the book, and I was blown away by it, and thought it was beautiful, and totally understood why he was really into to it. So I’m just happy that they’ve made it, and I hear really good things about it.
Absolutely. Well no matter the commercial success of Speed Racer there a lot of very vocal fans like me.
FOX: Good. Good.
Moving on to being here at TIFF. How did you get involved with Emperor?
FOX: I was just, you know, sent the script by the guys I work with in Los Angeles, and they were pretty excited about it. Read it and was just really, really moved by the script, the script was very moving. Got on the phone with Mr. Webber, and he was in New Zealand and he told me what he wanted to do with the film, and all the people that he had gathered to be a part of making it, and you know, we really hit it off on the phone and it just felt like something that was absolutely one of those projects that comes along that I just felt really compelled to be a part of.
I was going to say it’s obviously based on real stuff. Talk a little bit about when you’re getting ready for a role that’s based on real things, real events, obviously a little bits been Hollywood-ized or whatever…
How different is that for the preparation process for you as an actor? Do you know what I mean?
FOX: Yes. It depends. On this one I felt it was really important to do some research on Mr. Fellers and did as much of that as I felt was necessary. I felt it was necessary to educate myself about this moment in historical time, and the context in which I sat, because frankly I didn’t really know a lot about that time at all. And that was one of the things that intrigued me about the film was I was like, you know, it’s amazing how little attention, at least in my mind, that I had paid to how World War II ended, and how little in my own consciousness the Japanese-US conflict and the South Pacific and the atom bombs that we dropped, and, you know how that ended. And MacArthur’s role in that, and Fellers’ role in that, and that sort of two week period of time where the gathering of war criminals and putting people on trial and determining what was going to happen with Hirohito and the decision that was made and how different history could have played out if different decisions were made. And I knew very little about that, so that was one of the things that was – you know, I really do love history and I know very little history because I think you can spend your whole life dedicated to history and still not even come close to having any concept of the bigger, global – and whenever I get to combine doing something, storytelling that I’m really challenged by and compelled to be a part of and I get an opportunity to learn history and sort of the research would require that, it’s a great combination. And I really felt that way on this one.
FOX: Um, that’s changing. That’s changed for me over the time. I think that when I was starting out I liked the two takes thing a little bit better. Because, I think when I was starting out I felt that I should, you know my interpretation of the way a scene was going to go, or what was happening in a scene should be done rather early in the process. And as I’ve gotten deeper into the process of making films and television and such, I think I have more trust in the fact that you really never know what you’re going to find after the twenty-fifth take. And part of that’s also some of the theater experience that I’ve had.
You know, I did a play recently, and I did a hundred and six performances of the play, and I still felt after a hundred and six shows that I was discovering stuff in the material. And that was a real learning lesson, a lesson for me because I felt that, you know, to apply that to film, if you have the time and people are curious enough to continue to do takes, you never know what you’re going to find in it. And so I think that’s evolved for me over the twenty-something years that I’ve been doing this.
When you sign on a project, you obviously have that script, and over the course of making it a lot can change on any project, the finished film can be nothing like what you signed on for. How did the finished film compare, Emperor, to what you signed on for?
FOX: Well, I haven’t seen it.
FOX: But I’ll tell you this, one of the beautiful things about making Emperor, was – is it was one of the only that I’ve been in a storytelling situation where I went to New Zealand on January 15th I think, and we didn’t start shooting until, for like three weeks or something. And Peter and got a chance to go through the script, about on four different occasions, go through the script make notes, talk about scenes, and then the script would be handed off to the writer and two days later we would have rewrites that either successfully incorporated the notes that we had talked about, or maybe didn’t. And we had these rounds of notes sessions, and the writer was right there, so it just went round and round for a few weeks. And that is the kind of thing that you just don’t get either in television, you don’t get it in huge budget films with studios behind them because they want to get right into the shooting of something. They’re like, “This is the script, go shoot it.” And this had a really cool, sort of evolutionary process involved, so when we did start shooting the script we felt like we had been through it pretty, pretty carefully. But as far as what the film looks like now after, you know, Peter’s been in the editing room for months and we’ve had several, you know all the producers and people giving notes sessions and such, so it’s definitely changed.
I definitely have to open the door and ask you about Alex Cross. Because you know, I’ve seen that image of you just ripped up, just muscular. If you don’t mind, how did you get involved in that project and what did you do to get ready for that role?
FOX: I was in London doing a play there and Rob Cohen called me. And I had met Rob on another project a few years back and we really just clicked in the room, just dug each other on a lot of levels, and both felt like – hey , you know sometime were going to work together on something. And he called me and told me what he had in mind and initially I was like, [laughs] “Man, you know. I mean I really didn’t, you know, sync” – Sometimes it’s just like “wow, it’s really interesting that you’re thinking about me for that.” But then I was really inspired by the way he talked about it, and what he wanted to do, and I said “Yes, but this is what’s going to have to happen. I’m going to have to lose a bunch of weight.”
Because when I read the script, I really imagined this guy was kind of burning. His internal dialogue and his rationalization of his philosophy were burning so intensely that he would just look like that. Not because he spent any time in the gym, or because he was careful about his diet. Although, I’m sure he only fuels himself with like very intense things. But I felt that that was the image that jumped out to me. So I said, “Listen, I have to task the film to get a meal plan for me for the next six months and a trainer.” And they found this guy Simon Waterson who works out of London and he kind of specializes in this notion of people who want to radically, you know, sort of alter what they look like. And I met with him and he was the trainer, but both nutritionist and a trainer, and sort of set up this program. And I just worked my ass off for six months and was really disciplined about some pretty intense dieting. And I lost close to forty pounds. And, you know, when I look at that image that was floated on the internet, it’s like that’s pretty much exactly what I had in mind. I mean, I feel like I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish as far as what he would look like and how he would carry himself. So I was pleased.
As an actor though how hard is it to maintain where you’re – I image you were feeling a certain way looking that way. How hard is it to maintain that over the course of a shoot, also acting, while also being…?
FOX: Hard. Hard. Yeah, it was hard. I mean, I didn’t sleep well that whole period of time. And I don’t know why that was; I don’t know if it was, sort of, fear of failure. Not pulling it off. I had sort of like ideas that I wanted to accomplish with that role and I thought it was just a really interesting role to play. I don’t know if it was some of the thought process that I – because, you know I wanted to try and figure that guy out, why a guy does that and the way that he did it and the sort of hyper-arrogance that he has. I wanted to figure out his philosophy, at least for myself, not that it is going to be communicated in the film because I don’t think it necessarily will, but for me it was important that I find what motivates the guy. So I don’t know if it was that. Or I don’t know if it was just maybe the diet, you know, it was a pretty – I was eating unlike I had ever done in my life and I think it really shifted my metabolism in a way that I would go to sleep at eleven o’clock at night and I’d be awake at four-thirty, five every day, just up. But feeling fine, not feeling like exhausted.
Also, I’m sure not eating fried food, and you know what I mean. When you’re eating super healthy, it does change everything about you.
It really does.
FOX: It does. And I learned a lot. That project and the experience that I had doing the dieting and exercise will forever change the way that I eat, and the way that I exercise. I thought that I kind of knew that stuff because I was an athlete all the way through college and I had my own sort of dogmatic version of what I would do. And it radically shifted my ideas about nutrition and exercise.
FOX: I think that the turmoil thing has been, it’s one of those things that we live in a world these days where somebody can float an idea on the Internet whether they, and they can have no basis for expertise on that idea.
This is why I’m coming to you.
FOX: They can be anyone. And they can have no basis in fact at all and suddenly it become like a notion out there that World War Z is having problems. Everybody who I’ve spoken to that’s seen the film – it rocks, dude; it’s going to kick ass. And the only issue that I’m hearing with the film is that they want to work on the third act; the end of the film.
That’s what I heard.
FOX: Obviously it’s supposed to be a trilogy, so they’re, you know I think they’re fine tuning an ending that feels like this movie wraps. In the original script I always felt it was the perfect combination of a complete film on its own and yet at the same time left you going like, “Oh my god, we need another installment. And so I think they’re just really fine tuning that, and it might require some additional shooting to get it the way they want it. And I hear that Mr. Lindelof has been brought in to help with that.
I heard that Damon had an idea that he gave to Drew Goddard, who did Cabin in the Woods with Joss (Whedon) and he was working on the actual script, like helping on the third act. I don’t know what’s true or not true.
FOX: I don’t either. All I know, well, I don’t even know.
FOX: My role in that film, he’s a Navy Seal, who basically – Marc and I‘s idea on that was he’s a guy who basically is – Brad Pitt’s character goes off to find a solution to this global epidemic, and he is a global problem solver and has a history with the UN and sort of disaster relief. And he leaves his family in a situation on a quarantine flotilla, essentially like a military ship. And my character, this Navy Seal, who rescued Brad Pitt and his family off a rooftop in Philadelphia, helicopter rescue, this guy is kind of slightly fractured by what’s happening in the world. I mean he’s spent his whole life mission oriented, spent his whole life sort of target oriented and the enormity of what’s going on and the massive human loss of what’s going on and his inability to feel like he has any control.
So you’ve got the Brad Pitt character who’s the sort of global macro-problem solver, and you have a navy seal who is very, very mission oriented and very micro oriented feeling that he has absolutely no way to control anything. It kind of fractures him and he fixates on the fact that he feels that this man has sort of abandoned this family, and he co-opts this family and basically takes over while the Brad Pitt character is out finding a solution to the problem. So at the end of the film you have him trying to come back to his family and yet his family has essentially been taken over by a man who has kind of, is, is broken.
Before I run out of time with you, I definitely have to – I’m sure you get asked about it all the time, but one of my favorite shows is Lost - I definitely have to ask you, you know it’s been a little while now, when you look back on the experience, what is that initial thing when you look back on it, that initial feeling? Or is it something that’s still too close?
FOX: No, no. It’s amazing how quickly it feels like it was a long time ago already. It’s full of really good, good memories, man. I mean, you know, that was a hell of a great time. And I still think a lot about what we made, and you know, I still have people come up to me and you can tell by – they want to say something that they, how much it meant to them. So it’s full of, my memories of it are full of warm and good and positive energy. And I’m really happy with where I am now, where we’re living and what my life is like, and the sort of different pace of being involved in some films every now and then, is much more sort of where I want to be as far as that goes. But I will always be very, very proud to have been a part of that six year experience and what that story was and what it meant to people. So I feel really, really good about it.
Speaking for a lot of fans I’ll just say thank you for entertaining me every week on that show, because I fucking loved it. I really did.
FOX: That’s cool, dude.
Now moving on back into the film thing. What’s it like now in terms of the projects you want to pick? Maybe there’s a genre you haven’t done?
FOX: Yea, you know, I certainly don’t go about, like, well I’ve played a serial killer here, and I just did a historical period piece, I’m part of big budget zombie movie. What am I going to do next?
FOX: [laughs] Yeah.
FOX: So I don’t have any plan whatsoever, dude, I have no idea what’s next. But, sooner or later I’d love to do a comedy. I mean I think that, you know, people don’t think that that’s in my wheelhouse because I’ve sort of played a lot of dramatic stuff and that’s certainly a side of myself that I want at some point in the right context, in the right stuff, that I find really funny. You know, the truth is I don’t – you know, a lot of the comedies I see rolling out these days I don’t find that funny, dude. So when I come across one that I think is really funny and smart at the same time, then you know, and I’m offered it then I’ll be really excited to do that.
Isn’t that kind of what you’re waiting for with Alex Cross, to be able to be like, have the average person on the street, “That’s the dude who was on Lost!?”, or “That’s Matthew Fox?!”
FOX: Yeah, that was you know, obviously you spend six years in somebody’s – in their homes playing Jack Shephard and I was intrigued by the notion of having something that was going to challenge me, of doing something that I haven’t done before, and also kind of doing something that people wouldn’t expect me to do. And I’m always going to continue to try to do things that people wouldn’t expect me to do.
I think this is probably one of my last questions. The comic book genre seems to be just incredibly popular right now – The Avengers, The Dark Knight, I mean it’s a huge genre. Are there any comics you read, or any comic book characters you’ve always been a fan of? I’m just curious if that’s something that interests you.
FOX: Off the top of my head I can’t – you know the truth is that stuff’s going to be exhausted pretty soon, because they’ve been churning them out man.
I said that a few years ago, but this year is the biggest it’s ever been.
FOX: I know, and so once they’ve established all those franchises they’ll just keep doing more, more Avengers and more Iron Man’s and so on and so forth. But as far as like original material that is part of our comic book history, they don’t have a lot of stuff left. But I would be – I’m a huge comic fan, I love graphic art and I just love, you know I love that kind of thing so I mean, you know if it was the right thing I’d jump all over it, I think it would be really fun. And if it was something that my eleven year-old boy was fired up about then it would make it even doubly fun, you know?
Yes, I understand. My last question for you, what are you doing next? Do you know?
Is that a good feeling?
FOX: It’s a great feeling. That’s part of why I wanted to move into this type of phase of my career. And the only, the only reason I’ve said that I won’t do television again is for that very thing that you just asked. Because if I was doing a big TV show right now, like I’ve done twice, I would know exactly what I was doing next, and it’s really nice to not know. And I have really, have no idea and I don’t know how long it’ll be and I love that. I’m very happy to be in that position right now.