As Jack's story has unfolded, Fox has transformed. Previously best known as the eldest sibling on the soapy drama "Party of Five," the actor made a conscious decision to pursue different types of roles when that show ended in 2000. His complex, assured work on "Lost" led to roles in films like "Speed Racer" and "We Are Marshall," and he plans to continue choosing roles that pair him with filmmakers he respects and admires.
But where does one go after six years on a genre-defying, groundbreaking series? In Fox's case, the answer is Oregon. After living on the Hawaiian island of Oahu where "Lost" is filmed, Fox is moving his family to the Pacific Northwest where he can "be closer to family and friends and the kind of country that I love: mountains and big, big horizons." He doesn't worry about missing out being so far from Hollywood; he plans to commute regularly to L.A. to pursue the projects he's passionate about.
But before that, he'll be taking much-needed time off after his run as the tortured Jack. "Playing this role has been a challenge all the way along," he says. "I feel so proud to have been a part of 'Lost' and so honored to have been given the challenge of playing Jack. It's been the most rewarding experience and the most amazing journey."
Asked when he first realized he wanted to be an actor, Fox pauses. "I still haven't had that realization," he says with a laugh. Growing up on a ranch in Wyoming, he never did school plays or harbored secret dreams of movie stardom. When he moved to New York for his freshman year of college, he was desperate for money to supplement his income. One day, he went to Barnard College to check out its job board and saw that someone was looking for actors for a Clearasil commercial. A SAG strike was taking place, and the producers needed nonunion actors. "I had never even thought about acting before then," Fox admits.
The audition, in his words, consisted of "showing up." He booked the role—and would like to clarify that he was not the character with the bad complexion. "I wasn't the guy with the zit; I was the guy who made fun of the guy with the zit," Fox notes, before joking, "I would have turned down the zit role."
Despite the nonspeaking role, Fox says, his first time in front of the camera was a nightmare. "I really hated it," he reveals. "At that time, I was ridiculously shy and uncomfortable with any kind of attention. Plus, I didn't have the foggiest idea what I was doing." However, the job caught the attention of the J. Michael Bloom Agency, which signed him. Fox made it through college on modeling and commercial gigs. But by the time he graduated, he had changed his mind about working in finance. His agent was encouraging him to take his acting career to the next level, which Fox interpreted as a suggestion he enroll in an acting class. "I don't like to be bad at things and I'm highly competitive, so if I'm going to do something, I want to be good at it," he admits.
After experimenting with different teachers and classes, he was drawn to the Atlantic Theater Company, having read a book on directing film by one of its founders, David Mamet. "I've always been a fan of David Mamet and his essays and observations about life because he has a pretty amazing ability to boil things down to their most concise," Fox says. "So I did a little research and found out he and William H. Macy had started this theater company. I kind of just knocked on the door and said, 'Hey, I want to be a part of your theater company.' They were like, 'Well, it doesn't really work that way. But for the first time, we're going to have a program where we accept 10 or 12 students to study alongside the company for a year.' " Fox auditioned and was accepted into the program, where acting, he says, "really started to come together for me."
The program involved a lot of scene study, and he believes it worked for him because Mamet's methods simplified things in a way Fox could approach them. "I need some sort of almost scientific way into something," he says. "I felt I had been floundering a little bit, and I needed something solid to give me a foothold, which they gave me."
Into the Oakwoods
Fox's first TV role was on the NBC sitcom "Wings," playing an all-American, 17-year-old baseball wunderkind. He booked the role in New York and flew to L.A., staying at the Oakwood Apartments, a popular location for visiting actors, for the duration of the shoot. It was a process he would repeat a few times, as he refused to leave New York until he had a more permanent job. "I never wanted to be that actor who moved to L.A. unemployed and kicked around trying to get work," he says. The "Wings" experience was extremely positive, but Fox wasn't thinking of it in terms of it being his big break. "I was still wondering if I could even do this for real," he admits. "So more than anything it was confirmation that I could infiltrate this world, not make an ass of myself, and get paid for it. It was a personal victory more than anything."
He then landed a role on a series called "Freshman Dorm," which he refers to as "CBS's answer to '90210.' " Once again, he describes the role as "the all-American nice guy." Though it shot in L.A. and was picked up for six episodes, Fox still chose to stay at Oakwood—a good call, because the show was swiftly canceled.
Two years later, he went to Vancouver to shoot the pilot for "Party of Five," a drama about five siblings who have to raise each other after their parents are killed. Fox was cast as irresponsible eldest brother Charlie, an endearing screwup who becomes the de facto head of the household. When the show received its order for 13 episodes, Fox made the move west. "I just knew, on some level, that the show was going to work," he recalls. "I don't think I knew it would work for six years, but I felt we'd go past 13. And that would be a long time to be living in the Oakwood."
Fox is proud of his six seasons as Charlie, though he admits the material wasn't always something he responded to. "That was a great show, and it was written really well," he says. "But for me it was a tremendously soft character and a show that, in my opinion, was written with the knowledge that mainly women were going to be responding to the show." He understands why his character was written in such a way: "The premise of the show was this orphaned family and he's the proxy father figure, so the minute he became a man and actually made good decisions and did things right, the whole conflict of the family was eliminated. So it was a challenging six years for me."
But Fox was grateful for the experience and learned a lot working on the show. Still, he says, "When it wrapped, I felt I needed to disappear for a while, not take any other work, and let people forget about me in that incarnation. Then I could come back and change my appearance, shave my head, and play something edgy and tough. So that's what I did."
'Lost' and Found
Fox's first step in getting people to see him in a new light was "Haunted," a drama in which his ex-cop could communicate with the dead. The show didn't finish a season, something Fox is now grateful for. "I loved the experience, but I was incredibly happy it didn't work commercially, because it would have killed me," he says. "I was working 70-hour weeks; I was nonexistent in my family and would not have been able to maintain that over a long period of time. I felt it accomplished what I wanted because the show got good reviews and I got good reviews and people saw me in a different context."
When he went in to audition for "Lost," little was known about the series, other than that it was the brainchild of "Alias" creator J.J. Abrams. Fox auditioned with sides for the character of con man Sawyer. "I don't think I was actually up for the role; I think they were just using the sides to look at people," Fox says. He ended up with the role of Jack, a character the creators had once considered casting with a movie star and killing off in the pilot.
When Fox began the show, Jack was the moral center of the castaways, a heroic type who drew a definitive line between right and wrong. Fox admits that he had concerns such a character could be, frankly, dull. "When we were shooting the pilot, [executive producer] Damon Lindelof and I were literally having conversations about how this would work if the show went on for a long time," Fox recalls. "Neither of us wanted me to be the knight in shining armor for six years. That would have been a tremendous bore. So we set him up as that guy—he's saving people after this plane crash, and people are looking to him. And then we spent four seasons destroying him."
As Jack, Fox's all-American good looks belied a darker nature, and the actor was a revelation from the very first season. In the fifth episode, "White Rabbit," Jack struggles not to crumble while begging an airline employee to allow his father's coffin on the plane. It was the first chink of armor in the fearless leader, and Fox executed the moment flawlessly. But as the show continued and Jack dissolved into an alcoholic depression, Fox admits the role wasn't always enjoyable to play. "That period between 'Action' and 'Cut' sometimes requires you to put yourself through certain things that are the opposite of comfortable," he notes. "I definitely take it home with me. There are people that can leave it all behind, but I find I'm one of those who has residual effects of the stuff I put myself through. Luckily, I have a family that's very, very understanding about that."
Asked if there's a scene he struggled with the most during his run, Fox points to the finale. "There is some of the toughest material I've ever had to play in there," he says. "But Jack is always a challenge; he's always been evolving and changing. I'm so lucky that I never felt the character was static."
Two weeks after his last day of shooting, Fox says it is still sinking in that the show has come to an end. And while he's uncertain what the future will bring, he knows it likely won't include a return to the small screen anytime soon. "I think the TV world's probably done for me," he admits. "At least in the traditional model. There are more short runs of programs and special series right now, and I feel like the line between television and film is going to get increasingly blurred. But at this point, I've done close to 300 hours of television. I'm just never going to get into a six-year relationship with one employer again." What Fox is looking for, he says, is variety and flexibility. "I want to get involved in a gig for three to four months and pour my heart and soul into it, have a great experience, and then move on to the next opportunity."
Over the years, Back Stage has spoken to many of the great actors on "Lost." Here we look back at some of their comments about the show and their characters.
"We all had to audition not being given a script. We all had our own sets of scenes and we just went in with that one scene and met J.J. [Abrams] and Damon [Lindelof]. It's been like that sort of ever since. Television's very different from film. You don't know anything; you're really in the dark most of the time. I think that's a good thing, because it seems that you're discovering things at the same time as the audience is."
—Naveen Andrews, on being cast as Sayid
"One of the things I've learned is I don't need a backstory. I can be backstory-free or I can have 15 backstories; it doesn't matter. I'm already playing Ben in a sort of neutral gear. All the places in a regular performance where you would insert qualities or nuances of your backstory, those places in Ben are supposed to be neutral. The point is, his past does not inform who he is."
—Michael Emerson on playing Ben Linus
"This part has allowed me to do things that I've never done before, like run away from a burning plane wing that explodes behind me and dive down into the sand. Full-on action star diving out into the sand! And that is awesome. I never thought I'd get to do that. I thought I'd be wacky guys for a long time. It also gives me times when I'm not being just the funny guy—times when I can be a little sensitive or emotional or I have to take charge all of a sudden. So, one day, [when] I want to do whatever my Hamlet is—whatever it is, that thing—this job, I think, allows me to skip a few steps along the way, because I get to show a wider range of what my chops are."
—Jorge Garcia, on playing lovable and laid-back Hurley
"On the page, she wasn't particularly likable, but she was really complex and interesting. She was so strong yet weak at the same time. All of those things you search for when you're looking for a character."
—Elizabeth Mitchell on her first impressions of Juliet
"I was in the middle of reading a lot of film scripts, and I actually said to my agent that I didn't think I wanted to do television until something really special came along. And I was blown away by this."
—Dominic Monaghan, on accepting the role of Charlie
"People used to know me, and they would do that thing where they look at you and shake their finger and go, 'Hey! Hey! Hey!' Some people would recognize me from 'Stepfather,' which is weird because it was 18 years ago. But most people would say, 'Do you shop at the Home Depot in my neighborhood?' Now they just say, 'It's Locke!' Which is funny…and nice. I'd be less happy if I didn't think Locke was such a cool guy. But it's okay to be Locke."
—Terry O'Quinn on being John Locke,
the role that won him an Emmy
"There's so much secrecy surrounding the show that they literally send out false sides with false character names. I think his name was Jason in the sides, and all I knew was I was doing a scene on the beach with somebody. It wasn't until the first day of shooting when someone said, 'Yeah, we've been building this character up for about three years.' I'm kind of glad I didn't know that, to be honest with you. It might have freaked me out a little."
—Mark Pellegrino, on being cast as the mysterious island caretaker Jacob
"I would love to continue on with Michael and Walt. As a fan of the show, I want to know what happened to them. Are they in the Bahamas? Did they make it? What happened?"
—Harold Perrineau, after his character Michael left the show in the second season
"I was on Sunset and La Cienega [in L.A.], and my manager called me and said that there was a pilot audition in my fax machine and I needed to go look at it immediately. I went upstairs, and she said, 'Look at the director, look at the location, and call me back.' I ran up there and looked, and it said J.J. Abrams and Hawaii. I went, 'Sign me up.' "
—Ian Somerhalder, on being cast as faithful brother Boone