It may sound strange, but Matthew Fox is probably the most underrated actor on television. Yes, his show Lost is a runaway hit, spawning a rabid following not only of viewers who love to dissect every frame of the Emmy-winning fantasy-action-drama but also of critics. And he heads a stellar cast of actors made up of familiar faces (Terry O'Quinn, Dominic Monaghan) and breakout stars (Evangeline Lilly, Jorge Garcia). But as the show's leading man and moral compass, Fox has his work cut out for him. He has to maintain a tricky balance: selling the show's supernatural vibe and heavy drama, while making sure his do-gooder character doesn't bore audiences.
As many leading men who have been upstaged by colorful supporting characters can attest, it can be hard to be so good. Did Fox ever worry that his Dr. Jack Shephard, the hero who consistently puts everyone else before himself, could be, well, dull? "Absolutely!" he affirms in a phone call from the show's Oahu, Hawaii, set. "I worried about it a lot, just taking the role. When you have a show that's basically a cross section of archetypes and you're the hero character, it could be easy to fall into playing somebody who's too one-note. I don't find that very interesting." Fox says he prefers characters who live in the gray zones, full of all the complexities real people have. "When I took the role, I was always talking to [series creators] J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof about making sure that, even though we had a guy who was supposed [to be] the leader/hero, that we were taking the opportunity to show that, on many levels, he has his own issues and will make not very heroic choices and not even be likeable. I wanted to make sure I played him with enough of an edge that he was unlikeable at times." Fox cites Steve McQueen as a role model for such a character, noting, "He was a leading man, and he played some really heroic characters. But at the same time, he was often really kind of abrasive and almost arrogant about the way he went about doing things, which is what made him so cool."
Fox has experience playing the nice guy: He spent six years as Charlie Salinger, the sensitive eldest brother in a family of orphans on Party of Five. While Fox is quick to praise the series as a great experience, he also acknowledges, "It certainly was a very, very soft show, and I was playing a character that was very soft." He adds, "That was what I was doing; it wasn't necessarily what I am as a person or the kind of role I love to play. I find myself tending toward darker and edgier material." When Party of Five went off the air in 2000, he found himself inevitably being typecast. "It's really hard for people to look at something you've done for six years and not say, 'That's who that person is,'" he says. "It's hard for them to imagine you being someone else." In an attempt to shatter that image, his next series was much more macabre: In the short-lived Haunted, he played a troubled private eye who could communicate with the dead. He admits he enjoyed the opportunity to shatter the preconceived image people might have had of him. "I played someone really dark and self-absorbed," he remarks. "One of the reasons I loved and made that choice was, a lot of the reviews I got commented on how surprising and convincing I was in something they didn't see me as."
Fox doesn't want to seem ungrateful for his time on Party of Five; it was one of his first jobs and a huge part of his development. "It gave me the opportunity to be in front of a camera all day, every day, for six years," he points out. "The kind of technical training when you do that—it's unbelievable how comfortable you get and how second-nature acting for the camera becomes. It was a great show. It's just a tonal thing; Lost is honestly just a show that I watch. Party of Five is a show that I wouldn't."
When Fox got the call for Lost, he went in and read sides for the more morally ambiguous character of Sawyer. "At the time they weren't giving the script to anybody, so they just had some set sides they were giving out to actors they were interested in," he says. "I don't know that they were ever looking at me seriously for Sawyer so much as giving me material and seeing what I was going to do with it." As anyone who has viewed the audition on the Lost DVD can attest, Fox would have made a terrific antihero. But he's even better in the role of Jack; he deserved an Emmy nomination last year for several reasons, not the least being the "White Rabbit" episode, in which Jack must convince an airline employee to allow his father's casket on the plane. Fighting an emotional breakdown, he makes a passionate argument that reveals much about his character. This year, Fox cites as his toughest scene the moment when Jack chooses to amputate Boone's leg in a last-ditch effort to save the dying castaway. "It was a very difficult episode, and what I loved about it was, this was supposed to be our hero; he's supposed to be able to keep his wits together. But because of these circumstances, he's starting to become unraveled," Fox says. "He's literally going to chop [Boone's] leg off when some part of him knows it's a pointless cause and [Boone is] going to die. There's a moment where Boone comes to and is lucid enough to say, 'Don't do it. Let me go.' And Jack just sort of crumbles. It was a very challenging scene, because it required a sort of emotional intensity while being detached from the reality of the circumstances…. The amount of energy and the focus it took was amazing."
Fox is often asked if it's difficult to play a character he doesn't have all the facts about, as more and more of the characters histories are revealed through flashbacks over time. "You might think that finding out something about a character's past would be coloring dramatically what you're doing in the present," he says. "But it's really an interesting acting lesson in that so many times in life we meet people, and they might have these incredibly intense things that have happened in their past, and if they don't tell you that, you'd never know it." He is also philosophical about not knowing where the story is going. "People ask me all the time [about] how hard it is to not know what's happening in the future," he says. "Well, I don't know about you, but I don't know what's going to be happening to me tomorrow. That's what makes life so interesting. And not knowing what's going to happen tomorrow has no effect on how I'm behaving today."
After the success of the first season of Lost, Fox spent his hiatus relaxing and reconnecting with his wife and children. But he plans on doing another project in the spring, and he happily notes that, for the first time in his career, he's receiving offers for studio movies. But he's very at home with his island family, and he's proud of the show, the work they do, and the feedback from viewers. "The audience that watches Lost is a pretty discerning audience, and they're not an audience that is going to be very patient with a fall-off in the quality of what we're doing," he notes. "So it's really important that we continue to tell a great story and put together great episodes. I think it's a pretty special show."