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.
Collider: How are you doing?
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.
I agree with you. I’ve spoken to many actors who love the Clint Eastwood method of two takes, and other actors love the David Fincher method of fifty. Where are you on that scale?
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?
The former Lost star has a lot of eating to do ever since losing a staggering 40 pounds to play a frighteningly thin and ripped tattooed serial killer in the upcoming thriller Alex Cross.
“My mother hated it,” Fox says with a laugh. “She’s Italian and she’s a fantastic cook and loves to feed her son more than anything. She couldn’t stand it. It really upset her.”
Fox attained his scary physique with the help of Simon Waterson, the same trainer responsible for Daniel Craig’s hot James Bond bod, Jake Gyllenhaal‘s unforgettable chest and abs in Prince of Persia and the pumped up pecs of Chris Evans in Captain America.
“We worked really hard on this for five months,” Fox said. “The training sessions were mostly circuit training. You’re going non-stop from exercise to exercise, never taking any breaks for about an hour and a half. I was burning a lot of calories and working on certain muscle groups. It was very strategic on his part and very gradual.”
In fact, he’s only gained back about 15 pounds since finishing the flick. “I’m taking my time to put it back on but eating all the things I love to eat,” Fox said. “I have a terrible sweet tooth. All those pies, ice cream and cookies were completely out the window when I was training. Pasta and bread were pretty much non-existent in the diet as well.”
Alex Cross is based on novelist James Patterson‘s detective series. Tyler Perrytakes on the starring role previously played by Morgan Freeman in Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider.
“Like most everybody, I didn’t really know Tyler Perry from anything other than the stuff he’d done up until this point,” Fox said. “A really dark sort of revenge movie that was going to require a huge amount of drama and emotional intensity certainly isn’t something we had seen from him in the past. But let me tell you, everyone who has seen the film really feels Tyler has delivered on that.”
And then some—like an elbow to Fox’s head.
“We were doing this final mano a mano fight to the death on this catwalk above this old theater and it was something like 1 o’clock in the morning and we’d been at it for 10 hours,” Fox remembered. “We’re standing on a two-foot wide catwalk trying to make these huge roundhouse punches look good and Tyler caught me with an elbow. He apologized to me so many times. But it’s OK. Things like that happen all the time.”
Alex Cross is in theaters Oct. 19.