When Matthew Fox first appears on screen in Alex Cross, it’s obvious the 46-year-old actor, normally a healthy, toned muscular build, had left the days of Dr. Jack Shephard from ABC’s hit series “Lost” behind him.
In the movie adapted from James Patterson’s hugely popular crime novels, Fox plays Picasso, a skilled assassin with a penchant for inflicting pain who quickly becomes enemy #1 for the title character, a Detroit detective played by Tyler Perry. With his sights expanding to include those hunting him down – including Perry and fellow detectives played by Edward Burns and Rachel Nichols – Picasso’s unpredictable, sniper-like, stealth moves put others in the path of his madness, escalating the drama into a full-scale personal war.
Considering Fox’s past characters who have generally been on the morally high road, the good side of the law, a heroic figure, Fox isn’t necessarily the first name to pop into audience’s mind for a role like Picasso. But director Rob Cohen of The Fast and the Furious and xXx fame saw things differently after meeting previously with the actor for another movie. ”I came away with the impression that he was an intense guy, and I remembered him,” Cohen says. ”I thought if he could somehow wrap his mind around a villain of this proportion that he would be amazing, and I really think he rose to the occasion of playing it.”
“He wanted to be a bad guy, he wanted the part,” says Patterson, who also serves as a producer. ”Once he got the part, he really pushed it. He was a mad man. I think that’s one of the best things about the movie – that’s certainly the most original thing about the movie – what Matthew did with Picasso.”
Physically, Fox says his preparation to play the sinister and tattoo-covered (Fox’s own body art) Picasso meant avoiding his favorite foods for five months, no wine with dinner, hitting the gym religously starting four months prior to the shoot, and no cheating. ”I always was curious whether I could do something like that, and I proved to myself that I could,” Fox told reporters at the Los Angeles press day for the movie, in theaters Friday, October 19th.
The places he explored mentally with Picasso might also surprise audiences, a dark place that the father of two says didn’t take long to shed.
“All the demands of what I was doing – exercise and the training I was doing for the particular sequences in the film and the emotional machinations I had to put myself through – I was pretty beat,” Fox explains. ”That last few days, I remember thinking, ‘I just can’t wait to get to the end of this, eat some really high carbohydrate foods and go home to my family and slip back into my normal, everyday life.’ I was really looking forward to that.”
Picasso is Fox’s first role in a movie or TV show since the Emmy®-winning “Lost” ended its six-season run on May 23rd, 2010, drawing to a close a cultural phenomenon that earned Fox Emmy® and Golden Globe® nominations and a Screen Actors Guild® Outstanding Ensemble win. He says the long stretch between roles was intentional. ”Honestly, after ‘Lost’ was over, I really didn’t look that much for a year. I really wanted to take a break,” Fox admits.
First taking on a Neil LaBute play, “In a Forest, Dark and Deep,” in London’s West End, he says it was a phone call from Cohen that “just really stuck with me” that lured him back to what has become a string of upcoming movies, including roles in the true story WWII drama Emperor as General Bonner Fellers, a performance that won him especially strong reviews at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, and in the zombie action thriller World War Z directed by Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Finding Neverland), produced by and starring Brad Pitt, and written by “Lost” writer and Executive Producer Damon Lindelof. In that movie, based on the popular Max Brooks novel ”World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War,” which Fox shot at the same time as Alex Cross, Fox says he also dons a shaved head, but the similarities stop there.
“He’s a Navy SEAL and a little off. He’s a little fractured of a guy, but he’s certainly nothing like Picasso,” he explains.
In my sit-down interview with Fox, we talked about the challenge of playing two characters at the same time, whether “Lost” raised the bar for future characters, his stunning physical transformation in Alex Cross, and in a very candid, sincere moment, opens up about his bleak, solitary experience shooting the movie.
Gerrad Hall: For those who have read the book, they may be more familiar with your character by a different name, The Butcher. There is a brief mention of it in the movie during the cage fight scene.
Matthew Fox: The Butcher of Sligo. I played that in a way where he’s sort of laughing that moniker off a bit.
I never read the books; I just took [Picasso] from the script. I remember asking Rob, ‘What is this reference he makes to The Butcher of Sligo?’ He brought me into the notion that apparently, this guy might’ve killed his family at a young age; his father was a butcher. But for me, that was not important to what I was doing, and so I really just stayed focused on what was in the script and then working with Rob to try to figure out how I was going to bring myself to it, just use that as some sort of boundary [or] rules.
GH: I get the impression your working relationship with Rob was a really rewarding one.
MF: It was fantastic.
GH: Was this a unique experience for you, that a director got so involved with you in character development and process?
MF: I’ve had some really, really good ones. I feel very fortunate. I love working with directors, and my experience with Neil [LaBute] on the play in London was as good as it gets, Marc Forster on World War Z. I just love that. For me, that’s what makes it fun. And I guess there is also a part of me that wants to feel like we’re in it together, because acting can be sometimes kind of an isolating experience for me. I love when I feel like the guy that I’m trying to help serve – his vision or the story that he’s trying to tell – that we’re in it together and that he is taking ownership over that. Rob was absolutely fantastic, and I cannot say enough about him; as a man, I just love the guy. And then how willing he was to go in there with me and get his hands dirty – he wasn’t the kind of guy that was just going to [say], ‘Look, I’ll take care of me and the beautiful pictures and it’s up to you to do what you’re doing.’ I always knew he was there for me.
GH: You mention that acting is sometimes isolating. Since seeing the movie and knowing where you went with the character, plus knowing that you didn’t have very much interaction with Tyler or any of the actors during the shoot, I have to wonder if there was a point where you were lonely playing this character. If so, did that aid in the process?
MF: Very much, man, I was very lonely making that movie. Very lonely. Matthew would interpret that as lonely and be sad; Picasso…has created that for himself, he wants that. He would scoff at the notion of God because he would say, ‘I am God.’ His arrogance is so complete that loneliness would be the only thing for him; he would scoff at the notion of ever even needing human interaction in any way.
GH: Often in movies, it’s the villain audiences talk about more than the hero, and what you did here with Picasso is very memorable because he just gets under your skin in the creepiest, most unnerving, disgusting way. Did you take all your information about him completely from the script or did you have any external inspiration?
MF: It started with that. For some reason, I’m always that guy who, if there’s a cable channel [airing] a documentary about Ted Bundy, I have to watch it. I’m fascinated by how you do that and how you rationalize that. What kind of construct do you have to build for yourself to rationalize that? Jeffrey Dahmer … and what’s weird was, [there was a] progression in his interviews where you see the construct begin to fall apart. The question is whether the treatment and the amount of time he spent with psychologists [lead him to] speak an indoctrinated new construct and he actually can really recognize the construct that he built for himself before.
So [my creation of Picasso] started with that stuff and then it took on a life of its own. Before I had even read the script, when Rob just called me to tell me about it and he said, ‘And this is what the guy’s like,’ Ted Bundy popped into my head. I couldn’t believe Rob was offering me this…
GH: You, of course, seem nothing like Ted Bundy.
MF: Right, right. And then I [realized] Ted Bundy is the last person on earth you would think was a serial killer; he was super charming and he was kind of prototypically handsome and he looked like one of the Kennedy guys. And suddenly you find out he has this insane history of the most messed up and disturbing and crazy behavior. So that was the first thing, but then I read and I started really thinking about how I was going to bring myself to it, and it just went further and further away from that and more and more to an almost hyper-real, really intense, disturbing [place]. I felt like that construct that he has to build for himself is so all-consuming – it requires so much energy for him to maintain this supremacy, to maintain this philosophical thought process, to maintain this concept of him being so singularly important to the universe – that it would require that much energy from him that he would be burning at a calorie level five times a normal person’s weight.
GH: It’s very obvious you put the physical work into creating that persona. In that cage fight scene, the announcer makes a reference to your weight – 130 lbs – but what did you actually get down to because it was quite startling when you first appear on screen?
MF: Yeah. I never weighed myself at the most extreme part, but what I was really freaked out about was when I got home, and after about a week and was back into eating and [thinking], ‘Oh my God, it’s over, thank God!’ I still weighed in at 166 pounds, which means that when I was doing that stuff, I had to have been weighing somewhere around 160, which means that I lost somewhere between 35-40 pounds.
GH: While shooting Alex Cross, you were also working on World War Z. Have you ever had to balance two roles at the same time?
MF: No, no, no. That was not a perfect scenario. I really love when they’re just – boom, done, boom, done – time in between. But sometimes a couple things come along and for whatever reason I felt so excited to be a part of both of them. I knew it was going to be a lot of travel (World War Z shot in England and Scotland), it was going to mean going from one frame of mind to another frame of mine and completely different guys and trying to keep all that stuff separate and be specific … it was challenging, but it worked out really well.
GH: Were you involved in any of the reported re-shoots on World War Z?
MF: No, I’m not doing any of that stuff. I can’t wait to see it. I’m very excited for that and I’m really hopeful that it does well because I would like to do more of those. It was fun.
GH: Jack on “Lost” was such a great character – he became so layered and intriguing and fascinating – did that show change the way you look at roles? Has it raised the bar?
MF: I don’t know, man. I think it’s … I’m sorry to be vague, but for me, I really don’t have any rhyme or reason and I never think of these things from a macro standpoint, I just literally get done with and then I wait to read another script that just hooks me in, no matter how crazy this is going to be logistically for my family – ‘My kids are in school and, geez, I don’t want to leave Oregon, where does it shoot?’ – suddenly, all that logistical stuff goes away and I [realize], it doesn’t really matter how long [my wife and I] talk and argue about this, this is something that is going to happen because I really feel like I have to do it. Fortunately, for 25 years, I’ve been with the most amazing woman in the world who totally is with me on those things, we make those decisions together. The kids are always excited to go to new places, we’re off on another adventure for a couple months and they’re really into it. It’s working out so far.