Actor Matthew Fox saw his career take off in the 1990s with the role of Charlie Salinger in the American TV series “Party of Five,” and he gained even more popularity as Jack Shephard, the central character in the innovative series “Lost.” Now, though, his performance in the movie, “Emperor,” in which he plays the role of U.S. intelligence officer Gen. Bonner Fellers, who investigates the wartime guilt of Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa) is surely his biggest movie role to date, coming as it does after 2008’s “Vantage Point.”
Sitting down in a Roppongi suite with Fox — who has enough ink on his forearms to get him thrown out of most hot-spring resorts in Japan — I mention to him how director Steven Soderbergh has quit making movies, saying all the interesting stuff is happening in TV these days. I ask Fox why he’s moving in the other direction, as he’s been quoted as saying he’s “done” with TV.
“I agree with him,” says Fox, “because there’s just an enormous amount of really good writing and storytelling going on in the sort of 10- to 13-episode cable format, all these cool shows that are happening right now. At the same time, I think the film industry is really struggling to find what the new paradigm is going to be. It’s going through a big business shift in the way the movies are financed and what kind of movies are made.”
Fox points to recent comments by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predicting the possible “implosion” of the industry if several mega-budget movies fail at the box office. “I completely agree with them,” he says. “I really think in the next five years we’re not going to see movies like ‘Emperor’ in theatrical release anymore.”
However, Fox says his reasons for moving away from TV are more about flexibility in his own life.
“I’ve done 12 years of network TV, which is more of an eight- to nine-month-a-year commitment for one project, six years in a row,” he says. “I just want more flexibility from here on out. Now, a 10-episode cable series, five months working on one role — I’d be open to that. It’s just about having more control in my life.”
Given the fact that in Japan the Occupation-imposed Constitution has returned to become a central issue for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s LDP, and that criticizing the Emperor in any way remains something you do at your own risk, I ask Fox if he was aware of the sensitive nature of the topic when he signed up for the role.
“I immediately understood that when you’re dealing with a historical moment in time, at the end of a war between two nations, (that) finding balance and representing things fairly was going to be important,” he says. “And also that there were probably going to be people on both sides who felt like one side was favored over the other. That’s sort of the nature of the beast, although the movie is obviously trying to reconcile these views, and I think that’s a very positive thing.
“I didn’t know very much about this moment of time, I guess my historical consciousness was more focused on what was going on in Europe, which is probably true for a lot of people. So how things wrapped up between Japan and America, with (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur setting up the war-crimes tribunals and the issue of what to do with the Emperor, all of this was stuff I knew nothing about. So anytime I get an opportunity to be a part of a story and learn some history as well, it’s the best.”
While the character of Fellers is based on an actual officer who was a Japanophile, the movie clearly takes a few creative liberties. In the film world, there’s always a question of how faithful an actor should be to a historical figure and how much room he or she should be allowed for their own interpretation. I ask Fox how faithful he felt he needed to be to the real Fellers.
“To be honest, I originally read the script thinking he was a completely fictional character used as a narrative tool,” he says.
“That was a pretty strong indication to me that I could take whatever liberty I wanted (laughs). Very little is known of this man, he operated behind the scenes. So I didn’t have the same situation that Tommy (Lee Jones) had dealing with MacArthur, one of the most iconic military figures of the 20th century.”
Some early reviews have taken “Emperor” to task for such supposed historical liberties — particularly around Fox’s character — but the actor insists that such reviews are “missing the point. There’s an epic love story in this film between two people from the very cultures that have gone to war, and that’s hopefully moving the story in a direction of reconciliation and understanding. So yes, we’ve taken a historical moment in time and used other things to fill it out and try to reach the audience in a positive way.”
Director Peter Webber and his design team — which includes Grant Major, who worked on the “Lord of the Rings” film series — have done a fantastic job of creating postwar Tokyo, a burned-out husk of a city with ramshackle huts and tents dotting a barren landscape. Fox calls the set design incredible, explaining, “The immediate image was practical, while the expanse around it was CGI.”
“Emperor” was mostly filmed in New Zealand — except for some shots outside the Imperial Palace grounds in Tokyo — and a number of disused warehouses were actually burned to the ground to form the basis for some of the sets. Looking out of a window 50 stories above Roppongi, Fox muses: “I’d been to Tokyo several times before making the movie, and that was something I never really put together in my mind, the fact that 65 years ago, it was reduced to rubble. And all of this didn’t exist. It’s pretty amazing.”
As we part, Fox mentions he’s looking forward to seeing the film for the first time at the Japan premiere. I do a double-take; you haven’t actually seen the film yet? “No, tonight’s gonna be the night,” he says. “I don’t normally watch anything I’m in. I love movies, and I love to watch movies and to fall into them, and y’know, when you’re in it, it’s not the same (laughs). You’re like, ‘Yeah, I could have done that differently.’ I’m a pretty harsh critic, so it just takes the fun out of it.”
“Emperor” opens in cinemas nationwide on July 27. For more information, visit www.emperor-movie.jp.