By Peter Richmond
In a nondescript garage on a dead-end street in an industrial neighborhood south of Los Angeles, a half-dozen motorheads gaze in reverence at the time-warped creature that sits before them, a visitor from a distant era when men were men and horsepower was the ultimate in masculine cool. "This thing," says Fast Ed the upholstery guy, "is going to be a monster." The man standing next to him, beer in hand, nods idly, but his mind is elsewhere. He's here for only a few days, and there's much to be done. The Grand National Roadster Show at the Fairplex in Pomona is less than three months away. The 502-horsepower big-block Chevy engine has yet to be installed, and the avocado-colored bull leather must still be stitched into the interior. Right now, Matthew Fox's attention is riveted on the automotive artisan intently laying pin-striped tape in flowing flame shapes onto the bulbous ebony flanks of a sweetly sinister 1950 Mercury.
"They're going to be ghost flames, pearl-green—you'll hardly see them," Fox says. "If you put a flame job on it that's not right, it'll fuck everything up."
In a black blazer, white T-shirt, and black jeans, with touches of gray flecking the tops of his sideburns, he's absurdly handsome in person, way too modelesque for the surroundings. But he's supremely at ease amid the litter of the shop, the oil and machinery and half-restored carcasses of Studebakers and Porsches. On this day, his garage band of brothers seems to know him only as one of its own: a guy with the good taste—and sufficient funds—to restore a true Detroit classic.
"Lines-wise, it's one of the coolest cars ever made," Fox says. "It's just like James Dean's car in Rebel Without a Cause. And we've been so careful not to fuck it up. We've let the car tell us what it needed."
Don't let that last bit of mysticism confuse you. Entering the fifth—and penultimate—season of Lost, the TV Fox (a.k.a. Dr. Jack Shephard) has been revealed in flash-forwards to be one severely unstable, potentially suicidal drug addict, whereas Fox the man is a middle-aged family guy in his 16th year of marriage, with two children and hobbies that seem to belong in back issues of Boys' Life. "I've always been into cars," he says, sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck in the garage's darkening parking lot. "Cars are part of our genetic makeup. It's unavoidable. My little boy, he's 7, he plays with Matchbox cars, does the sound effects and everything. He dressed up as Racer X for Halloween. One of the highlights of my life."
In short, the man is no rebel. James Dean, an ephemeral phenomenon, sent his cinematic 1949 Mercury, like his life, speeding over a cliff. Fox is at the beginning of a film career he hopes to build carefully, brick by brick—and he plans to get plenty of mileage out of his Merc. After a year on the show circuit, it will sit in the garage of the house he's building—in central Oregon, a suitably anonymous slice of American outback for a man who sounds sincere when he admits, almost sheepishly, that he doesn't much welcome all the attention coming his way.
"My major motivation is to be closer to family," he explains. "My brother is there, my mother is there. We're hoping to break ground in March, and it will be completed right around the time we're finishing the last season of Lost, in March 2010. I really miss that kind of wide-open space, and there's a big part of me that wants the kids to live in that mountain air. But we'll be able to get to Portland, and Seattle. . . . It's not as culturally remote as where I grew up."
That would be the rural ranch in Crowheart, Wyoming, where, as a high-school kid slouching toward oblivion, feeling out of place as a football jock and out of touch with ambition of any kind, Fox joined his brothers in demolitions to relieve the boredom. "We were pyromaniacs," he says, breaking into a very wide smile. "My dad kept a lot of dynamite on the place. We'd vent empty 50-gallon drums with axes, turn them upside down, and blow them up."
Sensing that he had no idea what to do with his life, Fox says, his Ivy League-educated father sent him east for a year at an elite prep school—at which point his life began to take as many twists as a Lost story line: Chewing tobacco and playing football at Deerfield Academy led to Columbia, and an economics degree that promised a job in the financial world . . . until a modeling gig veered him toward acting classes, which earned him a role on Party of Five, opening the door to an ensemble part that became a star turn on a pioneering sci-fi series that, well, seemed to be leading nowhere.
Thankfully (for Fox, for the cult followers, for casual fans), the fourth season jumped off the page with the more urgent narrative that followed the announcement that the 2010 season would be Lost's last, a development welcomed by its star. "Personally, it's a relief," he says. "I owe this show a great amount, and I think it's exceptionally good . . . [but] I am looking forward to the freedom that comes with not working on one project professionally.
"All of us knew that if the show was strung out indefinitely, it was going to ruin the story. It's not like a doctor drama, where you have a new case each week. This show started with a plane crash on an island in the South Pacific, and it's going to have a very global and epic ending."
An ending he knows? "I have some idea," he says, laughing.
None of this is to suggest that Fox has grown weary of the multilayered fable that has vaulted him into the pop-culture pantheon. Dramatically, at least, he feels as if he's just getting started; the quantum leap in the show's story line offered him myriad chances to polish his game. "When it's all said and done, you'll be able to look at the six seasons of Lost and see a pretty amazing character arc," Fox says. "Jack has been evolving, and not necessarily into a good place. We started the show with him being this hero who had no concept of what that required, sort of trying to live up to the expectations . . . and then finding the way to redeem himself."
What Fox's film roles indicate so far is that he's going to be careful with his choices. In Vantage Point, he more than holds his own in a high-profile ensemble, playing the role of a renegade Secret Service agent. As a football coach in We Are Marshall, he fully fleshed out his character in the quiet shadows of Matthew McConaughey's over-the-top scenery chewing. And chalk up his role as Racer X in the Wachowskis' Speed Racer to a chance to work with (sometimes) visionary directing talent—and, of course, his blind love of cars.
Lost will likely be Fox's last gig on the small screen; series work is too much of a time commitment for a 42-year-old eager to immerse himself in feature-filmdom. "You won't be seeing Matthew on TV anymore, you'll see him in big movies," says Carlton Cuse, Lost's co-executive producer and cowriter. "He has that cocktail of dangerous and charming. He has a leading man's good looks, and heroic qualities as an actor."
Cuse's partner, Damon Lindelof, senses that Fox might be happier in—and more challenged by—smaller roles of considerable depth: "He has the potential to be a leading man, but I think he's interested in those quirky transformative roles. Three, four years from now I can see him getting a Supporting Actor nomination. . . . He wants acting to be hard, to be torture. He does not want to ski the bunny slope."
Arriving late to movies after a decade on television isn't necessarily a liability. See: Clooney, George. But that comparison isn't entirely apt. Clooney, raised in an entertainment family, was unashamedly hungry to be in the business from the start; he'd landed several leads by the middle of his ER run. When Fox talks about his future, it's in the reflective tones of a man tackling yet another skill: "I love the collaborative experience of working with directors and actors, the technical aspect of filmmaking . . . "
Can he find a foothold on the next level?
"I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think I could," he says. "I've been proud of the things I've been part of so far. I don't have control over what will come my way, but if the opportunities I get excited by keep coming, I'm going to continue working in this business. If they don't, then there are other things in my life I'd like to take on."
Oh, right. The Boys' Life thing.
"You really never run out of challenges and new frontiers with flying," Fox says, with a straight face, "and that appeals to me. I'm really enjoying the process of learning to fly. How it will fit into my life down the road—I'm looking forward to discovering that."
Well, let's grant him this: In the air, you don't have people asking you questions you don't want to answer. Asking for your opinion about things you'd rather not discuss. Expecting you to be a spokesperson for a political cause because you've graced the cover of Turkish Cosmopolitan. You may have noticed that Matthew Fox does not lend his name to causes, alliances, or efforts of any kind. While we are perched on the pickup's tailgate, it just so happens that Ben Affleck has returned to the Congo, to do what he, as an actor, can to save the world. A few months earlier, Clooney, who seems to have joined the State Department, visited Sudan. So why haven't we seen Matthew Fox—Ivy League grad, well-read and thoughtful guy—visiting any beleaguered nations, or speaking out about anything more controversial than the flame job on his 1950 Merc? This question brings him up short. He chooses his words carefully. "Up to this point I've made a conscious choice not to do that. To be quite honest with you, I'm a little reticent to step into that whole thing. This isn't knocking anybody. If they make a positive change, then that's great. I'm just not sure that I feel that I have . . . the right to . . . I don't know, man, I really kind of struggle with it.
"I'm an actor. I try to play a character in a really cool story, the very best I can. And somehow or other that does make people very interested in what I have to say. And I think that, being the stubborn bastard I am . . . the more people want to hear what it is I have to say, the more I kind of . . . not say anything.
"What I'm trying to say is I don't think that's my place. Sometimes people look to others for answers they can find within themselves. I don't really want the responsibility of being the guy they look to."
He's hopped off the tailgate, a signal that there will be no more answers this evening. He has to get back to Fast Ed, and talk with another guy about the next potential project in his life—restoring a '66 Chevelle.
The parking lot is dark now; Fox's profile is etched against the pink neon piping of a strip club across the street, with plywood turrets and bars on the doors and windows. It's called Fantasy Castle. Fox turns his back on that particular reverie to return to the glow of the garage and the gleaming black Merc—a monster entirely of his own creation.