Matthew Fox Talks History, Gridiron Glory & Bonding with Tommy Lee Jones on ‘Emperor’

Adam Pockross
Movie Talk

As the drama unfolds in the upcoming historical thriller “Emperor,” you might just wonder why this seemingly made-for-Hollywood story hasn’t been told before.

Set in Japan at the conclusion of World War II, at the very beginning of the U.S. occupation, “Emperor” tells the tale of bigger-than-life General Douglas MacArthur’s (Tommy Lee Jones) vital decision about what to do with Japan’s Emperor Hirohito.Since there was no other head of state to execute, many folks on the home-front wanted Emperor Hirohito tried for war crimes. But as much as MacArthur wanted to make political allies, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers knew that killing the revered Emperor could easily disrupt the tenuous peace.

To help him with this all-important judgment, or perhaps to separate himself from it, MacArthur turned to his protégé, military attaché Brigadier General Bonner Fellers, played by Mattew Fox. Fox recently spoke with Yahoo! Movies about the intricacies of the role, how much research serves a historical story, his Ivy League gridiron bond with Tommy Lee Jones, why he doesn’t watch his own movies, and so much more.

We’ll have a follow up interview with Jones on Friday, March 8, the day “Emperor” opens in limited release.

[Related: Local Tickets and Showtimes for 'Emperor']

Adam Pockross: Have you played historical parts before?

Matthew Fox: One thing before, in a very different sort of period, but I did a movie called "We are Marshall." It was based on the crash of the Marshal Football Team. It was the only other experience I've had with that and that one was special because the man that I was playing, Red Dawson, I spent a lot of time with him really. I haven’t been in touch for a while, but really consider him a friend. And it added an extra amount of responsibility to be playing a man that I got to know and was often times around the set. And I just really respect him a great deal and so that was interesting.

This was very different for me in that respect, just because Bonner Fellers is gone and people really don't know much about Bonner Fellers and for the story that I was playing I didn’t feel like I needed to know a tremendous amount about Bonner Fellers. When I first read the script I thought that the Fellers character was fictional, to move us through this narrative.

Not long into my research, obviously, I discovered that he was actually a real man -- you know it’s always interesting, I mean, this is only my second experience playing a story about a historical moment -- but as an actor you have to ask yourself this question constantly in that situation: Is knowing a lot of details about the actual event going to help you or maybe get in the way of the film that you're attempting to put together? Because it’s not a documentary. You have to make a film that if somebody who knew nothing about the actual historical event, which would be hard to believe, but if they knew nothing about the end of World War II as far as the Japanese-American struggle, would they be able to sit in the theater and enjoy a film for the film’s sake?

And so I felt that for me I had a really good script and a story that could potentially be very moving, and powerful, and interesting, and is set in this moment of time as a backdrop and that I would probably not have to do a lot of research about who Fellers actually was.

AP: That’s really interesting. Did you get any advice from somebody who has quite a bit of experience playing historical characters, Mr. Tommy Lee Jones?

MF: No, no. Tommy just doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy that would give advice. (laughs) I have really, really enjoyed working with Tommy. I really did. I thought he was just so perfect to play MacArthur. I was working on the movie for six or seven weeks before Tommy came in and so we shot all the Fellers-MacArthur stuff at the end. By that time in the shooting I was so excited for that energy, because we all knew that Tommy has a certain sort of persona in his own right, but then he’s also playing this very iconic American military figure.

And so I figured that the combination of those two, he was going to sort of come on to set and it was going to be really interesting energy coming in and sort of taking command. And I knew that that would serve us well. It was going to serve as me an actor well. I was looking forward to turning over that and suddenly Fellers is subordinate to the commander. And there has to be a real military hierarchy there; there has to be at the same time history between these two guys. And he’s been MacArthur's right hand man for a long time, but he’s given this responsibility that is enormous and almost seems impossible. And he starts to suspect maybe that MacArthur has given him this responsibility because MacArthur doesn’t want to take responsibility for it. And all those dynamics I thought were going to be really well served by Tommy coming in at the end of the film and trying to find that dynamic for the final two weeks. It’s certainly a great experience.

AP: So you were thinking that ahead of time and then what happened when it all went down?

MF: It went down pretty much exactly the way that I hoped it would. The entire crew was buzzed about Tommy coming. People were on eggshells just the way that I'm sure anybody who was around MacArthur in 1945 felt, and that I think served us well.

AP: I just talked to him. I thought he was a nice guy.

MF: He’s a super nice guy. He is a super, super sweet guy. People, I think, almost always get the wrong impression of Tommy. He is definitely no nonsense and I really love that. That’s sort of the way I approach my work as well. I don't think there needs to be a lot of pampering or you know any kind of coddling, and you come in, you do the work, if you’re prepared. And he was just such a pro. I really enjoyed working with him.

AP: Did you guys bond at all about your Ivy League Gridiron experience? [Fox played wide receiver at Columbia, Jones played offensive line at Harvard.]

[Related: Tommy Lee Jones sheds light on Thaddeus Stevens]

MF: We talked a bit about that and we also talked a lot about some other things we have in common like fly fishing and horses and farming, ranching. My father is a farmer, a rancher. And Tommy runs an outfit in Texas, so we have many things sort of in common in our upbringings and in our current lives… so yeah, we got along well. I mean it was a good time.

AP: So you said you backed away from doing research, I mean, was there a balance that you found on how much research served the story, the script, and being in the film?

AP: Did you have an easier time with the love story than with the thriller aspects or vice versa, or was it all just one character?

MF: Well, no. I am hoping that they come across as very different. The love story is when he was younger and he is in love, and madly in love. In our film, Fellers feels that this Japanese girl is the love of his life and it’s only going to happen once and he does not understand why she keeps sort of pulling away from him. And he is not sure that she feels the same way about him, although he feels like it is such a true love that there's no way that she could not feel the same way as him. But because of the cultural differences, he is not sure.

And then that would shift his focus, once he loses her, his inability to understand her gets shifted into his inability to understand the culture and the country itself. So he learns Japanese, and he becomes very proficient in it. Then, because he is rising in the ranks of the military, they sort of tap into that and direct him into being Japanese intelligence and using his skill in that direction. But in the end, as far as the 1930, 1940, and 1945 stuff, I really wanted to portray him as a broken man in 1945 post-war coming into the rubble of Tokyo, kind of hoping beyond hope that the love of his life has survived that war.

So I felt that there needed to be juxtaposition between the man that we see in 1930 and 1940 and the one that we see in 1945. I haven’t seen the movie, so I mean, you do what you can to bring that truth to it and then you hope that on some level that it comes across.

AP: Are you going to see it?

MF: You know, I don’t really watch the things that I'm in.

AP: Really?

MF: Yeah. I know, kind of ruins it for you.

AP: Why?

MF: Oh, it’s just -- I mean, I love falling into movies and when myself is in the movie I can’t fall into it, essentially. But I want to see this particular movie for the first time in a theater in Tokyo. The movie will premiere there in mid-July, and so I would love to see this movie with a theater full of Japanese people. For me personally and only because I think it would bring my experience in the film full circle. It will be a nice moment of closure to watch it with another culture that was our enemy in 1945.

[Related: Matthew Fox On Tyler Perry And Becoming Alex Cross's Maniacal Baddie]

AP: How do you foresee it being received there?

MF: I don’t know. I don’t know how it will be received here. I think that anytime you're dealing with cultures that have been in war, I don’t care whether it’s 65 or 70 years ago, or a 150 years ago, and then you make a fictional story about it and you try to make a movie about reconciliation and love, I think that you're going to have people that were enormously impacted by what those wars meant to them personally, and to their families, and to how much they lost that they are going to feel that the movie is one sided.

So I feel that there may be Japanese that feel like it’s too pro-American and I feel like there might be Americans that feel it’s too pro-Japanese. I anticipate there will be, like I almost guarantee there will be enough to the extent that will be in how the movie is received, I do not know.

AP: One of the extremely interesting epilogues of the movie is where we are now, and how good of friends the Japanese people are to the American people. One last question for you, MacArthur has famously said, “Duty, Honor, Country” in one of his most well-known addresses. Where does love fit into that?

MF: Hm. To me, the love story underneath really meant something, but I think a more accurate description of what that is representing is understanding. And I think that maybe that would fit into what MacArthur said there: Understanding. I am an idealist, man. I am hopeful that besides being entertaining and hopefully moving and maybe slightly eye-opening, this may be a movie that might make people want to learn more about a moment in history. Maybe it will have the opportunity to make people sort of be a little less judgmental of people that are different than them.

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Watch the 'Emperor' theatrical trailer...