Mark Pilkington meets former Lost star Matthew Fox and talks about his new film, Emperor –a thriller based upon real-life events following America’s victory over Japan in World War II…
Set in the days after America’s South Pacific victory over Japan in the Second World War, Emperor is a thought-provoking film that follows the journey General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) and General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) had to thread as they negotiated with Emperor Hirohito. Together the two generals have to decide whether the Japanese ruler should be accused of war crimes, and if so, how the iconic leader – who was worshipped by his nation – should be suitably punished.
What was the experience of making Emperor like for you?
It was a terrific experience all round. It was really rewarding, I’m really proud of it. I feel like everybody felt like they were making something special. Everybody was bringing a really positive energy and working really hard, paying attention to the details. All you can ask for in a collaborative experience like that, is that everybody really believes in the possibility of it and their working really hard trying to make that happen.
It’s very much a multi-cultural story...
I think that it being financed by Japanese money felt like it was. I have this theory that the possibility of it really working only exists when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It feels like that happened on this film.
How did you go about researching the role of Boner Fellers? He is not as widely known as General Douglas MacArthur.
No. In fact when I first read the script I thought he was a fictional character, but I quickly found out that he was a real guy. The minute I found out I did research obviously. I was playing a guy that very little is known about. If you try to research Fellers you’re not going to find anything out about his personal life at all, you’re basically going to see a year by year career list of what he did in the military.
Did that give you a blank sheet of paper to create the character?
I think so. I think that ultimately as an actor whether it’s based on real life events or not, your job is to tell the story that you are telling the very best you can. My job in the end was to serve the story of our film the very best that I could and not potentially get in to some sort of research that was just getting in the way.
What was it like working with Tommy Lee Jones?
Tommy’s great. I felt like he was the perfect actor to play MacArthur. From what I know of MacArthur, in 1945 if you walked into his offices in the Daiichi Building in Tokyo he’s setting himself up as the supreme commander. He would have been a force of nature in his presence and the way people would have conducted themselves around him. I really felt that Tommy Lee Jones was going to create the same kind of energy on our set. It worked great, I think it was perfect.
Is it intimidating working with an actor of his stature?
No. I was just excited about trying to carve out the dynamic of that relationship and how much Fellers would see him almost as father figure. For eight weeks I was the big dog; Fellers would have walked around and there would have been people underneath him that would have looked at him the way he looked at Macarthur. That’s what the military power hierarchy is all about, shit always runs downhill. (laughs)
You’re an experienced actor but do you still learn from actors like Tommy Lee Jones?
I think you learn from all actors. He’s an amazing actor and has had an incredible body of work and a career. The Japanese actors I was working with were absolutely amazing! The Japanese have almost their own style of acting and I think that comes from their theatrical tradition. There’s stillness and there’s strength and that was incredible to work with that. Also they weren’t even getting to work in their first language, they were working in English. A lot of them didn’t speak English very well and so they had to learn these massive pieces of dialogue in a different language. It was incredible to watch how well they did that.
Did you pick up any Japanese yourself?
Fellers was supposed to be somebody who had a really good understanding of the Japanese language so I did spend a lot of time every day with a Japanese woman who was helping me try to get those phrases right. It’s a difficult language to speak, but it was fun.
You were quoted as saying you’ve left TV behind to concentrate on films…
I don’t think that’s the quote. (laughs)
Well, I’m paraphrasing of course…
That insinuates that I’m leaving TV behind me like I’m moving on to something grander. I have grown to be far more careful about the things that I say! I think the very best stuff is happening on television right now and I think it’s been that way for a few years. Lost obviously was an incredibly popular show and I think a good show but I think that there’s a new model of television, this sort of cable 10-13 episode series or mini-series. The way that Netflix is handling their things, the best stuff is happening there.
Yes, TV as a whole has certainly developed in the past five or so years. It’s come on leaps and bounds recently.
This is true. The reason why I stated I didn’t want to do television any longer is that I just took a year and four months off of working – I haven’t been on a set since Emperor. If I were doing television I would never have that. That’s the only reason why the last four years of my life have been a play and three films because I have the luxury to do that.
So what’s next for you?
I’m looking to read a script that is just amazing and I feel like I just have to be a part of it. I don’t know when that’ll happen – but that is how I feel about every project I work on. I’m just starting to read things and I actually read some things in the last ten days that I thought were really exciting. I think I’m at that point where the year and four months did what it needed to do which was sort of have and break from it, re-charge, take stock of where I am in my life and now I might be excited to move on to a set again. I personally can’t do it any other way.