The former Lost star gives an update on his work in the new feature Emperor, based on controversial real-life events.
Actor Matthew Fox
Tavis: Matthew Fox first grabbed our attention in such TV hits like “Party of Five” and “Lost.” He recently abandoned his good guy roles to play a deranged assassin in “Alex Cross.” This summer he’ll be co-starring with Brad Pitt in the futuristic “World War Z.”
But right now, in “Emperor” he’s going back in time to the days immediately following the Japanese surrender that ended World War II, when American occupation sought to turn a culture that embraced autocratic rule into a U.S.-style democracy.
The movie also stars one Tommy Lee Jones as General Douglas MacArthur. Let’s take a look at a clip from “Emperor.”
Tavis: You pleased with that? With the work?
Matthew Fox: Oh, I guess.
Tavis: You were looking at it pretty intently.
Fox: Oh, it’s hard to watch yourself on screen, but I’m just very proud to be a part of the film.
Fox: Yeah. I really had a good time making it, and learned a lot. Any time I get an opportunity to combine storytelling with learning some history that I know very little about, it’s always a win-win. So this one was very much that way.
Tavis: I want to come back to that notion of what you learned in advance of the project and on the project itself.
Since we just saw that clip of you and Tommy Lee Jones, I think we all saw “Lincoln,” and once again, Tommy Lee Jones just, for me, at least, just stole the project, man. He was so amazing.
Tavis: So we see a clip with you and Tommy Lee Jones here. The experience of working with him was like?
Fox: It was a real honor. He’s reached sort of a legendary status in the business. I’ve obviously been a fan of his work, and when I heard that he was playing MacArthur, I just couldn’t think of any actor on the planet that was more suited to play that role.
MacArthur historically, a huge, iconic, historical military figure, U.S. military figure. So I just felt he was going to be amazing in the role, and I was really looking forward to seeing how he approached the role.
He had a much harder job than I did in a lot of respects, because very few people know who Brigadier General Bonner Fellers was, what his role was, whereas MacArthur is such a sort of known historical figure that I was really curious to see how much Tommy brought, how much he paid homage to some of the things that we know about MacArthur.
Body language wise, the way that he spoke, those types of things, and how much he just brought himself to it. He was incredibly hardworking and disciplined and prepared. It was a really – just enjoyed it very much.
Tavis: So this is the tenth season of our doing this show, and every blue moon, I can count maybe three or four times over the course of these 10 years when a particular person walked onto the set. There was a little bit of an intimidation factor for me having to sit to try to moderate this conversation with person X, Y, or Z. Are actors intimidated by other actors?
Fox: Oh, I think so. I was certainly nervous. I think that Tommy puts off a definite energy of somebody who doesn’t suffer fools lightly, and he –
Tavis: That’s putting it mildly. (Laughter) I was trying to be nice. Tommy Lee Jones has been a guest on this program. He was one of those four people.
Fox: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Because I walked out, with his reputation preceding him as a great actor, I love the guy, his work.
Tavis: I was honored to have him on this show. But I was like how am I going to get this crotchety old guy (laughter) to open up to me and answer my questions? It wasn’t so bad after all, but there was a little bit of intimidation on my part, knowing I had to talk to him. Not so much with you today, thank God.
Tavis: But I cut you off. You were saying about you were a little nervous, though.
Fox: Well, I was.
Fox: But I also knew that that was going to work in my favor. We had this relationship to build, these two guys and this sort of the subordinate position that was in, as essentially Fellers was like MacArthur’s right-hand man, and followed orders to a T, and really took great pride in following those orders to a T and succeeding and executing them.
So I knew that that sort of nervousness that I had about working with Tommy and sort of wondering how he was going to come into the project, because I’d been shooting for I think about six weeks on my own in New Zealand, with all the other actors, but without Tommy.
Then Tommy came in at the end of the project and we shot all of the MacArthur and Fellers stuff towards the end. So it was – I knew that it was going to work not just in my favor, but the entire project’s favor. MacArthur should have that kind of intimidation factor with everybody that he’s coming in contact with, and so I thought that it was going to be good, and I think it worked out that way.
Tavis: Yeah. I want to go to your character specifically, General Fellers, in just a second here. There have been so many movies about wars, and as long as there’s Hollywood, there’ll be movies about wars, I suspect. But this one struck me as interestingly different, Matthew, because it’s not really about war, it’s about the aftermath of the war. It’s set days after the surrender.
Tell me what struck you about that script when you saw it, given that it wasn’t really about the war, the stuff we typically are used to seeing, but the aftermath of war.
Fox: Well first off for me personally, one of the things that I was really drawn to was I feel like you could spend your whole life learning history. There’s so much to learn. I feel like it’s such a part of my education that is very lacking. I just don’t know as much history as I would like to, and even just America’s history, which is relatively short.
I felt like my consciousness about how World War II ended was mainly dominated by what was going on in Europe. Obviously, what was discovered in Germany and our coming and storming the beaches of Normandy and going across France, and the Holocaust and Hitler and all of that sort of dominates my recollections of what I know about World War II.
So when this script came I just felt like wow. Obviously, you know that there was this whole other arm in World War II that we were embroiled in. The Japanese conflict was instigated by Pearl Harbor and this whole South Pacific campaign, and that we ended it using the atomic bomb for the first time in history.
But then this whole two week or three week or month, and then it went on for many years afterwards, this occupation of Japan. The decisions that were made during that period of time, I think if different decisions had been made, would have radically changed what the last 65 years in Japan certainly, and I think in a larger part all of Asia would have been different.
I was just really – it was just very eye-opening to me, and I felt like wow, this is just a part of the end of World War II that I know so little about, and here’s an opportunity to focus on just a couple of week period of time, some huge decisions that were made, and I think a moment in history that is really a shining moment for America.
Tavis: Shining in what way?
Fox: Well, I think that the – at the end of World War II, when this decision of how they were going to handle Emperor Hirohito, I think if you poll the U.S. population, people wanted him hung.
I think Washington, to a large degree, there may be many historians out there who have different takes on what was going on there. History has an interesting way of, like, when you look back on it from the future, it can shift and change.
So I think that the decisions made, and ultimately what MacArthur recommended to Washington, to keep Hirohito in the emperorship to help rebuild Japan, even after the way that America was attacked by Japan and the hundreds of thousands of lives that were lost in the South Pacific campaign, that’s a real moment of reconciliation, and I think making the right choices. I just feel like it’s a great moment for us.
Tavis: What did it say to you, those decisions that were made, what did it say to you as you started to study this stuff? What did it say to you about MacArthur, the general, and what did it say to you about U.S. foreign policy, the decisions that were made in that two-week period? How did you read that?
Fox: Well obviously, making a movie about those types of decisions with what’s going on in the world today, and some of the conflicts that we’ve been embroiled in for long periods of time, and the way that we’re exiting those conflicts, I saw that there was a parallel there.
I really felt like at least the way that our film handles what happened in 1945 is that it shows MacArthur was looking down the field a long ways, and he really, I think, made very wise and patient decisions, even though he was getting an enormous amount of pressure from Washington to make a decision.
I think that he felt that politically, he also had political aspirations at the time, and I think politically he felt that for him to go over there and just round up all these war criminals and execute them, and potentially Hirohito being one of them would probably be something that was politically prudent, because it was the environment that existed at the end of World War II, and how people felt about Japan.
So to make the decisions that he did, in our film’s version based on Fellers’ recommendations, I just think they were wise choices, and they were choices that were, again, looking down the field a ways and anticipating what kind of negative things would happen if they made gut reaction choices.
Tavis: So this is a perfect segue to talk about Fellers, because you mentioned earlier, and you were right about this – everybody knows Douglas MacArthur. We don’t know the name Fellers, who was offering him much of this counsel and advice and suggestions and recommendations. So tell me about this character that you play, Mr. Fellers.
Fox: Well, Fellers is MacArthur’s, as I said, his right-hand man, and part of the reason why MacArthur gives him this task, MacArthur really turns over the task of determining Hirohito’s fate to Fellers, and in our film version, Fellers has had this really beautiful and sort of epic love affair with a Japanese girl that starts in the United States in 1930.
That was another thing that I was really drawn to in the project, because I felt it was just very moving, and it’s a love affair that never really gets a chance to exist in a full form because of the war and because of those two very cultures that she’s Japanese, he’s American.
These two very different cultures go to war, and the war tears them apart, and through his love for this woman he kind of is really fascinated and intrigued by Japanese culture and how different it is from Western culture. Because he can’t truly understand her, and he can’t truly understand her feelings for him, he becomes sort of obsessed on the Japanese culture and the language, and how their politics and government works.
So this is the reason why MacArthur gives him this responsibility, that he has 10 days to make this determination on Hirohito. That’s what the 1945 part of the film is about, is Fellers’ investigation, trying to find out concrete evidence that Hirohito had direct responsibility for the decisions made to attack Pearl Harbor.
It’s hard for us to imagine a scenario where the emperor of a country may not have that information or may not be the one making that decision, but that’s how things were structured in the Japanese government at that time, so it was possible.
So he goes on this very, very intense – and feels an enormous responsibility and understands, I think, because of what he knows about Japan, that if he ultimately has to make the recommendation that Hirohito be removed, be put on trial, and the emperorship to be removed, that the chaos, what it would do to the fabric of the Japanese people would be devastating and would really work against what he know would be the efforts of the United States government to help rebuild Japan and be a major force in that rebuilding for the first five to seven years of it.
Tavis: How did this, to the extent that it did – I don’t know that it did, so I’m going to ask – but to the extent that it did, how did your going back to reread this history impact your thinking about our dropping the bomb?
Fox: I sort of developed my own theory that that’s part of the reason why, at least for myself, that that part of the end of World War II gets put aside a little bit, because of our I think built-in guilt, a little bit, about the fact that we were the first country in the world to use that kind of weapon of mass destruction, and that there were many, many, many civilian casualties.
I feel – I don’t know, it’s made me think a lot about that, and obviously, I think that it did end the war, and the theory being that had the war carried on and the Japanese would have fought to the last child, essentially. That’s how committed they were to their cause, to their emperor, to the decisions that were laid down to them.
The amount of lives saved by ending the war earlier than it would have been had we not used those weapons I think is still justification for it, but it’s hard. It’s very, very hard to wrestle with that. For myself, I just felt like I kind of realized that that’s part of why that part of the end of World War II has always gotten a little less focus, because of the fact that we did use those bombs.
Whereas the European arm of World War II, we are sort of more obviously heroic in, and –
Tavis: That’s back to your point about historians, and when you look back on it, why it tends to shift and to shake on you.
Tavis: Depending on who gets the chance to actually write that particular history. But I digress on that point. I’m wondering if this project in any way raised the level of your curiosity about Japanese culture.
Fox: Oh, yeah. I’ve been to Tokyo on several occasions before I made the movie. I haven’t had the chance to really explore Japan as an entire country, but I’ve certainly, I don’t know what about it has always fascinated me.
I guess part of it is just how much of a foreigner you feel in a country like Japan. But going back there after making the film, going back to Tokyo at the end – we shot a few days, and we got an opportunity to shoot outside of the Imperial Palace, which has never been done before.
It was really cool to go back to Tokyo after making the movie, and all the friends that I made while making the film, a lot of Japanese friends. Got an opportunity to work with just the most amazing Japanese actors, and that was really interesting, because they kind of have a distinct style of acting, and it’s so clean and simple and still.
All the actors in the film have huge reputations in Japan and are very regarded. That was really a joy for me, to get an opportunity to work, and the language barrier. But anyway, going back to Tokyo after the film, one of the things that I was just really struck by was that city has always fascinated me because it’s such a vertical city.
I lived in New York for nine years, and it feels even more sort of intensely vertical and layered than New York does, and that entire city was essentially built in 65 years. Tokyo was reduced to rubble at the end of World War II, and really, the only buildings standing were buildings that we intentionally left standing.
In 65 years, that city has been built to what it is today. The country has been built to what it is today, and that was just really kind of eye-opening to me, just a testament to human work, and what can be accomplished in such a short amount of time.
Tavis: Did you read anything about this film that you imagine is going to be controversial inside Japan? To my read of it, at least, I haven’t seen that as yet, but it is always fascinating to me how a movie comes out about two countries, about a particular piece of history and how that history gets interpreted.
It comes out, and one country, somebody doesn’t like the way they’re being portrayed in the process.
Fox: Oh, I think that’ll be the case on both sides.
Tavis: You think so?
Tavis: Tell me more.
Fox: I just feel like when it comes to making movies, ultimately, you’re trying to tell a story that is cohesive and hopefully very moving and potentially thought-provoking, and you’re using a moment in time and history.
In this particular film we’re using a moment in time and history to tell this story. But there have been liberties taken for the sake of narrative and for the sake of a complete film in an hour and 45 minutes, or however long it is.
I think there are going to be Americans that fought World War II and there are going to be Japanese that fought in World War II that feel that the movie favors one side or the other.
I just think that that’s the perspective of people that have experienced massive loss of life, gone through an incredibly intense – I can’t even comprehend what to find in war like that must be like, and what it must leave you with afterwards – a sense of ingrained sort of hatred and distrust of the people that you were fighting against.
I feel like there are people alive today that will look at this movie and potentially – I hope it’s not too many. I hope that they can experience the film for what it is, but I do think that those kind of grudges do not go away easily, and I feel that looking through that, each one of those positions’ points of view at this film, they may feel that the other side has been given a pass. So I anticipate that there will be some of that.
Tavis: Your view of U.S. servicemen and women, mostly men then, changed in any way as a result of doing the film?
Fox: Oh, I just personally feel like I’ve always just had the utmost respect for the sacrifices that are made by our servicemen and women. As an actor, you spend a lot of time in your imagination, and when you think about the types of things – I tried to bring that to Fellers, because Fellers in 1945 is a broken man.
He’s really kind of a broken man, and he’s tasked with this massive decision, and he’s looking for this love of his life and wondering if she’s still alive post-war. He’s damaged by what he’s experienced in war for many years, and then all the South Pacific campaign with MacArthur, and the amount of men that he would have lost that were under his command.
So I spent time in my imagination trying to find that kind of sort of a broken man trying to find his way out of the end of his war. You start doing that, and you just think, like, God, what it must be like to actually go through the things that these guys go through, the types of sacrifices that are made, the families that are left behind. So I guess maybe the answer to your question is yes.
Tavis: You have 15 seconds. Can you give me just a quick word about this Brad Pitt project that you’re a part of?
Fox: “World War Z” I think is going to be a real sort of reimagining of the zombie genre. (Laughter) It’s a big zombie movie, it’s a huge zombie movie, but in a really, really cool way. The kind of big tent pole movie that I would like to go see, and I hope that people turnout and enjoy it. It looks really cool to me.
Tavis: “World War Z,” that’s a little further down the road. Right now, the project is called “Emperor,” starring one Matthew Fox, alongside Tommy Lee Jones. You’ll want to check this out. Matthew, good to have you back on again.
Fox: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: Take care of yourself.
Fox: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show tonight. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
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