Matthew Fox is a heartthrob, but of a very particular kind. He’s handsome, no doubt, but without the rakish, dangerous edge of, say, Josh Holloway, who played his foil Sawyer on the hit TV show Lost. Fox is best known for playing reluctant heroes—dependable, serious-minded fellows who furrow their brows and take care of the people around them. His character Jack Shephard, the doctor who became the unofficial leader of the shipwrecked community on Lost, was very much in this mold, as was his breakout role as Charlie Salinger on the TV family drama Party of Five in the 1990s. When Fox talked with Boston Common, it was easy to see why. He speaks slowly, deliberately, with more than a few long pauses, as if he’s carefully gathering his thoughts. He admits to being a bit of a bookworm (and even a little shy), with little interest in the trappings of Hollywood glamour. He seems like someone you could trust.

Since Lost finished its wildly successful six-year run in 2010, Fox has deliberately broken away from that familiar mold. Many TV and movie actors try to prove their chops by taking a turn in the theater, but Fox chose to work with one of today’s most challenging playwrights, Neil LaBute, in the London production of In a Forest, Dark and Deep, playing a troubled character who lacks the ready likability of Jack Shephard. After that he played a sadistic murderer in the movie Alex Cross. This summer he returns to form, playing a Navy SEAL in the zombie apocalypse movie World War Z, based on the cult-hit books by Max Brooks. With a big budget, big special effects, and an army of sprinting zombies, it’s classic blockbuster fare. But Fox seems unfazed by the hoopla surrounding the movie. He talks about it, and his other accomplishments, in the same low-key, thoughtful manner, as if to say that, yes, stardom is all fine and good, but he’d rather be back on his ranch in Oregon, piloting his airplane over the mountains, or just reading a good book with his kids.

What was it like growing up on a ranch in Wyoming?
I grew up pretty far out in the middle of nowhere. I spent most of my time outside of school with my brothers, doing stuff around the ranch, getting into trouble. Around the 4th of July we’d always get into lighting off fireworks, and that inevitably would turn into Roman candle wars…. Ranch life is dictated by markets, so there was a period when my dad raised cattle, and periods when he was pasturing other people’s horses or growing barley for beer companies like Coors. It required working outdoors around the clock to a harvest moon, and those are really nostalgic times for me.

Did you ever imagine that you would go into acting?
I didn’t get the idea for acting until I was graduating from college…. But while growing up I was always into stories. I read a lot when I was younger, and reading is still something I love, especially fiction.

Which books made a mark on you?
When I was 8, my older brother read The Hobbit to me, and I fell in love with that world. So the J.R.R. Tolkien books became a big part of my early reading. I also read a ton of westerns by Louis L’Amour, and one of the first more adult, classic books that I remember digging was Ivanhoe.

What made you decide to attend Deerfield Academy for a year after high school?
That was my dad’s idea. He was raised on the East Coast and went to the Brunswick School in Connecticut. That year was a major turning point in my life. I had spent most of my life in Crowheart, Wyoming, so it was a real eye-opener to meet kids from all over the world. The academic schedule was very intense, and I struggled with that for the first few months. It was the first time that the bar was raised high for me, and it opened my eyes to a much bigger world.

When you were at Columbia University, what sparked your interest in acting?
It wasn’t that I reached my senior year at Columbia and suddenly had an epiphany that I wanted to be an actor. I just realized I didn’t want to work on Wall Street. I got a degree in economics, and a lot of kids at Columbia were pursuing careers in the financial world, so Wall Street was a default. But acting was something I was curious about. In the beginning I was shy and wasn’t really comfortable expressing myself in front of other people. But I have always been into stories, and I wanted to be a part of a group of people who are telling a story.

Did your family support your career?
They were very supportive. The thing my parents gave to me and my brothers—and something that I hope my wife, Margherita, and I give to our children—is the concept that anything is possible if you work hard at it. When I told my parents I was going to try my hand at acting, I remember exactly what my dad said: “Read lots of fiction.” It was a really good piece of advice.

You found success pretty early in your career as the star of the TV series Party of Five in the 1990s.
I certainly was shocked by that. I was concerned it might be too early, because I felt very green. When I did the pilot there was a snowball’s chance in hell that it was going to turn into a six-year show. But when that happened, I thought, This is an amazing opportunity. I looked at it like graduate school—to be working in front of the camera every day, for eight months of the year. The writing was really good, and I had so much to learn. It was a great chapter in my life.

When you started Lost, did you expect the show to become such a huge hit?
I’ve learned to not have a lot of expectations. Whether or not a show finds an audience is a mysterious thing. But when I first read the script, I thought, Wow, this is super cool. I remember the night it was premiering, and there was quite a bit of buzz about it. But I was cautiously optimistic because it’s so much about timing. So the next morning, when we heard that tons of people tuned in and that it was a quote “hit,” that was rewarding because I felt the show deserved it.

Charlie Salinger on Party of Five and Jack Shephard on Lost are both reluctant heroes—the strong guy holding it together for everyone else. You did a drastic turnaround after Lost when you starred in the London production of Neil LaBute’s play In a Forest, Dark and Deep.
There were so many challenges in that. First, it was my West End debut and a two-hander. I knew that I could fall flat on my face, but I had such an incredible experience working with Neil on that play. And that role—I just f***ing love Bobby. He was a really intense human being and flawed in many, many ways. But at his core he was so honorable and sacrificed himself completely for his sister.

What was it like being on the London stage after being on TV?
It was absolutely fantastic. When you’re making a TV show, there are so many people in your space, and the start and stop and the waiting around. But on stage, you walk out there and you’re just flying through it. I did 106 performances, and it was incredible how much the play grew in that time. When you’re shooting a film and a director asks you to do 10 takes, you’re like, Jeez, don’t you have it already? That was a lesson for me, because after 106 shows I was still discovering things in the material.

After that production, you did something else that was radically different: playing a sadistic murderer in the movie Alex Cross and losing 40 pounds for the role.
Playing a hyper-intense villain—I wasn’t sure I could pull that off. All the preparation, both physically and psychologically, was really rewarding. That role was the furthest that I’ve ever played from myself.

Your newest project, the zombie apocalypse movie World War Z, is being released this summer.
It’s the biggest movie I’ve ever been a part of. I was just a real fan of the books, and I’m a huge fan of Marc Forster, who I’ve gotten to be friends with over the past few years. I just think he’s a fantastic director and has incredible taste in any genre that he takes on, so I’m excited to be a part of it.

What kind of character do you play?
He’s a Navy SEAL who rescues Brad Pitt and his family off of a rooftop in Philadelphia. He ends up looking after his family amidst this chaos, while Brad Pitt’s character tries to find a solution to the zombie apocalypse. The movie is the setup for the possibility of a trilogy. My role would be more developed, I think, if there were to be more films. But I just was really excited to be a part of it in any way.

You spend your time off in Oregon. Can you talk about your life out there?
We live right up against the Cascades, looking at snow-covered mountains. It’s beautiful. I spend a lot of time with my family, and I’m an avid pilot—it’s one of my true passions. I’m constantly trying to develop myself more as a pilot. Or I just read and hang out with my kids. We have a teenage daughter who is a sophomore in high school and a little boy who’s a fifth grader. There are periods where I get into a project and I’m gone physically and emotionally. So when I’m completely ensconced in our home and our family, those are really good times for me.

Are there philanthropic causes you’re involved in?
Every couple of years, I go back to Deerfield or Columbia and give a few days of my time to connect with kids…. I gave the commencement speech at Columbia in 2007, which was a real honor. One of the recurring themes was that we ask our young people to decide what they’re going to be in this world too soon. I encourage them not to narrow the field—to prepare themselves, to be well-rounded, and to approach learning with a real passion, but to try everything and let life guide them.

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