Lost’s Sensitive Action Hero

5 minute read
Joel Stein/Los Angeles

Matthew Fox had a hangover the morning after we met. Which made me feel a whole lot better. Hanging out with Fox, you see, can make you feel insecure in your masculinity. All that talk of horseback riding, surfing, chewing tobacco, playing wide receiver at Columbia University, growing up in Wyoming, getting tattoos, marrying an Italian model and never eating during camping trips until he catches a fish will do that to a guy. So when I found out that the Fast Eddies we downed in the members-only club he co-owns in Manhattan Beach, Calif., also did him some damage, it was reassuring. But then I realized that the shared hangover is a performance device. It’s a weakness that Fox lets his audiences see, like his characters’ crying bouts or the fact that his voice is a little small for his body. These things make you think he’s a guy just like you, if you were a little more heroic and had a skull made of granite.

Fox, 40, has perfected a new kind of action hero, a synthesis of Alan Alda and John Wayne who shows his feelings and frustrations–but just barely. As the reticent tough-guy doctor on Lost, which returns to ABC on Feb. 7, Fox acts as if he’s forced against his will into greatness. And while he does stifle his emotions, he isn’t afraid to cry. “The John Wayne idea was what a man wanted to be–not what a man is,” he says, fingering the dog-tag necklace that has a hologram of his two kids. “I’d rather watch a person be full of intense emotions and fighting [against] expressing them.”

Damon Lindelof, a co-creator of Lost, says it was Fox’s unexpected tears in his audition for that show that scored him a role. “Matthew has elevated crying to an art, where somehow it’s a form of badassness. He never cries because he’s sad. He cries because he wants to hit someone,” Lindelof says. “I can’t think of any other hero characters who have cried. If Patrick Dempsey cried on Grey’s Anatomy, people would be like, ‘Meredith, do not waste your time with that crybaby.'” When he’s not crying, Fox is stone cold, silently holding back. “He understands stillness, which is a rare trait in an age of big performances,” says McG, who directed Fox in the recent football tearjerker We Are Marshall, which is based on the real-life story of a college team killed in a plane crash in 1970. And yes, when the two first met to talk about the project, the director says, Fox cried.

The tears started during the ’90s teen drama Party of Five, on which Fox played the flop-haired, put-upon head of an orphaned family. Unhappy with playing a character that was more a prepubescent girl’s fantasy of a man than a real one, Fox overhauled himself. “I decided I’d drop out for two years and do theater in Los Angeles and fall on my face. And then I would come back and change my looks,” he says about having shaved his head. I believe that his career hiatus was actually planned not only because of his extraordinary earnestness–and the three drinks already in him–but also because he’s so focused on saying this that he hasn’t once looked up at the Patriots game, on which he has bet $1,000.

Fox also says he needed to wait for the right movie, passing on the teen-horror scripts that came flooding in as Lost became a hit. After spending his first hiatus from the show unemployed with his family in their house in Hawaii, he spent all this past summer working–first on We Are Marshall and then on this fall’s Vantage Point, with Forest Whitaker and William Hurt. To fit both of these into his break, he had to persuade ABC and Warner Bros., the studio behind Marshall, to make a lot of compromises. (Fox’s hair may have been a little red–as it is for the movie–for the last few episodes of Lost last season.) He also had to convince Red Dawson, the coach he played in We Are Marshall, who was deeply suspicious of the film, to fly out to Hawaii, where Lost is shot, and talk about the plane crash, something Dawson has rarely done in 36 years. “It was a little awkward for an hour or two,” Dawson says. “But he’s from a small town, and I grew up in Valdosta, Ga. We hit it off real well.”

That’s Fox’s great skill: he’s the homecoming king who’s somehow interested in you. Dawson is planning a fishing trip with him. I, for one, am convinced that Fox cares deeply about what music I listen to, even though I own every Billy Joel album and he’s good friends with Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day.

Fox finds everyone interesting; that’s why he’s good at his job. Not just because studying people is the job of any actor but also because it’s so much a part of his personality that even his characters are people studiers, rather than talkers. As a bonus, the audience sees things in his silences: intelligence, empathy, toughness. And, of course, if that doesn’t get them, the tears are sure to do it.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com