"I love the feel in of freedom and control,” Matthew Fox tells us about his “true passion”: flying. “If I believed in reincarnation, I would absolutely, without a doubt, come back as a golden eagle.” Years before he was Dr. Jack Shephard on TV’s Lost, Fox was a kid in Wyoming who watched goldens circle the sky. Which is why Fox, now 46, loves doing the next best thing to actually being a bird: piloting a plane.

It’s probably safe to assume that the 6'2", 175- pound actor would rather be in the cockpit of his Bonanza G36 than at this Men’s Fitness cover shoot. Not to discount the beauty of Joshua Tree, the photo shoot’s setting: The rugged, chisel-jawed Fox looks in his element amid the miles of spiky Joshua Trees for which the national park is named. But shoots are about relinquishing control. Photographers telling you to go here, flex, smile. Stylists chopping your hair and dressing you.

“Being an actor, you only have control over what you’re doing,” Fox says. And in Alex Cross, Fox grabs the role of Picasso by the horns, losing nearly 40 pounds to play a psychotically fit serial killer. “But God, there is so much you don’t have control over.”

Fox is referring to the tabloid fodder that’s plagued his personal life. In August 2011, while Fox was filming Cross in Cleveland, a female bus driver accused him of drunkenly punching her (she later dropped her lawsuit). In May 2012, he was arrested for driving under the influence in Bend, OR, where he lives with his family. Later that same month, former Lost co-star Dominic Monaghan tweeted that Fox “beats women... Often.” Fox has remained tight-lipped about the incidents, but now he’s taking control to set the record straight.

Men’s Fitness: Over the summer, Summit Entertainment released a still of you from your film, Alex Cross, looking absolutely shredded, which had everyone talking about how unrecognizable you were. Is it refreshing to have the blogosphere buzzing about your work instead of your personal life?

Matthew fox: F—k yeah. It’s been a long, trying year of sitting on my hands on a lot of negative shit said about me, when they’re the furthest things from who I am. That I beat a woman in Cleveland when in fact I was assaulted by a man and did nothing but retaliate against him? The 46 years I’ve been breathing on this planet, I have never hit a woman before. Never have, never will. But I think there’s still gonna be a lot of people out there who’ll think it’s true no matter what the f—k I say. Out of all the negative shit, the only thing that’s true is that I was arrested for DUI.

A lot has been reported about that night. Is it true you were arrested on your way to a fast-food place?

[Grins] I was on my way home from a fast-food place.

Just goes to show that fast food...

...is never a good thing. I had a Del Taco in one hand while trying to drive my friend’s car with the other...

That better have been the best damn taco you ever ate.

It was f—king good! [Laughs] My friend’s car is a 1967 Cadillac, which is a sweet car. I’m sure that had something to do with why I was driving that night. But it was a stupid f—kin’ decision. I understand that [the media] reported that I got sentenced to, like, a year of alcohol treatment and all this shit. I got the lowest level of alcohol informational treatment the state of Oregon will allow for first-time offenders. I did my four Sundays of group informational treatment, and you know what? I learned a f—k load from that. Half of all people who get a DUI get another [DUI], and that’s astounding to me, because I will bet you any amount of money that I will never get behind the wheel of a car after even one drink.

Is there anything else about that night that you want to clear up?

Oh, the other thing reported was that there was an unidentified woman in the car. There were two dudes in the car, and one of ’em is bald and weighs 220.

So the DUI you own up to, but the rest...

The rest of it—the Cleveland situation, the [Dominic] Monaghan situation— was a pile of bullshit, and I’m not gonna waste too much breath on that.

NEXT: Fox talks about the intense physical preparation he went through for Alex Cross

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Given the endless ink written about his life off-screen, Fox admits that he wrestled with whether he even wanted to continue acting. But he dove into his work, and as a result, the upcoming year sounds more promising than the last, with three completely different Fox films on the horizon: the World War II epic Emperor, the postapocalyptic World War Z alongside Brad Pitt, and this month’s Alex Cross. His lithe and lethal character Picasso is the epitome of efficiency: no wasted steps, no wasted words— no wasted calories. Fox had always envisioned the cage-fighting assassin to be “disturbingly lean,” so the studio hooked him up with celebrity trainer Simon Waterson—the guy responsible for transforming Daniel Craig, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Chris Evans into James Bond, The Prince of Persia, and Captain America, respectively.

First came a complete overhaul of his diet, which ranged from 1,200 to 1,600 calories a day. “It’s gonna take a long time before I can confront eating another plate of steamed broccoli and chicken breast,” he admits. Then came the brutal vomit-inducing circuit workouts, weapons training, mixed martial arts training, and scuba training (there’s an elaborate sequence where Picasso enters a high-security building through a tight water pipe; Fox did it take after take, even though he’s claustrophobic and an admittedly poor swimmer). Director Rob Cohen was effusive in his praise for Fox’s transformation. “There are those actors who can only play a part from the mask out, and then there are those who create that ‘inner alchemy,’ ’’ Cohen says. “Matt became Picasso.”

What was Cross training like?

I’ve spent a lot of time in the gym all my life. I played competitive sports in college. I thought I kind of knew my way around the gym.

Not so much?

It was circuit training until I wanted to puke. Simon taught me the difference between doing an hour and 15 minutes of a nonstop circuit, as opposed to working out for two hours and resting in between each set.

What kind of exercises?

Simon changed it up half the time, but a lot of full-body stuff. There was a period—and I hated this period—where you started out with a burpee that went into a pullup. And then you went right into these really intense shoulder presses. You look at it and start to think, “Oh, this isn’t gonna be too bad.” And then you get into one set of 10 and you’re, like, dying.

How have you transitioned from hardcore training to everyday training?

Something about the experience of what I did for [Alex Cross] taught me so much about food. I eat differently now. I enjoy foods I never enjoyed in the past. And I definitely work out differently. I run longer. I circuit train in the gym, but I’m more efficient; I only work out half an hour now.

Filming for Alex Cross lasted two months. Picasso is a really intense character to inhabit for eight weeks. How did you come out alive?

You know, it was one of the more challenging experiences I’ve ever had. And for a lot of reasons. Trying my best to realistically create this illusion took an enormous amount of energy.

So the mental aspect was more draining than the physical?

Without question, man. The physical preparation was almost a relief, in some respects, from the headspace.

Director Rob Cohen lauded your complete commitment to the role. Where does that dedication come from?

Fear of failure. [Laughs] I think it comes from my mother and father and the way they brought us up. They always instilled that work ethic in me and my brothers. We never shied away from hard work, and growing up on a ranch in Wyoming does take a shitload of hard work. Being disciplined on a diet is hard work. I think a lot of people fail on diets because they want to see results too quickly,they’re not willing to be patient, and they start to cheat. They think the quick result will motivate them to go to the next step. It doesn’t end up working that way.

NEXT: Fox talks about his family and the future

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That work ethic is something I’m sure you’ve been trying to instill in your kids, now that you’re a father of two.

My parents taught me that anything is possible if you work hard enough and you want it bad enough. To give both of those principles to my kids is really important.

Fatherhood is a big theme in Alex Cross. There’s a point in the movie where Cross, as good a person as he tries to be, turns into some vigilante, doing whatever it takes to protect his family. You think all dads have that switch in them that’s flipped when their kids are endangered?

[Fox’s eyes well up a bit, and he remains quiet before taking a deep breath and answering...] You know how much you love your children and how much you would do anything for them. It’s hard as a parent to see your kid upset when someone at school says some shit about them. It’s hard not to go to the school, find that kid who said it, and pull him by the hair and smack him around a little bit. But you’ve gotta let your kids fight their own battles sometimes. I can’t even imagine, when it comes to their lives being at risk, what kind of instinct takes over. Plus, I’m also married to one of the fiercest Italian women in the universe.

So if your kids were being messed with, she’d take care of it?

Dude... [She’s] awesome. Awesome. Whenever Fox talks about his wife, Margherita, her name rolls off his tongue almost poetically. Fox met the former model when they both attended Columbia University, and for the past 25 years she’s been with him every step of the way: from Hawaii to Oregon and everywhere in between. Once Lost ended, Fox and family packed up for Bend, OR, to live closer to his mother and two brothers. But once there, Fox fell in love with all the fit opportunities that come with living in the Pacific Northwest.

Why Bend?

Oregon is America’s best-kept secret. It has a lot of beauty, a lot of change in climate and terrain, lakes and rivers. You’ve got skiing and snow- boarding in Mount Bachelor, which is 20 minutes from our house. Bike trails that branch out into the wilder- ness. Oregon is an amazing place for mountain biking. I can speak from experience because I haven’t been driving lately. And five minutes outside of Bend, I’m in the middle of nowhere, and I feel right back at home.

Of course you must not have been home much to enjoy all that. You have three movies out in the next year.

I worked really hard the last year and a half. At one point, my wife and I calculated that, out of a 15-month period, we were together for only three months.

Is that the secret to a lasting marriage?

Oh no, she comes and visits tons. But we’ve changed our whole philosophy on that. If a project comes up in 2013 that we’re all really excited about, we’re all gonna go, dude. Enough of this shit. That’s been the hardest part for me. In the end, the most difficult part was being halfway around the world and being away from my family. For me, whether or not I work again is always gonna depend upon the quality of the opportunities that I get. And if I don’t get quality opportunities, you probably won’t see much of me. I’ll probably be doing something else.

And what would that be?

Spending time with my family. Playing a lot of music. Listening to a lot of music. Flying a lot.

The “feeling of freedom and complete control” you mentioned about flying must be the main draw.

Yes, absolutely. To be up thereby yourself, and it’s all up to you whether it’s gonna be an amazing flight or it’s not gonna go as beautiful[ly]. I feel like I’m hyper-prepared when I fly. There is so much you don’t have control over. I’m talking all the way from the woman in Cleveland claiming I hit her to the media picking it up and making a story out of it. From waiting in a trailer for four hours when you were ready for the shot three hours before all the way to the woman who is constantly in your face fixing makeup and wardrobe. And that, at times, is almost unbearable for me. Unbearable!

And then you’re thinking, When can I get back in the sky?

[Grins] Yeah, pretty much. MF