When the producers of "Party of Five" told Matthew Fox last summer that his character was going to get cancer, he was both thrilled and concerned.
Thrilled to be getting a challenging acting assignment. Concerned about just how challenging it might turn out to be.But, nearly two-thirds of the way through this season (15 of 24 episodes have been shot), Fox is still excited about what both he and his character, Charlie Salinger, are going through.
"It's been a fantastic year for me," he said. "Any actor is going to be really exited about an opportunity to play this type of storyline. There's a lot of different layers. You get to show a lot of different colors. It's an incredibly emotional thing to go through.
"It's meaty material, and it's been very, very challenging. . . . Dealing with something like Hodgkins Disease is definitely the most challenging, the richest storyline that I've had to deal with so far. So, yeah, it's been fantastic. But it's been very tough."
Charlie, an otherwise healthy 27-year-old, was stunned when he was diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease, a form of cancer. But the shows executive producers/
writers, Amy Lippman and Christopher Keyser, had done their homework - it's a disease that usually strikes young men in their late 20s or early 30s.
It's the latest tragedy to strike the Salingers - a family that has gone through alcoholism and teen pregnancy and suicide and drug abuse, just to name a few of problems. Heck, the whole premise for the show was five siblings forced to come together and help each other after their parents were killed by a drunken driver.
Even fans of the show sometimes question whether the Salingers can ever have any happiness at all.
"It's a heavy show and you're going to get that kind of criticism," Fox said. "The thing is, if the Salingers were happy, there'd be no point of having any shows. That's what drama is all about. It's about conflict."
As Fox pointed out, the storylines do lead up to moments of joy for the Salingers. But, again, he's realistic about how long they'll last.
"We build up to moments, but, unfortunately, those moments are sort of just set-ups for somebody to get slammed again," he said.
Actually, all of the Salingers have gone through a lot of changes - none more than Charlie. Fox remembers one early review of the show that referred to Charlie as a "bearded, flaky loser." And, while he didn't quite agree with that assessment, he acknowledges that Charlie was hardly a poster boy for responsibility.
"He was very, very irresponsible. And he was in a place where he was angry and resentful of the position that he was in," Fox said.
That position, of course, was as the eldest surviving sibling who was forced to grow up a great deal more quickly than he wanted to after his parents were killed. At the age of 24, Charlie was suddenly responsible for two teenagers, a pre-adolescent and a toddler.
"He knows down deep inside he has this responsibility to take care of them, but it's not fair. And there was a lot of anger and frustration that he even took out on his siblings," Fox said.
"Here we find him three-and-a-half years later and he's come full circle. He's really come to embrace his position as this sort of father figure. I think if somebody were to come along and tell Charlie now, `Look, your deal is done. We're going to step in. We're going to take over. You can go live your life for yourself now,' I don't think he'd trade that off. I think that's way too important to him now."
And there are some definite similarities between Charlie and Matthew in that regard. Not that Fox was ever as irresponsible as Charlie - he has always appeared to be - and acted like he is - one of the more grounded, well-adjusted young actors working in television. But Fox and his wife, Margharita, became first-time parents almost 10 months ago with the birth of their daughter, Kyle. Like many new fathers, Fox is rather hard on himself, but it's obvious just how important his family is to him.
"It was difficult, psychologically, at least for me," he said. "I was sort of expecting some sort of epiphany - some sort of thing when she was born where there was going to be some sort of seismic shift inside of me, and I was going to automatically want to care for this child, and I was going to love her more than anything in the world," he said. "At least for me, it sort of surprised me that it didn't happen that way. You fall in love with them gradually, and then you fall more in love than you've ever been with anything in your life. But it sort of happens not right away. And there's a lot of guilt and weird feelings that go on inside of you that you're not a good parent and it's just difficult."
But he's obviously devoted to Kyle, his face lighting up every time he speaks of her. And, while other members of the "Party of Five" cast have had some success in movies of late - notably Neve Campbell and Jennifer Love Hewitt - Fox is on a somewhat different career track.
"I'd like to work in films sometime. I'm just not pushing it right now," he said. "There's more to my life than my career and my work. I mean, I really enjoy my work, but there's a lot more to my life. . . . I need some sort of balance in my life, and that's the way I'm doing it now."
For right now, "Party of Five" is enough. (Although he is looking at some scripts he might possibly get involved with during his hiatus from the show.) And he's also more than a bit tickled that - for the first time since it premiered - the show is on firm footing. The ratings are up, and Fox has already renewed it for next season.
"It feels great that it came that way," Fox said. "It makes it much more rewarding. It's like anything in life, I guess. If we had been an immediate success, it would not be as rewarding as it is now, that it took us three, four seasons before we really kind of broke through. And that's fantastic."
It's also a payoff for all the hard work that he and the other members of the cast and crew have put into "Party of Five."
"The show is hard enough. It's a lot of work," Fox said. "It's a lot of hours, and it's very draining. And it sort of dominates your life while you're on it for eight months. And I knew that Charlie having Hodgkins Disease was going to only up that for me."
And that storyline isn't the easiest to leave behind at the end of the day - something Fox admits he's had trouble with over the years.
"It's really tough. I personally have to kind of carry that stuff around with me quite a bit," Fox said. But he's working on it.
"I have done a really good job this year of going to work, and if I have a 14-hour day ahead of me where I'm in absolute emotional hell because of all the stuff that's going on, I'm really proud of the fact that I've been able to sign out and get in my truck and drive home and sort of get rid of that," he said. And he credits becoming a father with a lot of that.
"It's been a big thing for me," Fox said. "I can be in a really bad state and walk through the door, and she hears the door and she's waiting for me to walk up the stairs. And I turn that corner, and she's been waiting for me and just gives me a gigantic smile and - poof! - I'm right back into that life. And it's awesome. It's a great thing."