PLAYBOY: Did the fact that your family grew barley for beer companies translate into your being able to drink at an early age?
FOX: Oh, we were drinking the beer, man. We all started drinking pretty young. My parents were never restrictive that way. I’m taking the same policy with my kids. My wife is Italian, and in Italy they start drinking a little bit of wine at the dinner table from a very young age. They don’t have binge-drinking problems when kids leave and go to college. We experimented with that stuff pretty early.
PLAYBOY: Did you experiment with weed, too?
FOX: Weed? Yeah.
PLAYBOY: Did that bring down your father’s anger?
FOX: I was a big hell-raiser, always doing crazy shit but always getting away with it. Wyoming is all about drinking and chasing girls, but it’s also such a big place and we lived in such a remote area that to get into trouble I normally stayed at a friend’s house 50, 60 miles away. My mom and dad never knew about much of what I did. But one time I got into serious shit with my old man when I was trying to grow weed in one of the farm buildings and he found it.
PLAYBOY: How did you finesse that one?
FOX: I blamed it on my brother Francis, who’s five years older than I am. He was in Mexico City on an exchange program for about six months. I thought, since Francis was so far away, the old man wouldn’t double back on him. My father wasn’t happy about it, but I think he was probably smiling through his anger. I mean, shit, yeah, we smoked pot and were goofing around with that kind of thing from a very early age. My parents didn’t know a lot of what else I did.
PLAYBOY: And you don’t intend to tell them or anyone else in this interview?
FOX: No. At Christmastime we were all a little lubricated, and everyone felt the statute of limitations had expired. We were talking to my mom, and my little brother, Bayard, who had ended up in jail on a couple of occasions, revealed that he’d been in jail another time and that he was on probation for a serious situation in another state. When I watched my mom react to the news in the way she did, I thought, Well, she probably didn’t need to know that.
PLAYBOY: You said Wyoming was about drinking and chasing girls. How did you first learn about sex?
FOX: My older brother was good with women; they loved him from an early age. He was getting laid when I was 10, so I learned an awful lot from him. We’d lie in bed at night and talk about broad, big questions such as how to treat a woman and what a woman might like.
PLAYBOY: How old were you when you took the plunge?
FOX: I was 12. She was about two years older than me. It wasn’t her first time. I can actually see the event in my mind’s eye, like photographs. It was in Dubois, Wyoming, where the population sign probably says, to this day, about 1,000. It happened literally on the ground by a river while a rodeo was going on in town.
PLAYBOY: How was it?
FOX: It was absolutely terrible and—awkward—just two fucking kids lying down and pulling our pants down. It was hard to put into play all I had talked about with my brother when we were just down by the river. I had a lot of girlfriends later but nothing serious until college.
PLAYBOY: Ranch life can seem pretty all-American and romantic when you experience it through movies, novels and TV shows. What was your experience?
FOX: The years my dad grew barley for several beer companies are pretty nostalgic for me, but the way it works is that you have a contract with a big company that pays you only if the barley is delivered in a certain condition. Right away you’re in a financial situation with the bank because it takes a lot of start-up money. Then along the way there are so many factors that can completely destroy the crop. Harvesting is a huge operation, and it requires massive, heavy equipment. When you’re eight or 10 years old, it’s like the coolest fucking thing imaginable. I remember the smell of the barley dust and working in those late summer nights when the sun is setting and the air begins to cool, then the moisture starts and you can’t work any longer or you’ll be trapping the moisture.
PLAYBOY: Aside from ranch work, did you have other jobs?
FOX: My first paying job was working on a crew of four or five guys building barbed wire fence and guardrails for 15 miles of highway through the Wind River Valley, where I grew up. I was the only white guy; everybody else was Shoshone or Arapaho. I was getting paid a lot more than the old man would pay me, and I was putting in long, hard days—a half-hour for lunch that I’d eat out of a lunch box in the truck alongside the road and then get right back to work. I miss working with my hands, and there’s a lot to be said for hard, physical, mindless labor where you’re actually seeing the fruits of your toil immediately.
PLAYBOY: You finished high school at a prep school in Massachusetts. Were you being punished or rewarded?
FOX: When I look back, I owe my dad such a huge debt for that whole thing. After my junior year in high school, he said, “So, what are your plans?” When I said, “I don’t have any,” that alarmed him. I was doing nothing but playing football and basketball, chasing girls and getting loaded. He asked me if I’d consider going East to a prep school. I interviewed at Exeter, Andover and Choate and ended up going to Deerfield Academy. Without that middle step I would never have gotten into Columbia University and would never have been able to find my way into that world.
PLAYBOY: How were you treated at conservative, preppy Deerfield?
FOX: I wore beat-up roper boots, chewed Copenhagen and wore a Coors cap. They wore little boat shoes and shit like in Dead Poets Society. In the Deerfield yearbook I was voted most likely to appear on Hee Haw. You can take the guy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the guy. But that was an interesting year, because before that I’d never applied myself, never took books home. I ended up with a B+ average. My old man had said, “You’re going to learn how to study,” and I did.
PLAYBOY: What was your major at Columbia?
FOX: Computer science. Computers were the one thing I was interested in, from a programming class in my junior year at Wind River High, when it got its first Apple IIe’s or whatever the hell they were. The whole idea of writing code was fascinating science fiction to me. At Columbia you’d have about 200 kids in the class, all Asian and the smartest fucking kids you’d ever seen in your life. I thought, There’s no way in hell I’m going to be able to compete with them. I changed my major to economics, which I’d heard was kind of like the cool thing.
PLAYBOY: Why cool?
FOX: I swear to God, as pathetic as it sounds, I believe that seeing Wall Street was part of the reason. I suddenly thought, I’m going to be Bud Fox [Charlie Sheen’s character] and go make a bunch of fucking money.
PLAYBOY: You played football for Columbia in the middle of the team’s 44-game losing streak. Did women go for members of a losing team?
FOX: We didn’t get any of the benefits of being football heroes. There was plenty of sex but no football-hero sex. The way the student body at one of the best schools in the country dealt with a disastrous football program was to wear it as a badge of honor, like, “We’re real intellectuals here, and yes, our football team is a mockery.”
PLAYBOY: Did the team’s 16–13 victory over Princeton in 1988 bring on bouts of football-hero sex?
FOX: My sex escapades at Columbia were early in my freshman year. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re a college freshman. After that, Margherita and I fell in love, so that obviously changed.
PLAYBOY: Is it true that when you were at Columbia your future wife found out you had a phobia of water and taught you how to swim?
FOX: Yeah. Margherita, being from Venice, is like the biggest fish on the face of the Earth. She thought it was absolutely adorable and inconceivable that I couldn’t swim, and she was going to fix that right up. Growing up I didn’t have the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the water. The water in Wyoming is so fucking cold that we got into the habit of jumping into a river or lake and then just jumping right out. But I think I have a natural fear of water. I’ve never been comfortable, even now that I know how to swim. I talked with people on Lost about a bunch of stunts I had to do in the water this season. I get anxious. I’m just not a very good swimmer.
PLAYBOY: You gave the 2007 graduation keynote speech at Columbia despite some skepticism bordering on hostility from the student body. Did you understand the brouhaha?
FOX: When the committee at Columbia tells you they’re trying to select a speaker, and it’s Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or you, and they choose you, that’s crazy. In the big scheme of things, what I do for a living is not an important thing. I’m always surprised and stunned by how obsessed the world is with pop culture. You don’t even have to do anything anymore—just do a reality show and people will buy magazines to find out where you fucking go to eat.
PLAYBOY: Do you think you won the students over?
FOX: In some ways I thought my speech was more constructive for those couple of thousand kids, because no matter how amazing it would be to have Obama or Clinton, most of those speeches sound very much alike. I told them, basically, fuck what you think you’re supposed to be just because your parents spent $150,000 a year for you to go to this school. Be open to the spontaneity of life and you might end up finding out what you’re supposed to do.