What Fox's film roles indicate so far is that he's going to be careful with his choices. In Vantage Point, he more than holds his own in a high-profile ensemble, playing the role of a renegade Secret Service agent. As a football coach in We Are Marshall, he fully fleshed out his character in the quiet shadows of Matthew McConaughey's over-the-top scenery chewing. And chalk up his role as Racer X in the Wachowskis' Speed Racer to a chance to work with (sometimes) visionary directing talent—and, of course, his blind love of cars.

Lost will likely be Fox's last gig on the small screen; series work is too much of a time commitment for a 42-year-old eager to immerse himself in feature-filmdom. "You won't be seeing Matthew on TV anymore, you'll see him in big movies," says Carlton Cuse, Lost's co-executive producer and cowriter. "He has that cocktail of dangerous and charming. He has a leading man's good looks, and heroic qualities as an actor."

Cuse's partner, Damon Lindelof, senses that Fox might be happier in—and more challenged by—smaller roles of considerable depth: "He has the potential to be a leading man, but I think he's interested in those quirky transformative roles. Three, four years from now I can see him getting a Supporting Actor nomination. . . . He wants acting to be hard, to be torture. He does not want to ski the bunny slope."

Arriving late to movies after a decade on television isn't necessarily a liability. See: Clooney, George. But that comparison isn't entirely apt. Clooney, raised in an entertainment family, was unashamedly hungry to be in the business from the start; he'd landed several leads by the middle of his ER run. When Fox talks about his future, it's in the reflective tones of a man tackling yet another skill: "I love the collaborative experience of working with directors and actors, the technical aspect of filmmaking . . . "

Can he find a foothold on the next level?

"I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think I could," he says. "I've been proud of the things I've been part of so far. I don't have control over what will come my way, but if the opportunities I get excited by keep coming, I'm going to continue working in this business. If they don't, then there are other things in my life I'd like to take on."

Like?

"Like flying."

Oh, right. The Boys' Life thing.

"You really never run out of challenges and new frontiers with flying," Fox says, with a straight face, "and that appeals to me. I'm really enjoying the process of learning to fly. How it will fit into my life down the road—I'm looking forward to discovering that."