Doug Jones can clearly recall his first day filming The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro's hand-crafted aquatic fairy tale in which the 57-year-old actor plays a nameless amphibian man who falls for Sally Hawkins' mute cleaning lady in 1960s Baltimore. "We started with a scene in which … I'm chained to a cement block on my knees and being tortured and prodded by Michael Shannon," Jones says. "My first day on set was going through the makeup and costume process, then ending up on my knees on concrete being zapped by a cattle prod by a very intense actor."
For the average person, spending three hours in a makeup chair before even walking onto a set might sound like torture. But Jones has built a 30-year career by squeezing his impossibly lean frame into various costumes and contraptions to portray an array of creatures and alien beings. Just as Andy Serkis is the king of performance capture – inhabiting apes and Gollums and Star Wars villains through the magic of technology – Jones is the guy you call when you need someone to bring life and/or a recognizable humanity to a creature that's something other than human. "You kind of have to forget the physical challenge in the moment," he says. "You have to try to make this thing you're wearing become a part of you."
Del Toro and Jones met when the actor was hired to play "a big bug guy" for three days on pick-up shots for the writer-director's English-language debut Mimic (1997). Over a meal, they discovered a shared love for movie monsters and the makeup artists who created them. He gave del Toro his card. Five years went by. Then, as production was ramping up for Hellboy, the special effects artists at FX shop Spectral Motion suggested to the director that Jones might be the right person to portray Abe Sapien, a very different sort of fish man and a loyal pal to Ron Perlman's grumpy half-demon. "That's when Guillermo said, 'Doug Jones! I know Doug Jones!'" recalls Jones, imitating an enthusiastic del Toro. "And he pulled my card out of his wallet."
Since that time, the actor has played featured roles in nearly all of the filmmaker's productions, including his recently concluded vampire TV series for FX, The Strain, which cast Jones as an ancient blood-drinker with a bald head and taloned hands. (He currently stars on television as the Kelpien Starfleet Science Officer Lt. Saru in Star Trek: Discovery.) But it's their most recent cinematic collaboration that has brought Jones his greatest acclaim to date, with the performer emoting through foam rubber and silicone and creating a fully realized hero who, through great hardship, discovers a powerful connection.
With the film set to open in limited release Friday, Jones offered his first-person thoughts on some of his most recognizable roles and some firsthand insight into his creative process.
The Amphibian Man/The Shape of Water
Jones spent three hours each day in the makeup chair to prepare for scenes that featured the fish-man, who was nicknamed "Charlie" on set—the name came from the old Star-Kist mascot, Charlie the Tuna. Arriving at the design for the creature was a labor intensive-process that saw del Toro pour his own money into research and development.
The heart and soul that is layered into him in the story [makes him truly special]. I've played characters with full personalities before, but there's something about this one that really touched me. Part of the "how do you choose your roles" process for me is: Does it touch me in some way? Do I connect with it in some way? There's something about his otherness – he's captured and taken to an environment that he doesn't belong in, [he's] tortured – that I found very sympathetic.
There's [also] the part of his backstory that makes him mysterious. All those things kept me going when I first read the script and when I first heard the story. I found him more intriguing and more emotionally connected to me than any monster I'd played before, for sure. [And] the romance, of course … To see that romance fully actualized and consummated was daring and different.
The Gentleman/Buffy the Vampire Slayer
In the Emmy-nominated episode "Hush," Jones starred as the leader of a group of silent, skeletal storybook villains who steal the voices of the entire town to collect hearts from victims powerless to scream.
He smiled. He floated. He had very fluid hand motions, tilted his head. He was very gentlemanly ... [while tearing] someone's heart out. The makeup for Buffy the Vampire Slayer was four hours a day. While I don't love the actual process of going through arduous makeups, I do love the result. I've been able to play a wider array of characters than I could ever have done with my own face. It's afforded me a lot, actually being able to work in these crazy makeups. The most talented artists in the world have had their hands on my face, and I'm very grateful for that opportunity.
Abe Sapien/Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Jones starred as the chatty fish-man twice, though in the first Hellboy film, the character was voiced by actor David Hyde-Pierce. In the sequel, Jones played two roles in addition to Abe: the chamberlain, a creature with long skinny fingers and a flat, rectangular head; and the Angel of Death, a towering being with eyes lining its massive feathered wings.
I love Abe. He's the most like me, his personality. He makes every effort to be a gentleman, but he also doesn't have much street smarts. Abe was partially inspired by some fish in the fish tank in my home office. He's a fish-man [so I asked myself], what from nature can I pull here? They seemed to have curious heads, my goldfish, how they bobbed around. Their bodies were fluid behind them. They moved back and forth with such grace.
During the makeup process, that's when you develop more of [the specifics of the character]. When these pieces are glued on to you, you start from there – ok, how does the head bob? How does the arm flow behind? I was practicing that in the creature shop on one of my first early fittings. Guillermo had snuck in and was watching me. From across the room, I heard: "THAT, I like THAT!" That was the last we ever spoke of it. The physicality, posture and stance were set that day and never changed.
The Faun and the Pale Man /Pan's Labyrinth
Two of the most indelible characters in Jones' filmography come from del Toro's earlier masterwork: The Faun who appears to young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), and the ravenous Pale Man who tries to devour her after she takes food from the banquet table inside his lair.
With the Faun, I [tried] to channel a little bit of barn animal – the hind quarter of a goat or a cow, how do their hooves meet the ground? How do they shift their weight? How do they shake off flies? Add to that his personality ... being a bit of a trickster. Guillermo wanted to see that [in the performance]. You don't really know if he's a good guy or a bad guy until the end of the movie, so I made him ambiguous in a very delightful kind of way.
There was some suit involved that I'd slip into, zip or snap up the back, and some glued-on makeup, [plus] some mechanically operated ears, eyebrows, eyelids that were puppeteered off-camera. I was also on stilts. The Faun had tons of dialogue, paragraphs in Spanish, which I do not speak. It was the language of the film that I learned. That was a combination of heavy brain work and heavy physical work all in the same character. The Faun took a lot out of me, but again, every sacrifice you make when you're making a piece of art like that is so incredibly worth it.
The Pale Man was a monster ... [we] wanted to channel a little bit horror movie elements in that. The Faun was more of a fantasy, fairy tale character; the Pale Man was a horror movie character. I came in making him more gangly, more rubber limbed. He sort of galloped down the hallway. Guillermo changed my demeanor with him immediately after the first take. He said, "No, no, no. Give me more of a George Romero zombie." That was all I had to hear. What you saw on film was because of that one note.
The Ghost of Lady Beatrice Sharpe/Crimson Peak
Jones once again played dual roles in del Toro's lavish 2015 Gothic romance – a black-veiled apparition who appears to warn young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) of impending doom, and the blood-red ghost she sees later in the film.
It was the same makeup artists who did Pan's Labyrinth, so working with them, there's a family feel. The ghost makeups, each one was a refined piece of art. To wear, it was a great honor – again, another five-hour process for each one. The more difficult one was the bathtub ghost. I was a naked ghost lady in the bathtub, [with] this saggy body glued on to me. I was worried: Can I sell this is a woman ghost and not just a guy in a woman's suit?
So, I was vamping it up a little bit on the first take, stepping out of the bathtub and following Mia Wasikowska down a hallway. I was pushing all the lady I had in me. At the end of that take, Guillermo del Toro yells, "Cut! Dougie, can you butch it up? It's too sexy." I was proud of myself that I'd sold it that much that I had to pull back a bit.
Silver Surfer/Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer
For the 2007 film directed by Tim Story, Jones embodied an icon of the Marvel Comics universe: the gleaming Silver Surfer, the interplanetary herald who helps save Earth from the worlds-destroying entity Galactus.
Silver Surfer was a true joy to play. He was the most stoic, most heroic character – the most quiet strength I've ever had. That was a difficult thing for me to channel on film because I am so handsy and so expressive normally. [I had] to throttle that back and find a strong core posture. He came with a confidence that I've never had on film before … having that electromagnetic cosmic power was very interesting for me to play.
This is an example of how it takes a village to make a creature happen. Not only was there a foundation glued on to me of Silver Surfer bits – I was in a suit and the makeup that turned me into the Surfer every day with the musculature and the coloring, the restructuring of my face with a foam latex mask glued on to me, making me very sternly handsome. Then there was a CG effects overlay [added] in post-production that also enhanced and gave some expression. And the flying. I did a lot of work on green screen, and they would add in the surfboard later. Working in post-production with a lot of visual effects, a lot of practical effects on set as well, that was a great combo platter of technologies.