Interviewing Doug Jones (Creature Actor)

DOUG JONES (©Doug Jones)

Some of DOUG JONES’ acting credits include: The Shape of WaterCrimson Peak, Falling Skies, Hellboy I & II, John Dies at the End, My Name Is Jerry, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Pan’s Labyrinth, Men in Black II, Mimic, Hocus Pocus, Batman Returns… amongst many others.

A tall actor and I just don’t mean physically, Doug Jones, or “Dougie“, as he’s mostly known for his iconic work under prosthetics, but who has also performed as ‘himself’ in highly-rated films, is one of Guillermo Del Toro’s favourite actors.

A spiritual man and a generous professional, Doug, along with his wife Laurie, mentors young people who wish to work in the medium of film and are beginning their careers in the business.

SRM: Doug, many thanks for participating in this interview, I’m thrilled. I know you pursued a career in Telecommunications, together with Theatre, in your university years.

Telecommunications because communication is what matters, or because deep down you can’t help a geeky curiosity for technology?

DOUG JONES: I loathe technology, largely because I feel stupid using it. I long for the rotary-dial phone!  I majored in Telecommunications (Radio & TV Broadcasting) because my parents refused to let me major in Theatre. “You need a field you can actually get a job in, dear,” was their sensible Indiana parental reasoning. So Telecommunications was the closest thing that would satisfy both them and me, while I was able to minor in Theatre.

SRM: Typical parent’s ‘sensible’ advice, and not just in Indiana (laughing). You learned miming at school but you have also worked as a contortionist. Where did you learn this discipline and, is there any specific physical requirement to start learning? Can you remember one anecdote when your contortionist skills came in particularly handy?

DOUG JONES:  I think one has to be born a slight freak of nature, like me.  I’m not sure you can learn contortionism, as your body will allow being twisted or it won’t. My long, lanky, and I’ll add “sexy” legs lend themselves to bending behind my head, as I found out while trying to gross out my older brothers as a kid.  But it was at an early-career, TV commercial audition for Midas Mufflers in 1987 that I found the magic of BOTH legs getting behind my head at the same time. I had no idea I could, as I’d never tried it.  The director of the spot was explaining that my character was coming to the gym for a massage from a big Swede named Olie.

This large, blond man was lost in thought while telling me of the bad muffler job he’d just gotten somewhere else, and without knowing it, tied me in a knot.  So the director explained, “Then Olie will put your second leg behind your head,” which I’d never done!  So what would any young, hungry actor say? “Sure!,” even though I was secretly terrified it wouldn’t go. I remember quietly thinking to myself, “IT WORKS!” when Olie casually yanked my second leg into place.

I booked the job, and from that day forward, I used that trick to get sight gags in many more commercials, and TV sit-com guest roles, including THE WEIRD AL SHOW, UNHAPPILY EVER AFTER, and GET A LIFE.

SRM: One of the first roles you had was in the cult award-winning TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayerand in fact, your episode, ‘Hush’, got two Emmy nominations.

Was this your very first role in television, Doug? How do you remember the experience working with that team?

DOUG JONES:  Ah, my very first television guest role was on a sit-com that I actually was a fan of, IT’S A LIVING, centering around a bunch of sassy waitresses working in a fancy restaurant, high atop a swanky hotel. 

Sheryl Lee Ralph’s character had been talking through the episode about how she had a blind date coming to work to pick her up that night, and she was so excited because on the phone, he had a deep, sexy voice.  Then when tall, skinny, fuzzy-haired me walks in and asks for her, she turns to her co-workers and says, “Ew, he’s a dweeb,” then quickly pushes Crystal Bernard (later of WINGS fame) in my face, saying, “This is her!”. And the young, innocent Crystal was stuck with me. I could have easily grown a complex over this, couldn’t I! But I have to say these beautiful ladies were so sweet to me, constantly telling me the entire time off camera, “You’re way too cute to be a dweeb!”  Which coming from hot actresses I had been watching on my TV, was music to the ears of a young upstart who did indeed feel like a dweeb. Unfortunately, after a 9 year run, the show was cancelled the week before this episode was to air, and all I have is the rough cut of my scene on a VHS tape.  Cue the sad music.

SRM: What a waste, indeed. What do you think has been the single most important advancement in traditional effects, such as prosthetics, from ‘Buffy’ times to the last ‘Hellboy’? Has there been any major advancement in that department like, for example, in the digital area, which might have made the actor’s experience a bit easier?

DOUG JONES: Here’s where I don’t hate technology. What I’ve seen in more recent years is the happy marriage of practical, prosthetic make-up on an actor, coupled with digital enhancements that make a look or certain movements possible that wouldn’t have been possible when I started back in the 80’s.

A perfect example is the subtle eye blinks that were added to Abe Sapien after the HELLBOY movies were filmed. Another perfect example is the digital sheen coating that was put over my SILVER SURFER prosthetic make up when I was at full power, then taken away to reveal the latex foam rubber costume and make-up when I lost my surf board, getting weaker and tarnished. 

There’s also the brilliant leg designs on the Faun and the Pale Man make-ups I wore in PAN’S LABYRINTH, with parts of my own legs wrapped in green screen color to be wiped away in post production, allowing the prosthetic parts of my legs to move on their own as I manipulated them on camera.

I wish we had some CGI technology when I had to spit dust and moths out of my mouth as ‘Billy the zombie’ in 1993’s HOCUS POCUS, but there was also something real and gritty about all that really flying out of my mouth as I opened it for the first time in three hundred years. You can imagine the smell.

SRM: Dust and moths… mmm… sound delicious (laughing). Also, and as I commented earlier, you have performed as ‘yourself’ in box hits such as Adaptation (with Nicholas Cage), Mystery Men (with Ben Stiller), Batman Returns (with Danny DeVito), and indie projects such as Stefan Haves’ Stalled or Phil Donlon’s A Series of Small Things.

Which role outside prosthetics have you found the most challenging thus far and why?

DOUG JONES:  I think the most challenged, and scared, I’ve ever been in my “human” roles was when I played ‘Grady Edlund’ in the Skin & Bones episode of NBC’s FEAR ITSELF (formerly MASTERS OF HORROR on Showtime). 

My character had been possessed by a Wendigo spirit and came home from the mountains having lost sixty pounds, with a hunger to eat the wife and kids. When doing this kind of role in a full creature make-up, it’s easier for me to find the extreme moments.

Doug as Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Doug as the Faun and the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth
Doug is Abe Sapien in HELLBOY I and II

But just as a regular guy on camera, it felt dangerous and vulnerable going to this possessed state with my own face available for ridicule.  There is a fine line between horror and unintentional comedy in a case like this.  But our director Larry Fessenden had a brilliant way with actors, and we safely got me there with rave reviews from the critics and fans of the show, thankfully.  You could see the sweat on my brow while waiting for that one to air!

SRM: But you had nothing to worry about. In fact, you became Guillermo Del Toro’s choice to perform the role of “Abe Sapien” in Hellboy. What can you tell us of the process that you internally undertook for the embodiment of this character and how was working with Del Toro that first time?

DOUG JONES:  Abe is my favorite costumed character I’ve ever played. I just adore his clairvoyant abilities, his intellect, and his childlike lack of street smarts. Finding his internal workings was a combo platter for me. While I have no supernatural powers in my own real hands, I do use them to see better.  You’ll usually find me touching whatever I see, or petting the people I’m talking to, as my hands need to complete that interaction for me. So that lent itself well to Abe’s signature hands that could see beyond the present when he touched something or someone. As for the intellect, this is where I wasn’t as well equipped. But I have some great character study in my three older, very smart brothers, Bobby, Tommy, and Richie, who all have masters degrees in various fields, with Bobby also holding a PHD in Molecular Biology. In those moments when I felt out of my intellectual realm, I channeled a little of Bobby, who is a college professor and is happy to lecture confidently in any of the sciences. I also needed to brush up a little on classical music, art, and literature, as Abe absorbs all forms of culture. All this, while snacking on rotten eggs, bless Abe’s little heart.

The first HELLBOY was actually my second film with Guillermo del Toro, as we met when I was one of his Long John cockroach guys in MIMIC five years earlier. Working with Guillermo, it doesn’t take long to realize you are in the presence of pure genius. He is one of the smartest, most well-read, well-watched people I’ve ever known, and at the same time, he’s an 8 year old fan boy who loves creepy, crawly monsters. When a writer/director “gets” the genre like he does as a fan, the outcome is a movie that will titillate fans just like him.

SRM: In Pan’s Labyrinth your role is no other than that of the “Pan”, for which you had to learn Archaic Spanish (and you nailed it) and in the French Serge Gainsbourg: Vie Heroique you did Gainsbourg’s strange alter-ego “La Gueule”. Do you know a second language or have interest in learning from other cultures, Doug, which might have helped you interpret so well these roles? Also, how important as an actor is to be open to all types of scripts and other countries’ cinema?

DOUG JONES:  I had two years of Spanish in high school, but that was almost 30 years before filming PAN’S LABYRINTH. Thankfully, Spanish is a language where every letter makes a sound, and it’s consistent, so I was able to get through that script without a coach. Speaking French in GAINSBOURG was a different matter, with a language that loves using silent letters, making no sense to my American eyes. So a dialogue coach was imperative to get a phonetic version written down that I could make sense of.  I love languages and other cultures, and do find inspiration from them, especially when filming a movie on their soil. Having filmed PAN in Spain, and GAINSBOURG in France, I was fully immersed in their languages, traditions, lore, food, humor, and social ways that could only help me bring a little new flavor to the screen. I can’t tell other actors they must try this, but if I let my fears tell me that I couldn’t have pulled this international thing off, I would have missed out on two experiences that completely changed my life for the better.

SRM: Well, that’s a fantastic, even if ‘reluctantly’ given, advice (laughing). Also, and as mentioned earlier, you’re also very well known for your role as “Silver Surferin the Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. You love rollerblading, don’t you? Did this passion help you to portray the natural moves and posture that a character like this would have, you think? What other type of personal skills did you put at the service of this character and did you do any other research apart from its story in the comic books?

DOUG JONES:  I do love rollerblading, and even though I’m a tad clumsy at it, this does help with finding an athletic posture that requires balance.  The one obvious thing I did not do, was actually learn to surf in the ocean. I guess I wanted the Silver Surfer to move with a grace that comes from another world, not from Newport Beach. It was all about finding balletic poses with the strength and confidence of one who holds the power cosmic. This inspiration came directly from my review of the early comic books with Jack Kirby’s beautiful drawings and Stan Lee’s (or as I like to call him, “Dad’s”) poetic writing with a gentlemanly use of proper grammar. I also drew from the Christ-like imagery of this character, who sacrificed himself to save his own home planet.  Now that’s the stuff of a true hero to me.

SRM: The independent film My Name is Jerry, allowed you to perform what you’ve considered to be your ‘dream role’ and in fact you hold this movie very dear to your heart. Would you please share with us a bit about the character, the movie and what else makes it so special to you?

DOUG JONES:  As I clutch my heart and tilt my head, I fondly remember this whole experience.  Jerry is my favorite “human” character I’ve ever played. He was written specifically for me originally by our young director Morgan Mead and Andy Janoch, with re-writes by David Hamilton.  I find Jerry to be so endearing as he’s stuck in a sad little life he created for himself and is now entering a full-blown mid-life crisis.  I’ve been through this in my real life, and if handled well, we can come out of it with a healthy re-invention of careers, priorities, and relationships.

This period of life can be familiar to us when it hits, because we tend to go through something similar in our 20’s when we’re trying to find our place in the world. The 20-something story is also told here, as Jerry befriends a group of younger punk rockers and forms a special friendship with a girl about the same age as his own estranged daughter … another topic that resonates as we are surrounded by broken families in our world.

MY NAME IS JERRY offers some hope of this all coming right, while exploring an emotional range that goes from laughter to tears.  I felt Morgan Mead’s direction with me was flawless, as he inspired such well thought-out beats on the tightest film schedule I’ve ever had, filming up to 13 pages a day.  Another selling point is that this was all filmed in my home state of Indiana with my alma mater Ball State University acting as our studio by financing the film.  Kind of ground-breaking for a university to back a commercially viable movie headed for the real marketplace. 

And what this also did, was create a work/study program for film and theatre students who staffed up our crew under the department heads from Hollywood. A learning experience you can’t get in the classroom.  It was so refreshing to be surrounded by this much enthusiasm as these puppies would all be so happy to come to work, reminding me why I got started in the business, myself.

And in the end, we have countless festival awards (including my first acting award outside of make-up), with the film currently on DVD, Netfilx instant view, and recently added on Hulu. Not too bad for a little indie, eh?

SRM: Definetely worth watching, more than once. I know that apart from your performing abilities, in which singing is yet another one, there’s something you like doing and do very well behind the scenes… who would you give a haircut?

DOUG JONES:  EEK, someone’s been reading up on me!  Some people go to their garages to throw paint on a canvas or sculpt a lump of clay to relieve artistic stress.  My lump of clay is a head of hair.  I’ve been cutting my own since I was in 7th grade.  Whether it’s a buzz cut or something longer, if you’ve seen me on camera as a human, that haircut was created by me at home.  I’m not licensed as a barber, but I’ve created haircuts on friends and family, for decades, including the current look on my lovely Mrs. Laurie’s cute little head.

SRM: I’m so glad we can enjoy of your art in the sci-fi TV series Falling Skies, and in films like the beautiful The Shape of Water; what else is out there with Dougie’s stamp all over it?

DOUG JONES: My very silly, but beautifully photographed coffee table book comes to bookstores, MIME VERY OWN BOOK, making fun of all pop culture, famous works of art, famous movie posters, historic photos, social commentary, and of course mimes.  I started as a mime many years ago, so re-joining my beginnings with all this “punny” humor was nothing short of magical for me.  Things you’ll see in the book: “A Mime is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” “Once Upon a Mime,” “Venus DeMimelo”, “Frank-n-Mime”, “The Little MerMime,” “MimeHammed Ali,” and on and on. It’s available at Amazon.

Doug Jones as the creature in The Shape Of Water

I also have a bunch of feature films finished that haven’t been released yet. For this and other Dougie news, my official website has it all >

SRM: Yes!! So many ‘pressies’ to look forward to, thank you! Now, let’s also talk about your mentoring work. You mentor, alongside your wife Laurie, young people that wish to have a career in film, which is very laudable! How does the Puppies-Moniker process/relationship work?

DOUG JONES:  Awwww… “The Puppies”!!!  Mrs. Laurie and I were never able to have kids of our own in our 27 years together, a doctor even said so. Through this, we learned that we may have been placed here for a different reason. 20-somethings (and some have grown into 30-somethings), young enough to be our children, have made their way into our lives and formed a special connection with us, like family over the past 10 years. 

So many young people in Los Angeles are here either from families that they love and miss, or from situations they don’t miss.  Either way, it can feel nice to have a mom & dad figure close by.

It’s not at all show-biz related, and is not a get started program for that. But because I am in entertainment, naturally a lot of our “Puppies” are pursuing their dreams in show-biz. 

SRM: Doug, it’s been a honour and a pleasure. All the very best in all of your endeavours!

DOUG JONES:  Thank YOU for having me! This has been one of the most creative interviews, covering things no one else has asked before. It always humbles me that anyone would want to hear from me, so seriously, thank you.


RELATED LINKS:

DOUG JONES * Official Website >
DOUG JONES at IMDb >

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