In more than three decades of work, Doug Jones has carved out a niche in the acting world by playing strange and otherworldly creatures. He was a demonic superhero in Hellboy and a monster with an appetite for children in Pan's Labyrinth.
But there was one storyline that proved elusive: Jones says, "I never saw romantic leading male [stories] coming with any creature roles."
That's changed with his latest film. In Guillermo del Toro's Oscar-nominated The Shape of Water, Jones plays an amphibious fish man who strikes up an unlikely romance with a mute woman.
Though Jones was initially skeptical about his character's storyline, he says, "If anyone could pull off a fish man from the Amazon being a love interest to the beautiful Sally Hawkins, it would be Guillermo del Toro."
For his part, Jones says he approaches his creature roles as he would any human character: "I find the heart and soul of a character before I find his elbows and his hands. I want to find out what motivates those elbows and hands."
On what Guillermo del Toro envisioned for the fish man
He wanted to see no trace of human. He wanted to really see an ecosystem that came from another place, another world, another species. He wanted to see a heroic stance that would warrant why I was worshiped as a god in the Amazon. So that comes with a certain regalness, a certain royalty kind of posturing.
So I had to incorporate all of that into this. And he said, "And while you're at it, sprinkle in some matador!" So I'm like, "Oh, OK." I understood exactly what he meant immediately, though. Matadors, if you ever see a bull-fighting toreador, how graceful they are and how confident they are and how they lead with the hips and the pelvis. It's sexy and graceful all at the same time, and very athletic and very fearless. ... That's kind of what I did.
On performing "visual dialogue" as the fish man
When you think about dialogue and people communicating, so much of our communication is visual: how you hold your hands, how you're postured, what your body language is, expressions on your face, the tilt of the head. That can change all the words you say. So when that's all you have to work with — along with [Hawkins' character] using American Sign Language — that kind of upped the stakes on what we had to give visually. ...
And I could not use my human instincts to respond. So if someone's talking to me, I had to think: OK, so when you talk to the family dog, 'You're such a good boy, Fluffy,' the dog does not say, 'Yes, Daddy, I am a good boy,' and give you a thumbs up. They tilt their head. They raise their ears. They wag their tail. They ruff at you. So they have their own ecosystem to respond with. So I had to find my own ecosystem with this fish man character, and that's kind of what helped me, was to think of the family dog.
On the challenge of acting in a creature suit
Any creature suit that I've worn over the last 31 years hampers your eyesight, your hearing. You basically become a nursing home patient; you need help getting around. The irony of that is usually you're playing a being that has superhuman strength, [but] you need help walking to the set.
So this was no different. My vision was very impaired and my hearing — my ears were covered with latex foam rubber. And the gills were right next to my ears as well, and they were mechanically operated. So I would hear [mechanical noises] in my ears as a scene is progressing, so you kind of have to blot that out.
On how long it takes to get in and out of his creature suits
A head-to-toe transformation often you're looking at, yes, five hours is about right. The Fawn from Pan's Labyrinth, that was a five-hour makeup transformation. The Pale Man from Pan's Labyrinth, with my eyeballs in my hands — I did play that character as well — that was a six-hour transformation.
Shape of Water was much kinder and gentler — that was only three hours. But that's three hours on set when the makeup artists are applying the pieces to the actor. What happens beforehand is a huge share of the work. That would be all the sculpting, the molding, the running of pieces, the painting of those pieces ahead of time, so that the makeup artist on set can then blend the colors together with all the pieces that are now glued onto you.
So once you're done with that makeup process, you still are looking at a 10- to 12-hour shoot day, and then you're looking at a tear-down period. ... The Shape of Water, the amphibian man, was a quick one because it went on in only three hours, it was less glued down makeup and more suit, therefore it came off faster. So we got that off in about 40 minutes.
On taking bathroom breaks when wearing a creature suit
It depends on the creature. Every one of them is different. If there's zippers and things that can be pulled down, you're good to go. If it is a rubber suit from head to toe that is a creature that is not wearing clothing — like the amphibian man from The Shape of Water -- now you're looking at hiding a front flap [so] that I can go No. 1. ...
But that behind of mine, that backside of the fish man — which was very sexy — that sexy backside came at a cost. There was no back flap. So I had to take care of all that business ahead of time and make sure that I can make it through an 18-hour day without having to use that back. ... We were filming this with me at 56 years old — I'm 57 now — and I'm thinking, "Hmm, how many more of these do I want to do?"
Heidi Saman and Mooj Zadie produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Seth Kelley and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. It's likely you've seen our next guest in a TV show or in a movie. He has over 150 acting credits listed on IMDB, but it's also likely you would not recognize him or know his name. That's because he's often wearing a mask or horns or a complete bodysuit that has transformed him into some sort of amphibious fish-man monster. That's actually his latest role. Doug Jones plays the aquatic creature in Guillermo del Toro's latest film, "The Shape Of Water." The film has 13 Oscar nominations this year, including best picture, best director, and best original screenplay.
The film takes place in 1962 and stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute woman who works cleaning a secret U.S. government facility. One laboratory is performing experiments on a strange amphibious creature, played by Doug Jones, that was captured in the Amazon. The creature is part fish, part man and is now living in a large fish tank in the lab. Elisa is intrigued by the creature, befriends it, and an unconventional romance blooms. Jones has suited up for other del Toro films including both "Hellboy" movies and "Pan's Labyrinth." He also has a leading role in the latest "Star Trek" series, "Discovery." For some roles, the makeup required to transform Jones into his character takes over five hours. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Well, Doug Jones, welcome to FRESH AIR.
DOUG JONES: Thank you for having me.
BRIGER: So you've played a lot of things from people's nightmares - monsters, creatures. You're still playing a creature in the new movie "The Shape of Water." But you're also the romantic lead. Was that a surprise to you, to get that role?
JONES: Indeed. I never saw romantic leading male coming with any creature roles (laughter) after 31 years of playing them now.
BRIGER: Well, did you have any apprehensions about playing the romantic lead?
JONES: I did, just simply because when Guillermo presented this to me, it was going to get a little saucy. You know, when he said, oh, know you're going to get it on. And I was like, oh, how involved does that get? And (laughter) he mentioned that there was a bathtub involved. And I said, well, how about you start at the beginning of the story, and get me to the tub? And then he didn't have a script written yet, and he just kind of told me the story verbally.
And he started telling me the tale of this 1962 backdrop. You know, Russian Cold War is in full effect. The race for space is on. I am a - an asset that has been pulled from the Amazon, a fish-man who was worshipped as a god locally by the locals there in South America and brought back to this U.S. government facility for testing and for prodding and for biopsying (ph) and for, what can we do with this? How can we use this being in this race for space?
The story begins, though, really, when Sally Hawkins, who plays a cleaning lady on a night shift at this government facility, discovers me, finds a kinship with me immediately, comes back to visit me on her lunch breaks, shares her lunch time with me, teaches me to love hard-boiled eggs (laughter) and teaches me to love music. She brings a portable record player with her, and I discover music for the first time. It's just a - this romance builds out of it. Then, of course, we got to the tub. And now - but then I was still like, well, tell me the rest of the story. How does it end? So he took me through all the way to the end. And I was just, like, you know, wiping tears and saying, oh, my gosh, Guillermo.
BRIGER: Well, I heard in the conversations you had with Guillermo del Toro about how to play this role that he said the character's part matador. How did you incorporate that into your performance? How did that make you think about how you were going to move?
JONES: Well, he wanted to see no traces of a couple things first. He wanted to see no trace of human. He wanted (laughter) to really see an ecosystem that came from another place, another world, another species. He wanted to see a heroic stance that would warrant why I was worshiped as a god in the Amazon. So that would mean - that comes with a certain regalness and a certain - you know, a royalty kind of posturing. So I had to incorporate all of that into this. And he said, and while you're at it, sprinkle in some matador. (Laughter) And so I'm like, oh, OK. I understood exactly what he meant immediately, though.
Matadors - if you ever see a bullfighting toreador and how graceful they are, and how confident they are, and how they lead with the hips and the pelvis, and it's sexy and graceful all at the same time and very athletic and very fearless. He said, that's how I want you to be. So that's kind of what I did. I kind of worked on leading with the pelvis, which is something that in my normal life I just don't do. I'm a tall, skinny, goofy guy that doesn't (laughter) - I never lead with the pelvis. So (laughter) that was kind of retraining myself.
And the non-human parts of this - I didn't speak a word of dialogue. So the entire - nor did Sally Hawkins, as her character was mute. So between the two of us, we had lots of visual dialogue to convey. And so...
BRIGER: Yeah. What does that mean? I saw that in a note, that there was a lot of visual dialogue.
JONES: Right. When you think about dialogue and people communicating, so much of our communication is visual - how you hold your hands, how you - how you're postured, what your body language is, expressions on your face, the tilt of the head. That can change all the words you say. So with that came just a heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul kind of communication. And I could not use my human instincts to respond.
And so if someone's talking to me, I had to think, like, OK, so when you talk to the dog, when you talk to the family dog - you're such a good boy, Fluffy - the dog does not say, yes, Daddy, I am a good boy, and give you a thumb-up. They tilt their head. They raise their ears. They wag their tail. They ruff at you. (Laughter) So they have their own ecosystem to respond with. So I had to find my own ecosystem with this fish-man character. And that's kind of what helped me, was to think of the family dog.
BRIGER: So you're wearing this elaborate suit and prosthetic makeup on your face. How much did that hamper, like, your movement or your vision or your hearing on set?
JONES: (Laughter) Any creature suit that I've worn over the last 31 years has been - hampers your eyesight, your hearing. You basically become a nursing home patient, you know? (Laughter) You need help getting (laughter) around. And the irony of that is that you're playing someone - usually, you're playing a being that has superhuman strength.
BRIGER: Right, right.
JONES: (Laughter) So - but you need help walking to the (laughter) set. So this was no different. I also was - my vision was very impaired and my hearing. My ears were covered with latex foam rubber. And the gills were right next to my ears as well, so - and they were mechanically operated. So I would hear wzz-zz, wzz-zz (ph) in my ears as a scene is progressing. (Laughter) So you have to kind of blot that out, yeah, the - it's not there.
BRIGER: I watched a video of you getting the makeup on to play one of your other famous roles, the faun in "Pan's Labyrinth." And, you know, to call it makeup doesn't really do justice to the transformation you go through. But, I mean - but, fortunately, the video was sped up because it looked like it must have just taken hours to get...
JONES: It did. Yeah.
BRIGER: ...This whole thing on. I mean, it sounds like, from what I read, some of these things take five or six hours. I mean, you must have just an incredible amount of patience to go through these sessions.
JONES: Well, yeah, I guess so. I'm also happy with my own thoughts. I don't have to really, like, be patient. I never (laughter) - I never think those words. I - I'm always happy being quiet and sitting still. If nobody - if no emails or phone calls can get to me for five hours - great. (Laughter) You know? It's really a - kind of, like, a peaceful time.
BRIGER: Well, so then you're in - getting set up for some filming, and it takes five, six, seven hours of makeup. And then how long are you actually often in the suit for filming that day?
JONES: Right. Yeah, a head-to-toe transformation, often you're looking at - yes, five hours is about right, normally because you mentioned the faun from "Pan's Labyrinth," that was a five-hour makeup transformation. The Pale Man from "Pan's Labyrinth," with my eyeballs in my hands - I played that character as well - that was a six-hour transformation. "The Shape Of Water," though, was much more - kinder and gentler. That was only three hours. But that's three hours on set when the makeup artists are applying the pieces to the actor. What happens beforehand is a huge share of the work. That would be all the sculpting, the molding, the running of pieces, the painting of those pieces ahead of time so that the makeup artist onset can then blend the colors together with all the pieces that are now glued on to you. So once you're done with that makeup process, you still are looking at a 10- to 12-hour shoot day.
JONES: And then you're looking at a tear-down period. So - now, for "The Shape Of Water," it was a very...
BRIGER: I hadn't even thought (laughter) about the fact that you have to take it off.
JONES: Oh, yeah. No, you've got to get out of it.
JONES: Yeah. So - now, "The Shape Of Water" - the amphibian man that I played was a quick one because it went on in only three hours. It was less glued-down makeup and more suit. Therefore, it came off faster. So we got that off in about 40 minutes.
BRIGER: How do you deal with bathroom breaks?
JONES: (Laughter) There is a topic of the day. Everyone asks about this. So it depends on the creature. Every one of them is different. If there's zippers and things that can be pulled down, you're good to go. If it is a rubber suit from head to toe that is a creature that is not wearing clothing, like the amphibian man from "The Shape Of Water," (laughter) now you're looking at hiding a front flap that I can go number one from. But that behind of mine - that backside of the fish man, which was very sexy - that sexy backside came at a cost. There was no back flap. So I had to take care of all that business ahead of time and make sure that I could make it through an 18-hour day without having to use that back. So that creates...
BRIGER: It's just another level of stamina.
JONES: It just is. It's another thing. And it's a young man's game. And we were filming this with me at 56 years old. I'm 57 now. And I'm thinking, how many more of these do I want to do, you know (laughter)?
BRIGER: Well, I was wondering about that. Yeah. As you - you're now in your mid-50s. You said 57. Like, have you noticed that doing these roles takes more of a toll on your body?
JONES: Absolutely. No question about it. It does. Now, for "The Shape Of Water," I was in the best shape of my life because I knew what this movie meant. I knew that that with the regal athleticism of this character - that I needed to, even though it was sculpted on me - it was a beautiful suit that I slipped into - I still had to have the body underneath that they could carry it off, you know? And so I did. I did have to be in the best shape of my life. So I got through the movie fine. But it was those day-to-day comforts that I'm thinking, how much longer do I want to do without those? Like, I can't go to the craft service snack table like everybody else can. I can't grab a carrot when I want to. I've got these webbed fingers. And I've got, you know, fish teeth in. And I've got, you know, rubber lips glued on to my own.
JONES: Snacking becomes a big mess. So yeah. So I can't - so lunchtime comes. That's the one time day I could go back to my trailer they would unglue one of my hands, so I could have a free human hand. And that's when I could negotiate the front flap of my suit to use the bathroom. But that was the one time of day that I could use the bathroom. So it's like you really had to time your water intake out and all that kind of thing.
BRIGER: I bet. Add on top of that - it seems like you spend a lot of time partially submerged in water. And, I mean, did that get uncomfortable wearing this suit?
JONES: Well, sure. Foam latex rubber is what that suits made of. So it does act as a sponge. It will soak up all of the water. And it gets between - and the water gets in a layer between me and the suit. So it becomes like a wet suit if you're a surfer. Now, the foam latex rubber is a bit buoyant, but it's getting out of the water - when you're trying to climb out. That's when you get heavy because now I'm waterlogged and sponged up.
JONES: And I weigh an extra 70 pounds. So it's like, oh, my God, I can't even walk. How do people do this, you know (laughter)?
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Doug Jones, who plays the amphibious creature in "The Shape Of Water," which is nominated for 13 Oscars including best picture. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Doug Jones, who plays the amphibious creature in "The Shape Of Water," which is nominated for 13 Oscars.
BRIGER: So you're 6'3''. And I'm not sure how much you weigh, but you're very skinny. Did you have a big growth spurt in high school, or were you always tall?
JONES: Yeah, I've always been the tallest one in my class. I didn't surprise anybody with my height. I've always been the tallest. And, yeah, I did the usual junior high school kind of like growing fast and growing out of your pants. My pants were often too short. And I only weigh 140 pounds...
BRIGER: A hundred and forty pounds, yeah.
JONES: ...If you were guessing about that. Now, anyone else will tell you, at 6'3.5", 140 pounds is just this side of a cadaver. So I really - I pull at the heartstrings of mothers all across the country. Oh, feed him. Would you like some pie?
BRIGER: So did you feel awkward in your body when you were younger?
JONES: Oh, I never felt not awkward. I was awkward every day in my body. I'm 57, and I still feel awkward in my body. I'm owning it better now. But, you know, back then, it doesn't help either when you're growing up in the Midwest, and there's a certain sliver - a very, very narrow sliver of what's considered normal, what's considered cool. And if you're anything outside of that, you will be made fun of. That's just what kids do. So I was indeed made fun of. I was called giraffe. I was called ostrich. I had a very long, skinny pencil neck - still do. And I defended myself with a sense of humor. I became the class clown so that I could I could get to the laugh before they did.
And that's kind of where my show business came from - was a survival technique as a kid - always felt awkward, yes. And so when I came out to Hollywood land in 1985 and my first agent interview, the commercial lady sat across the desk from me, and she said, oh, my gosh, you have such a great look. Now I heard her say, you look really good. But what she said was, you have a great look. There's a difference I found out. But what my great look is though is that my geekiness, my charactery-ness, my unique tall, skinny pencil neck was very, very castable, very usable, very marketable for a certain type of character acting.
And so it was kind of a way of celebrating. Oh, good, I can actually put all this nonsense to use now. Oh, this is great. And someone's finding it attractive even if it's a business-sense attractive. But, fine, I'll take it. And I did get my early inspiration and my early validation for being a goofy person from watching movies by Jerry Lewis and Danny Kaye and seeing Dick Van Dyke and Barney Fife played by Don Knotts or "Gilligan's Island" or Gomer Pyle. Those were goofy fellows that helped validate me when I look in the mirror and, say, well, you know what? They're not that far off from me, and they're making a career of it. They're making people laugh and feel good. They're making me feel good. They're giving me hope to go back to school the next day. So if I can turn what I'm looking at into the mirror into the same kind of career, I'll be happy one day. And so lo and behold, here I am using my tall skinniness everyday now.
BRIGER: What roles are you hoping for in the future? Are you hoping to get more screen time without so much makeup, or are you happy to continue forward? I mean, I know you're playing Count Orlok...
JONES: I am.
BRIGER: ...Which is the vampire - it's a remake of "Nosferatu." So you're continuing down that path. But what are you - what would you like to do next?
JONES: Well, that - five years ago, that would have been my answer. I've never played a vampire. I would love to play Nosferatu. So now I have played Count Orlok in "Nosferatu," and I can check that off my bucket list. That comes out later this year. Now, honestly, do you know what I'm longing for? Can I tell you?
JONES: I told you I did do a Hallmark Channel movie before. I did a movie called "The Ultimate Legacy" with Raquel Welch - was my boss lady, and I was her butler. I drove her in an old Rolls-Royce car. And I wore a three-piece suit with a bow tie and a watch chain. I was in heaven, right? I would love to do more of that. And in fact, I love - OK, I'm going to let you in on a little secret here, OK. And that is that I do love the Hallmark Channel. I love feel-good stories. I love low-stakes problems. I love happy endings. I love pretty people telling a pretty story in a pretty setting. I have no problem with any of the above.
So you know, kind of like when I was a kid, and I looked at Jerry Lewis and Danny Kaye. And I wanted to be a goofy guy in sitcoms and doing funny things. So I think the ultimate role that I would love to play that I haven't done yet - I would love to be the father of a grown daughter who comes to me for advice at Christmas time. I'm wearing a sweater with reindeer on it, and I'm swirling a cup of hot cocoa and giving her some really sound advice. What do you think of that?
BRIGER: That sounds good - and your own ears, no prosthetics.
JONES: With my own ears, no gills going buzz, buzz while I'm having that conversation - yes, can we do that?
BRIGER: Well, Doug Jones, thanks so much for being here.
JONES: It has been my absolute pleasure. You've been very, very delightful to talk with.
GROSS: Doug Jones spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Jones plays the fish-man creature in "The Shape Of Water," which is nominated for 13 Oscars including best picture. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Tara Westover whose memoir is about being the daughter of survivalists living in the mountains of Idaho isolated from society. Her father didn't believe in public schools, so she was 17 the first time she was in a classroom. She eventually got her Ph.D. from Cambridge University. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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