Doug Jones has played a mutated insect, a vampire and a spectral creature with blood-red eyeballs in the palms of his hands. He’s been an erudite fish-man and a whimsical hybrid of human, tree and goat. In “The Shape of Water,” he’s a merman — and the leading man.
LOS ANGELES — Four years ago, while filming “Crimson Peak,” director Guillermo del Toro called Doug Jones into his office. The actor already had two small roles in the gothic romance — the hideous ghosts of a pair of long-dead mothers — but the director had another part in mind for him, a bigger one, in a film yet to come. Del Toro spun a wondrous tale about a cleaning lady in an U.S. research facility who falls in love with a mysterious merman fished from the murky depths of the Amazon. In this unlikeliest of monster movies, the creature was the hero and love interest, and the director wanted Jones to play him.
It wasn’t the first time the director had enlisted Jones, all 6-foot-3 of him, to play a fantastical creature. In a string of del Toro films stretching back to 1997, he has played a mutated insect (“Mimic”), a worm-spewing vampire (“The Strain”) and a spectral creature with blood-red eyeballs in the palms of his hands (“Pan’s Labyrinth”). He’s been an erudite fish-man (“Hellboy” and “Hellboy II”), an angel of death (“Hellboy II”), and a whimsical hybrid of human, tree and goat (“Pan’s Labyrinth”).
But this was the first time del Toro had called upon the actor to play both monster and leading man. Could Jones be convincing as an amphibian lover, the creature who gets the girl, all while sporting a bulky bodysuit and gills?
“Guillermo said, ‘I know you’re a good Catholic boy, and there’s some romance involved in this one that might get steamy,’ ” Jones recalled.
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Del Toro explained further in an interview, “There’s a very rarefied strata of performer that can work with makeup and the suits, the many hours of prosthetic work and mechanisms whirring in your ears. And within that strata there’s an even more rarefied one, and I think Doug stands alone, in which you can actually consider them proper actors.”
Jones stars in del Toro’s new film “The Shape of Water,” as the captive of Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a Cold War-era Army colonel who hopes to gut him and study his innards, for science. The actress Sally Hawkins (“Blue Jasmine”) plays the mute janitor who woos him with boiled eggs, Benny Goodman albums and a winsome smile. The movie opens in Seattle on Friday, Dec. 15.
“He’s a gift, isn’t he?” Hawkins said. “It was so easy to fall in love with Doug.”
The film won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in September and has garnered rave reviews and early Oscar buzz. It has also been praised for its pro-Other political message and its spirited tweaking of monster movies past. In this version, the fish-man from South America is the beauty, while Shannon’s America-first colonel is the horrifying beast.
He was Mac Tonight
Born and raised in Indiana, the youngest of four boys, Jones was, as he recalled, “tall and skinny and geeky” as a child. He became a fan of offbeat TV characters like Barney Fife and Gomer Pyle in “The Andy Griffith Show,” and dreamed of appearing in sitcoms as the hero’s goofy sidekick. “Don Knotts was just a master and a king to me,” he said. “He was not what you would consider a classically handsome man, so I figured if he could make it, so could I.”
At Ball State University, he fell in love with mime. His first job out of college was a gig as a roving mime at an Indiana theme park.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1985, Jones soon secured roles on commercials as a dancing mummy, a space alien and a nerd. The next year, he began appearing in a popular, long-running series of McDonalds ads as “Mac Tonight,” a piano-playing hipster with a giant crescent moon for a head. “I bought my first house with that,” he remembered.
“The reputation I got was that I was tall and skinny and moved well and wore a lot of crap on my face and didn’t complain about it,” he said. The “not complaining about it” part was key. “Apparently, for actors,” he said, “that makes you exceptional.”
Commercial work led to roles in features, including “Hocus Pocus” and “Batman Returns,” and collaborations with some of the biggest names in the creature-effects business, like Stan Winston and Rick Baker. When Jones first met del Toro, during the filming of “Mimic,” they bonded over their love of monsters and their creators. “We were connecting on the level of grade-school boys, like, ‘Did you see that monster? Wasn’t it cool?’ ” Jones said.
An appealing backside
“The Shape of Water” represents the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for del Toro who, as a young boy, saw the 1954 horror classic “Creature From the Black Lagoon” and fell in love with both the monster and its swimsuit-wearing object of desire. In a kinder world and film, he thought, who knows what might have been? “He actually doodled pictures of the two of them riding a bike together, holding hands at the beach,” Jones said.
For his own creature, the director asked Jones to combine elements of the Silver Surfer (the Christlike superhero he played in a 2007 “Fantastic Four” film) and a matador. He also had to be like an animal in the wild. “Guillermo would shout at me, animal, animal!” he said.
The lead creature designer and sculptor Mike Hill was tasked with creating the fish-man’s suit. “The main direction I got from Guillermo was, ‘Make him sexy,’ ” he said. Hill got rid of the reptilian plates from an earlier design, and crafted a more kissable, less fishlike mouth. He gave the creature the broad shoulders and small waist of a swimmer, and a heroic cleft chin. And then there’s the creature’s hindquarters. “Guillermo was adamant that we give him a sexy butt,” Hill said.
As lovely as the costume was, it was a bear to wear. For three hours a day, Jones sat while Hill and three other artists put the thing on: the foam latex suit and gloves, the fiberglass helmet with eyes he couldn’t see out of, the sharp fangs, the remote-control gizmos in his spine. The suit itself was so form-fitting that Jones had to use K-Y Jelly to squeeze inside; when wet, which it nearly always was, it soaked up pounds of water like a sponge. “He never complained once,” Hill said.
The cast and crew got a sense of what Jones endured every day when a professional dancer was brought in as a body double for a particularly challenging dance sequence. “He got into the suit, did one pirouette, and then proceeded to projectile vomit,” del Toro remembered.
“That’s how good Doug is,” Hawkins said. “He couldn’t see, he couldn’t hear properly, and yet his performance is so beautiful and so delicate. He is the film. It just wouldn’t work without him.”