In his seven weeks of shooting “The Shape of Water,” the film’s male lead, Doug Jones, could not grasp a doorknob, send a text message, breathe through his mouth, or go to the bathroom while in costume. His call time to the Toronto set was a “mercifully short” three hours earlier than co-stars Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, and Octavia Spencer.
Each morning, four people armed with K-Y Jelly shoehorned him into a latex, foam, and rubber bodysuit, built from a cast of his six-foot-three, 140-pound frame. Then came webbed-fingered gloves (glued on), following by a neck and fiberglass helmet, which featured built-in buzzing, whirring mechanics to puppeteer his gills off camera. Once dressed, barely able to see or hear, Jones was required at various times to hang from a hip harness, stand on a smoke-bathed teeter-totter to simulate bobbing in water, and employ scuba diving techniques while acting in a flooded, eight-foot-deep tank.
Much has been made of Hawkins’s near-silent performance as janitor Elisa Esposito, who survived childhood trauma to become a self-sufficient, frolicking Baltimorean. As the object of her affection — the lone Amazonian creature from an otherwise extinct species, held captive in the government lab she mops nightly — Jones also doesn’t speak. “Words lie, looks don’t, energy doesn’t,” the film’s director, producer, and co-writer, Guillermo del Toro, said Saturday in a Vulture Festival Los Angeles conversation with Jones. In the script, Jones’ role goes unnamed; he is credited as “Amphibian Man” and answered to the nicknames “The Asset,” “The Creature,” “Fish Man,” “Gill Man” and, per his trailer door and set chair, “Charlie Tuna,” after the late LA radio and television personality.
Although he has more than 150 credits, Jones (a suspiciously youthful 57) had never been cast as a romantic lead before Fox Searchlight’s “The Shape of Water.” In an interview at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, he described his usual repertoire as “monster[s] that [are] antagonistic and swiping at people,” “funny or scary characters that are sidekicks,” and anyone who “adds some color [and] pushes other people’s stories along.”
Jones has seen plot lines hinge on his characters, but those performances can be bittersweet: his voice was dubbed by David Hyde Pierce in “Hellboy,” and by Laurence Fishburne in “Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer.” With “The Shape of Water” — a direct response to the polarizing discourse of 2017 and already a Venice Film Festival Golden Lion winner — Jones is finally getting the recognition he deserves beneath the prosthetics, and it just might translate into a Best Actor nomination.
“I never sought to play monsters in films,” said Jones, who additionally plays a Starfleet officer from the planet Kelpia on CBS All Access’ “Star Trek: Discovery.” Raised with three older brothers in Indianapolis, Indiana, he describes his school-age self as an “awkward” and a “lanky, gangly boy. If you don’t fit a certain small sliver of what’s considered normal in the Midwest, kids can be very cruel to each other.” Television, he said, was “where I found my friends as a kid,” rubber-faced, insecure goofballs like Barney Fife (Don Knotts) and Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) on “The Andy Griffith Show,” Gilligan (Bob Denver) on “Gilligan’s Island,” and the entire cast of “The Carol Burnett Show.”
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An aspiring sitcom star, he attended college at David Letterman’s alma mater, Ball State University, majoring in radio and TV broadcasting and minoring in theater. An upperclassman who noticed him gesticulating in the cafeteria recruited him for the school’s mime company, Mime Over Matter, and Jones also spent two years anthropomorphizing the school’s fuzzy red mascot, Charlie Cardinal.
In 1985, he and his wife, Laurie, moved to Hollywood, where Jones’ resume boasted skills as a mime and contortionist. (“I can put my legs behind my head,” Jones said. “I was a one-trick pony. Very few agents knew what to do with me.”)Then he found Wilhelmina Models. “That was one of my first experiences feeling pretty,” he said. “They saw beauty in my oddities.”
His fourth booking was Mac Tonight, a piano player who sang “Mack the Knife” while wearing an oversize, crescent-shaped headpiece and shilling McDonald’s from atop a spinning hamburger. The campaign lasted three years and produced 27 commercials, although he was never paid above scale; the fast-food corporation argued anyone could wear the mask.
“During that time is when I was established as tall, skinny, goofy guy who moves well, wears a lot of crap on his face, and does not complain about it,” Jones said. “Actors are divas, and we all make too much noise and complain too much, so if you don’t do that, it makes you rather exceptional, apparently.” Nor does Jones try to add design input: “The most decorated and award-winning, brilliant artists in the world have had their hands on my face. I don’t want to ruin their mojo with my stupid opinion.”
Over the years, he portrayed mummies, aliens, ghosts (“Hocus Pocus”), and clowns (“Batman Returns,” where he spent 14 weeks on set). Joss Whedon cast him as a demon in a beloved, Emmy-nominated episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Jones also had a pair of memorable shoots as insects. He had a “hellacious” time as Mother Bug in “Bug Buster,” a 1998 comedy/horror hybrid co-starring Randy Quaid and Katherine Heigl, but thankfully, he’d already met the filmmaker who’d transform his career: del Toro. The Mexico-born director gave him a three-day gig as an upright cockroach on his first American studio film, Miramax’s “Mimic.”
Del Toro generally doesn’t have fond associations with “Mimic;” he’s described collaborating with the Weinsteins on that film as more stressful than living through his father’s kidnapping. But in Jones, he met a kindred spirit. “The Shape of Water” is their sixth feature together, and Jones has portrayed up to three characters per film.
In “Hellboy,” Jones played Abe Sapien, an amphibian genius and gifted marksman who was Hellboy’s colleague in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. He reprised the role in the sequel, and also played Chamberlain and the Angel of Death, a role that del Toro said required wearing wings that “weighed as much as a Vespa on your back,” which left Jones bleeding. “Those are small sacrifices to make when you look at the final product and say, ‘Okay, that’s what we made,'” Jones said at the Four Seasons.
Three-time Oscar-winner “Pan’s Labyrinth,” del Toro’s most acclaimed film to date, cast Jones as both creatures who help children (Fauno) and eat them (The Pale Man); Jones said the 2006 undertaking was when the industry began to perceive him as a bona fide actor rather than a set piece. In “Crimson Peak,” he played a pair of terrifying female ghosts.
“When you are a storyteller, you curate a family throughout your life, and he’s family,” del Toro said, joking, “he’s the undernourished cousin,” “blessed with no shoulders and no ass.” With “The Shape of Water,” del Toro said he knew he needed Jones to “create the Michelangelo’s David of amphibian men,” yet he was unsure the actor, a practicing Christian, would accept a role in which he had to “get it on” in a bathtub.
When movies include nudity “just to get someone’s top off, then I’m not going to be interested in that at all,” Jones said. The same holds true for “films that are just about splattering blood on the wall or torture porn,” which he continues to get offered “because I’ve worn so much rubber and been many creatures, people assume that I must love horror films. I only love dark material if there’s a redemptive quality to it.” However, del Toro quickly convinced Jones that the nude scenes had artistic purpose. “This beautiful story’s unfolding in front of me, and this innocence and this connection of two souls [is] happening, and by the time we got to that bathtub, I was like, ‘I’m in,'” Jones told Vulture Festival.
Achieving onscreen chemistry with Hawkins was easy following their three-week rehearsal period with choreographer Roberto Campanella for a dance scene. “We’re learning a specific routine, but in the meantime also chatting and laughing together and even crying together at times, and we’re sharing secrets and insecurities with each other,” Jones said at Vulture Festival. “‘I’m terrified of this movie, are you too? ‘Yes, me too.'” Later, during filming, ahead of almost every take, Jones said he and Hawkins “were petting each other’s faces, we were hugging each other, we were caressing, we were holding hands and saying, ‘I love you more,’ ‘No, I love you more.’”
Even though “The Shape of Water” is set in 1962, del Toro regards it as a very modern story. He argues that ideologists create “fake divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them'” via race, gender, sexual preference, religion, and geography. “‘Them’ is a concept that’s created to control us, to make us afraid of each other, and the movie tries to embody that concept of the ‘other’ in this creature, the beauty of the ‘other,'” del Toro said. The film is a fairy tale like “Beauty and the Beast,” but more grounded at its core, reminding audiences that Beauty “doesn’t have to look like a perfume commercial model” and The Beast “doesn’t need to transform to be loved,” or “turn into a boring fucking prince.”
While del Toro is now and forever Jones’ favorite director, Jones acknowledges that he wouldn’t mind a few less-taxing roles in his future. “Here’s my secret desire, want to hear it?” he asked. In summer 2015, Jones flew to Kentucky to appear as Raquel Welch’s butler in a Hallmark Channel movie called “The Ultimate Legacy.” “I drove an old Rolls Royce for her, I wore a three-piece suit with a bowtie and a watch chain, I had witty dialogue,” Jones recalls fondly, clapping between each of the following words for emphasis: “I loved every minute of it.” Yes, Doug Jones, the man behind more of today’s movie monsters than anyone, escapes from long, dark days on set with the Hallmark Channel’s “feel-good, happy-ending movies with low stakes, [and] pretty people telling a pretty story in a pretty setting.”
He’s given this a lot of thought: “I’m in an age bracket now where I can play the father of an adult daughter whose going through her life issues, and she’ll come to me for advice while I’m wearing my Christmas sweater and swirling a cup of hot cocoa. And we can have a talk. That’s what I want to play more of.”
Jones and his wife have no biological children from their 33-year marriage. “We waited too long,” he said. “We tried for three years and the doctor finally said, ‘It’s not going to happen,’ which was okay.” However, when Jones was in his early 40s, he attended a showcase in LA for theater students enrolled at his alma mater. One of the students, future “Angie Tribeca” and “Lady Dynamite” guest star Natisha Anderson, performed a monologue that immediately charmed Jones. After she moved to the West Coast, they met for lunch.
“Come to find out that she had a dad that abandoned the family early on in her life, and she had a mom that she needed to separate herself from,” Jones said. “So, Laurie and I became the parents to her.” Eventually, Jones walked Anderson down the aisle, and now, 16 years after she entered their lives, he and Laurie are planning to legally adopt her.
Also upcoming is his next film, “Nosferatu,” now in post-production ahead of a 2018 release. Once again, Jones is unrecognizable as the namesake, bat-faced vampire. He conceded, “A good character’s a good character, whether I have talons and a tail or I’m in a t-shirt and jeans.”
“The Shape of Water” opens in New York on December 1 before expanding to additional cities.