When he got his big break, the actor Doug Jones had no inkling that it was his big break. In the late 1980s, when he was in his twenties, Jones was cast in a McDonald’s commercial playing Mac Tonight, a piano player with a giant crescent moon for a head. The commercial campaign was huge and international, running for about three years and, to his surprise, making Jones the go-to guy when it comes to playing monsters and other-worldly creatures.
Although you’ve probably never seen his face, you have seen his work. He’s been in many Guillermo del Toro films, including Pan’s Labrynth and the Hellboy series. But it’s in del Toro’s latest film playing an amphibious kind of man-like creature in The Shape of Water, where Jones has perhaps made his biggest splash (sorry).
Jones, who plays opposite Sally Hawkins in the film, recently joined Kurt Andersen on Studio 360, which along with being a public-radio show is now a Slate podcast. (A link to the audio of their interview follows this excerpt.)
Kurt Andersen: Presumably you hadn’t started as an actor saying, “This is what I want to do.”
I didn’t, no. I did not come out to Hollywood from Indiana back in 1985 with the intention of being monsters. I actually was seeking sitcoms. I’m tall, skinny, goofy. I’m the one who would come in with an armpit fart and go “Hey hey!” and leave, you know. But having a mime background from college, I also can put my legs behind my head, so I had contortionist on my resume as well. So my first agent was capitalizing on, “He’s a physical guy.” So all of the auditions that I would be sent out for were a lot of physical tomfoolery, costume wearing, that kind of thing.
And the articles about you—and there are more and more of them—describe you as a creature actor. Sounds like you’re completely comfortable being called a creature actor.
Well, they’re comfortable calling me a creature actor, yes.
You’d rather just be an actor, perhaps.
I think just actor is fine, yeah, because that’s what I do. Some actors wear a T-shirt and jeans, some wear a tail and talons and horns on their head. That would be me. But it all has to start at the same place: what are these characters wants, needs, fears, loves, desires and intentions in the story? So I have to go there even if I’m growling at somebody.
In The Shape of Water, did your character actually have a name?
In the script, he was just called Amphibian Man but when I showed up for set my first day, my trailer door said “Charlie” on it. So I asked Guillermo del Toro, “Did I miss something the script? Does he have a name now, is it Charlie?” Did I miss something? “No, no. That’s just for Charlie Tuna – that’s just between us.” It was a little inside production joke and so we all called me Charlie, but that it’s never referred to in the film.
How did you prepare for the role? I mean, did you feel like, what’s my motivation? This is about who this guy is and this is what he sees in this woman?
Yeah, I have to explore all of that. The twist on this one was he wanted me to be more of an animal from the wild. He wanted me to be believable, but that they actually captured me in the river you know, with a net, and brought me back on the boat. So that meant that I had to quiet all of my human instincts. To nod a certain way or gesture with my hand a certain way. All non-verbal dialogue because my character didn’t speak a word.
So Guillermo, he just gives me some bullet points and I go home and work on those. One of those was heroic. Because the locals in the Amazon, it’s referred to in the dialogue of the movie, that the locals worshiped me as a god. So he wanted me to have a posture and a stance and a presence that would warrant that kind of force.
And the last bullet point he gave me was, “And Dougie, throw in a little bit of Matador.” I knew exactly what he meant because if you watched a toreador when they’re facing off with a bull, it’s very choreographed and very sexy and confident they lead with the pelvis.
Is this the first time as an actor or as a creature you’ve played the love interest?
Yeah, well the closest love interest I had was in Hellboy II: The Golden Army. It was a love that could just never be, so it was tragic. So this time what made this different was that Guillermo said, “You’re gonna get it on.” Oh dear. So when he first pitched the movie to me he was a bit concerned. “Now I know you’re a good Catholic boy so I want to make sure going I’m going to be OK with this.” So I was like, “Well how bad could it be?” I knew nothing about the story. He said, “Well uh, there’s a bathtub involved.” Oh dear. So I said, “How about you tell me the story from the beginning and get me to the tub and we’ll talk about my Catholic sensibilities.”
So by the time he did tell me this beautiful tale the innocence of it and the purity of that love and and also I told him I said, “Well even the good Catholic boy in me doesn’t think there’s a protocol in the Bible for animals in the wild marrying first, so I think we’re fine, I think we’re good.”
Right. And there was no apparent birth control used, so you’re good on that grounds, too.
Exactly! If you’re going to go by Catholic standards.
The other thing about the Amphibian Man or whatever we call him—
—or Charlie, in The Shape of Water, is in addition to having to be fit to carry all the stuff, you’ve got to look good. Right? You’re very fit looking in that suit.
Right. The sculpture of the suit is key in that. Two areas that I kept hearing about were the lips and the ass. So it’s like, because again it’s got to be sexy, got to be relatable. Got to be kissable got to be grab-able, right?
So for the lips and the ass respectively, I guess, in that case.
Exactly, in that order. Yes. So I’m very skinny. I’m only 140 pounds at six three and a half.
But that’s a great skinny palate to start painting on, basically. And they can build on me and make me whatever dimensions they want. So they did beautifully proportioned swimmer’s build body as this fishman. But I knew we’d hit the right notes with the butt when I’m on set and I get up and walk away. And Octavia Spencer looks at me and goes, “Mmm!” every time I walk away from her. So I thought, “OK the butt’s working. The butt is working!”
Who plays, by the way, Sally Hawkins’s best friend and colleague.
Now I’m going to ask one of those questions that you’re bored with. How much time did you spend in the makeup for the Shape of Water character?
With a head-to-toe transformation like that, you’re normally looking at five to seven hours. But this was mercifully short. It was only three hours a day because there was so much pre-work done. All the pieces that were slipped on to me are glued on to me were pre-sculpted, pre-molded, pre-painted.
Right. And presumably suits like that are designed for easy escape when nature calls.
Do you know what? OK, can we talk about this? OK. Oh, dear. You know that beautiful ass we were talking about? That comes at a cost, Kurt. There was no trapdoor in the back. So what that meant is that Dougie has to take care of bowels in advance of pulling that suit. Because when I’m in the suit, it’ll be for a good 16, 17 hours a day. So you have to make sure that you’re not going to have a little accident. And that is my biggest fear in this world is that they’re going to pull the suit off me one day and be disgusted by the aroma.
But I did have a front flap that I could use for number one, but with my webbed finger-hands on, I couldn’t negotiate the snaps and the hoo-ha and the hooks in the thing. So I basically had to wait till lunchtime and they could take one of my hands off, it took some un-gluing so I could have lunch and use the facilities. But I had to temper how much water I’d take in and so I went through most days a little bit dehydrated and a little bit scared of what might happen with nature. So yeah, it’s a young man’s game and I’m 57 now. Not sure how many more full bodies I want to do like that.
At 75, I wonder if you’re going to want to do that.
Hell no. I’ve been doing a lot more acting with my own face in smaller projects that nobody will be as aware of. But I did a Hallmark Channel movie a couple of years ago. I was Raquel Welch’s butler. I wore a three piece suit with a bow tie and a watch chain. And I was in the makeup trailer for about 10 minutes a day with a little, you know, a light dusting of powder and a little spritz on the hair and you’re good to go.
I’m in an age bracket now where I could play the father of an adult daughter who’s going through some issues and I can – I’ll give her some great advice while I’m wearing a Christmas sweater and swirling a hot cocoa, right? There’s my dream job right there.
Listen to this episode of Studio 360 below, where host Kurt Andersen introduces the interview with Doug Jones as the first segment in the show, and subscribe to the show on Apple podcasts.