Winner of Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, director Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, enchanted audiences worldwide and provided viewers the opportunity to see what a fantastical Cold War era love story looks like. We had the privilege to speak to actor Doug Jones, who played the lead role as the Amphibian Man, shortly after the film’s release. Jones has appeared in dozens of films including Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Tank Girl, and Hocus Pocus. We were able to glean some insight on his craft and what it means to be a dynamic master of makeup monsters.
Mezco: First of all, I just want to thank you for taking the time out of your day to do this. I'm sure you must be incredibly busy with the amazing reception that The Shape of Water is getting.
Jones: Yeah, I know. It's been really, really fantastic. Thank you.
Mezco: How did your tight working relationship with Guillermo del Toro begin?
Jones: We met on Mimic, actually, back in 1997. I was in the Rolodex of every creature effects shop in town, and he was doing his pick up reshoots for Mimic about three weeks before the movie opened. And the Canadian actor who played the Long John bug creatures in the movie in Toronto didn't have a work visa to work in the U.S. It was a last minute thing, so who do we know that's tall and skinny that wears stuff and doesn't complain about it? Ah, let's call Doug Jones. So that's how I met him. I was on that for three days, and our second day is when we actually talked over the lunch table and got to know each other and found a common love for creepy, crawly monsters.
Mezco: How much do you work with the writers and Guillermo del Toro on creating some of the monster's characters?
Jones: It is collaborative except for the look of the creature. The design, I don't want my hands in that because the brilliant and talented award winning artists in the world have had their hands on my face. I don't want to muck up their work with my opinion, you know? I'll do the acting and they can do the artwork, so we all have our department. But if I have any notes, it's usually about something like comfort or movability of a suit or makeup that would enhance or inhibit my performance. So we'll have that discussion.
Mezco: Do you believe that you and Guillermo del Toro will be working together again in the future?
Jones: Well, after 20 years and seven projects including six feature films and a TV series, I think he likes me. So I do hope that we're not done yet. He's on hiatus right now from directing. He's taking about a year off, as he said. And he also produces and writes. He'll never stop. His brain can't stop. But he's taking a sabbatical from directing specifically now for about a year to figure out what he wants to do next with that. He said that when you direct, you kind of make a deal with the devil. Three years of your life for one IMDB credit, right? So you have to pick and choose your directing projects very carefully because it will be that much of an investment of you.
Mezco: This is a bonus question that comes directly from one of your biggest fans here at the office. There were rumors swirling around that you might possibly get to play the Creature from The Black Lagoon. Any hope for that still happening, or is The Asset in The Shape of Water the closest your fans are ever going to get to that?
Jones: Right. I believe that The Asset in The Shape of Water is the closest the fans will ever get to that.
Mezco: I have to say, he looks very, very similar.
Jones: It's not an origin story. It's not a sequel or anything. However, I think you can in parenthesis say it was inspired by [it], because Guillermo del Toro himself, the Creature in The Black Lagoon is one of his two favorite classic monsters from the days of yore. That and Frankenstein's monster were his two favorites that influenced his life, his career, what he's doing now in movies. So if you look at the design of this amphibian man, it might remind you a little bit of Abe Sapien from the Hellboy movies. But Abe was more comic book style and more geared for a superhero comic book movie. And the Creature from The Black Lagoon was a bit more, the net fins especially and the gills were very pronounced on him. And so this creature design wise might be a bit of a hybrid between those two. So I guess design wise, you only have so many options when it is the same actor playing a fish man again. I'd like to see the differences, but it would also be Guillermo del Toro's life long ambition and dream to get Julie Adams and the Creature together finally after seeing the old black and white movie. As a child, he fell in love with both of them at the same time when he saw Julie Adams swimming in her white bathing suit at the surface of the water, and underneath was this monster swimming under her. Horrified most people. It titillated Guillermo as a child. He had hoped, as the movie was playing, he had hoped that they were going to end up together. And when they didn't and when it ended up being a home invasion movie as he calls it, where the poor creature was just minding his own business and these people come and ruin his life, he wanted to kind of right that injustice and make a movie where the monster gets the girl. So I would say this is a fulfillment of that boyhood dream of his even though it's not a direct sameness of character.
Mezco: How does it feel to have a character you've worked on be turned into action figures? I know we’ve created an Abe Sapien figure that was quite a great seller. Do you have any of these figures yourself?
Jones: Oh, I do. I've either found them in a shop, online, or been given them over the years. Being turned into an action figure is something that every little boy actor, at least, dreams of. I was one of them, hoping to be a toy one day, but the dream is different now, because you don't take it out of the box when you're an adult. You just want to save it for its pristine value and like, oh, I don't want to disturb the package at all. If I was back in my 8 year old days, I would have taken Abe out of the box and he would be hanging from a mirror somewhere right now.
Mezco: What kind of preparation did you do to create Abe's physicality and mannerisms?
Jones: Well, he's part fish, part man so I could look to nature and find some inspiration from actual fish. So if you see my head curiously bobbing around, and you see my hands flowing gently like fins, that's where that came from.
Mezco: Did you find that that preparation was similar for the preparation of The Shape of Water?
Jones: No, it would be a little bit different because in The Shape of Water, yes, I play a fish man a second time but they're very different. Abe Sapien was a very gentlemanly, well-spoken, intelligent being who gestured with his hands in a very genteel way. The Amphibian Man from The Shape of Water is an animal from the wild who, before he was captured in the Amazon and brought to this U.S government facility, he was worshipped by the locals in South America as a river god. So I did have to hold myself with a certain regal royalness, with a certain stance, so less was more on this one. I just had to channel more of just a raw animal thing. So you don't know when you meet me, am I of any danger? But you see through my relationship with Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins, that she finds the soft side of me and I'm very tamable and very lovable, but not a word spoken. So all the witty dialogue is not there, all of the gentlemanly gestures not there. He needs to be taught all that.
Mezco: Have you or your cast and crew mates ever been scared at the sight of you while you were fully made up first doing the test shots for them?
Jones: I don't think genuinely frightened..My makeup artists, of course, they're the ones building it and they live for that kind of thing. And I've never scared myself really until watching the finished product. When I saw, for instance, in Pan's Labyrinth, when I saw the Pale Man, the eyeballs and the hands guy, onscreen and how it was cut together, and the moment and mood had built up to that. It was like, okay, that is terrifying. When I was on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the lead gentleman of the Hush episode, again, seeing that put together and edited and the music on it and the tension building, it's like yes, that was also a nightmare maker.
Mezco: That's awesome. It shows how it all comes together in the end.
Jones: Now on the day too, yes, probably the best freak out story would be from Quarantine. I was in Quarantine. It was one of those hand held sort of reality looking found footage things starring Jennifer Carpenter. Well, Jennifer Carpenter did not want to have a look at me before. That film was shot in sequence. So they did film it from beginning to end as opposed to doing, you know, random out of order scenes like we normally film the movie. So by the time they got to me, I was the end of the film. The last scene is when she encounters me up in my apartment on the top floor. Well, she didn't want to have a look at me ahead of time so that her reaction to me on film would be more genuine. And when she finally did see me, she could not look at me. She would not look at me. And after that, bantering with her off camera between takes for the next, no, it was not gonna happen. She genuinely was terrified of that creepy, or what was it? That thin, infected man. That's my name in the credits.
Mezco: I can attest to that, it was such a creepy scene!
Jones: You know, I'm running around with saggy pectorals that don't belong to me, and I've got rabies, and I'm all deformed in my face and head and I've got long, gray hair. And I'm wearing nothing but whitey tighty underwear that was kind of loose fitting and yellowed. Of course! That would be terrifying for anybody. It wasn't until we saw each other at the Saturn Awards the next year that I was dressed up in a tie and a suit and I could say, Jennifer, I'm Doug Jones. I was the guy. And she apologizes. “I'm so sorry. It wasn't you. I promise it wasn't you personally.” That sounds like great reception if I've ever heard one.
Mezco: I understand getting into makeup can be a very lengthy process. Does it help you get into your role or have you learned any techniques to help make that time pass better?
Jones: Yeah, the makeups vary in length depending on what creature you're playing. So it could be anything from, well, now on Star Trek: Discovery as Saru, that alien makeover is now down to just under two hours. So that's remarkably and mercifully fast. For The Shape of Water, my makeup time was only three hours. Because normally, for Guillermo del Toro movies especially, anything from Hellboy or Pan's Labyrinth or Crimson Peak, those transformations were five to seven hours depending on what character what day and how much of my skin was showing depending on costuming. So when you're looking at those longer ones, that's like a full work day before you go to work. So what helps pass that, I think it helps that I never get bored with my own thoughts. I can sit in a quiet room with the lights off and be thoroughly entertained because enough goes on in my head and I crave solace and quiet, which I normally don't get in my daily life. So when I have a chance to sit still and I'm not required to do anything for five hours, it's just like oh, well, this is almost like a break for me. But I'm subjected to funny smells and losing my sight and losing my hearing and-
Mezco: Poking and prodding, I'd imagine.
Jones: And poking and prodding. And sometimes not sitting back in your chair because sometimes they have to work around your entire body 360 degrees, so you have to stand or squat on a stool without a back on it. That kind of thing. So it can become participatory depending on how you have to hold yourself to get something applied to you at a certain angle. All that. But also, we play music all the time. Usually there's music playing of some sort. And my makeup artists, often their taste in music is usually a bit more raucousy and electric. And mine tends to be early Whitney, early Mariah, early Celine Dion. I know, I'm practically a woman.
Mezco: In The Shape of Water, your latest film with Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro, your character, The Asset, spends a lot of time in the water. What was it like having to act underwater and did you have to do any special preparation for that?
Jones: Yes. I had never been really submerged in water all the way in a makeup/suit like that. And that was, a little bit of fear was built in. Like, once this fills up with water, when I'm submerged, will it drain out fast enough for me to breathe when I get up over the surface? So that was my concern. They did put us, Sally Hawkins and I, both through scuba training. So we learned how to breathe on a regulator so they can have someone with us, a scuba team under the water, to catch us if need be. So there's a scene in the bathroom that floods where we are actually submerged underwater with a camera that is under the surface with us. And we ended up just catching our breath at the top and then plunging down once we were in action. So we ended up not needing the scuba gear, thank heavens, because it was only an eight feet deep tank so we could get up pretty quickly. And we also shot some dry for wet, and that's a trick you don't know when you're watching the movie. You don't know which is which. So it did come together seamlessly. So in dry for wet, we were suspended from hip harnesses and wires and bobbing up and down in an area filled with smoke and the lighting effect, and some fans blowing on Sally so her hair and clothes would blow. And they can slow the camera down in postproduction, and add some bubbles and boom, you're good to go. So movie magic just like that, right? That was a combination of technologies.
Mezco: Those days where you were submerged in water, were they physically demanding?
Jones: Yeah, well, the longest I was in the water was in the laboratory scene where I'm in the U.S government test facility where I'm in captivity. There's a pool area in that lab that houses me. I'm kind of chained to the wall in there. And so basically what helped was they warmed the water up, so it was just this side of a bathtub. So it wasn't unpleasant temperature wise. That's my biggest fear. If I get the shivers, we're done. It gets right in my bones. So the temperature was okay, but the suit got water logged. So when I got out of the water for lunch break or if they were going to reset cameras and I needed to be out of the water for a long time, getting out was heavy. I gained maybe at least 30 pounds of water weight. The suit soaked it all up like a sponge. It's foam latex rubber, so it was very porous. And I remember walking around. I just felt like, well, I'm only 140 pounds in real life at 6'3 so I experienced what normal people feel like when they have to walk around with weight on.
Mezco: Thank you so much. We really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us.