A Lifetime Of Firsts For Doug Jones, Everyone's Favorite Movie Monster

The well-regarded creature actor recalls his collaborations with Guillermo del Toro, his red-carpet brush with Joan Rivers and the change he made to "Hocus Pocus."
Left: Doug Jones attends a "Shape of Water" screening on Nov. 15, 2017. Right: Doug Jones in "The Shape of Water," "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Hocus Pocus."
Left: Doug Jones attends a "Shape of Water" screening on Nov. 15, 2017. Right: Doug Jones in "The Shape of Water," "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Hocus Pocus."
Getty/Fox Searchlight/Picturehouse/Alamy

It’s easy to forget that the zombies and wolfmen and levitating vampires and eccentric aliens traipsing though movies and TV shows are brought to life by humans who endure hours in the makeup chair every day. And then you meet Doug Jones, the embodiment of creature-feature esteem. He’s not a household name, but chances are you’ve marveled at many of his otherworldly characters.

Jones is to monsters what “Lord of the Rings” and “Planet of the Apes” savant Andy Serkis is to motion-capture creations. Since 1985, Jones has made a name for himself as Hollywood’s undead virtuoso. Towering over any room at a lanky 6-foot-3, Jones has disappeared behind the Thin Clown in “Batman Returns,” Billy Butcherson in “Hocus Pocus,” the head of the bloodsucking Gentlemen on “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,” Pencilhead in “Mystery Men,” aliens in “Men in Black II” and “Falling Skies,” the Ice Cream Man in “Legion,” and Mt. Saru in the new series “Star Trek: Discovery.”

He’s also the go-to colossus in the movies of monster king Guillermo del Toro, first appearing in “Mimic” and later portraying both the faun and the Pale Man in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Abe Sapien in “Hellboy” and ghosts in “Crimson Peak.” In del Toro’s latest endeavor, “The Shape of Water,” Jones earns his leading-lad bona fides, playing a “Creature from the Black Lagoon”-esque amphibian captured by the government for prodding and political maneuvering. Along the way, the fish-man falls in love.

Jones, 57, didn’t intend to be a lifelong shape-shifter. He wanted to star in sitcoms, having grown up with “The Andy Griffith Show,” “I Love Lucy,” “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” But, as a contortionist who learned mime at Indiana’s Ball State University, his fate quickly came a-calling.

With “The Shape of Water” now open in limited release, I sat down with Jones in New York to discuss his heavily costumed career. After 32 years in the business, he has a museum’s worth of unconventional Hollywood experiences. Here are a few firsts in the life of Doug Jones, the most congenial monster you’ll ever meet.

Guillermo del Toro directs Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in "The Shape of Water."
Guillermo del Toro directs Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in "The Shape of Water."
Fox Searchlight

The first monster of Jones’ childhood.

Like many kids, Jones, born in 1960, felt like a freak, uncomfortable in his own skin and unfamiliar with the world around him.

“I don’t know about you, child, but I felt like a monster myself in those early teen years,” he said. “Being a tall, skinny, goofy kid growing up in Indiana, there’s a small sliver of what’s considered normal, and anything outside of that is made fun of. And I thought that I was the only one, of course, so I felt like I was the odd man out and no one understands me. I could relate to the monster movies on that level, I think. Come to find out later, we all felt like that at some point or another.”

The first monster flick he recalls seeing is “The Mummy,” the 1932 black-and-white creepshow starring Boris Karloff as the title character. He watched it at one of those childhood sleepovers spent piled in front of the television, delightfully frightened. Soon after, he discovered “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” which would inspire del Toro in conceptualizing “The Shape of Water.”

“It was more imagery that just left me godsmacked and awestruck,” he said.

The first time he made money for an acting gig.

Having impressed a theater professor with his prosthetics work in college, Jones knew he had a penchant for the unusual. And he knew that non-humans appealed to him, having volunteered to be Charlie Cardinal, the avian Ball State mascot, at basketball games. When Jones moved to Los Angeles in 1985 to find acting work, his first gig was a dancing mummy in a Southwest Airlines commercial. (“Boris Karloff would be proud of me right now, I’m sure of it,” he said.)

He followed that by playing an alien in a doll commercial, then a “nerd in funny glasses,” and then, most consequentially, a piano player with a crescent-moon head in a series of popular McDonald’s spots. The high-spirited crooner, named Mac Tonight, became a recurring gig from 1987 to 1989. He and his wife bought their first house with those paychecks.

“As a mime and a contortionist, I can put my legs behind my head,” he said. “My first commercial agent sent me out for all these physical tomfoolery things that involved costuming and makeup. If there was a callout for dancers, jugglers, clowns, mimes, he would send me out on all that stuff. That usually ended up getting me into some weird makeup thing. And as a young actor, it’s like, a gig’s a gig. Are they going to pay me? Of course I’m in. It just happened unbeknownst to me, and because of all those creature gigs early on, I started meeting create-effects makeup artists. Once they’d worked with me on a commercial and remembered the tall, skinny guy who moved well, wore a lot of layers on him and didn’t complain about it, they remembered me, bless their hearts.”

The first (and only) time Michael Keaton punched him in the face.

The first studio film for which Jones received a credit was 1992′s “Batman Returns.” He’d already appeared in a smattering of movies no one saw, some not even released in theaters. Bob Yerkes, a stuntman friend who appeared in “Return of the Jedi,” “Ghostbusters” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” recommended Jones to Warner Brothers’ stunt coordinator, who was impressed by Jones’ dexterity.

At Jones’ “Batman Returns” audition, the coordinator asked him to wait while he retrieved someone from the next room ― “Tim frickin’ Burton,” the film’s director, as Jones put it. He’d never flirted with A-list Hollywood before, and suddenly he was putting his legs behind his head for the guy who made “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands.”

“Tim’s like, ‘Oh, that’s great. Stay here for a second. We’re going to go talk about you in the next room,‘” Jones recalled. He thought he was there to accept a few days’ work at most. “So they go off to the next room. I’m sitting there for two minutes going, ‘Ahhhh, like, what are they saying?’ They came back in the room, and Tim’s like, ‘Great, you got the part.’ I’m like, ‘There’s a part?’ I thought I was here for a sight gag. Turns out there was a scripted role called the Thin Clown, who’s paired up with Fat Clown. We were part of the Red Triangle Circus Gang. It was a seven-week contract that grew into 14 because Tim liked having me around. Bless Tim Burton’s heart ― he saved my year.”

During those 14 weeks, Jones shot a frenzied sequence in which the Red Triangle Circus Gang terrorizes Gotham City, resulting in a punch to the face from Michael Keaton’s Batman ― his first brush with a top-tier movie star. “And then he sliced off a bomb from my chest with a sword he’d just taken out of a sword swallower’s mouth,” Jones said. “It was a complicated scene, a very choreographed scene, with all of us crazy circus freaks.”

Doug Jones attends the "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" premiere on June 28, 2008.
Doug Jones attends the "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" premiere on June 28, 2008.
Steve Granitz via Getty Images

The first time he was starstruck.

“Hocus Pocus” wasn’t a smashing success when it opened in 1993, but it’s become an unlikely touchstone in Jones’ life thanks to the movie’s resurgence. Twenty-somethings today are all too familiar with Billy Butcherson, the philandering lover of the resurrected Winifred Sanderson. The project brought Jones face-to-face with Winifred herself, Bette Midler, whom he’d long adored. The day he first emerged from his trailer, plastered in zombie pancake and outfitted with the tattered attire of the undead, Midler and her witchy co-stars, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy, were taken aback, crowding around to touch his face and extol the authentic effects.

Jones had one word of dialogue. When Winifred reanimates him, he was meant to simply yell “bitch” at her. But Jones was cautious. “Hocus Pocus,” after all, was Disney fare targeted at young audiences. So he asked director Kenny Ortega to “retool” the line. Ortega agreed. He would say “wench” instead, and he suggested adding a slew of taunts: “Wench! Trollop! You buck-toothed, mop-riding firefly from hell!”

“It felt really good because I’m not a writer, or not a scriptwriter, anyway,” he said. “And I’d never had the guts to make a change before. I usually act as scripted, but that was one moment that I really thought, ‘I think we’d be doing a disservice to the Disney kids crowd if we just yelled “bitch” at Bette Midler.’”

Telling people he’s Billy Butcherson is still a hit at parties, too: “I was a zombie before zombies were cool. He was a goofy, floppy, comedic zombie that was kind of attractive in his own little weird way, I thought. I’ve had many a young person come up to me to this day and tell me I was their first screen crush.”

The first time he went to the Oscars.

After “Batman Returns” and “Hocus Pocus,” Jones rarely had to audition. Effects artists would pass his name along for projects seeking accomplished creature actors, leading to spots in “Tank Girl,” “Warriors of Virtue,” “Mystery Men” and “Monkeybone.” Guillermo del Toro took a liking to Jones on his second film, the stylish 1997 plague tale “Mimic,” in which Jones showed rare dedication in playing a hulking cockroach. With the supernatural comic-book adaptation “Hellboy” (2004) and the somber fairytale “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), del Toro handed Jones his most demanding roles yet, characters with full backstories and interior lives. For the latter, Jones learned enough Spanish to play the aqua-tinted faun who assigns a troubled young girl three tasks to complete in exchange for immortality. He pulled double duty in the spellbinding tragedy, also portraying the Pale Man, a barbarous humanoid whose eyes sit in the palms of his hands.

Because Jones was the only cast member who spoke English, he did the bulk of the American press to support the release, which greatly elevated his profile. And he got an invitation to attend the 2007 Academy Awards, where “Pan’s Labyrinth” won three of the six prizes for which it was nominated, including Best Makeup.

Jones was the film’s representative on the red carpet, too, which meant he got to meet the one and only Joan Rivers. He’d always imagined that making it in Hollywood meant being interviewed by Rivers, famous for her biting pre-show banter. As for her famously reconstructed face? “Fascinating,” Jones said.

Jones stood with Rivers during a commercial break, waiting to go on the air. Studying a stack of notes handed to her by a producer, Rivers leaned over to Jones and asked how to pronounce one of the words. “I said, ‘That’s “labyrinth,”’” he recalled. “She was a very intelligent woman! So I wasn’t sure how that word escaped her.”

When they went live, a producer in Rivers’ earpiece instructed her to ask about the film’s makeup. “So she kind of focuses back on me again and says, ‘You’ve been through a lot of crazy makeups before. You ever had any problems with allergies? You know, product issues?’ I said, ‘Oh, my skin has actually been pretty resilient. I’ve never had any problems with latex, foam, rubber, adhesives, removers or silicone products.’ When I said ‘silicone products,’ I’m looking at a face just full of ’em. So I said, without even thinking, ‘Well, you know what I mean.’ I had waited all this time to talk to Joan, and I insulted her without meaning to. I didn’t mean it! In the moment, it was like, get the words back! I couldn’t. I couldn’t get the words back ― it was out there. It had just been televised around the world. Oh my gosh! Thank heavens, she’s a comedian, so she said, ‘Oh, it’s too late for me, honey.’ Thank you, Joan.”

Doug Jones attends the Oscars on Feb. 25, 2007.
Doug Jones attends the Oscars on Feb. 25, 2007.
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

The first time one of his monster’s genitals were pivotal.

At its heart, “The Shape of Water” is a love story about outcasts. It’s also the only time one of Jones’ character’s precise anatomy was crucial to the plot.

He plays a nameless fish-man kidnapped from the Amazon and chained in a laboratory run by a wicked colonel (Michael Shannon) who refers to him as “the asset.” A mute janitor, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), discovers the amphibian can vaguely comprehend language and express emotion. The two fall in love, resulting in, yep, a little interspecies copulation. We don’t see the act in all its graphic detail; instead, Elisa pantomimes the logistics for her closest companion (Octavia Spencer), using her finger to indicate that the fish-man’s penis pops out of the coating around his groin region.

“I kind of [had questions] because I knew there would be a love scene that was going to get kind of saucy,” Jones said. “But when I saw the design, I saw that it was all modestly encased. When I saw the first sculpture, I asked them, ‘How does he do the deed?’ What Sally did in the movie, when she does her little mime job of the woop-woop, that’s how it was explained to me, too: Something opens, something flips up. OK, great. We’ll assume that just happened then, and I don’t have to actually play it out.”

“The Shape of Water” is dearest to Jones’ heart because it provided his deepest character arc to date.

“Going back to the sympathetic monsters I fell in love with as a kid, he’s very much that,” Jones said. “He’s also mystical, magical and mysterious. I love that, too. As the movie unfolds, so does his backstory. He was worshipped as a god where he came from. [...] I loved every minute of it. And the relationship on-screen with Sally Hawkins. Boom. Enough said. She’s a magic, pixie-dust-sprinkled angel from heaven. The connection we had together in real life and on-screen was much the same. I love her.”

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in "The Shape of Water."
Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in "The Shape of Water."
Fox Searchlight

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