Doug Jones is finally getting recognized for his work. It’s not that he’s a newcomer – Jones has been in Hollywood since the ‘80s, and has been in a number of huge projects – but he’s spent most of his career under enormous amounts of prosthetic makeup and complicated costumes. Originally from Indiana, Jones trained both as an actor and as a mime, a background that has allowed him to move persuasively as all sorts of fantastic, otherworldly, and/or alien beings.
Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has worked with Jones for decades, starting with MIMIC in 1997, which had Jones playing an enormous mutant cockroach. Jones and del Toro worked together again on 2004’s HELLBOY, with Jones portraying the water-breathing Abe Sapien (although David Hyde Pierce voiced the character). When del Toro made PAN’S LABYRINTH, the filmmaker cast Jones in two major roles: the Faun (aka Pan of the title) and the monstrous Pale Man. The 2006 release won three Oscars and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film. When del Toro made HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY, released in 2008, this time Jones got to talk (and sing!) as Abe Sapien. Jones portrayed a couple of ghosts in del Toro’s 2015 CRIMSON PEAK.
Then came del Toro’s Best Picture Oscar winner THE SHAPE OF WATER. Set against the backdrop of the 1963 Cold War, the 2017 release essays the romance between mute office worker Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Jones’s character, a South American amphibian known as the Asset.
Also in 2017, Jones appeared as one of the leads in CBS All-Access’s STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Jones plays Commander Saru, the only Kelpien in Starfleet. Kelpiens are a prey species whose dominant characteristic is their sensitivity to danger. At least, that’s what all Kelpiens believe until the STAR TREK: DISCOVERY Season 2 episode “An Obol for Charon,” when Saru discovers that instead of dying or going mad when his ganglia drop off, he simply loses his fear reflex. Saru is close friends and allies with fellow Discovery shipmate, human-but-Vulcan-raised Commander Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green. The series returns for its third season on CBS All-Access on October 15, with the Discovery and its crew having leapt 932 years past the original timeline. Meanwhile, Season 1 will begin its broadcast run on CBS on Monday, September 24.
With multiple awards and nominations for virtually every aspect of THE SHAPE OF WATER, including his performance, and his joining of the STAR TREK franchise, Jones finally began attracting mainstream attention, even though his real face is not seen in the productions.
Other notable roles for Jones over the years include the moon-headed Mac the Knife in a series of McDonald’s commercials, Billy Butcherson in 1993’s HOCUS POCUS, one of the Gentlemen in the Emmy-nominated BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER episode “Hush,” the Silver Surfer in 2007’s FANTASTIC 4: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER (this was another character voiced by another actor, in this instance, Laurence Fishburne), a rare out-of-makeup lead as a struggling encyclopedia salesman in 2009’s MY NAME IS JERRY, a series regular role as an alien on FALLING SKIES, a recurring role as an ancient vampire on THE STRAIN (co-created by del Toro), and a much funnier turn as an ancient vampire on two episodes of WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS.
Jones graciously got on the phone for an hour to discuss all aspects of his career. This interview, divided into two parts, explores STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, THE SHAPE OF WATER, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, the effects of fame on a long-established career, and more.
ASSIGNMENT X: First of all, how are you doing during this pandemic?
DOUG JONES: Mrs. Laurie [Jones’s wife] and I are great. In fact, this has been the most normal lifestyle I’ve had in years and years years, to be actually home in one place, and not packing a bag for a weekend here or there. All my convention appearances were shut down for spring and summer, and fall. We finished filming Season 3 for TREK up in Toronto at the end of February, so I was home already.
AX: Before Saru on STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, you’ve played characters who’ve been in heavy makeup where you have gotten to speak, but I think Saru is the only one where you’ve been in heavy makeup, and you’ve gotten to speak, and you’ve had your own eyes, rather than big creature eyes, albeit you’re wearing contact lenses …
JONES: Yes and no. I think Billy Butcherson from HOCUS POCUS, that was all me, with my own eyes, and no contacts. So I’ve done many makeups where I speak and use my eyes. But not in such high-profile things. Those are often indies, or a TV guest role on a darker show, like the BUFFY Gentlemen, for instance. But I think Saru has the most dialogue I’ve ever had in my thirty-four-year-plus career. Now, after three seasons, he is the most filmed character I’ve ever been in, the most makeup applications for one character I’ve ever done. So he’s breaking all the records for me [laughs].
And the writers have done such a great job – when you have this much time with a character, you have the luxury of time to explore, and peel back the layers of that onion, and find out what lies beneath, what motivates this action, or that theory, or that belief, or that fear. We’ve gotten into Saru’s back story and found out more, I love the emotional being that he is.
AX: Does it help to be able to both talk and use your eyes as Saru? You seemed to be having a great time as Abe Sapien, and in HELLBOY II, you got to talk and sing, but you still couldn’t use your eyes.
JONES: Right. And the same thing with THE SHAPE OF WATER Amphibian Man. Those eyes were plastered into the makeup mask and then inflated for movement in post-production with CG. That’s when a really good CG artist can work in concert with you, and take their cues for what the eyes should do based on your delivery, and based on your posturing, in the moment it’s happening with the other actor. So it can work very well. But I really have enjoyed having control of my own eyes as Saru.
The early designs for Saru, which we did one makeup test for, had ten eyes, and this really huge head that had two crests on the top of it, a side to side sort of thing. And they said, “It’s going to have to be all manipulated and given life in post-production in CG.”
AX: And production decided, “Thank you, we’d rather spend the money on another spaceship”?
JONES: Well, that was it, exactly. Every time I was on film, that would have been thousands upon thousands of dollars every blink, right? So, yeah. Also, Saru was going to be a very integral part of this crew, and a part of this Starfleet family, so lots of those chosen family issues come up, lots of human things that happen between people, feelings involved and all that. Especially all those moments that I have with Michael Burnham. And eye to eye connection is key in those moments, to actually feel something between the characters. Ten eyeballs, nobody knows where to look. So Neville Page, the designer, called me himself after that makeup test to say they wanted to pitch to the network a redesign, and what do I think about that? I said, “Oh, gosh, Neville, I would love you for that.” A, it would be more comfortable, because that huge head required a helmet inside the makeup build that kind of slid onto my head. He wanted to see more Dougie personality. And the network actually agreed on all counts. It would be more cost-efficient, and more personality, more connection. So that’s the redesign you see today, that I’m very grateful for, because those episodes where I was dying, or where I liberate my people, and all that, that would have been a completely different feel.
AX: How would you describe Saru’s personality, and how much do you think it’s changed as a result of experience, and/or the Vaharai, which is the biological process when his ganglia dropped off and he lost his fear reflex?
JONES: His personality – I’ve always channeled the butler from DOWNTON ABBEY [laughs]. I find he’s very prim and proper, and he’s very precise, educated. He had a lot to prove when he was the first Kelpien to go through Starfleet Academy, become a high-ranking officer on a starship – this is all first, first, first. He’s always been very conscious about leaving a very good impression, and blazing the trail for Kelpiens that might come after him. So crossing his Ts, dotting his Is. That was in spite of this innate fear that he was born with. He had to overcome fear on a daily basis, that he just thought was a part of his being. He’d always been told, “That’s who you are, that’s all you’ll ever be, is a scaredy-cat.” So going through Vaharai was something that I would have done on my home planet, and I would have been culled, and I would have been killed by the Ba’ul, our predator species, our oppressors, basically, and I never would have known the difference. We were taught from birth that this is part of the Great Balance. When it’s our time, it’s our time, and the Ba’ul are doing us a big favor by putting us out of our misery before we go mad and die anyway [which is what the Ba’ul have taught the Kelpiens is what will happen once their ganglia drop off]. So that’s what I would have accepted had I stayed home.
But now on a starship, I’m going through Vaharai all by myself, and there is no Ba’ul around to cull me, and take me away, and dispose of my life. I thought all along that this was the end, and, “Okay, Michael Burnham, would you do what the Ba’ul would do, would you please help me out of this gracefully [and kill me before I go mad]?” That intense brother/sister moment that we have together is one of my favorite moments in the entire series so far, when we’re expressing our love for each other, and gratitude, and then she puts that Kelpien knife to me, and then my ganglia just fall out on their own [laughs]. And we both sit there, shocked, going, “Whaaaat?” That was a delicious moment, where it becomes clear now that, “Wait. That’s not death – that’s adolescence going away, and now I’m entering adulthood.” No one knew. They never told us [Kelpiens] this. And then what went away with those ganglia was also that innate fear, that looking over the shoulder.
As an actor, I had developed all of my character for Saru from that fear place. I don’t ask the writers to give me the entire season ahead of time. I like to be surprised like an audience member. So when I got that episode where my ganglia fall out and I’m no longer afraid, that was all news to me [laughs]. I did not see that coming. Now I had to kind of change gears on what motivates him from the core of him. I wanted to keep his prim, proper behavior. He’s living by the rules, and going by the book. But without the fear, he’s having a period of experiencing some, “I just turned eighteen, I can do whatever I want” [laughs]. So he might make decisions that he wouldn’t have made if he still had his ganglia.
One of those things was when one of the red signals brought us back to my home planet of Kaminar that I thought I would never see again. And now I’m telling [temporarily in charge of the Discovery] Captain Pike [played by Anson Mount], “I’m going to be the one to go down to that planet, and do this exploration, and find out why we’re here.” And he’s like, “Oh, no, Saru, I think you might be too emotionally connected to the cause, and they’re still pre-warp.” And I stood up to him, and I got in his face. Saru would never have done that previously. Those changes were fun to explore, where he had a bit more sense of himself, and more confidence in his decision-making.
AX: Are Saru’s arms your real arms, or are they augmented with CGI?
JONES: [mock-indignant] Abbie Bernstein, those are my arms. I am a long, lanky fella. I’m six-foot-three-and-a-half, and one-forty pounds at most. When I put those gloves on, my Kelpien hands, the fingers are a smidge longer than my own fingers. That’s about it.
AX: When Saru walks, his arms move behind him in a swaying motion. Was that something that felt organic when you got into the footwear, or was that something where you thought, “I should add a little bit of alienness to his movements”?
JONES: Mostly your first option, and a little bit of your second. I’ve played so many aliens over the years, and so many otherworldly creatures, that my biggest challenge is to make each one different. Knowing that I was going to be playing Saru for a number of years, although not knowing how many, I knew I wanted to get an ecosystem for him that makes sense and could sustain that many years. Thank heaven, when we were filming the pilot for DISCOVERY, we had a lot of time up in Toronto to settle, rehearse, and to do costume fittings, and makeup tests, and camera tests.
When I first put those hoof boots on, I was terrified of them. I was like, “That looks like a balancing issue, that looks like Dougie’s going to fall every time he takes a step.” [laughs] So when I got in them, I was surprised at how it’s like riding a bike. It looks impossible, but then when you get on one, you’re like, “Oh, wait. Yeah.” I put my hips a little bit forward to center the balance of weight over the balls of my feet instead of my heels, and by doing that, it changed my posture a little bit, so I kind of lead with the pelvis. In doing so, instead of being right at my sides, my arms fell slightly behind. So when I started walking around the costume area, trying on my practice boots for the first time, my arms just naturally went back there. I thought, “Gosh, I feel like a supermodel,” [laughs] and I started swaying my arms side to side, instead of front to back, like you normally do when you walk. And then I saw myself in a full-length mirror. “Oh, gosh. I love that.” And the wardrobe people were like, “Oh, we love that.” And no one in production ever told me not to do it, so it stuck.
AX: To ask a silly, tweaky question when Saru and his sister Siranna, played by Hannah Spear, are being held captive by the Ba’ul, Saru breaks out of his manacles pretty easily. Did Saru get a lot stronger from having his ganglia severed or is Ba’ul prison technology made of cheap plastic?
JONES: [laughs] I think Saru has always had superhuman strength. The Kelpiens are very strong. Even back in Season 1, and I still had my threat ganglia back then, when we visited the planet Pahvo. I didn’t feel any fear in Pahvo, and I took Burnham and Ash Tyler’s [Shazad Latif] communicators from them, and I crushed them both with my bare hands. I was also able to run at superhuman speed, and when I found Burnham, he’s fierce. He has a fierce power that he has never tapped into, really, and without the threat ganglia, and with a purpose, he’s got a strength that is kind of surprising.
AX: In Season 2, you have a scene where Saru demonstrates his fluency in multiple languages. How was learning all of that dialogue?
JONES: You just tapped into one of most fearful rehearsals I’ve ever had [laughs], at home, trying to memorize dialogue. Thank heaven we had a dialect coach [Rea Nolan] that I could work with ahead of time. She worked with all of us, because we all had to speak different languages, because the computer was confusing everything. There were some made-up languages, like Klingon, in there somewhere, Chinese, Russian, and then some more obscure smaller country in Africa language. So you would just make sounds and hope that you’re getting close [laughs], basically.
AX: You learned some Spanish for PAN’S LABYRINTH so the lip movements would be correct, even though you were dubbed by a Spanish-speaking actor. Was that experience any help with that scene in STAR TREK: DISCOVERY?
JONES: I also learned French for a French movie called GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE. [For PAN’S LABYRINTH], I didn’t learn Spanish phonetically. I actually had an English script/Spanish script translation breakdown of sentences. I knew word for word what I was saying, and word for word what Ofelia [played by Ivana Baquero] was saying back to me in all those scenes. So that one, I actually did learn the language of the film. So after my rehearsals and memorization was complete, I went to set very confident every day, knowing the language was in me.
In the French movie, that was more phonetic, because I couldn’t make sense of the written word on the page. I couldn’t make the sounds come out of my mouth. French is a much more difficult language. Spanish, every letter makes a sound. The rules are very simple. In French, every third letter makes a sound [laughs], and you’re like, you’re on your own. And so I did have to have a French coach with me, who would speak each line out loud. I would listen, and I would write down my own phonetic version that made sense to my American eyes, and then I would read it back to her with my phonetic version. The same thing with all the languages for that episode of TREK. I did the same thing with the dialect coach. I would have her say it out loud, I would write down my own phonetic version of everything, so that I could sound it back to her. “Is that close?” “Yeah.” “Good.”
AX: The original STAR TREK very famously shook the camera and had all the actors tilt themselves when the ship was supposed to be under fire. Do they still do it that way on DISCOVERY?
JONES: Some, yes. “Oh, gosh, the ship is in peril, we’re on the bridge” moments – we all laugh through them, because they often do a count – we’re in the middle of yelling dialogue back and forth, and then we’ll hear a, “Right! Three, two, one, left!” And we often will do a big jolt to the left, or a jolt to the right, so it’s a combo platter of us doing timed-out leans and lunges, and then also the shaking of the camera. The funny parts are when we get moving and confused, and go the wrong way.
AX: The stage doesn’t tilt, though …
JONES: No, the stage does not tilt. I think they tried it once. Michelle Yeoh [who plays the now-deceased Captain Georgiou and her mirror universe doppelganger, who has taken over her Starfleet identity], one of her glorious fight scenes might have been in that kind of spinning [set].
AX: How is working with Michelle Yeoh?
JONES: She’s a powerhouse. She’s an old-school pro. And she’s the closest in age to me, too. I’m still the oldest series regular on STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. But the fact that she can still kick a straight leg up next to her face, it just boggles all of us. But she’s so humble, and so gracious. She is a true genteel lady.
AX: Well, she looks like she’s having a blast as the mirror universe Georgiou …
JONES: I know, right? I’ve asked her, “Captain Georgiou in the first two episodes, on the starship Shenzou, was a very benevolent and maternal-type captain for us. As a family, she was the matriarch, and we loved her dearly. Did you enjoy playing her more, or the mirror universe version, where you get to be a sassy-pants, and kickass evil, with ill intentions?” She said, “Oh, much more fun to play the mirror Georgiou. Are you kidding?” They give her such great one-liners, and she gets to spit out all this sarcasm. And she loves it.
AX: When Season 2 ends, the Discovery doesn’t have a captain. Do Saru and Burnham arm-wrestle over it, or do we know how they will determine who gets the captaincy?
JONES: This is a big question that nobody knows. Our very last episode of Season 2, Captain Pike of course returned to the Enterprise, and they help us facilitate this jump through the wormhole that takes us nine hundred and thirtyish years into the future. Before he leaves, Captain Pike mentions the captain’s chair, and we need to make a decision about that. I ask him, can we take care of the issue at hand, and we’ll discuss the captaincy later. I said, “There are many things to consider” as I threw a look to Burnham. She threw a look back to me, with the understanding that she and I will have this discussion once we jump ahead into the future. But is that just our discussion to have?
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our exclusive interview with Doug Jones.
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Article: Exclusive Interview with actor Doug Jones on STAR TREK: DISCOVERY Seasons 1 and 2 and more – Part 1