In the second half of our exclusive phone interview with actor Doug Jones, he reflects on his work with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro in the Best Picture Oscar-winning THE SHAPE OF WATER. Jones, in heavy prosthetics and costume, played Amphibian Man, aka the Asset, aka “Charlie Tuna.” Jones’s character and mute office worker Elisa (Sally Hawkins) fall passionately in love with one another as she attempts to rescue him from evil captors. Jones also talks about his work on FX Networks’ WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, how he’s dealing with fame at this point in his career, and more.
ASSIGNMENT X: With THE SHAPE OF WATER, I’m sure you all knew you were making a good movie when you were making it, but did you anticipate the level of response and success it got?
DOUG JONES: I did. Here’s the thing. Back in 2014, long before [THE SHAPE OF WATER] was made, I was playing two of Guillermo’s ghost ladies in CRIMSON PEAK. On a day off, he asked me to come to his office during lunchtime. He wanted to discuss another movie with me, and that was THE SHAPE OF WATER. So behind closed doors, just the two of us, he didn’t have the script yet, so he verbally told me the storyline, and what he wanted me to play in it. And I sat there, just like a kid listening to story time. It was fantastic, and I walked out of that office thinking to myself, “This is next trip to the Oscars, after PAN’S LABYRINTH.” And it looks like I called it [laughs]. I knew from the story and whose direction we would be under, and as we were filming, it’s like, “Oh, my gosh.” I saw a few sets, and the color palette, and how he had us prepare, and just the emotional connection, the onscreen chemistry, the bold choices that he made, and doing something fantastical in a very real setting. It was not a comic book movie. Abe Sapien would not have fit in this film as a fishman. But the Amphibian Man did, because he was more organic-looking from the actual wild.
AX: In the movie, we never learn the Asset’s name, but do you have a name for him? Does he have a name for himself?
JONES: I don’t think he has a name for himself. But my on-set chair and trailer had “Charlie” written on them. My name on the call sheet was “Charlie.” So I finally asked Guillermo one day, “Did I miss something in the script? Does somebody refer to me as Charlie?” And he said, “No, no, no. That’s an inside joke. You’re Charlie Tuna.” “Ah, got it.”
AX: We find out at the end of the movie, when “Charlie” rescues Elisa by taking her underwater, that Elisa actually has gills. She doesn’t know this about herself until the end, but do you think your character already knows, and that’s why he’s drawn to her?
JONES: Well, again, another question that I had for Guillermo was this very thing. And I think he left it in the same kind of, whichever ending works for you, viewer, whatever ending you need, that speaks to your heart that day, that’s the ending he wants you to have. Much like PAN’S LABYRINTH. When Ofelia dies and goes to the Underworld, and takes her rightful place at the right hand of her father, the King of the Underworld, as a princess, was that all the dream of a child who was trying to escape a horrible situation, or was it for real? He left it so you could imagine it either way.
This is exactly the same scenario, where you have this woman who was found at the river as an abandoned child, and she had scars on her like she had been abused, and she didn’t have a voice. So I have the same question. Did that magical kiss underwater, and my hands – remember, my hands could grow hair back and heal wounds. If [what had previously been seen as scars on her neck] were wounds, and I put my hands on them, could I turn them magically into gills, so that she could live with me forever underwater? Yes. Could she also have been a mermaid all the time, who had just been living on land and didn’t know her origins, and now she’s magically reclaiming herself? Yes. Those are both viable options. And so [del Toro] said, and I agree, that I’d like to think that she’d been a mermaid all along, and that the Amphibian Man was drawn to her, and knew that this was his other part, his other half. That’s how I wanted to play it, but again, it is the audience’s choice. I chose to think that there was an instant connection, and that’s why.
AX: As an actor, how do you put forward attraction and connection when you can’t talk and we can’t see your eyes?
JONES: Well, you have to rely on a nonverbal dialogue connection that you feel, and then hopefully the audience will see that feeling. What really helped Sally Hawkins and me, we had time. Guillermo got us together about a month early, before the filming started. A big worry for everyone was where she imagines a black-and-white musical of us doing a [Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers-style] dance number. Sally and I had to work with a choreographer to get that dance down. Even though it was a short one, with neither one of us being trained dancers, that was a worry. So during that rehearsal time, it was every day, for hours a day, we hung out, and danced together. When you’re doing dips and lifts, an amount of trust has to be built between two people. So my dance partner in that scene became my dance partner for the film, where we had each other’s back. It’s that exercise where you’re falling backwards, and you know the other person is there to catch you. Well, that’s the place we got to.
Sally and I, we shared laughs and tears and inside jokes, and we both shared a fear for the movie. We knew how important it was, we knew how big it could be, and we were both terrified of not getting it right. So we shared all that, and really, we held hands for the entire film. Often, between takes, you would see us just embracing each other to keep our connection, and to comfort each other, which was really lovely. So I hope that that read.
AX: I understand you both had dance doubles, but they weren’t used much in the final film …
JONES: We both did. So my dance double was fantastic and beautiful, and I actually learned watching him as well. He was a tall, skinny fellow that looked exactly like me in the fish suit. Sally’s double ended up wearing a Sally Hawkins mask. But Guillermo told me that there are two split-second moments, where a certain lift was involved, that’s the dance doubles. The rest is all us.
AX: You shot THE SHAPE OF WATER in Toronto, which is also where STAR TREK: DISCOVERY shoots, and where del Toro shot THE STRAIN and CRIMSON PEAK …
JONES: Guillermo loves filming in Toronto. The big finale, jumping into the water on that rainy dock at night, we filmed that at the end of October, and it was freezing cold out, and this rain machine was sending water into the air to come back down on us, and it was so icy cold. They even tried to warm the water for us. By the time it shot through the cold air, it was freezing. When it came down and hit us, we were just in utter misery.
AX: What is the heaviest makeup you’ve ever been in?
JONES: The heavy ones are the big ones with mechanics built into them, so that would be things like, I did a movie called THE LEGEND OF GALGAMETH that aired on the Disney Channel back in 1996. That was a one-hundred-pound suit. That was a big Godzilla-looking lizard, standing on two legs, kind of an “Arrgh” [growls] that grew fifty feet tall, so they had a huge head that was sitting on top of my own, and I was looking through the mouth of it, and all the head was built above mine, with mechanics that were loaded with servos and motors, and that’s where the weight comes in. So even something that was thinner, and looked skinnier and lighter, would be like the Faun makeup in PAN’S LABYRINTH. Also quite heavy, because the leg contraption was a zigzag leg that, part of my leg was green-screened, and they had an add-on that created the shape of the leg, and those big, heavy, clunky stilts that I was on. I was up on risers that made me seven feet tall. And the head also had mechanics built into it, because my eyes blinked, squinted, and looked around with puppeteers. So that required motors that were all tucked into the ram horns of the head. The fish man for SHAPE OF WATER and Saru are both light and easy by comparison.
AX: Did you see the HELLBOY remake?
JONES: I did.
AX: What did you think?
JONES: I don’t have any negative comments. I thought David Harbour was great. Of course, Ron Perlman is like a big brother to me, so I think of Hellboy and Ron Perlman in a synonymous kind of way. But I think David did a great job. I thought the movie itself was decent. But having two other HELLBOY movies to compare this one to was the problem for me. It’s not a del Toro film. I am a del Toro boy [laughs].
AX: You also appeared in a comedic role as an ancient vampire leader, Baron Afanas, on WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, at the same time that you were on STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. How did you work that out?
JONES: Since DISCOVERY started, I’ve been able to work in very little else. But I did use my hiatus time between a couple of seasons to do my episodes of WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS. I had so much fun with them. I was only supposed to do the pilot. I was going to show up in the pilot episode, make that grand appearance, all stark naked [in a full-body creature suit] in the attic, out of my coffin, and they were going to dispose of my coffin in a later episode, to get rid of me in a very funny way. While working on the pilot, Jemaine Clement, who co-created the series and the movie, said to me, “Oh, my gosh, we’re having so much fun with you, would you be interested in coming back?” I said, “Well, I’m about to start another season of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. The answer is yes. I would love to. But it’s up to the network.” So he brought me back for Episode 6 of Season 1, “The Baron’s Night Out,” which was the funniest half-hour of television I have ever been a part of.
They actually wedged that episode into my STAR TREK: DISCOVERY season finale schedule for Season 2. I don’t know how they worked it out, but the two productions worked together, and they [both] film in Toronto. And then, at the end of that episode, I was supposed to be burned and gone, according to the original writers’ room plan. While we were filming, Jemaine was like, “I want to keep you. I just want to keep the door open. Is that all right?” [laughs] So bless his heart. He told me they were going to make my eyes glow, at the very, very end, when they were putting my carcass away, so that it leaves the door open for an appearance later on, if they ever so choose. So with Season 2 of their show, there were on-again, off-again phone calls that went back and forth on the possibilities. I think at the end of Season 2, you saw there was a dramatization of the Baron on stage, with actors and a dummy, I think, so I think that was the moment they ended up doing, instead of trying to wedge me in again, because I was also in production then with Season 3 of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, and I have a bit more presence in Season 3, so I had less time off.
AX: Do you have any other projects going on that we should know about?
JONES: Speaking of vampires, I still have a remake of NOSFERATU that is in post-production, has been for years. I did a silent movie, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI [released in 2005]. Same director, David Lee Fisher, same process. He took the [original 1922 NOSFERATU] silent film backdrop footage, created matte shots, and we were filmed on green screen, or even if we were on a set, even if it was an open window, or an open door, it had a green-screen element somewhere. Something of every shot of the movie is going to have the original film in it. So I got to play in the environment that Max Schreck got to play in as Count Orlok. That was my bucket list dream role. If I had one more makeup that I hadn’t worn yet but I would have loved to, it was going to be that one. Of course, it was produced on an independent budget, so that means post-production, when you run out of money, and wait for it to come back again, it just takes longer. I am told they are done with their visual effects, because every frame of the whole movie, there’s some visual effects work. I’m told now that we’re in the sound phase, the musical scoring and sweetening, and the trailer was coming soon. I don’t know what the timeline is, or how it will be released. Those are all unanswered questions. But there is a NOSFERATU starring Doug Jones coming, I promise.
AX: Besides working in prosthetics makeup, you’re also very well-known for hugging people. Old friends, new friends, co-workers, people you’ve just met who come to see you at conventions, even interviewers. How are you dealing with not being able to hug people during COVID?
JONES: You tapped into my weakness. Oh, my gosh. Thank heaven I’m living with another human being, or I would go out of my frigging mind. Because touch is my lead love language, of the five love languages. And not being able to hug people is – I’m going through withdrawals [laughs].
AX: Is that going to be weird for you when things, we hope, eventually open back up and you’re doing the convention circuit again, because I imagine they’re still not going to encourage hugging …?
JONES: Well, I had one trial run at that just before the shutdown. There was one convention that I still made it to in early March, in Mexico City. And Mexico City at the time had no breakouts, there were very few cases down there, and they went ahead with the event. But all of those “no touching” protocols were in place, and everybody had to use hand sanitizer before they came up to the table, so that was excruciating, because my usual thing at conventions is, I hug everybody who gets an autograph or a photo with me. I come around the table, and I end our little few minutes with a hug. And I couldn’t do that. So it was just like – do you bump elbows, do you just wave, do you give them the “Live long and prosper” sign? So I was hugging myself, going, “Oh, I wish I could do this to you!” [laughs]
AX: You’ve been a working actor for the greater portion of your life, but the combination of THE SHAPE OF WATER and STAR TREK: DISCOVERY has put you into a new level of success. What does that feel like coming now in your career, and do you wish it had come sooner, or do you think it might have prevented you from having certain life experiences?
JONES: Especially in my late fifties, I did not expect to have a spike in popularity. Actually, I enjoyed my anonymous years very much. When I first entered Hollywood in the mid-‘80s, from Indiana, I did have stars in my eyes, and I wouldn’t have hated being famous at all. So maybe about twenty years later, I realized that I had been working continuously all this time, had a reputation among creature effects makeup people, and referrals all the time, one job after another. I almost never stopped working. So I had a great career as an actor on film, and nobody knew who I was. What a great combination that is, right? [laughs] I can lead a very normal lifestyle on the street, and at home, and still be employed in parts that I love.
The first spike – when the first HELLBOY came out in 2004, there was a little blue speck on the radar, like, “Who is that guy in the fish makeup?” So there was some investigating of who that was, and that spike had the usual fall afterwards. I kept working under the radar again. A major spike happened when PAN’S LABYRINTH was released [in 2006], followed by the Silver Surfer [in FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER, 2007], followed by HELLBOY II , when I got more screen time, more press.
In PAN’S LABYRINTH, I was the only American actor who spoke English as a first language, so when the movie was released here in the States, I was the go-to interview. I did all the traveling around the country, doing screenings, and signings of posters in lobbies, and meet and greets. So that was my first trip to the Oscars. I got to represent the film, and be interviewed on the red carpet with Ryan Seacrest and Joan Rivers and the whole gang. So that’s when my name became a little bit recognizable, and my face also became attached to characters I played under rubber. So I thought, “Okay, that’s as good as it gets.” And I had no idea.
That was in my late forties. And I kept working consistently after that. I did shows like FALLING SKIES for three seasons, and kept doing the press machine as well. And there was some critical acclaim, but we didn’t have a huge worldwide audience. And more work came – there were cameos that were kind of special Doug Jones moments. So I did not realize that I had another spike coming. When we were filming THE SHAPE OF WATER, I was fifty-six. When we were promoting it, I was fifty-seven, and attending the Oscars for the second time, another red-carpet trip to the Oscars, more interest in people interviewing me and taking my photo, at the same time that Season 1 of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY was airing. So it was a double whammy. That was more press than I’d ever had in my life. So I did not expect that.
And now, I’m not Tom Hanks, I’m not Brad Pitt, I don’t cause a mob scene. But when I’m out in public, I do get the occasional, “Aren’t you Doug Jones? Oh, my gosh.” That happens more often now than it ever used to. It’s still at a very respectable dull roar, and it’s very manageable. I’m enjoying that. It’s not gotten out of hand.
Had that last spike in success happened at an earlier age, I don’t know how I would have handled it, but when you get a fame spike in your late fifties, enjoy the ride, but understand that fame is fickle, and it’s not who you are, it is what you are doing for the moment. Who you are, that’s Mrs. Laurie [Jones’s wife], that’s being a brother, that’s being a father figure to some, an uncle to some, that’s having my faith in God. That’s me. And that has never changed. The fame comes and goes. I’m well aware of that by now. [laughs] That’s the beauty of having a little spike in success later in life.
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Article: Exclusive Interview with actor Doug Jones on THE SHAPE OF WATER, PAN’S LABYRINTH and more – Part 2