The Shape of Water: Doug Jones on the Beauty of Monsters

Meet the actor behind the monster and alien makeup in movies and shows like The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth and Star Trek: Discovery.

Doug Jones is one of the best modern character actors around, especially when you consider that most of the characters he plays aren’t human. An expert at playing monsters, supernatural beings and other forms of life that require heavy makeup and/or prosthetics, Jones is best known for collaborating with director Guillermo del Toro on six feature films, including Pan’s Labyrinth, the two Hellboy movies (in which he played Abe Sapien) and now The Shape of Water. In the latter, Jones plays the lead role of an aquatic creature — a humanoid “river god” — whose capture by the U.S. military and friendship with a mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) kicks off a most unconventional love story.

Jones’ creature in this movie may be his most empathetic and majestic character yet, while the actor himself — whose credits range from the title alien in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer to Del Toro’s TV series The Strain (and many more) — now has a starring role as Science Officer Saru in the new Star Trek: Discovery series on CBS All Access. Den of Geek spoke with this soft-spoken and charming man of a thousand faces recently in Los Angeles.

Den of Geek: This is your sixth time working with Guillermo?

Doug Jones: My sixth movie with him. And I was also a recurring guest on The Strain, so we’ve been through a lot together.

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Is it safe to say you two are each other’s muses or something like that?

I would love to think that I’m Guillermo del Toro’s muse, but I would never utter those words because that’s sounds very haughty of me. But the fact that he comes back for me again and again speaks a lot. He’s not just loyal to people because he likes them, he’s loyal to you because you also bring something to the table that he wants, that he loves working with and loves having in his artistic creations, you know. So the fact that he calls me again and says “I have a part for you”, I know that a lot went into that phone call. A lot came before that. A lot of thought, a lot of creation, of character.

And he writes characters for me because he knows me so well by now, and he has a gift that many directors don’t that he knows the human being condition so well that when he meets you he can size up everything about you within minutes. He finds out how to communicate with you and he’ll sniff out your strengths and your weaknesses. So when he offers a role to me often times I’ll be like “Oh gosh, that’s a… I don’t know if I can pull that off.” And he’s like “Yes you can!”

He knows more about it than I do at this point, so I just have to trust. So when he offered, and told me about Shape of Water, and there’s an aquatic creature and you’re going to be the leading romantic male of this film. I was sure in my heart and soul that he had made a horrible mistake and that there’s no way that I can pull this off. But again, he was sure of himself, and he was sure of me, so God bless him for that.

How has the creative dynamic changed or evolved over time? I mean, do you communicate by a gesture, a raised eyebrow, that sort of thing?

We have developed a shorthand for sure. But that happened pretty early on. Another beautiful thing about him is he’s the same man today as he was 20 years ago when I met him on Mimic. Success, fame, critical acclaim, artistic applause hasn’t changed him. And speaks volumes for who he is. He’s always been a creative, he’s always been a genius, he’s always been a masterful storyteller. So those skills have been sharpened of course, but he’s still an eight-year-old fanboy inside of all of it.

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What struck you most about the story and about the creature?

What struck me about this was that it was very much a deep Guillermo del Toro signature idea — that we’re watching underdogs find a way to come out on top, you know. We’re watching underdogs triumph. In the face of authority that may be getting it wrong. Is it okay to buck authority? Guillermo will always say yes it is. It’s okay to buck authority when authority is getting it wrong. This movie is very much that.

Your lead actress, Sally Hawkins, did a gorgeous, gorgeous job playing Elisa, she is a woman without a voice, literally and proverbially. She is the cleaning lady. Insignificant to the scientists that are working on this “asset,” the fish-man that was brought in…They don’t realize that this insignificant person that they’re kind of brushing aside ends up being the one who pulls off a huge caper.

That’s the beauty of the story. I love the underdog-coming-out-on-top thing that Guillermo often plays on. Empowering all of us, really. No matter how flawed and other than normal we feel, that we’ve been told that we are throughout our lifetime, his movies have a way of empowering us to find the beauty in being other than mainstream. It’s gorgeous, monsters are beautiful.

And I can relate to this because as a teenager in high school myself I felt that I was an absolute monster. I didn’t fit in with the pretty kids, the football players, the whatevers. I was a gangly cross country runner who had to do armpit farts to get people to laugh at him. So I felt like a monster within. So playing now monsters on film, I can find the sympathy and the beauty in them. Absolutely. And Guillermo can too, so he writes them for me that way.

Tell me about wearing the suit, and how much was practical and how much was digital.

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I call a suit something you slip into and zip up the back, makeup is something glued onto you and painted onto your skin. This was a combination of both of those things. With a little bit of CG enhancement in post-production. But I was in a suit every day, I didn’t really do motion capture, I didn’t really wear dots and do that. Which is an advantage, I think, in filmmaking. For me, I love the old school. And so does Guillermo. Love the old school, practical makeup effects. People like to watch other people, even if you’re in a monster suit they want to see a performance that you can relate to on some human level.

In addition to that it would have been a disservice to Sally Hawkins to make her react to a tennis ball on a stick. Right? Or even if I was standing in front of her as Doug Jones with dots on my face, it would have changed things a little bit, too. She had a fish-man to caress and to hold and to love her. And that made all the difference.

How do you feel in general about embracing motion capture?

I’ve never done full-on motion capture before, the most I would have done is a creature they might have put a couple tracking dots on because they want to enhance it in post-production. Like when I played the Silver Surfer, for instance, in the Fantastic Four movie, same thing. I was in a rubber costume every day, I looked like the Surfer every day with some dots on me so they could do some coding and enhancements in post. So if I was offered a straight up performance capture role that was wearing dots and a gray suit with zig-zags on it, of course, I would entertain that notion for sure.

You’ve gotten some great reviews in Star Trek: Discovery for your portrayal of Saru. Can you talk his evolution and where you think things are heading in the second half of Season 1?

You’ve seen the bulk of his evolution so far in the first half. We’re a fear-based species. I’m born into a prey situation on my planet, where I come from. We are the bottom of our food chain. So like any animal in the wild here on Earth they have a keen sense of looking over their shoulder. It’s a healthy fear that keeps you alive. So I brought that into Starfleet with me. I’m the first of my kind to go through Starfleet Academy and to end up on a ship in a high ranking position, as an officer, is very extraordinary for a Kelpien to do. In my quiet moments alone I’m unsure of myself, I do not have confidence.

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Even in episode 5 where I had to take over the captain’s chair when Captain Lorca was in captivity. I had to check with the computer to make sure that I was doing a good job. I find this character to be so endearing. I love Saru with all my heart. So after episode 5, and now episode 8 was another big storyline for me, he’s finding ways to overcome his fear and to function. He’s finding ways to tap into his smarts, his intelligence and to trust it, finally. He’s finding ways to be confident. This is an overall arc that is unfolding as the show goes on. 

The Shape of Water is in theaters now in limited release.