Actor Doug Jones has had a long and prolific career in Hollywood, though many wouldn't recognize him on the street. That's because he's usually masked by latex, silicone and makeup, playing some of Hollywood's most recognizable monsters – including the so-called Amphibian Man in Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water. Underneath it all, Jones infuses his characters with real emotion, communicating not with words but with movement and touch.
"We think it's all about words, but it's not," he says. "Words can often pollute and deceive, but a glance of the eyes doesn't lie. Touch doesn't lie. It's a whole other dialogue."
Still, Jones has a lot to say, and he's comfortable talking about his role in the Oscar-nominated film. But when Guillermo del Toro first sat him down and explained that Jones would be playing a monster who's also the romantic lead, he says his reaction was "utter terror."
"I have not felt that kind of fear ever when being offered a movie. When I look at myself in the mirror, that doesn't work and then in a fish suit? Boy, wow, on paper, you think 'this is ridiculous,' " he laughs.
The movie is about a female janitor in a Cold-War era laboratory who falls in love with a humanoid fish creature, but Jones was intrigued by the offer.
"Storytime with Guillermo del Toro is 'light the campfire, get the marshmallows,' you're in for a good ride. I was having that moment, you know, chin in hands, tell me more!"
By the time del Toro was finished explaining the story, Jones was won over, but he had one big concern about playing an animalistic love interest, especially in the film's bathtub scenes.
"I was concerned that, you know, in a bathtub, that means she's going to disrobe and get in there with me! So I was going to be playing a scene with a nude woman — well, I hadn't done that! That's the good Catholic boy in me."
For del Toro, however, Jones is always prepared to say yes.
"I just trust him that much," the actor says.
That trust began on the set of del Toro's 1997 film Mimic, in which Jones played a giant, insect-like creature known as Mother Bug. At lunch one day, del Toro sat across the table from Jones.
"He says, 'So tell me everything you've been in before," Jones says. "He wanted to hear about all the monsters I played. He was really, really like a fanboy mixed with a brilliant artist. I'd never met anyone like him, and I loved him immediately."
When the conversation ended, del Toro asked him for a business card. According to the actor, five years later, when it came time to cast Abe Sapien in Hellboy, the creature artists suggested del Toro call up a guy named Doug Jones. "Doug Jones?" del Toro said, "I know Doug Jones," and pulled the business card out of his wallet.
"Hellboy was where we connected on a longer, ongoing basis," Jones says. "That's where we developed our shorthand as actor-director."
That shorthand is a mixture of a deep knowledge of each other's style of acting and directing. Jones is a visual, physical learner, so sometimes del Toro will give him a hand gesture and a sound to communicate how to play a character. Sometimes, the director will refer to a monster or film they both know.
Their shorthand has helped make Jones one of del Toro's go-to creature actors. Through the years, Jones has featured in several of the director's films, including Pan's Labyrinth, in which he portrayed both the faun and the Pale Man, a terrifying monster with eyes in its hands.
Jones has played almost every monster imaginable in more than 30 years as an actor; the problem, though, is that they can all start to seem the same.
He approaches each character with one question: "How do I make this one different from everything else that I've played?"
To do that, he says he has to find what he calls "the silent voice," the way each one carries itself. For The Shape of Water, del Toro wanted him to be animalistic, but royal and regal.
To find the body language of each character, Jones goes to a dance studio by himself, the kind with wall-to-wall mirrors.
"I will walk back and forth and find its walk, find its home stance. Where does he come back to? What's his posture? And your posture can be informed by so many things — the shoulders, the neck, the middle of your back, the hips, the knees. Everything plays into that stand."
Jones then builds off that to figure out how the character moves, how it might run, crawl, lunge or anything the script calls for it to do. When he tests with makeup and costume, though, things often change.
"Something I worked out in my T-shirt and shorts in the dance studio now has big horns that make my head really wide so a tilt of the head is extremely dramatic and more pronounced."
It all comes together when he's on set and in front of the camera, surrounded by cast and crew. On those days, he says, he's fairly helpless because of the makeup or suits he has to wear.
"Often, my hands are in webbed fingers or talons so I can't pull out a phone and look at that. I can't even get a snack off the craft services table for myself."
Jones says he was the kind of kid who was perfectly happy sitting and staring out the window for hours with his own thoughts. He doesn't get stir-crazy or claustrophobic, and for him, the physical discomfort is just part of the job.
"The further you get from human, the harder it's going to be," he says. "When you're trying to survive a day, and you hear the word 'action,' you have to forget that you're in pain, forget that you're sweating into your own eyeballs behind your mask and just click into 'This is a natural beast that came from whatever fantasy or nature. It's not a guy in a suit.' "
And Jones isn't just a guy in a suit. It seems like he was made to play these creatures.
He's a little more than 6 feet 3 inches tall with long limbs and fingers. Jones started miming while he was in college at Ball State University, and he's also a contortionist – valuable skills in Hollywood's creature effects industry.
Jones didn't set out to build a career playing monsters, though. Growing up in Indiana with three older brothers, he says he was a "goofy kid," the child everyone teased or made fun of. To survive, he developed a sense of humor. He watched a lot of sitcoms, like I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show.
When he arrived in Los Angeles in 1985, he was "seeking fame and fortune as a goofy character actor" on a sitcom, he says. His first agent, however, had other ideas and kept sending him to audition for roles with pratfalls and heavy makeup. Jones' first paid gig, and the one that made him eligible for membership with the Screen Actors Guild, was as a dancing mummy in an old Southwest Airlines commercial.
"I was blindsided by the monster creature side of things. I didn't really know that that was a career option. I had seen those early movies in my childhood, the ones with monsters in them, but I never put two and two together that there was an actor under there and that it is a career option."
Jones is 57 now, and he says that as he ages, he's become interested in more human roles that don't require several hours of makeup and uncomfortable costumes. In recent years, he's played a middle-aged door-to-door book salesman in the 2009 indie Jerry and a butler in The Ultimate Legacy, a Hallmark Channel movie.
"I got to wear a three-piece suit, a bow tie and a watch chain. That was it! It was fantastic," he laughs. "And 10 minutes for some powder and some hair-swishing and you're done! It was great."
Jones says creature roles now have to sing to him – and Amphibian Man in The Shape of Water sang to him.
"For me, this movie is about love being possible no matter how flawed and ugly we think we are," he says. And that spoke to the awkward, goofy kid he once was.
"When you're a kid going through those awkward monster years, when you feel like you are the creature in the room that nobody understands and you look different from anyone else and love will not be possible for you, when you feel that way, you also feel like you're the only one who has ever felt that way," he says.
"But I'm glad. I'm thankful that I had the experience of feeling like a monster because when I play monsters now, I understand them. I can relate to them."