Genre MVPs is a new series at SYFY WIRE in which we speak to the actors, filmmakers, and other creatives who have been at the center of so many of our favorite movies and TV shows.
Doug Jones wasn’t sure why he was in the waiting room that day. He thought maybe his new agent had made a mistake. Here he was, a bright-eyed, very fresh-faced 26-year-old who, by his own admission, “looked like a tall, skinny, blonde Q-tip,” at a casting call for a lounge singer-type, sitting around with a bunch of guys who looked like would-be Sinatras.
A short time later, he was sitting at a keyboard, playing along to the Bobby Darin big band standard “Mack The Knife” and actually feeling good about his chances, when the day took another weird turn.
“They put a brown paper grocery bag on my face, with two eye holes cut out of it,” Jones tells SYFY WIRE. “All of a sudden I'm feeling like what was going well turned into this humiliating thing.”
It wasn’t a total surprise, because he had seen some storyboards in the waiting room that had clued him into why his agent had sent him in the first place. Everyone that showed up dressed up like a lounge lizard, they were missing the point. The ad agency wasn’t casting a singer or even a face; what they were really looking for was someone who could sell a story — and a lot of hamburgers — with just their body.
Six months later, in December 1986, Jones was on set shooting the first “Mac Tonight” commercial for McDonald's, rhythmically wriggling underneath a massive prosthetic head shaped like a quarter-moon wearing sunglasses and a wise-guy smile.
It was his third ever professional job, a clear promotion from his time as a dancing mummy for Southwest Airlines and an alien who lands in a kid’s backyard for some toy company he can no longer remember off the top of his head. At first a local campaign limited to Southern California, the lunar crooner ads went global, and by the time Darin’s estate sued to shut it down, Jones had starred in 27 “Mac Tonight” spots.
His secret identity as the quarter-pounder with sleaze now mostly serves as a fun bit of trivia for the star of Oscar-winning movies and blockbuster franchises; there was likely no other performer who could have turned a character colloquially known as the Fish Man into the expressive, empathetic, beating heart at the center of The Shape of Water, a weird sci-fi period parable that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. But contorting in a styrofoam moon head and selling burgers was an absolutely essential step to carving out the unique path that got him there.
“When you're a young actor, if someone's paying, you'll do the job, whatever it is,” Jones says, looking back on his early career. “I did not set out thinking I want to play rubber monsters, so it kind of blindsided me when that's what I became known for. Tall, skinny, goofy guy wears rubber bits on his face and makes something happen with it and doesn't complain about it.”
Originally, Jones moved out west from Indiana to pursue his dream of becoming a sitcom star. “I wanted to be a goofy next-door neighbor or an officemate on a half-hour sitcom show,” he says. “I thought that's what my future was. Using my physical-ness and doing costume characters was kind of like, well, it's a gig.”
Those gigs kept on coming, often with very self-explanatory names like "Thin Clown" in Batman Returns, "Mummy" in the TV series Bone Chillers, "Contortionist" in Tales From the Crypt, and "Slapstick Actor" in The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones; they all presented their own physical challenges, but the parts were nothing like anything he’d seen in The Dick Van Dyke Show or M*A*S*H. Sometimes, he got more to work with; the alliterative Billy Butcherson, an undead character in the Disney Halloween film Hocus Pocus, was one of his meatier early roles.
Then there were the smaller roles, the parts that were the bread and butter of the makeup effects community, which spent decades perfecting the technology and techniques required to render the most realistic severed heads, gruesome injuries, and undead terrors. Jones played his fair share of B-movie monsters, not all of which he was crazy about.
“When you're known for wearing rubber bits, a lot of young filmmakers like to think that you just must love bloody horror movies, but blood splattered on a wall in a horror film is not my absolute favorite thing to do,” he says. “I'm much more of a softie in my heart than that. And so if I do some kind of a monster, I like to know that it's a part of a story that has a redeeming value to it.”
The reality of a career as an actor means that only a percentage of the jobs available will have some kind of moral core.
“I have done a horror movie and just taken a job for money when I needed it,” he admits, making him no different than any working actor. “But if I have the luxury to pick and choose, I tend to decline that typical story of, ‘Oh, we're a bunch of naked teenagers running around the woods having sex and smoking pot, and oh no, here comes Doug Jones to kill all of us one at a time!’”
Jones spent much of the ‘90s in makeup chairs for the melange of B-movies, bit parts and ensemble scenes, which sometimes came to him last minute as he became known throughout the creature effects industry. Such was the case when he was called to the set of the creepy creature feature Mimic, which was having trouble getting a Canadian creature actor a visa to work on the film’s Los Angeles-based reshoots.
Jones spent three nights working with Guillermo del Toro on that movie, at one point handing him his card. Sometimes, networking is a long-term investment; five years after their brief stint working together, del Toro pulled out Jones’ business card and called him about playing the Fish Man character Abe Sapien in the first Hellboy movie.
This was Jones’s second big break, but talking about it is a bit fraught. He very much loves the character, and his relationship with del Toro is amongst his most cherished and productive. But he also knows that every extensive interview he does will inevitably turn to the quintessentially Hollywood decision to replace his voice in the movie with that of David Hyde Pierce, who thanks to Frasier was a much bigger star at the time.
“The painful part of this whole story is that the movie came out in 2004, and here we are in 2018, and it still comes up in almost every interview I get,” he laments. “And that's what I knew was going to happen. When I got the call from Guillermo saying I was going to be voiced over, I thought, 'Okay, shoot. That sets me up for a lifetime of, Why did that happen?’ Because the assumption can be that, ‘Well, you move well, but you can't act.’”
The re-casting wasn’t a reflection of his performance, as the studio behind the superhero movie had always leaned toward the voice with a name people would recognize on a poster. Jones learned that early on and appealed to his director for a shot at recording Abe Sapien’s lines; del Toro acceded, creating a strange dynamic of sorts. “Every day I was working on Hellboy, I felt like I was auditioning for my own part that I already had,” Jones acknowledges. Ultimately, it was probably always a foregone conclusion that when his mouth moved, the audience would hear another man’s voice.
When Pierce discovered the circumstances of his casting, he stepped aside from doing any promotion for the movie, out of deference for Jones’s physical performance. A decade and a half later, Jones still makes a point to sing Pierce’s praises for the gesture, in part because that’s just how this gracious midwestern boy is wired, but also because the decision opened the door for the next phase of his career.
While a Spanish actor voiced him over in del Toro’s Pan's Labyrinth and by Laurence Fishburne took over as the Silver Surfer's voice in 2007’s Fantastic Four sequel, Pierce exited the Hellboy franchise, which allowed Jones to voice Abe Sapien for Hellboy animated movies and then take on the full role for the 2008 live-action sequel. And the success of that project, and the new level of fame it brought him, allowed for more room to negotiate. “Now, if there is a voice to be added to a character, my contracts cover me,” he says. “I don't let it happen anymore.”
It takes a million little things going right to establish any sustained career in Hollywood, and probably a few more than that to forge a path like the one that Jones has created. But it also takes several particular characteristics, and large doses of each. First and foremost is patience, not only with the frequent dry spells and uncertainty that come with being a working actor, but also the many, many, *many* hours of makeup chair stillness required on a daily basis, even for small roles.
The call times are early, the days long. Jones has spent up to 11 hours in a makeup chair — the longest stretches come during early prosthetics tests, and when he had to play Thin Infected Man, the patient zero responsible for the chaos in Quarantine, they had to cover his entire body in boils, sores, and jagged bones. Acting as a human canvass could quickly become tedious, and for most members of a public now addicted to smartphones and in need of constant stimulation, it might require heavy doses of sedatives to regularly survive. Not so much for Jones, who has over time become almost monk-like in his ability to sit still and zen out.
“The good thing for me is that I don't bore easily,” he says, laughing. “I'm quite content to sit quietly. I can stare out a window and be completely entertained. I don't have to be playing video games. I don't have to be plotting the destruction of the world. I don't have to be doing any of that kind of thing to keep myself happy. That's a few hours where I don't have to take phone calls. I don't have to answer emails. I don't have to do anything for anybody else.”
His patience also extends to bodily needs, even if that isn’t always healthy. He goes through rigorous training, generally on his own (he worked with a motion coach exactly once, when producers on the Silver Surfer movie hired Terry Notary), preparing for each role’s different physical demands in a big dance studio lined with mirrors.
Unlike perhaps early in his career, when he was dragging lifeless limbs (or performing insane acts of contortion) in ensemble shots, the makeup is only a small part of the roles he plays nowadays. For figures like the alien Saru in Star Trek: Discovery, the prosthetics are surface details that pale in comparison to the inner life of the character — and yet, given the otherworldly nature of so many of these parts, he has to devote an abundance of energy and precision to their physicalities. There is a dancer-like quality to many of his parts (perhaps seen best in Pan’s Labyrinth) and they often require intense discipline, holding poses… and his bladder.
“When it's a full head-to-toe rubber encasement, you've got maybe a flap, at most, on the front side to pee if you can get your hands down there, but you're wearing webbed fingers with claws on them, how do you even negotiate that flap? Those are big questions, and that happens a lot,” he explains, using his second Fish Man costume, from The Shape of Water, as an example. “So I kind of temper my water intake so that I don't die from dehydration. I can time out a pee at lunchtime, when I can get one of my hands off. But tricking your body like that can't be healthy for the long run. It just can't be.”
Remarkably, he does not tire of this routine. When he gets on a roll, talking about a favorite movie or upcoming part, he’s as enthusiastic as that 26-year-old with a paper bag over his head, just looking to catch a break. He just completed one of his dream projects, playing Nosferatu in David Lee Fisher’s upcoming remake of the vampire classic.
The makeup, designed by longtime collaborator Mike Elizalde of Spectral Motion, includes “a full head and hands prosthetic that aged me quite a bit and gave me much more angular face than I have on my own,” he explains, with nary a hint of frustration. It’s almost a shot-for-shot remake, with original film backgrounds and environments digitally composited in from the 1922 original; save for foreground furniture and some doors, the whole thing is being ported over from a century earlier.
Jones still harbors ambitions of more non-creature work, and the self-proclaimed big softie is still gunning for the feel-good stuff that probably more matches his natural tastes and temperament. They don’t make as many sitcoms these days, but Christmas and feel-good movies are produced at clips rivaling that of horror and superhero movies, and the 58-year-old practically gushes when he describes his dream role.
“I want to be the father of a grown character in a Hallmark Christmas movie, I'm not even kidding,” Jones says, giggling with joy at the idea. “I watch them all the time. I'm a Hallmark junkie. And I like feel-good stories. I like happy endings. I like low stakes drama. The worst thing that happens in a Hallmark Christmas movie is a misunderstanding or overheard phone call, right? So that's great to me. And there's no monsters, no creatures, no drippy saliva coming out of things, nothing.”