You may not know his name, you quite possibly don’t know his face, but you’ll certainly have seen Doug Jones on screen somewhere. The former contortionist-turned-actor has appeared in a varied range of huge films including Batman Returns, Hocus Pocus, Men in Black II, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and The Watch – as well as TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Falling Skies and Star Trek: Discovery. There’s a reason you might not be able to place this veteran of so many roles: he’s most likely been buried beneath a layer of prosthetics or make-up. This is Jones’ trademark and wonderful gift as an actor: giving life and humanity to characters who are not actually human.
He’s most famously associated with Guillermo del Toro, a 20-year partnership which continues this week with Oscars darling The Shape of Water. The sci-fi/fantasy love story is Jones’ sixth movie with the Mexican director, after a first collaboration on 1997’s Mimic led to roles in the Hellboy franchise, Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak.
His first genuine leading role under del Toro feels like the reward for years of criminally under-appreciated devotion to his craft. Born in Indiana in 1960, it was when a young Doug headed off to college that he found his calling. He joined Ball State University’s mime troupe Mime Over Matter, being recruited after he was spotted ‘gesticulating in the cafeteria’. The seeds of his future path were sewn yet further by two years ‘portraying’ the school’s mascot Charlie Cardinal ‘on a whole new level’. The skills, the motivations and the willingness to spend hours in make-up or a baking hot suit were all present and correct already.
After getting married, Jones and his new wife packed up and headed to Hollywood so he could pursue his dream of being an actor. Roles in adverts eventually followed: as a mummy, an alien and then a crescent-moon headed pianist in a series of McDonald’s commercials.
A film debut came in 1988 with indie horror The Newlydeads but it was in the early ‘90s when his real breakthroughs came. First, as a member of Penguin’s gang in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (for which he spent three months on set and got one line of dialogue), then as zombie Billy Butcherson in Disney comedy Hocus Pocus. His twitchy, moth-belching turn provides a fan favourite scene as Billy cuts open his stitched-up mouth and answers back to Bette Midler’s witch Winnie. Jones later revealed the moths that he coughs out were real. Talk about commitment.
His reputation grew throughout the ‘90s, culminating in another iconic moment, this time on the small screen with an unforgettable one-episode appearance in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That episode: season four’s classic ‘Hush’, where the main cast all lose their voices, with Jones playing one of the show’s creepiest and most enduring villains. Known as The Gentlemen, these bald-headed, grey-faced, metal-toothed demons wear pristine dark suits, float just above the ground and don’t speak a word as they cut out your heart. Jones, as the tallest, is the most striking and scariest of the lot. It was another silent, physically demonstrative, and impactful role that typifies Jones’ genius.
By now though, a hugely fruitful working relationship with Guillermo del Toro had been formed, with Jones as a giant cockroach monster in del Toro’s Mimic. Jones was only on set for three days but got talking with his director at lunch. Del Toro was fascinated and inspired by the actor’s background in mime, contortion, and prosthetics, and a few years later he was back in touch about a more significant role. In somewhat of a warm-up for The Shape of Water, Jones would become the amphibious man Abe Sapien in comic book adapation Hellboy. Jones had to nail Abe’s physicality while also giving him a personality, and delivering the lines which would later be dubbed over with the voice of Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce. He would reprise the role in 2008 sequel The Golden Army, while also adding new creatures The Chamberlain and Angel of Death to the mix.
In between though, came arguably his and del Toro’s finest work to date: the Spanish language dark fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth. The Franco era tale centres around young Ofelia, with Jones playing two key roles as she navigates the maze of the title. First we see him as the goat-legged, horned Fauno, who sets Ofelia three tasks to complete. In another example of incredible dedication, Jones learned all his dialogue in Spanish despite the character also being voiced later by another actor. He wanted the voiceover to look completely authentic, even though del Toro had advised he could just mouth a load of gibberish.
His other appearance in the film is all Jones though, as the frankly terrifying Pale Man. First glimpsed sat stock-still at a huge banquet table, he shudders to life when Ofelia takes a grape to eat. The Pale Man barely has a face: his teeth are bared in a lipless mouth, loose skin hangs around his jaw and he has no eyes. At least, not in his head. It’s an indelible image as the creature places an eye ball in the palm of each hand and raises them up to see his prey.
The costume design is jaw-dropping and instantly the stuff of enduring nightmares, but the Pale Man’s true horror is compounded by Jones’ slow, unrelenting pursuit as he staggers after Ofelia, shrieking and plucking fairies out of the air for a snack. Shudder.
Jones would be back on a del Toro set once again for 2015’s Crimson Peak, this time haunting Mia Wasikowska’s Edith as the distinctive red ghosts the director had created. This was a case of going back to being more of an in-camera effect than a character, but it’s that exact old-school, tangible presence which is so effective in this gothic romance.
In describing his process, Jones reveals that his early mime experiences caused him to realise that “communication is from the top of [your head] to the bottom of [your foot]” – while also confessing that the key to securing referrals for prosthetic-heavy creature work is to ‘not complain’. But he denies being just about the movements and the costume – he plays every character as any actor would, wanting to know who he/it is as well as how he/it moves.
The years since Crimson Peak have presented a couple more horror movies, in Ouija: Origin of Evil and the title role in The Bye Bye Man, but Jones admits that despite his association with monsters, he’s not really a horror fan. He told IndieWire, “I only love dark material if there’s a redemptive quality to it.”
It is clear that what Doug Jones is really interested in, beyond all the make-up and prosthetics, is character and story. After 30-odd years in the biz, he may have finally got the perfect combo in del Toro’s latest, The Shape of Water. His fish-like humanoid is the first time he’s been the male lead, rather than a supporting player, and his central romance with mute janitor Elisa (Sally Hawkins) has helped the film garner a wave of critical praise, awards and 13 Oscar nominations. While ultimately snubbed in the Lead Actor category, Jones’ performance may just lead to the man behind the monsters stepping into the limelight at last.