See the film that inspired Shape of Water
Explore creatures, special effects and classic horror
Maria Lewis: Hi there, my name is Maria Lewis. I'm an Assistant Curator here at Australia's national film museum ACMI and I'm so delighted to welcome a very special guest, the Amphibian Man himself Mister Doug Jones. Doug, welcome!
Doug Jones: Thank you so much for having me and when you used the Amphibian Man I feel like I should be doing this [flaps gills] or something.
ML: Well that's perfect now that you're doing it that's amazing.
I'm such a colossal fan of your work and you're so prolific. I mean you've been in literally hundreds of film and television projects over your career, and there are about a thousand things I want to ask you about. But I guess the best way is, sort of, to start, kind of, at the beginning.
I mean some of your most iconic monsters have been those in Guillermo del Toro films going all the way back to Mimic from 1997. A personal cult classic favourite of mine. And I'd love to know how you two first established that working relationship because not only does it seem really fruitful but it seems really creative and organic as well.
DJ: Well thank you for even noticing such things. That's very sweet of you. I was introduced to him through Mimic because of how I often get a job in the... outside the casting... doors and the casting offices usually. It's the creature effects people that create the monsters and the creatures that have worked with me before that refer me for the next job and the next job. That's kind of how it, how I grew in the business. So there was a Rick Lazzarini's shop was making the creatures for Mimic, and I got a call in the middle of the afternoon: "Hey we're doing reshoots for Mimic here in Los Angeles. Are you free tonight?" And I was like "Oh, out of work actor? – yes." So I did and that was Guillermo del Toro's first film, didn't know who he was I did not know... he had done the movie Cronos before that... in Mexico and I didn't know much about him so here ... But so my, I worked about three days on Mimic and my second day at lunchtime the director sat across the table from me and put his tray down he said "So tell me everything you've been in before!" And it was Guillermo del Toro, and here he was this twelve year old fanboy that just wanted to talk about monsters and creatures and creepy things and it was heavenly, he was not like any director I'd ever met or worked with before, he was a true fan of genre films, and really wanted to make things that would give him what he called a "geek gasm", so from there we just hit it off immediately and he asked me for a card and I gave him that card and he pulled it out of his wallet five years later when they were making the first Hellboy movie.
So I got a call for Hellboy 1 to play Abe Sapien. And that's the movie that really cemented our relationship as actor and director, that we understood each other and he's the kind of a director that every actor that he has, he directs differently, he knows what set of buttons each of us carry, that and what to push to motivate us, you know, we're all different. He's just, he absorbs people and he figures out your quirks and your strengths and your weaknesses, and he knows more about you than you do within minutes and he's a genius so...
ML: Yeah I mean, no disagreement there he's my favourite filmmaker, so I think there's a reason people really connect with his work, and I imagine you, coming across his path and his coming across yours would have been like a mutual holy grail moment, because he's the dream director for somebody in your line of work, and you're the dream performer for a filmmaker like him who specialises in monsters and stories of the 'other'.
DJ: Yeah he's a he's a lover of monsters and he talks about them with such reverence as though it's almost his religion.
ML: I mean giving an emotional and powerful performance that connects with the audience behind so much makeup and so much prosthetics is not just a rare skill, it's one that you specifically have honed over the past, like 30 plus years of your career, you're not just a guy in a suit. It's so much more than that, and I was curious as to whether you felt like there are certain things or certain conditions that need to be in place to help enhance you and give the best kind of performance that you can on a set?
DJ: If you're an actor who plays, who's wearing layers of rubber and glue, it does help to be have an athletic mentality as well in an athletic physicality. You do have to be in the best shape of your life. You know that's what's kept... I'm 60 years old now and I'm in great shape because I keep getting jobs that require something of me, so I work out out of fear, basically, that I'm going to fall apart if I don't.
So because you know, when you go through, for instance, for the Hellboy movies, I was in the Abe Sapien makeup, just getting the process done to look like Abe took seven hours a day. Once you've finished a full work day before your work day begins, there's a certain amount of energy that you have to muster up. So, pushing through that fatigue, and those physical challenges to then find your dialogue, your relationships, all the things that an actor is supposed to think about, you know, you're doing double duty that day. And then the cleanup takes another two hours at the end of the day, and then you maybe sleep four hours before you start all over again the next day.
Yeah, now in The Shape of Water, I played another Amphibian Man another, another fish guy. How many actors can say they've done that twice in their career? There's I think, "here he is!", but but that that process only took about three hours a day to get ready because it was more suit than makeup. You know a suit is something you slip on and zip up the back. Whereas a makeup is something that's painted on or glued on to you. So the Amphibian Man from The Shape of Water was a kind of a combination of both. From the neck down was pretty much slip on and zip up. So then they glued on the neck and face, and then there were mechanics built in for the gills and the thing, and the... oh my gosh. So it took it took a lot of a lot of construction to make me happen. But they could do it in three hours a day which made the Shape of Water filming process a bit more bearable just because of the time.
ML: I did want to ask about that, because Abe Sapien and Hellboy, personal favourite character of mine, but the film is called Hellboy right? So he is the central character, and of course you played two characters in Pan's Labyrinth in the terrifying Pale Man, and the Faun, and you're also in The Strain. Yes! Oh my God! Exactly! Haunting. Haunting stuff. And you're also an Ancient in The Strain. So when it came around to doing the Shape of Water and del Toro pitches this to you as essentially a love story that's built around your character, was it an essential was it an immediate "hell yes" for you basically? Was that an exciting conversation?
DJ: Oh I couldn't say "hell yes" fast enough, because we were actually working on Crimson Peak at the time. I played two of his ghost ladies in that, and one of my days off he asked me to come into his office, and meet him at lunchtime because he had something he wanted to talk to me about. I was like "oh my gosh, am I am I in trouble with the school principal what's happening?"
So I get into his office and he's like "shut the door!" I'm like, "oh wow this is really private". So that's when he told me "my next movie I'm gonna do after this is a smaller one"... he was gonna leave the studio system, and kind of make his own movie again which he hadn't done since Pan's Labyrinth, which I, you know, had such a glorious ride with him on that. So I was just, I was tickled pink to hear that he was making an art film for himself again.
And then when he started explaining the creature he wanted me to play, I was like "oh another fish man, so this is....a ...he goes "uh uh, this is the romantic leading man of the movie". So I was, I was like, that was a head scratcher right? How many, how many filmmakers would make a monster their leading romantic man? Because so many monster movies in the past, almost all of them, have had some kind of a love interest where you know there's a hint of connection between the monster and a human, whether it's King Kong, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or Frankenstein, or Dracula. It's like there's always some kind of hint of like, ooh but it could never be, so it never is. Until del Toro gets a hold of it and, and then of course he he made he made a monster movie where the the monster does get the girl. And boy, did he! You know, it was... it was so, that's what he was.... wanted to talk to me about... was the love story, and and he's... he said that he wants, he wants actor Doug Jones, not creature performer Doug Jones. And I thought that was a really huge compliment that he trusted me with my acting ability, because he said you really have to connect heart to heart with the lead actress in this. And he said, my biggest concern for you is that he... I know you're a good Catholic boy, and it gets steamy in places, so are you going to be okay with that? Is your wife Laurie going to be okay with that? That's the kind of guy Guillermo del Toro is. He wanted to make sure that there wasn't going to be any trouble at home, because he's such a family man himself. Then he pitched the story to me, and told me how it was going to go, and how the story would unfold, that your viewers are going to see tonight. So I was sitting there listening, like he didn't have a script written yet at this time – this was like 2014 that he was having this conversation with me. So I was, I was, chin in hand, listening like...wow.... it was like a fireside, you know, storytelling time with Guillermo del Toro which anybody would kill for right? And so I knew, I said to him "this is gonna be your next trip to the Oscars". Did I call it or what? 13 nominations and 4 wins including Best Director and Best Picture for him. Come on now! So I knew walking out of that office. I was like, "oh there's no way I can say... that 's an absolute yes from what I just heard." And if knowing that he would make the film that I just heard him talking about, the way he makes films, I knew we had a classic on our hands.
ML: I think it definitely is that. And I think it is one of those. One of the defining traits of a classic is a timelessness in a way. And it manages to be both a nostalgic film, but an incredibly modern one at the same time, which is so trick, and I think one of the reasons behind that, is the central heroes are a monster, a disabled woman, a black woman and an immigrant. And I was wondering if you thought perhaps that the reason the film connected with people so much at that time, was that it was released during a period at the American elections where the Other, and those who were Otherised, was so sort of being placed as the villain. Do you feel like people really connected with that underdog mentality that runs through The Shape of Water?
DJ: Well the underdog mentality is something that runs through all of del Toro's films no matter what time period he makes them in, what year he made them in, what election was at hand. So when we were making The Shape of Water, it was long before those elections and long before that that happened, so I don't know that he consciously created the movie with that in mind.
But what's beautiful about art, any art, whether it's a painting, a sculpture, a song, a movie, a tv show, is that everybody watching it gets something different out of it. You know, four people can look at the same painting and have a completely different mood or feeling depending on what they need that day. So The Shape of Water came out at a time, when the Other, what we were celebrating the Other, we were making the Other heroes and heroines, and so it was very timely, it was just very timely, that you know, that authority and questioning it, was was all afoot. And so art can reflect that.
ML: You mentioned a bunch of previous monster movies, and that is I think one of the sort of core things that runs through them, is there's this tragic love story element to all of them, and especially with things like the Universal movie monsters, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Wolfman, Mummy, Frankenstein in many ways. Because of what you do, and the areas that you work in, are those films that you're super familiar with because you love them? Or is it more like a practical research perspective, you're trying to examine how the people who came before you, what they did, and how they did it?
DJ: A little bit of both. I think the first, my first, like monster movie that I ever saw was The Mummy with Boris Karloff, and I would remember just being so haunted and affected by that, like no other, nothing else I'd ever seen on TV or in the movie theatre had affected me like that one did.
So it was the intrigue of you know, what's that world all about? But I didn't really ever think that like playing monsters was a career choice. I didn't, it didn't dawn on me because I grew up on sitcoms and variety shows. So you know, so I was thinking funny, and musical, and funny things. Doing an armpit fart and saying a funny line would be where I would go. Little did I know that that I would end up you know, delving into the world of monsters and creatures.
And you know, when you when you're a character actor like me, I'm not, I'm not a romantic leading man in my human form. And I knew that going into my acting career. That I had to be either funny or scary. So I have had an entire career now 35 years of being funny and scary. And so when you're given a monster character like the Amphibian Man from The Shape of Water, that's... that has a little bit of frightening element to him. But then you tilt your head and go, "wait he's kind of sexy". And then there's a love story that unfolds in front of you that's like really touching and heartfelt and beautiful. And turns out that he is, he's a hero, and he's got God-like powers, and it's like "where did... how did that even... haaaa?" So that was something I did not see coming in my career at all.
ML: Yeah I remember the awards season online movement for the Sexy Fishman quite well. It was a real pop cultural touchstone I gotta say.
DJ: Yeah, yeah.
ML: Historically Hollywood hasn't been great at recognising people who do the kind of work that you do. Have to spend hours in a suit, hours in a makeup chair, go through an arduous physical process. And you mentioned The Shape of Water's Oscar success. But it also had huge financial success as well. Do you feel like post-Shape of Water, things are changing? That your work is becoming more recognised, and that generally people are having a better understanding for the type of, the type of physical process performers like yourself have to go through?
DJ: I think so, yeah. I think I think the fantastical genres, whether it's comic book movies or horror films, or fantasy, or horror. All of those, they're more they're more up front now. You know to have a movie get 13 Oscar nominations and win best picture that has a monster on the cover, that was just like no one saw that coming. So that did a lot for the, for these kind of fantastical genres. So, and for me personally too, yes. And I've never, I've never needed trumpets blared with my name attached to it. I'm okay with being kind of a quiet guy that can go to a coffee shop and nobody knows who he is. I like that. But I did get, you know, more press, and more face coverage, and more interviews like this. That people can now marry this face to that monster and then they look me up. And there's a whole bunch of characters that they can marry my face to now. So that's that's been a page-turning new chapter for me to have a little bit more, you know, street recognition. And I'm okay with it. I know how fleeting it is. I'm 60 years old now, so to have this happen for me later in life, is kind of like, "oh I know, this could be for five minutes. And it'll be a fun five minutes". And that's fine. It doesn't define who I am.
ML: I know there are a lot of Trekkies out there, so I think maybe Star Trek might be the answer. But I was curious about, what is the character that people come up to you and speak to you about the most? Like what is the character that people like, "oh my goodness you're that guy " ?
DJ: Yeah. Right now, well you know I do the convention circuit, so when you're at a fan convention you hear a lot about your characters, and I tend, the Hellboy movies still to this day have a long shelf life, Pan's Labyrinth, long shelf life. Star Trek, absolute, that brought a whole wave of fandom that I, it was like a tidal wave of fandom that I did not expect. So now, I think, because Star Trek Discovery is still going, is still current... We just....season three just finished airing recently, and we are currently filming season four. I'm in Toronto right now filming season four. So that being as current as it is, that's what I get talked about. I probably get approached about Saru from Star Trek Discovery more than anything right now.
ML: Saru forever. I'm a big fan. So you as the head gentleman, and Hush, which is my favourite episode of television of all time. Oh my God, terrifying! Such an amazing performance and such a wonderful sort of nod to that silent film era, where some of the best monster performances really got a chance to shine, you know?
DJ: Oh thank you for that. Yeah, I had such a good...You know that Buffy episode, the Hush episode, I did not expect, you know, when you're a guest star on one episode of a TV show, you never expected that's going to have this long of a life afterward. But the Buffy fans are still quite loyal, and that episode lives on and on as a favourite, which I'm really tickled pink about. Like you said, an homage to the silent film era. My bucket list character that I wanted to do...If you were to ask me like, you know, five years ago, is there still a character that you would have liked to have glued on to you and play him on film? It would have been, I would have told you Nosferatu.
ML: They're doing that right?
DJ: Now I can say now I can say in hindsight that I have played Nosferatu in a yet to be released remake that we have, it's not out yet so....
ML: Perfect casting for the Count, perfect.
DJ: Thank you. Yeah and then, so that you know, the original film, 1922 was a silent film, that really just rattled me to my bone, with that performance that Max Schreck did of Count Orlock. Just gorgeous. So to crawl into that skin and play him was an absolute honour for me.
ML: I can't wait to see that. And the original is so creepy, and I can't wait to see what you do with this version as well.
DJ: Thank you.
ML: Doug Jones, thank you so much for joining us at ACMI. It's been an absolute honour. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it.
DJ: Oh the honour's been all mine. Thank you so much.