The former contortionist is Guillermo del Toro’s monster muse. We speak to the actor about playing a creature with heart in the Oscar-nominated ‘The Shape of Water’
Doug Jones, the man behind some of Hollywood’s greatest monsters
It would be unfair to describe Doug Jones as typecast. After all, he’s played fantastical creatures and monsters as varied as The Silver Surfer in The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Lt Saru in Star Trek: Discovery, and The Bye Bye Man in the film of the same name. Monsters, however, are definitely his oeuvre.
That’s before we even come to his work with director Guillermo del Toro, where monsters feature just as heavily. The actor and former contortionist first worked with Del Toro on his 1997 sci-fi horror Mimic, in which he played the insectoid monster Long John, and has teamed up with the director on six movies so far, as well as being a regular on Del Toro’s TV series The Strain.
By his own estimation, he has played 11 monsters for Del Toro, including both The Faun and The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth and the amphibious Abe Sapien in Hellboy. Jones is back in amphibious mode in Del Toro’s latest, the Oscar-nominated The Shape of Water, in which he plays the unlikely romantic lead, The Creature, who is rescued from a top secret government facility by his new belle.
The actor says he considers himself to be continuing the lineage of Hollywood’s classic movie monsters, and he thanks Del Toro for the opportunity to do so. “That man singlehandedly changed my life,” he says. “I’d been working consistently anyway, but he was the page turner who took me from nondescript guy who wears rubber to – and it’s a harking back thing – a kind of Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney or Bela Lugosi kind of star. We lost that kind of star for a while, but Guillermo was the one who brought it back, with me as the guy. Thank heaven.”
Del Toro is himself a self-confessed fan of the classic Universal monster movies. He once admitted that he has a “Frankenstein fetish to a degree that is unhealthy”, and has a life-sized sculpture of Boris Karloff in the 1931 movie version as the centrepiece of his California home. Jones admits that The Shape of Water is not without debt to the Hollywood classics:
“It does hark a little bit to The Creature from The Black Lagoon, which Guillermo will tell you is probably his favourite Universal monster movie,” he says. “The Shape of Water harkens back in terms of storytelling as well. It has a real 1960s feel, beyond just being set then. I think it feels very reminiscent of those old school monster movies, especially since this particular creature is sympathetic.”
This sympathetic approach to his monsters, while not entirely unique in a world containing Tim Burton, is certainly unusual. It is very much a recurring feature of Jones’s roles in Del Toro’s movies, and The Shape of Water, despite owing more than a passing nod to those classic Universal monster movies, is far from a horror, but more of a romantic drama, which happens to feature an ambiguous aquatic creature as its lead. “He does give leading man storylines and leading lady storylines to creatures,” Jones says. “It’s something other directors might be scared by, but not him. He has a true love affair with otherworldly things. He never lost his little boy.”
Jones adds that he believes this almost childlike nature, mixed with a thoroughly mature aesthetic, is key to Del Toro’s success. “I think that’s why audiences love him so much, why other filmmakers and we actors love him so much, because we’re being directed by an eight-year-old boy who thinks this is so cool. Yet he’s a visionary at the same time. He’s very grown up, but he’s never lost the child. That’s why you’ll see lots of child characters in his stories.”
This mix of the childlike and the serious is another common theme of Del Toro’s movies. Beneath the fantastical exteriors, politics frequently lurks – it’s no accident that perhaps Del Toro’s most famous film, Pan’s Labyrinth, is set in post-civil war, Franco-era Spain, and the movie offers a damning indictment of the dangers of fascism.
The Shape of Water, too, is set against a distinctly political backdrop, this time the Cold War, and Jones admits there is far more going on than a simple girl-meets-amphibian love story: “Guillermo… loves to buck authority when authority doesn’t know what it’s doing. That’s a theme you’ll see in a lot of his movies,” he says. “In this case, we have the US government trying to beat the Russians to space, or whatever, whatever that era was doing. The Cold War is on in full tilt. The bureaucracy that happens, he’s kind of peeling back the layers to see how corrupt it can be and how evil people in that system can be. This story is absolutely doing that.”
As is often the case in Del Toro’s movies, it takes perhaps the least likely candidate to see the inherent flaws in the system and challenge the status quo, in this case Sally Hawkins’ mute cleaning lady Elisa Esposito. “It takes a cleaning lady to shake things up and to put a mirror up to people and say, ‘Look at how you’re behaving,’” Jones says. “Again, he loves the underdog. I think that comes from a place in him, where so many of us and so many of his fans and the lovers of his work are underdogs in our own life. We feel like we’re a flower that needs to bloom and we need the right environment to do that in. Guillermo creates a place for us underdogs to bloom in. He really does.”
The Shape of Water is in cinemas in the UAE from Thursday, March 8