Q&A: Doug Jones, Indy’s Own Monster Man

Hollywood’s hottest movie creature hails from Indianapolis. Ahead of this Sunday’s Academy Awards, we spoke with the actor who brought Amphibian Man to life in <em>The Shape of Water</em>, which leads the pack with 13 Oscar nominations.
This Bishop Chatard and Ball State University alum may not be easily recognized without his usual getup of latex prosthetics and monster makeup, but actor Doug Jones, 57, is not someone to miss on the big screen. Ahead of this year’s Academy Awards on Sunday, March 4, we spoke with the thespian who brought Amphibian Man to life in The Shape of Water, which leads the pack with 13 nominations.

The Shape of Water nearly broke the record for most Oscar nominations, including a Best Director nod for Guillermo del Toro. What’s different about this film from the six other del Toro films you’ve worked on?
The Shape of Water is my seventh project with de Toro, including six movies and a TV series. In those seven projects, I’ve played 11 creatures for him. This one is set apart because for the first time I’m the romantic leading man of the movie. In a fish suit.

How often do you return to Indianapolis? What do you like to do here?
I get back a couple times a year. I still have one brother and college and high school friends who live there, so I love getting back. My favorite thing is to have a coffee date with somebody I haven’t seen in a few years. I’ve been to several Bishop Chatard high school reunions, and our 40th is this year, so I’m hoping it’s on a weekend I can come back. I’m tickled pink with the rejuvenation of downtown. When I was growing up, that wasn’t a hangout place at all, and now it’s desirable to go downtown. It’s just beautiful. As a kid, my family and I would go the Butler campus and run around the track when no one else was using it. I would sneak off and run through Holcomb Gardens to hang around the Carillon and the pond. When I get back, I will often drive through the campus and go right back to that same path by the water. I love that campus so much.

A Midwestern university like Ball State is not exactly the go-to institution for those aspiring to make it to Hollywood. What advice do you have for Hoosiers hoping to break out of the state and enter the acting business? What made you do it?
Back when I graduated, in the ’80s, if you wanted to be in film and TV, Los Angeles was the epicenter of that, so you had to move here to be available. Filming now has spread out all over the country and even all over the world. You may not even have to leave home now like you used to. Productions are spreading out all over the place. Atlanta is becoming an epicenter now too. So many Hollywood productions now go there.

What drew you to acting and the theater?
When I was a teenager, I was inspired by the sitcoms I had seen on TV. My hopes and dreams were that I could be a goofy character, like a Gilligan from Gilligan’s Island, or Dick van Dyke. Those non-romantic leading man types that were goofy and funny and made me laugh—they gave me hope that there was a place for me one day.

So how do you go from wanting to be a goofy leading man to playing a monster?
At Ball State, I was in the mime troupe, Mime Over Matter, and I was also the school mascot, Charlie the Cardinal. When I came to Hollywood with that physical skill set, along with being six-three-and-a-half, only 140 pounds and able to put my legs behind my head, I started auditioning for anything that involved physical tomfoolery or costume-wearing or bending. What often comes with that kind of audition is makeup that transforms you into something not quite human. I kept my knees bent and was ready to jump into whichever direction I was told, because as a young actor, a gig was a gig. If someone was going to pay me to be on TV or to be in a film, I was doing it. So, if it was a monster gig, great. If it was a goofy, tall, skinny guy in a T-shirt and jeans flapping his arms around, great. My career unfolded in front of me by surprise when the creature makeup people starting referring me because of work I’d done with them. Meanwhile, I have still been able to be lots of characters with my own face, as a human. But the more iconic projects I’ve been in—the ones that get more notoriety—tend to include me in a rubber suit.

Do you feel you receive adequate recognition when you’re unrecognizable, given the characters you play?
In my earlier days, I wanted more recognition. When you’re an actor and you’re in a movie or a TV show, you want people to know. But as I’ve aged, I’ve enjoyed the anonymity. I’ve enjoyed being able to go to a coffee shop and not cause a mob scene. While at the same time, if I go to Comic Con or a red carpet event where it’s announced what I’ve done, then I can be a celebrity that day. So I get the best of both worlds. With this year I’ve had, I’ve gotten more press and recognition for my career than my other 30 years combined, so I don’t feel like an unsung hero at all.

At this point in your career, what keeps you in the makeup chair playing monster roles?
What keeps driving me forward to say yes to jobs that involve so much transformation: Is it a great character that I want to invite into my heart to play? Is it a great story to be in? Is it a story that I want to help tell? It could be anything from inspiring to tear-jerking to informative to funny. And if it’s funny, all other criteria doesn’t matter.

Which of your roles have meant the most to you?
All of my characters are beloved to me. They’re like children—you can’t pick your favorite kid. I’m quite fond of my character Commander Saru on Star Trek: Discovery. Being a character on a TV show, you have time to delve into a character much deeper and peel layers back. Episode by episode, you find out something more about your character … With The Shape of Water—the amphibian man has stolen my heart completely. I love him, I love him, I love him. He is probably the most beautiful creature I’ve ever played, and it was the most athletic and beautiful body I’ve ever been given. Unfortunately, I had to give it back. Being the romantic love interest as a monster for our leading lady, it was a tale unlike any other I’d ever seen or been in before. Knowing that Guillermo del Toro was our director and writer meant I was in really good hands. In old monster movies that inspired del Toro—Frankenstein to King Kong to Dracula to The Mummy to The Creature from the Black Lagoon—there’s often a human-monster connection that has romantic notions, but it doesn’t become anything. But this time, Guillermo wanted to make a movie where the monster gets the girl, and he told it with such artistry and believability that it felt like it was actually plausible. His creatures often have human traits and human characteristics in a story driven by humanity—this story has all of that. This is the first time I’ve seen a monster movie where love prevails, instead of being unrequited.

What is the most challenging task you’ve had to do for a role?
Physically, the hardest thing I’ve ever done was a hideous, straight-to-VHS movie called Bug Buster, in which I was the mother bug. I had to be bent over in some weird costume with a snare coming out of my backside, wings, six legs up my torso, and a head. Oh my gosh, it was a horrible thing to wear. But the most challenging task overall was the Faun character from Pan’s Labyrinth because of the five-hour makeup application and my costume on stilts that made me seven feet tall, coupled with paragraphs of Spanish dialogue—and I don’t speak Spanish. My body and my brain were asked to do everything they could, at the same time, every day. Very hard.

What’s your dream role? There has to be a classic Hollywood monster that you’re dying to play.
If you had asked me five years ago, “Is there a creature role that you would love to play that you haven’t yet?,” it would’ve been Count Orlok in the 1922 silent film Nosferatu, the title character. I now can happily tell you that I’ve played him. That was on my bucket list—it was a lifelong dream. I had always wanted to play a classic vampire. Count Orlok was more appealing to me than Dracula because Dracula is handsome and has a sexual prowess to him, and Nosferatu is hideous-looking, and I relate to him way more. So many of us can relate to feeling like we’re the hideous monster in the room when we’re with a group of people—like we’re the one that doesn’t fit in, we’re the one that’s never going to find love, we’re the one that’s lonely. A recluse vampire like Count Orlok embodied all of that for me, so to play him and to work through my own issues with myself was a treat.

You played the lead role in My Name is Jerry, a 2008 independent film directed by a Ball State alum and shot in Muncie, Indiana, a state that doesn’t offer tax incentives for filmmakers. Does that affect your decision to do a project close to home again?
Hollywood productions chase the cheap. A producer who’s holding the purse for a movie will want that purse to go as far as it’ll go. So they’re going to film where they’re going to get the most kickback financially or the most incentives. I don’t blame them for that, but at the same time, it would be really nice to see those opportunities open up for kids like me in Indiana growing up, where maybe you could get a job as a production assistant for a Hollywood production filming right in your city. I know when we filmed My Name is Jerry, it was all Ball State kids on our production. Ball State put some money into it as well. It was quite a collaborative effort with Hollywood and local people getting together to make a movie, and it was like going to summer camp. It was such a fun experience because of the young innocence of our production crew. I absolutely loved that mix-up of professionals and beginners. I sure would do something else in Indiana. We filmed My Name is Jerry in ’08 in the summer, and that’s always my favorite time of year. When you’re driving to the set and you’re going through cornfields and you can hear crickets—oh please, it was wonderful. I was in heaven.

So what’s next for you?
Season two of Star Trek: Discovery. Other than that, I have a movie called Beneath the Leaves with Mira Sorvino and her dad, Paul Sorvino. I play the psychotic killer in it. That’s finished but not out yet. And we’ll see what happens with this pilot I just filmed called What We Do in the Shadows.

You share a name with an Alabama senator—have there been any memorable identity mix-ups with him?
Yes, a lot. I became a very confusing hashtag on Twitter, for instance. Nobody knew which Doug Jones everyone was talking about. My agent here in LA has experienced it, too. I think the utter ignorance is amusing to me, that someone would contact a Hollywood talent agent, in the wrong state—my agent got emails, phone calls, and postcards in the mail actually, with either hate or love for me, thinking that I was the senator in Alabama. They couldn’t put together that they were sending those off to California, not Alabama. And my screen name on Twitter is @ActorDougJones, so. It’s a common name, folks, it shouldn’t be that hard to figure out. But a lot of people get it wrong. It’s funny more than anything.