Used to playing roles that require heavy make-up and suit work, actor Doug Jones brings a touch of humanity to Hellboy’s aquatic Abe Sapien.
How does it feel to play a half man-half-fish hybrid that fights crime alongside a heroic demon nicknamed Hellboy? Just ask veteran ‘guy in the rubber suit’ Doug Jones, the actor responsible for breathing live-action life into fan-favourite comic book sidekick Abe Sapien. But don’t ask him to explain the character’s origin; apparently, he’s still trying to figure that one out.

“Let me start by saying I talked with Mike Mignola when the production was just getting underway,” says Jones. “I’m sitting there at breakfast with him one day and I’m thinking ‘OK, I’ve got the creator of Hellboy. He can give me some insight on Abe.’ And he said ‘Before you even ask, I have no idea where he came from.’ I thought that was brilliant! So that’s the quote I have to give – I have no idea where Abe came from because the creator doesn’t know where he came from. But I can tell you that Abe is the intellect and the clairvoyant force that aids Hellboy. He’s also the advice-giver. It seems like a lot of the characters need Abe around to get some insight and some advice on what to do. But he’s not just a big brain; he’s also a big heart. And [director] Guillermo [del Toro] has even said that Abe is the heart of the film. Of course, Abe is Guillermo’s favourite character, or at least one of them.”

Having previously played parts in such big screen comic book adaptations as Batman Returns, Mystery Men and Men in Black II, one would think that Jones has a particular affinity for the original four-color material. However, the actor is quick to point out his relative unfamiliarity with the medium.

“This is the most embarrassing part of any interview I’ve given so far, but I did not know Hellboy before this started,” admits Jones. “The fans, I have found out, are loyal and hell-bent on Hellboy. God bless them; we wouldn’t have a job without them. But I wasn’t even a comic book genre fan. I read the Archies comics when I was a kid and that’s where my comic book experience ended. When I met with Guillermo for the first time, he gave me a script and a few of the [Hellboy] graphic novels. So I had those to look through. I got an idea of the mood; it’s not like a kiddy cartoon, that’s for sure. It’s got more of a darker edge to it, as well as very witty dialogue and banter. So I ended up loving it before we started the film anyways.”

Having never experienced Hellboy prior to his involvement with the project allows for an interesting perspective. Upon first glance, the book’s dark and moody illustrations look almost impossible to translate into live-action. Was there ever a concern that the adaptation just wouldn’t fly with today’s audiences?

“That’s where Guillermo del Toro comes in,” says Jones. “One of the Hellboy graphic novels I read had an introduction by him, so I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. If he has a history with Hellboy that goes way before this movie, then I totally trust that he has the vision.’ And I actually was one of his bug guys on Mimic, so knowing how he works and knowing his vision I totally trust that he can make this happen on film. And I also knew that with him being such a fan of Hellboy – him being such a fan of the Abe character – that I was going to get some very specific direction, so I’m happy to do whatever he says.”

Comic book roots aside, some would accuse Hellboy of being deeply ingrained within the chiller genre. Jones, on the other hand, disagrees with that assessment, arguing that the material goes much deeper than that.

“I’m not getting horror from it, even with all the demon stuff,” says Jones. “It feels more fantasy-adventure to me. And the dialogue – Guillermo’s reworking of the script daily creates a lot of very speakable dialogue and the relationships are very defined by that dialogue. I love my relationship with Hellboy. He’s like this strong brute guy and I’m like the softer more intelligent guy. So together we get the job done. And I just love the sarcasm that goes back and forth between us, like we’re old friends from way back and I don’t need to impress him and he doesn’t need to impress me, but the love is there – that all comes out.”

Because of the director’s wish to match the actual look of the comic using practical make-up effects, Jones underwent a very lengthy procedure in order to “get into his character.” But it was one the actor gladly put himself through thanks to the sheer beauty of the end result.

“The make-up process for me was a bit gruelling because I had to sit straight up on a stool, I didn’t have back support and I had to stand a lot because they did my arms, legs and everything,” says Jones. “So it wasn’t the most comfortable ‘sit back in my chair and fall asleep while they do me’ sort of thing. I had to participate. Short days were about five hours; long days were more like six-and-a-half depending on how much they had to show that day. Was I wearing a shirt? Was I not wearing a shirt? Did I have gloves on or was it the web-fingered hand? All of that made a difference of, like, another hour. So it was a long process, it was work and by the time we were done and ready for camera, I’d already put in a full day. But knowing what I looked like and knowing how amazing this was going to look on film, that’s what energized me. That’s what really made it worthwhile for me. And I’m really happy to be playing Abe; I really, really am.”

Ultimately, actors believe that a part of themselves lives within their character, and vice versa. In the case of Abe Sapien, being buried underneath layers of rubber can make it somewhat difficult for Jones to share anything in common with the character. Or does it?

“I’m a dyed-in-wool Christian from the Midwest and I do believe that there is such a thing as a Hell, there is such a thing as a Heaven, there is a God, there is a Devil,” admits Jones. “As a Christian reading this script, at first I thought, ‘Oh dear. OK, it’s a script about a demon fighting crime. How am I going to say no to this. I’ve got to word this right.’ But by the time I got to page 40, I was elated because I was so anything but offended. I loved this project. And when I talked to Guillermo afterwards, I said, ‘As a Christian, Guillermo, I was so unoffended by this demon story.’ He said, ‘Well, it was never meant to offend you.’ It’s a story that any human can relate to. We all have a past and we can all do whatever we want with that past. Either let it guide us or we can overcome it. And that’s a story I’m happy to help tell. It’s a good message that the movie has, even in the midst of all the action and colors and fun.”


Copyright © 2004 Titan Magazines/Eric Moro. All rights reserved.


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