AN INTERVIEW FOR STARLOG MAGAZINE
THAT’S DOUG JONES BEHIND THE MASK AS AQUATIC AGENT ABE SAPIEN
In the world of makeup and creature FX, Doug Jones is da man. For nearly two decades, the lanky six-foot-three actor has pretty much been at the top of the list when casting a character that’s going to be virtually unrecognizable. Whether it’s a Morlock, a mutant bug or one of Buffy’s cadaverous Gentlemen, there are few famous monsters that Jones hasn’t played at some point.
“The funny part is I never set out to carve that niche,” he claims. “I came out here from Indiana many years ago to be an actor, and thought I was headed straight to sitcoms. But one of the first jobs I got was the Mac Tonight moon-head guy for those McDonald’s commercials way back in 1986. I started the local campaign that went national and then worldwide, and, 27 commercials later, I’m still playing the character. That was what started this niche for me. The whole makeup/creature FX world is very tight-knit. You work at one shop and then go over to the next shop, so your name gets passed around. I’m very grateful for that, because while I do my more visible goofy sidekick act, the creature thing has been this secret between me and all the people ‘in the know.’ ”
According to Jones, that secret network was responsible for his latest gig, playing the clairvoyant fish-man Abe Sapien in Hellboy. “I was sitting at home at about 9:30 at night,” he recalls, “and the phone rang in the kitchen and it was [creature creator] Steve Wang. He was having dinner with director Guillermo del Toro and all the guys from Spectral Motion because they had just gotten the approval for the final designs of Abe Sapien. They had a beautiful maquette done, and at that point, they had already cast an actor, who was shorter and a bit more muscular. But while they were all there at dinner, Steve said, ‘You know who this really needs to be played by is Doug Jones.’ And my name started popping up all around the table.
“Even Guillermo said, ‘I know Doug,’ because I worked with him on Mimic. I was one of his big bug guys; I think we were referred to as ‘Long Johns’ in the credits. Anyway, Guillermo recalled that I saved his ass one day on Mimic. I’m not really sure how I did that, but I did something memorable, so that’s why they were talking about me that night. Eventually, they tracked me down, and I talked to Guillermo, who explained the role to me.
next day, I was in producer Patrick Palmer’s office, and I met with
Guillermo for the first time in about five years, and Steve was there as
well,” Jones continues. “I had recently worked with Steve on
a movie called Tooth Fairy, which ended up being retitled Darkness
Falls. He designed a beautiful, eerie Tooth Fairy character for that
film which ended up being completely cut out. Instead, they hired Stan Winston
to create a different version. So I was the original Tooth Fairy, and, once
again, Steve had told the producers that Doug Jones was the only person
who could play that role. I thought to myself, ‘An old woman?’
But once that makeup was on me, I fell into the character quite easily –
although I’m not sure how happy I am about that!”
With Hellboy, Jones accepted the role not knowing all that much about Abe Sapien or the comic book series the character originally came from. “In fact, I was having breakfast at the hotel during one of my first days in Prague [where Hellboy was shot], when this nice man came walking up and asked, ‘Excuse me, are you Doug Jones?’ He said, ‘Hi, I’m Mike Mignola,’ and sat down with me. I thought, ‘Wow, what a great opportunity - to have the creator of the Hellboy comic books enlighten me about the background of my character!’ This was perfect, right? But Mike put his hands up in the air and said, ‘Listen, before you say a word, I have no idea where Abe Sapien comes from!’
“Basically, all the information I have about Abe is that he was discovered in a tank in an old hospital,” Jones says. “There was a nameplate with a date that was the same day that Abraham Lincoln was shot - hence the name Abe - and the name of his species, which must be a Latin word meaning fish. So Abe was discovered in the basement of this abandoned hospital, and Professor Broom [John Hurt] took him in the same way he took Hellboy in.”
Without an awful lot of information at his disposal, the actor found himself drawing upon some unlikely sources of inspiration. “When you’re playing something that looks this bizarre,” he explains, “you need to get the makeup on before you can start to feel like your character. I knew that I was this sort of fish-man mutation who is clairvoyant, can read four books at a time and is a very brainy guy - but he isn’t snooty about it. Abe’s very confident in who he is and doesn’t have to impress anybody. He’s aware that he’s the smartest person in the room, but he’s also part fish, so that was a lot to put together.
“The really intelligent part of Abe is something I don’t think I am, so I studied other people who are really smart. For instance, my oldest brother Bob has a Ph.D in molecular biology, and when I listened to him, I picked up a certain rhythm that people like him have. I can understand how a real intellect thinks, communicates and socializes, so I drew from that.
“As far as movement went, this is the most embarrassing part, but I have three goldfish that have grown quite large in a tank in my office, and I love watching their fins and the way they flow around in the water, so I studied them,” he says. “Their eyes are quick, their heads dart and their bodies gracefully flow behind, so I gave Abe those sort of physical characteristics as well. I’ve played a whole range of animals before - anything with a tail, I’ve pretty much done it - so there’s a certain amount of finding the real animal, whether it’s at the zoo, on tape or just watching it. Here, it came in handy that I had these fish in my own house.”
Those impromptu movement lessons paid off during Hellboy’s filming, when Jones was called upon to simulate Abe’s underwater activities. Some of those scenes were shot ‘dry for wet,’ meaning Jones literally had to go through the motions without being in the water. “There was one scene I remember in particular that took place in a medical healing tank, which we shot on my birthday,” he says. “I was upside down and talking to Selma Blair [who plays Liz Sherman] through the glass. I was suspended from a hip harness that had to be extremely tight to keep me from slipping out of it, and I have bony hips, so after many hours of hanging from it, the really thick, saddle-type leather became a bit excruciating.
“If I recall correctly, that was a 21-hour day from start to finish, and then the word got out that it was my birthday, so many well-wishers came by as I was hanging upside down to say, ‘Oh Doug, happy birthday!’ It was all done with a tilt of the head and an ‘Aww!’ in their voice. The next night, Guillermo took me and my castmates out to dinner along with the makeup crew so we could have a nice, sit-down celebration.”
Not surprisingly, since Abe’s makeup application could take up to five hours on a given morning, Jones grew extremely close to his team of makeup artists, which included American Thom Floutz and Brits Nigel Booth and Simon Webber. “I spent more time with them than anybody else on the entire movie,” he explains. “We became like family because we had to, and I relied on these people for my safety as well, so the trust was built very quickly between the four of us.
I was in that makeup, they would leave me in my trailer to take a nap if
we were on a break; otherwise, somebody would have to be with me at all
times. Walking around, I could trip over something without seeing it, or
I could tear something if I sat down and didn’t notice what was behind
me. I needed constant supervision, but it came easily with all those guys
because we bonded so well.”
Looking back over his diverse career, Jones could never have anticipated that so much of his work would involve makeup and disguise. As a very tall and skinny school kid, he developed a sense of humor in order to survive, but those energies were soon channelled into acting. “I actually started out as a mime many, many years ago in college, so I got plenty of physical experience very early on,” he says. “I was also the college mascot. We were the Cardinals, and I had to wear a bird suit with yellow tights. When I first came out to L.A. what helped snag my first agent was the fact that I had the physical ability to create characters. Right now, my résumé is about half Doug playing goofy guys, and the other half is when I’m in a suit.
“I played one of Danny DeVito’s sidekicks in Batman Returns, as part of the Red Triangle Circus Gang. Every circus freak in town was called in for that. I’m also a contortionist by the way; I’m an actor who can really put his legs behind his head! I was in Hocus Pocus, as Billy, the 300-year-old dead guy. That was one of my favourite jobs, plus I got to work with Bette Midler. That’s also where I met Tony Gardner and the Alterian Studios crew, who did my makeup. Hocus Pocus was the beginning of a long-running relationship with that shop.”
In Warriors of Virtue, Jones played one of a quintet of martial arts kangaroos (no, really!) in animatronic suits created by Alterian Studios. “Whenever you make a film, you always hope it’s going to be the one that hits, and I loved working on Warriors of Virtue,” he comments. “I especially enjoy working on a movie when I like my character – if it’s someone whom I would want to know – and I adored Yee. I loved that he was mute by choice. He chose not to speak anymore because the pain of what the people of Tao had gone through had affected him so deeply. I had to create my own fantasy-land sign language, which was a delight.”
Maybe so, but despite Ronny (Freddy vs. Jason) Yu’s direction and some top-notch production values, Warriors of Virtue was one of the biggest bombs of the year. “I’m not sure what happened, but I think, overall, it was difficult to comprehend what the story was about after a while,” Jones says. “They geared Warriors toward a child audience, and they lost them. Even I – as an adult who worked on the film – had trouble following it. Ronny truly is an artist, and visually, Warriors of Virtue is like a moving painting. It’s just that as far as the story goes and being able to comprehend it … I think something happened in the editing.”
Hard as it may be to believe, Warriors of Virtue wasn’t Jones’ only gig as a kangaroo in that period. “I also played one in Tank Girl,” he notes. “I was one of the ‘Rippers’ as they were called. Within a couple of years, I played two mutant kangaroos. How many parts are like that out there, and why do I get them all?
“We shot Tank Girl in Tucson, Arizona, in the summer, when it was 115-120 degrees during the daytime. So imagine having foam latex rubber glued onto your face, big padded legs, a tail, a heavy costume, and then running around in that heat. I had a ball working on it, but it wasn’t the most comfortable of jobs. The Stan Winston makeup was different than the kangaroos in Warriors because Tank Girl’s creatures were the result of mixing human and kangaroo DNA.”
One of Jones’ favorite genre appearances in recent years was his role in the 2002 remake of The Time Machine. “I remember the first version being replayed on television when I was a kid and being intrigued by the thought of time travel. However, I was freaked out by the Morlocks,” he grins. “Now, 30 years later, I was playing one of the Morlocks, so that was a full-circle, weird experience for me.
“I was the lead Spy Morlock, the spindly guys who shot darts at the Eloi people. What made that job even more fun was that the maquette was made at Stan Winston Studio, and once they were done designing it, they said ‘Who could do this?’, because it was designed in such a squatty position that they would probably need a contortionist to do it. Well, of course, that’s when my name came up, so I met with David [Valdes], the producer, and Simon Wells, the director. They showed me the maquette and the designs, I moved around the office for them and it was a done deal.
“I was then able to get involved with the casting, because they needed six Spy Morlocks, in addition to all the big Hunter Morlocks,” Jones says. “When it came to the Spy Morlocks, they brought in Jeff Imada, a brilliant stunt coordinator. He asked me to work with him in casting the other Spy Morlocks, so we basically looked for tall, skinny guys, and I did the movement workshops to get us all on the same page in terms of how we moved, hopped around and so forth.”
Some of Jones’ roles are glimpsed more briefly, such as his work in Men in Black II.
“I was supposed to do two different alien characters for Rick Baker’s Cinovation shop,” he says. “One of them was never put on film, but he was called ‘Pretzel Guy,’ and he had this weirdly shaped oblong head that went across his pelvis. His arms and legs came out of the bottom of his head, so it was this face with a bunch of limbs. I was in a blue-screen leotard walking around behind it, but that was never shot because it would have taken an awful lot of work to put me in a crowd scene. So they forgot about that one, but the other character I played was Joey in the Post Office scene. He’s the longhaired rock-and-roll guy with the sunglasses who looks very much like Joey Ramone, even though the filmmakers would never admit to it. I take off my sunglasses and wig to reveal this really dinky, tiny head – they cut to a mechanical small head that moved around.”
What may be Jones’ most haunting role was the leader of the Gentlemen, the nasty fiends who stole the power of speech from Sunnydale’s residents in the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode ‘Hush.’ Written and directed by series creator Joss Whedon, the episode featured creatures described in his script as Nosferatu meets Hellraiser by way of the Joker, with a rictus grin and teeth of gleaming metal. Oh yes, and much of the episode was silent, which was perfect for an actor with mime training.
“Usually when you’re working on a project you think, ‘This is the one that’s going to hit it big!’ but when we were shooting ‘Hush’ we knew there were a couple of special elements,” he says. “For one thing, the characters were something different from what the show had done before. I had also never worked on an episodic that took the daring move to do over half the show in complete silence. That was a crapshoot, because you wonder, ‘Is this going to work? Are people going to tune out?’ We live in a society that needs so much stimulation. If you take the sound away, what’s going to happen? Well, what we found out is that it makes people pay attention even more.
“Going in, I knew the episode was special, but it’s still television. I had no idea that it was going to become one of Buffy fans’ favorite episodes, if not their favorite. I had no clue that TV Guide would name the Gentlemen the scariest villains the show has ever had, or I would be a 12-inch doll with moving parts. I never expected that my picture was going to show up in all sorts of magazines, or that I would get fan mail from it either, but all of those things happened, much to my delight. I’ve done a lot of television and film over the years, but that one episode has brought me more attention, questions and wonder from the fans and public that I ever imagined was possible.”
With Abe Sapien, Jones had to get involved with the character’s overall look at an early stage. Because of the unique way the suit was designed, it was actually built on the actor’s own physiology. “It came together with so many pieces that I couldn’t just step into it and zip up the back,” Jones says. “It had to be glued onto me piece by piece and then airbrushed in many places to blend in with my own skin. Because of that, it was the most extensive body-casting job I’ve ever had to do. I think there were 17 molds and casts done of me; everything from my head to my arms, legs and hips.
“If I was going to be standing still [during the picture], they could have pieced it together more easily, but they had to take all kinds of movement into consideration: If I move my arm forward, what happens to my back? I’m glad it was their task and not mine; they did a brilliant job. The first time everything was put on me, I just stared at myself and couldn’t believe I was looking at such a beautiful creature. It was the most stunning suit I’ve ever been in.”
Abe’s suit is a work of art, but it wasn’t all that easy to work in sometimes. “The main obstacle I had was vision, because they had to put big artificial fish eyes over my own, so I was looking through Abe’s tear ducts,” he remarks. “And when I was out of the water, Abe needs to wear goggles to keep his eyes wet, and they would steam up when it got warm. I had to walk through a scene several times to know where everything was physically. I could see lights and darks and just enough that I knew where every actor was, so I could feel my way through it.”
Sometimes a bit more than Jones bargained for, as he recalls one memorable day of shooting. “We were doing a scene near the film’s beginning, where we walk through this long corridor,” Jones says. “It was Ron Perlman as Hellboy, me right behind him, Agent Myers [Rupert Evans] and then a few BPRD agents. We were supposed to walk down this corridor, take a left turn down another long hallway and come to a stopping point that was marked on the floor, where we were supposed to look up and notice John Hurt on a staircase. He then says something witty, and that’s the end of the sequence.
“I was basically blind, but as long as I could feel where Ron’s right shoulder was, I was OK. So I made sure that I had my hand on his shoulder when we started, and I kept it in the corner of my vision the entire time. Well, this one take, our stopping point came sooner than I thought, so I kind of ran into Ron, but the camera was still rolling, and I thought, ‘I can still save this take!’ At that point, I was a little disoriented, but I said to myself, ‘If I can just find Ron’s back.’
“I was trying to do this as subtly as I could while the camera was still rolling, but suddenly the scene was finished, Guillermo yelled ‘Cut!’ and the entire crew burst out laughing. Guillermo then shouted, ‘Doug Jones! Can we do another one where you aren’t feeling Ron’s ass?’ I went back and looked at the playback, and sure enough [I was grabbing his butt]. Ron was wearing a long leather coat, and my hand was gloved in latex, so I couldn’t tell what I had my hand on! I thought the camera was behind us and I was being subtle, but the camera caught every moment of me groping Ron’s behind! Guillermo has already threatened to put it in the DVD outtakes.”
Involuntary groping aside, if there’s one regret that Jones may have about the Hellboy experience, it’s that his character was re-dubbed during post-production. “I went in and recorded an ADR looping session,” he explains, “and Guillermo seemed to love everything I did. I thought everything was perfect for the character. I originally took the job with the understanding that they might re-voice Abe Sapien with a celebrity, and that was looming over my head the entire time. I would be a bad actor if I told you that I didn’t want to do Abe’s voice myself, and I felt very good about my performance both vocally and physically. When I was done, I knew that if they re-voiced it, it wouldn’t be because I was a bad actor.
“As it turns out, they did a voice session with David Hyde Pierce, but Guillermo told me that it wasn’t a competition between the two of us or a case of one being better than the other. It was just different, and he said the differences weren’t even that tangible. It was just something a little extra. David is a brilliant actor, and he has a very distinctive sound that falls on the ear with some familiarity. Truth be told, he has a marketable name to put with a big role in a big movie, so it’s a marketing thing for the studio as well. I understand why they did what they did. Nonetheless, I would have preferred to have kept my own voice.”
Despite that development, Jones is delighted with Hellboy, and he tells STARLOG readers what to expect when they see the picture. “As far as the fantasy-comic book genre goes,” he promises, “they’re going to get a lead character who represents redemption, and I love that aspect of the film. Hellboy’s a demon, for crying out loud, who has renounced his past, is fighting against the forces of evil and living for the good cause. We all have a past, and Hellboy is someone who shows that your past can be overcome. You can go on and live and have a purpose in this world. That’s enough for me to want to go see it.”
Interview from STARLOG Magazine #323, June 2004