An Interview with actor Doug Jones (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, Fantastic Four 2)
[This interview originally appeared in SciFiDimensions.com in February 2007.]
You might not know his face, but if you’re a fanboy or fangirl, chances are you know Doug Jones. For nearly two decades Jones has flown under the media radar, parleying his physical abilities (he has training as a mime and a contortionist) into several small parts, usually in heavy make-up and prosthetics, in genre films like Batman Returns, Hocus Pocus, Tank Girl, and director Guillermo del Toro’s breakout 1997 film Mimic.
But in the last few years, Jones has taken on increasingly visible roles, most notably in del Toro films, including his turn as Abe Sapien, the super-powered merman in Hellboy, and his two roles (he plays both the faun Pan and the baby-eating monster called “Pale Man”) in Pan’s Labyrinth. Jones will return as Abe Sapien next year in Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, but the biggest buzz involves Jones’ stepping onto the board of the titular semi-villain in one of summer 2007’s most hotly anticipated films: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. And while Jones denies any involvement in that film’s recent trailer “packaging” scandal, he does indeed have the cojones to tackle one of the most iconic and distinctive roles in cinematic history: Jones stars as the murderous sleepwalker “Cesare the Somnambulist” in an upcoming remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the German impressionist silent film from 1919.
To capitalize on the current Oscar buzz surrounding Pan’s Labyrinth (it’s been nominated in six Academy Award categories and has already won several international awards), Jones has been on tour, appearing in person to introduce the film and rub elbows with enthusiastic audiences. He is tall, lanky, not afraid to be a little goofy, and an altogether charming and likeable fellow. Although he delights in using an intentionally bad Spanish accent to imitate del Toro, it’s clear he has great deal of love and admiration for the talented Mexican director. I caught up with Doug Jones at a mini-junket in Atlanta.
[Doug Jones has since accumulated numerous acting credits. He played the “Amphibian Man” in 2017’s The Shape of Water, the first science fiction feature to win an Oscar for Best Picture. He currently stars as Saru in the hit TV series Star Trek: Discovery, now in its fourth season. –JCS 1/2/2022]
Part 1: Pan’s Labyrinth and the Rise of a Genre Favorite
Q: So do you actually speak Spanish? Were you the voice of the faun in Pan’s Labyrinth?
Doug Jones: Not on the street. Not from my own brain, but if I can memorize it, yeah. I did speak Spanish and do all the dialogue, but they had a voice-over artist available to tweak the nuances of the language that I couldn’t hear. Which was fine with me – in fact, I was terrified going in, thinking that the Spanish would be the downfall of my career. I thought I would never work again. I would fail and life would be over. So I was comforted to know there would be a voice-over actor to save me. In fact, Guillermo del Toro told me [affecting a gruff Spanish accent], “Aagh, you can count to ten for all I care, just give me the right pauses and we’ll be fine!” [Laughs] But I couldn’t leave him with my lips going “One two three FOUR FIVE six seven-eight-nine-TEN!” I couldn’t do that and have him try to sync that up later. It’d be like a bad Godzilla movie. I had an English translation of every scene with my Spanish dialogue, and I was able to figure out the sentence structure, and what meant what, and how to punch it. So I was darn close.
Q: You say you didn’t mind having a Spanish voice-actor as a back-up, but how did you feel about Hellboy, in which David Hyde Pierce dubbed over all of your dialogue?
DJ: Right. That was quite a story. That was quite a journey. [Laughs] When I got the job originally, it was presented to me that that was the plan they wanted to go with, to have a “physical actor” go through the make-up process and do the on-camera work, and then have a “celebrity voice” to help market the film. I put in my two cents and said “I’d rather you not do that, if that’s okay.” The names at the time were Kevin Spacey, David Hyde Pierce, and Steve Buscemi. And they threw my name in the pot, so mine was the fourth name they were kind of stirring around. I was told “If you can give us the sound we want on the set, we can leave your voice in.” So I did, and they didn’t. But you know, when you’ve got that much money riding on a huge studio film, I understand marketing has to be part of the film. I didn’t want that to happen, but that’s what happened. The story has come full circle for me: David Hyde Pierce declined doing the animated voice, so they did give it to me. I voiced Abe Sapien for two animated features [Hellboy: Storm of Swords and Hellboy: Blood and Iron], and there are more in the works. I’m also voicing the video game soon. And once the contracts are finished and we start Hellboy 2: The Golden Army in May, I’ll be voicing Abe Sapien again. David Hyde Pierce and I don’t sound that much different from each other [smirks dramatically], I don’t think. David Hyde Pierce was not a bad choice; he sounded great. So do I though, and I don’t mind telling you that. [Laughs]
Q: And that conflict didn’t affect your working relationship with del Toro?
DJ: No. And I wouldn’t really call it a conflict. It was just a set of decisions. You know, when you’ve got a studio like that involved, the decision makers are plentiful. A lot of cooks in the kitchen. So it wasn’t just Guillermo. I wasn’t going to point a finger and say, “You! You screwed me, man!” It wasn’t like that at all. He gave me a wonderful opportunity. Pan’s Labyrinth is my third film with him, and I hope to work with him again. He’s one of the few directors that I trust. Anything he decides is wonderful.
Q: You have a background in mime, and other physical forms of…
Q: Yes. When you get a script, do you think you look at a script any differently than any other actor?
DJ: I like to think of myself as an actor first. For some reason, the mainstream press seems to call me “mime Doug Jones” – and that’s not really me. [Laughs] Nobody likes a mime, a), and b) I’m an actor. To me, acting is a full-body experience, because I believe that communication is a full-body experience. Right now, as we’re sitting here talking, my facial expressions are working, I’m gesturing, my body language is telling you something – all of it communicates, I think. So my acting approach is… I do the “behind the eyes” character development thing, and I find the soul. But I take it out to the end of every limb, to my fingers and my toes.
Q: So what did you find in the soul of the Pale Man?
DJ: [Laughs loudly] He does not have a soul. All he has is a hunger for children.
Q: What was it like to work with Ivana Baquero [who played Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth]?
DJ: I absolutely love her. She was 11 years old when we filmed Pan’s Labyrinth in 2005. When you meet her, she’s like this beautiful child. I was bending over going [in baby talk], “Hello, there you cute little girl!” And then you look into her eyes and it’s like “Wow! You’re an 80-year-old woman!” She has this old, mature soul in there, like she’s carrying the weight of the world in her 11-year-old body. I found her to be the most professional, on-time, on-script, focused actress I’ve ever worked with. And the most tireless, the least whiny—and she was 11.
Q: Which must have been a relief to you when you were in layers of costume and make-up.
DJ: Right. We were never held up because the little girl was having a tantrum. Never, ever ever ever. Never.
Q: Did you suffer from exhaustion from all the make-up and prosthetics?
DJ: Every actor has to go through hair, make-up and costume. Mine just happens to be five hours long. Seven hours for Abe Sapien – that was the longest I’ve ever done. So I have to think like an athlete as well as an actor. It takes a lot of physical agility and stamina, some discomfort, some heat, not being able to go to the bathroom at will – and your senses are dulled. Sometimes I can’t see as well; sometimes I can’t hear, can’t feel. And I’ve got teeth in – I can’t just run off to the snack table and grab a handful of M&Ms like everybody else can, so there are obstacles that I need to push through, so when they yell “Action!” I have to forget about all that, find that character, find that soul, find those eyes. When they yell “Cut!” I can go back to complaining again. But hopefully I don’t do that too much.
Q: Something in Pan’s Labyrinth that a lot of people don’t notice the first time they see the film, is that the faun changes dramatically [from one scene to the next]. I’d like to get your perspective on that; also, your personal take on what that means for the film.
DJ: It’s funny, Guillermo makes a lot of artistic choices that are very calculated on his part, but he never tells the audience what to think about it. The decision to make the faun, or Pan, age backwards, is an example of what you’re talking about. The first time you see him he’s more decrepit; he’s older; his eyes are milked over and cloudy; one of his horns is eaten away at the end; and I affected a stiffer movement to him. Every time you see him gets a little more agile, a little bit younger, a little more powerful. And so by the end he’s auburn of hair, more colorful of skin, his eyes are clear and golden and sparkly, and his horns are complete and shiny. That subtle aging backwards thing: Guillermo never explained to me why that was. My interpretation was, that Ofelia has been away from the underworld kingdom for so long, that the portals are closing up, and the portal where she meets the faun is the last one, and this is her last chance to get back to the underworld. So it’s like the underworld is waiting for her return, and decaying in her absence. I’m a reflection of that. When she finds me, I’m a little bit older, a little decrepit, a little infirm. But the more tests she passes, the more she believes in the underworld, and the more she believes in her destiny, and trusts in her gut instincts to get her there, the more powerful and younger I become, the more powerful and real the underworld becomes, and the more life is breathed back into it. That’s my interpretation of it.
Q: You’ve been going around with the movie lately, and I’m sure no one comes up and says “This movie sucks! I hate it!”, but is there any specific, distinctive reaction you’re getting from audiences that surprises you?
DJ: Yeah. The two most common things I hear are, number one, “I want to see it again”—I had no idea when we were filming that people would have this much of a voracious appetite for it—and number two, “I forgot this was in Spanish.” The storytelling is so layered and colorful, and so yummy. Each character is so well developed. You get lost in it, and you forget you’re reading subtitles. We all knew we were making a piece of art. When I read the script originally, Guillermo sent me an email saying [in a gruff Spanish accent], “You must play Pan. Nobody else can do this part but you!” It’s very daunting when a director of his status says that. Then he told me it was going to be in Spanish, and then I knew he was wrong. [Laughs] I’m thinking, “There’s gotta be somebody else – maybe a Spanish actor could do better.” But along with this email came the script, and he wanted me to get back to him right away, five hours or something crazy like that. “You must decide! Tell me, tell me, tell me now!” So I read it in one sitting. It was a page turner. I ate it up with a fork. I was like, “I l-l-love this!” I got so lost in the story, and I so connected with the character of Pan. By the end, I’m turning the last page, I’m wiping a tear, and I’m like, “Yes! I must be in this film.” And I knew, with him as the director and writer, and with this being independently produced, not in America but in Spain, that it had the chance to become a classic. We kind of knew that going in, but the crapshoot of this was, we knew it would play well in Europe, in countries that understood this kind of artsy-fartsy storytelling. But how would American audiences react? Would it resonate with them? That was the crapshoot on this one, and I am just absolutely tickled raw, that it’s been having the gradual opening that it has, starting in a few cities, going to more cities, expanding within those cities, starting in a theatre or two and expanding to the cineplex out in the suburbs. And the Oscar nominations didn’t hurt anything; the Goya Awards in Spain; the BAFTAs in Britain—nominations galore. The BAFTAs we find out about February 11th; the Goyas we had 13 nominations and we took seven.
Q: How did you end up taking on the Pale Man as well as Pan?
DJ: Well, in that same email Guillermo also said, “And I also want you to play the Pale Man!” My first thought was, “Yeah, ya cheap bastard, you got me in Spain, and you want me to do this other character for free, I’ll bet.” Again, Guillermo makes no decision that isn’t calculated and thought out ahead of time, so I had to trust that he knew what he was doing. The Pale Man is just one little scene, and I felt like, “Yeah, it’s a kinda scary character, blah, blah, I’ll do it, fine.” And I had no idea it would end up being the poster boy for the film – an image that people are left with and go home and have nightmares about. He wanted the same actor to play Pan and the Pale Man. As he said on-set, “You know… in my sick mind, I think that the Pale Man is kind of a creation of Pan.”
Q: Another question people have is: Was the underworld real or was it just a figment of Ofelia’s imagination? Did Guillermo give you any indication?
DJ: Nope. That’s the beauty of the film. He leaves the audience to draw from the film what they will, and that includes [the question of] does the underworld exist, and does she [Ofelia] need to go home to her father [the king of the underworld] and be the princess again. Either way, there are lessons and stories told that are poignant. The main message of the film, to me, is that we all have a childhood that we need to get over somehow. We all have monsters from our childhood that we need to deal with. My personal monsters were [that I had] hideous insecurities, to the point where I had trouble leaving the house. I was picked on, made fun of [for being] a tall, skinny kid. I know it’s hard to believe looking at me now. [Laughs] Other kids have other monsters—it might be an evil step-parent; a drunken, shoplifting mother—and you have a choice to make as an adult, to either drag your childhood around with you and let it affect your daily life, or overcome it, get past it and move on, and be the adult you’re meant to be. We watched Ofelia go through very hard choices. She’s promised a better life if she sacrifices her little brother, but what choice is she going to make, then?
Part 2: Silver Surfer and Beyond
Q: Did you have a wild imagination as a kid? Did you always want to be an actor?
DJ: I always wanted to be an actor, yes. My dad did not want me to be an actor. [Laughs] No wise parent wants their kids to go into show business. It’s like joining the circus, for cryin’ out loud. “I… I wanna be a juggler!” What, do you send them to school for that? My dad didn’t understand me at all. He would walk past my room, and it would be dark, and I would be sitting there staring out the window with no lights on. And he’d be like “Douglas! What are you doing?” and I’d be coming to, like, “Whoa! The sun must have gone down.” I was a daydreamer to the max, with all kinds of stories going on in my head.
Q: Did you play Dungeons & Dragons and that sort of thing?
DJ: No, I never did. I was more of a quiet thinker. I’ve never been a game-player, or a role-player type person. I just daydream a lot, I just sit and stare. Hmmm…
Q: Are you aware of the iconic nature of the Silver Surfer in the comic book world?
DJ: I’m aware of it now. [I wasn’t] when I was first approached with the opportunity. I’m not a comic book reader. Much like with Abe Sapien in Hellboy, when these roles come to me, I have to go do some research and find out, “Okay, what’s the hoopla? Is there hoopla? [Laughs] ‘Silver Surfer’, huh? That sounds like an interesting character.” I went to a comic book store in Burbank, California, and I went up to the pale-faced kid behind the counter – because they’re all pale-faced. Bless his heart. I love those people. And he said “Silver Surfer?!? Ohhh!” Runs throughout the store. Action figures! Books! “Look over here! Whaaaa! I love him!” So I thought, “If this kid’s reaction is that, then I’ll bet there’s more like him out there, and this is probably going to be a big thing.” I went home with [The Essential Silver Surfer, Vol. 1], [which contains] the first 18 issues of the stand-alone comic. I also had [The Essential Fantastic Four, Vol. 3], where he was introduced in issues 48 through… 50-something. I wanted to look at the original, [because] the Silver Surfer went on [for] decades. I wanted to see how he was born in the comic books. And, gosh, I just fell in love with his character. I can see why he’s iconic, because he’s a true gentleman. He’s got valor. He became the Silver Surfer by sacrificing himself, to go into service to someone he didn’t really care for, to save his own planet. That’s very Christ-like and very angelic of him. And the way he speaks in those comic books! He doesn’t say “I’m. It’s. You’re.” He says, “I am. It is. You are.” I love grammar, and the kids today are talkin’ without it. [Laughs] It drives me nuts.
Q: Do you provide the voice of the Silver Surfer as well?
DJ: So far, so good. Again, big studio, layers of decision makers, and rightly so. I understand there’s millions upon millions of dollars invested in this character, and they really want him to fly so that there can be more films later, hopefully. So I went into this knowing that they had the right to replace my voice if they so choose. But so far everybody seems happy with the sound we’re getting. The question is, do you want to synthesize that as well. So the answer is, “I don’t know.” I’m ever-hopeful that they’ll keep my voice in some form, even if they do enhance it or tweak it some. I lowered my register and I spoke very directly and distinctly and commandingly. I’m a flamboyant, arm-flapping person, and as the Silver Surfer, I had to throttle that back a lot, and be very confident that a glance with the eyes, and very few words, would get my point across. When I saw playback on the monitors and saw the look of him and the sound of him together, what I gave them on film really worked for me. I’m hoping it works for them as well.
Q: What did your costume entail, and how much of your physical form will we see?
DJ: It’s a combo platter. I have to qualify this and say, “As I understand it,” because I don’t want to speak for the digital effects people. I’m not qualified to. It’s the best of both worlds: state of the art practical effects (I wore make-up and costume on set, beautifully sculpted and created by Spectral Motion, the same people who brought you Abe Sapien), and digital, computer graphic enhancement from WETA. Together, this makes the Silver Surfer. Have you seen the trailer? That is a combo platter of what I just described, and completely CG. Much like Spider-man.
Q: Speaking of the trailer, have you heard the big controversy about the Silver Surfer’s “endowments”?
DJ: Someone sent me a link to a thing; a freeze-frame picture. I don’t remember doing that.
Q: That’s all you, right?
DJ: [Laughs] Yeah! I’m packin’! No, the costume was… enclosed, and all my business was tucked in. I can’t tell you how much. If my naughty bits are discussed one more time in a conference room—you know what I’m saying? In fact, it was like, “Make it smaller. Make it less apparent. Tuck it in. Can we bind everything up and smash it down some more?” So, no. I think it was someone having fun on something. I’m not sure where the free-hangin’… boys… came from.
Q: I’m not sure which disturbs me more: the idea of some technician sitting down to take the time to do that, or the geek who would sit down and actually watch this thing frame-by-frame to find it.
DJ: [Laughs] That’s what I’m sayin’. We all watched it, and if it’s in there, who woulda seen it?
Q: You’ve been in California since 1985, but you were born in Indianapolis, is that correct? Have you gone back since?
DJ: I do go back. My mom lives there, and one of my brothers lives there. I have three older brothers. Two of them are in Indiana and one is in Missouri, so yeah, I get back once or twice a year. I love going back home. You know, it’s funny, when you grow up in a place like Indiana, there’s cornfields around, and people talk with a little bit of a hickey accent. I love them. But wherever you grow up, the world’s always bigger. “I gotta get outta here. I gotta go somewhere and find myself.” Then I found myself in California going, “Ah, I’m finally here, I can finally realize who I am mentally!” And after 20 years I’m like, “I wanna go home to Indiana.” I miss the good Midwestern values, and home cooking and stuff like that. I get back as much as I can.
Q: I guess you don’t get recognized much in public. Do you ever find yourself in accidental conversation about work that you’ve done and they just don’t realize who you are?
DJ: That’s happened quite a few times, as a matter of fact, and I always enjoy it. I get them talking as much as I possibly can before I tell them who I am. [Laughs] I’ve been an actor for 21 years, and spent most of that time under the “celebrity radar.” Hellboy kind of put a speck on the radar. But now, with Pan’s Labyrinth, the press [attention] has been a delightful thing for me, with more TV interviews, and more pictures showing up in magazines and newspapers. I’m getting more of the scratching head thing and “Hey, where do I know you from?” It’s been really, really sweet.
Q: Would you say Pan’s Labyrinth has offered your greatest role, your most challenging role so far?
DJ: Well, this is a really great year for me, having Pan’s Labyrinth come out to the reception that it’s gotten; having finished Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, with all the hoopla surrounding that; and starting Hellboy 2 in May. It’s just a great time of life for me; it’s an actor’s dream. Artistically, I would say my favorite roles are the characters I would love to hang out with. Billy Butcherson from Hocus Pocus is one of my favorites. I loved Abe Sapien. And now Pan—I just love this film. As a piece, I think it’s my favorite film that I’ve been in. Pan’s one of my favorite characters ever. He’s so delicious with his ambiguity. Is he good? Is he bad? We don’t know until the very, bitter end. Is he leading this little girl to her demise, or to her eternal glory? That was fun for me to chomp on. I just loved him. Silver Surfer—I’ll have to see the move before I know.
Q: Have you seen anything of Galactus during the shooting of Fantastic Four 2?
DJ: I sure have not. Again, so many decisions are being made every day concerning this movie. We went into it with a lot of things not decided yet. My official answer, that I can give that no one’s told me I can’t, is that it’s difficult to introduce the Silver Surfer on film without Galactus having some sort of presence, now, isn’t it? [Laughs]
Q: What can fans expect of Abe Sapien in the second Hellboy?
DJ: A lot more of Abe in the second one. You can expect him to have as much story line as Hellboy, probably. You can expect him to have some fighting skills that you never saw before. Some hands-on with bad guys. Wielding weapons. And—perhaps—a love interest. Just sayin’. So there’s a lot more for me to chew on in this one. Definitely.
Q: Is Hellboy 2 a relatively new story, one that won’t be as tied to the first one?
DJ: As in any first movie of a franchise, you have to do the back story and introduce the characters as they’re done in the comic books. This one, I think, makes more of a departure into the darker side, with the creatures we’re fighting that come from Hell. It’s got critters galore; in fact, I’m not just playing Abe Sapien in this sequel, I will also be two other characters [in which I am] heavily made-up and unrecognizable. And we can talk about that when it comes out.
Q: Any other projects coming up that we should keep an eye out for?
DJ: Yeah, there’s a lesser-known project I’m very excited about: a small, independent venture called The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It is [a remake of] a classic silent horror film made in 1919. German expressionism. The art direction for the film was cutting edge and wacky and different for its day. It’s different now, too. It stands alone as an amazing film. The acting, the writing—it had a surprise ending, it had a monster character that was killing people. This was before the Mummy, before Frankenstein, before Dracula. I play Cesare the Somnambulist, a sleepwalker who kills people in the night. So to revive that role, that was played by Conrad Veidt back in 1919, was quite an honor for me. I just love it, and I hope the purist horror film fans do, too. It’s a talkie, but we did it in black and white, with original costumes and make-ups. It’s set in the same time period and the same backdrop as the original, meaning that our director (who’s a visual effects guy) created matte shots off the original film. So we all acted on green-screen and he laid us onto the original footage. It’s definite pays homage to the first film.
Q: What’s the status of Knock Knock? [Knock Knock was eventually released in 2010 as My Name Is Jerry, and included the first feature-film role of Steven Yuen, who went on to fame as Glenn in The Walking Dead.]
DJ: Knock Knock is in preproduction. It’s an independent film, and I love doing the independents in between the big studio films, because of the artistic freedom the directors have. The trickle-down from the directors is very lovely, and the creative juices flow in an independent setting. Knock Knock is a film from a young, up-and-coming director, produced back in the Midwest, and my alma mater, Ball State University, has provided grant money for the making of this film. I have the starring role as Jerry, a door-to-door book salesman, who is in his 40s and having a midlife crisis, who makes himself up and joins the Goth kids to try to rediscover himself. And he looks like an idiot doing it. Meanwhile, his 20-something daughter moves home to be with him, and she’s wondering what on earth has happened to her father. So it’s a fun little dramedy about self-discovery and coming of age for a 40-something-year-old man. [Laughs] I’m really looking forward to doing this one.