Interview: Hellboy II's Creature Mastermind - Doug Jones!
by Alex Billington
July 10, 2008
With the upcoming release of Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy II: The Golden Army this weekend, the talented Doug Jones yet again gets to showcase his brilliant creature acting in three roles: Abe Sapien, the Chamberlain, and the Angel of Death. Luckily I had the chance to interview Doug recently and it was truly an honor - he is one of my favorite actors who always does a fantastic job. His talents are limitless and he's captured my fascination as Abe in Hellboy, the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four, and the Faun in Pan's Labyrinth. Doug and I talked about the mythology of the character of Abe Sapien, about being a lost soul, how glad he was to finally hear his own voice for Abe, and his work with the now legendary Guillermo del Toro. If you're as big of a fan of his work as I am, this is an interview you should definitely read!
Not only is Doug the best creature actor currently working in Hollywood, but he is one of the nicest and kindest actors I've come across. Get this, Doug Jones first gig was as a mummy in a Southwest Airlines commercial. The role that made him big in the creature effects industry was playing the Mac Tonight moon piano player in the classic McDonald's commercials (on YouTube)! There's much more to those stories and all of his work as Abe in the interview below. It truly was a wonderful delight to chat with the man who's made so many wonderful creatures come to life. Read on for the complete interview below.
What were your first impressions when you read the script and heard about the love story in it? Were you excited for it?
Doug Jones: I was even tear jerked over it, yes, I was very excited for it. When I read the script the first time and saw how much of it Abe was in anyway, with so much story line and wielding a weapon and the buddy-buddy time with Hellboy and the brother-sister time with Liz Sherman, I was very excited because first, I'm crazy about Ron Perlman, I'm crazy about Selma Blair, and they're both the kind of actor that other actors want to work with. Getting that much more screen time with them this time than I had more than the first time - that was exciting to me, but then seeing this love story developing on the pages and by the end of the movie I was actually tearing up and getting a lump in my throat like 'Oh, Abe! Blessed!' When I finally saw Guillermo, I hugged him and I said, thank you so much for writing me the dream role. He really knocked this one out of the park.
It seems like with the two animated movies and the two live-action movies you've become very familiar with the mythology of Abe from Mike Mignola's comics. Could you talk about how you've seen the progression of the character and how much you've fallen in love with playing Abe?
Jones: I have fallen in love with him, absolutely, and as with any character I play, I like to become friends with that character. I do like to open myself up, invite him in, and let him become a part of me, good or evil, they all kind of – I need to like them. I need to understand them and see what motivates them and all that. Abe is one of those characters that I loved immediately on the first Hellboy movie, for sure, I did love him and he represented a couple of things that I've always felt weak in, like his intellect, but what I understood… It was fun to play an intelligent character and my oldest brother Bob is a college professor. He's got a PhD in Molecular Biology. It's hard for me to even say that word, let alone have a PhD in it, so he was kind of like a mental character study for me to help with Abe, so I kind of had an understanding and whatnot, but his empath-ness, his empathy, the way he sees with his hands is something I really connected with because I'm that person too. I can look at your shoes but to touch them is like, now I really see them…
So that part of Abe made perfect sense to me immediately. So he was delicious to play in the first movie, but kind of a one note, he was a sidekick that had a very linear sort of one level storyline. In this one, in the second movie now, well, let me go to animated films though. In the animated films, we saw a lot of action with Abe there, and a lot of time punching people and slugging vampires and screaming a lot and things that you didn't see Abe do in the first movie, so that kind of broadened the world of Abe Sapien to me a lot. Now coming into Hellboy II, I got to do more of that again, smacking tooth fairies in the face and shooting guns off, but finding that part of the storyline of Abe, that I left the movie going 'awww, that was satisfying to me', was this love story with the Princess Nuala played by the gorgeous and talented Anna Walton. That really left me warmed in the heart, because it's one thing to have an intelligent character, but to discover his emotional side. I'm discovering his emotional side for the first time as is Abe, and Abe didn't know he had one. He knows he's had a great mind for 150 years, he's been around, absorbing everything, and he can spit out any knowledge he's ever seen or heard, he can spit it out to you right now, so that's a great prowess to bring to the team, but this emotional thing… Like 'wait, so another being can make my heart pound in a way that I've never felt before and can affect my decision and affects my brain? Wow!' But easy to tap into because we've all been through it.
There was that crush in high school, or seventh grade or whatever, where you were like 'Oh dear, emotions! What's happening to me?' That pubescent thing that happens and been there, done that, got the t-shirt – and the heartache. So that was a fun storyline to-- Abe has always been something of a lost soul, as is Hellboy, and I think that's why people can relate to them is because we all feel like freaks in our real life at some point. Here you've got these two characters, and Liz Sherman, she's a freak in her own right too, doesn't look like one on the outside but then she sets herself on fire – okay, freak! So, between the three of us, I think we represent the freak in all of us, in all of humanity, we all feel, even supermodels that I've known, feel insecure and freaky at times. There's no way around it, somehow, and you're always sure that you're the only one. Well, I think this movie and a storyline like this helps us open the book that no, we all feel like freaks and instead of pointing the finger and calling each other freaks, let's band together and put our arms around each other and say 'freaks unite' and rule the world.
So that's the good part. Now, but Abe, not knowing– none of us being accepted by the outside world, we're kind of hidden from the outside world and this is how I've known my existence ever since I was found in a tank in the basement of an abandoned hospital, I've been kept in secret, as has Hellboy. So knowing there's a world out there, I've studied it, I've read it, I've seen it on TV, haven't been a part of it, haven't been accepted by that world – lost soul. Princess Nuala comes along. She's in exile from her world. Her world is crumbling and her family is falling apart and her brother is running amuck and he's become our nemesis, our bad guy that's to be feared, and so she's a lost soul as well, and she's finding like she's a freak and she's in exile in a new world that is unfamiliar to her. So these two lost souls finding each other is just charming, and to watch them both go through this innocent awkward – 'I like you, I kind of like you, too. Oh really! Really?' – is just, how much fun was that to play?! And I'll tell you what, working with Anna Walton, in those scenes, she's that kind of actress that when the camera rolls and Guillermo yelled action, all of a sudden the crew, the lights, everything that wasn't a part of the story went away, and the Princess became alive, Abe was alive and we were really having this moment, it was that kind of an acting satisfaction that most actors dream about having.
And how was it to finally hear your voice as Abe?
Jones: Again, the word 'satisfaction' comes to mind. I have been acting for twenty-some years now and I've been voiced over only three times [in Hellboy by David Hyde Pierce, in Fantastic Four 2 by Laurence Fishburne, and in Pan's Labyrinth by Pablo Adán]. The misconception is that I'm always voiced over – not so. It's happened three notable times, and in big movies with big characters, but I've had the honor and pleasure of being able to play many colorful, wonderful characters over the years that I've seen and heard when I see the finished product. So being able to see Hellboy II: The Golden Army and to watch Abe Sapien and hear him, and know that it's all me, was – I feel like I got the rest of my baby back, like he was missing his legs or something, and now they're back and now he's back in my arms and I can rock the whole baby now -- that's what I feel like.
With these creature roles and costume roles, like the Silver Surfer, do you seek a challenge within each one or do you just go in and just love playing it and just enjoy doing it -- do you always look for a way to challenge yourself when you get into these?
Jones: No, the challenges are definitely presented to me. I don't need to look for anything harder than I've already got. No, the funny thing is I never really sought out to do this particular type of work in the first place. There are people on MySpace and Facebook that get a hold of me out of the blue, someone in some country that I can't even pronounce going 'I want to do what you do. How do I get started?' And that was never me. I was never the guy going 'I want to be a monster. Who can I talk to about it?' I was a geeky gangly kid from Indiana who is now a geeky gangly adult. Moved out here to California in 1985, seeking my fame and fortune and thinking that I was going to be a shoo-in to be a series regular on a sitcom, a goofy next door neighbor, the tall awkward white guy who can walk in, do an armpit fart, say something funny and leave. And I'd be a sensation, I was sure of it!
But my first couple of jobs were in TV commercials. The very first job I got was a dancing mummy for Southwest Airlines, in a commercial where I was wrapped from head-to-toe in dirty bandages and dancing and [growls]. That kind of work liked me and that kind of work kept coming and looking for me. The third job I ever got was the Mac Tonight campaign for McDonald's [YouTube]. Mac Tonight was a crescent moon-headed character in a big mask with sunglasses on and he sang at a piano on a cloud floating around singing about McDonald's product. And it became a hugely successful campaign that went on for 27 commercials, three years later they finally closed it out and that's when I kind of became marked as -- no, the ripple effect went throughout the creature effects industry that there's a tall, skinny guy out there named Doug Jones who wears things that are cumbersome and moves well in them and doesn't complain. The not complaining part is actually 75% of why they would refer me, because actors tend to be -- we're selfish beasts and when it comes to discomfort it's like, most of us don't have that. So to find someone who is like, whatever you say, I'll do it-- I've known all along that when you say 'yes' to doing a role that involves a look that that's extreme, you're saying 'yes' to hours of make-up, maybe some costuming that's heavy and mechanics that are making noises in your ears or poking at your back or whatever, you're saying 'yes' to all that, and I know that now, so I don't ever go in and go, 'ahh, well this is hot!' And I don't have the right to say that because I said yes to the part, didn't I?
Well that's why I was asking. because you're so incredibly talented and you're one of the only people who can really do those kind of roles so well.
Jones: That's very kind of you to say.
And to me, I watch this and it looks so easy from you end, but obviously there are challenges.
Jones: Well, that's the hugest compliment I've received – my goal for you as an audience member is to, when you watch what I do, to look at me as though I'm an organic being that woke up that way that day, that I'm not a guy in make up in a suit. Hopefully that's what I've been pulling off and it takes a long process to get to that point because when you first put things on for the first time or you're reading the script and trying to find the character, you do feel like a guy in suit for a while, during the rehearsal process and the fittings and all of that. But by the time the camera is rolling and they're yelling action, my responsibility is to be at that organic point.
And I'm honestly fully impressed by it.
Jones: Thank you, that's very sweet of you.
Why do you think Guillermo del Toro loves working with you so much? Or why do you guys have such a great relationship?
Jones: Well, here's where I get to boast about myself! Well, Guillermo is one of those people who, I'm not the only person he's collected over the years. He's collected a lot of people over the years on all levels of filmmaking. He collects a lot of young film students who want to be a production assistant on one of his movies and if he likes your personality, works well with you and respects your creativity, he'll keep him on the team and will use them again and again for different things. He has music submitted to him on his little email address that's open to the fans. Someone will send him a little file of a song, and if he likes it it might show up in his next film, and once he's met you, worked with you, likes you, has a connection with you, and develops a language with you, which he has with me, he's loyal, he's as loyal as a hound dog.
So I think what happened, he's a fanboy number one and when he first met me, it was on Mimic, and he was a big fan of creature, monstery type characters and that kind of work over the years. So when he met me he knew that I came from a history of doing that already – by 1997, I had done quite a bit of that. So he sat and listened to me talk about myself when we first met and then five years later Hellboy came around and he was presented with the idea of using me for Abe Sapien. He pulled my card out of his wallet and remembered that I still existed. So Hellboy was sort of what cemented it for us, so what's happened over these years, four films later, is that we have a shorthand.
When I read one of his scripts and visualize what his intentions are and then I hear from him 'what are your storytelling intentions for this movie, for this character, or these characters that he'd want me to play?' I get a ton of information in a short amount of time. Just to give you a tidbit, when it was the Chamberlain character of Hellboy II, he, and this is a prime example of all the characters he's ever had me play, but this is a great little story. He met with me at the creature shop when I was doing one of my things for the Chamberlain character and he said, 'Doug, now for the Chamberlain. I'm picturing… I see him as sort of an ewwww!' That's all he did, a sound effect and a motion with the hands, and instantly, I knew who the Chamberlain was. I knew and he never directed me again on that character. We were on set, he yelled action. We did the thing. He never gave me tweaks or said 'I want it more like this or more like that,' or gave me – nothing. So that's the kind of shorthand that we developed -- he makes a sound effect and a gesture. I understand it and on the day, I've worked on my own at home, and I come back ready for it to go.
At to wrap it up, what are your five favorite films? Sorry to put you on the spot…
Jones: No, no, that's fine. I have five -- I think I can come up with them. It's a chick flick, romantic, but it's got a little bit of a sci-fi bent to it with time travel, it's called Somewhere in Time (1980) with Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeves. He travels back in time to find this love and Jane Seymour, drool, gaga! Comedy: Airplane! (1980), the first Airplane! movie – funniest thing I've ever seen and groundbreaking, it was the first of that ilk of film with all those sight gags and I laughed my ass off. That's two. Meet Joe Black (1998). Another love story chick flick but with again, performances, Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt and Claire Forlani as the love interest, oh stop already! It was really, really good storytelling. It was long, but I wanted it to be even longer. I really like to get to know characters that well. Beautiful film and my co-star Jeffrey Tambor was in that as well. He did a good job. Another comedy: Waiting for Guffman (1996). Anything Christopher Guest does. That was actually years after the rock 'n roll movie, Spinal Tap, and then came Best in Show and A Mighty Wind and all those, I just love all of them, but Waiting for Guffman was the one about putting on a local community theater play, in which I've been in that world and he hit it spot on, it was so funny. That's four, and a fifth one I will say – okay, I've got two here, can I do six?
Jones: Notting Hill (1999). Julie Roberts, Hugh Grant. Something about the movie star meets the man who owns a books store and the differences of their worlds and the charm of romantic comedy always gets me. And then Waking Ned Divine (1998). I love that movie! Again, it wasn't like a yuck yuck fest, but you find yourself, the laughter, snowballing over the movie and you would just get to know these people so well and I love seeing elderly, experienced, well-worn people acting like children, it was wonderful. There you go. I gave you six, I'm sorry.
Oh no, it works!
Jones: So you didn't put me on the spot, I could have gone on.
Thanks to Doug Jones at everyone at Universal for arranging this interview! Jones is one of my favorite actors and he does a phenomenal job playing the three various creatures in Hellboy II: The Golden Army. The film hits theaters this weekend - be sure to check it out!