After a career wowing audiences in everything from Pan’s Labyrinth to the Fantastic Four, Hocus Pocus to Hellboy, and Men in Black to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, physical actor extraordinaire Doug Jones tells Saoirse Ní Chiaragáin about mime, his work with Guillermo del Toro, and the futureof the creature-feature
To many, Doug Jones is not a household name. More often than not he is known more for the imaginative and outlandish characters he has portrayed over the years, most notably in his work in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy films and the multi-Oscar nominated Pan’s Labyrinth. For almost thirty years, Jones has been Hollywood’s go-to masked man, rarely appearing in films or on television without layers of make-up and heavy prosthetics, and demand for his talents only continues to grow. As a natural contortionist with a background in mime, and boasting an incredible understanding of movement, Jones has consistently drawn the attention of directors both at home in the US, and abroad, over the course of his busy career.
With an interest in performance and acting cemented at an early age, Jones found himself compelled to join a student-run mime troupe during his time in university – the ingeniously named ‘Mime over Matter’. “I joined that group and fell in love with the art form,” he explains. “You take verbal dialogue away and all the dialogue has to come from your facial expressions and your gestures and creating props that aren’t there. Worlds that aren’t there – it was mesmerising to me.” Indeed, Jones’ popularity with directors owes a great debt to the nuanced abilities he gleaned from his time spent in the troupe, and mime still plays an important role in the actor’s life. Very recently Jones provided some 241 images of himself for Mime Very Own Book, a mime-themed coffee table book laden with pun-heavy captions such as ‘Mime after Mime’ and ‘A Mime is a Terrible Thing to Waste’, to name but a few.
Although he established himself as a solo mime artist after college, Jones’ aspirations as an actor persisted, and in 1985 he moved from his native Indiana (“Show business was not really prevalent in Indiana,” he sighs) to Los Angeles, California. After attending an acting class geared for television commercials, Jones attracted the attention of his first agent and was soon appearing in major advertising campaigns in elaborate costumes. “My first gigs that I got on TV commercials were costume character things,” he says. “That got me marked as ‘the guy who does that kind of work.’ So referrals kept coming from the creature effects industry and it would be one monster after another.” His entry into the niche area of “creature work” is still something that strikes him as completely auspicious, albeit unplanned, upon reflection. “I did not say ‘I want to wear rubber on my face and growl at people.’ That was not a goal,” he laughs. “I get messages on Facebook and Twitter all the time now from young people like, ‘I want to do what you’re doing! I want to be a monster in movies!’”
Since his early appearances in advertisements, Jones has appeared in everything from supernatural family films (Hocus Pocus), French musical biopics (Gainsbourg), and an Emmy Award-nominated, all-silent episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That being said, the stand-out performances of his long and diverse career can arguably be found in his collaborations with Guillermo del Toro. “He is my favourite director, ever. Any director I work with now knows that Guillermo comes first. It’s an understanding we all have,” he enthuses. Having worked together on a total of four feature films so far, Jones and del Toro are keen to pair up again sometime in the near future on an adaptation of Frankenstein, with Jones playing (surprise) Frankenstein’s Monster.
While Jones appears to be at no loss for upcoming work of late, one would be forgiven for assuming that the current era of CGI and green screen technology leaves little room for the old rubber-and-face-paint ways of traditional special effects. Jones, however, is adamant that the digital age presents no real threat to members of the special effects industry. “For a while there when CGI and visual effects were getting better and better, we all thought we were going to be unemployed,” he admits. “And movies did try to create characters entirely from computer graphics. I think what you find is, that when it’s being drawn and rendered at a computer, there is still something missing when a person’s not playing the role. Even if it’s an Andy Serkis situation where he’s playing Gollum, where they render the character later, that gives a computer character more heart, more soul.” Citing his experience playing the Silver Surfer in 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, he explains, “That was a great combination of visual effects and practical effects. I think what’s happening now is that you’re getting more costumed characters with computer enhancements. I think the combination is what’s selling best now, and that keeps everybody employed.”
Indeed, Jones’ own work is a benchmark for a kind of artistry that can’t be mimicked by graphics alone, and proves that Hollywood’s demand for professional creatures is unwavering.