By Matthew Sorrento.
Of all the tales of cinematic greats meeting, it ranks as one of the best: in 1997, actor Doug Jones arrived to a night re-shoot of a film called Mimic to do creature effects. On the second day during lunch, the film’s director – the still little-known Guillermo del Toro – sat across from the actor, resting his head in his hands: “So tell me everything you’ve been in, every monster you played.” Jones has described del Toro as a jolly, beautiful man from that meeting on. And yet, the filmmaker probably needed an excuse to watch Jones and let his imagination catch fire. Also a famed illustrator – well-documented in his 2013 book Cabinet of Curiosities and extras in Criterion’s recent release of his 2001 film, The Devil’s Backbone (spine no. 666) – del Toro saw the man who would realize the Faun and Pale Man in his modern fairy tale-cum-historical epic, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). We can’t help but think that the Faun, lurking in the back of del Toro’s mind, awakened from his tree-like state once the artist met his inspiration. Nearly a decade later, del Toro would tell Jones that he couldn’t have made the film without him – a kind tribute to a humble boy from the Midwest whose finest achievement ranks aside his greatest director’s. Having taken Jones’ card at their first meeting, del Toro pulled it out five years later during a design session for his film, Hellboy. Designs for the character of Abe Sapien looked a lot like Jones, and soon enough he was playing the role opposite Ron Perlman’s title character –when images of the Faun and Pale man continued to blossom in del Toro’s mind.
Jones had arrived to Hollywood years earlier hoping to land a role in a sitcom, to follow his lifelong love of funny sidemen on Dick van Dyke, I Love Lucy, and Mary Tyler Moore. His bodily flexibility brought him work in contortionist bits, like putting a leg over his head and fitting himself into boxes in commercials – though Jones clarifies that he never officially worked as one in a sideshow. Then one day, on a referral, he found himself at an audition for such work in a big Hollywood film. The stunt coordinator, impressed with his sample routine, left the room and came back with director Tim Burton. Seeing Jones at work, Burton hired him on the spot for the scripted role of the “Thin Clown” in Batman Returns, scheduled to film for three weeks but going three months. That film lead to Jones’ role as Billy Butcherson in Hocus Pocus (1993) and then, relative obscurity until meeting del Toro.
Today, Jones enjoys the success of a recurring role as Cochise, a benevolent alien, on TNT’s Falling Skies. Though he’s thrilled to appear in “non-suited” roles, like his new supporting part in Dust of War, a post-apocalyptic alien invasion film by writer-director Andrew Kightlinger, his feature debut. Jones is a down-to-earth fan of what he does – among his inspirations he includes Sam Rockwell, an unassuming presence who can transform himself onscreen. I caught up with Jones for a phone interview to discuss his curious career onscreen, his collaboration with del Toro, and his latest film.
First of all, I have to thank you for helping to bring Pan’s Labyrinth into existence.
Oh, God bless you – that’s so sweet. Thank you!
It’s such an amazing, perfect film – I assume of all you’ve done, it must be your favorite.
Yes, it is. As far as the artistic value of it, alone, the storytelling, the visuals, the music – and the aftereffect it’s had on the audience. It’s the longest lasting emotional piece I’ve ever done. I know people are going to tell me so for years to come.
You started out doing contortion bits, with aspirations of starring in a sit-com, and now you’re central to this deep, mythical art.
I was never a trained circus contortionist – it was party trick I developed and a special skill on my resume that people have cashed in on several times. Thanks goodness it got me into some early jobs that I wouldn’t have had otherwise [as the Thin Clown in Batman Returns and work in del Toro’s Mimic].
My mime training helped teach me that half of the dialog you speak is non-verbal. That was early groundwork for what I became. And when I came out to Hollywood, I was inspired by sit-coms and early variety shows – Dick Van Dyke, The Carol Burnett Show, Mary Tyler Moore – to play goofy characters that made something of themselves, like Gomer Pyle, Gilligan, Barney Fife. These kind of roles told me that it was okay to be a tall, goofy guy – that there’s a place for me. I hope to bring that inspiration to someone else.
From there, to Pan’s Labyrinth!
From being so tall and skinny – I’m six foot three and 140 pounds – that’s a great template for the creature-effects/makeup people to build upon. They can create a lot but also take away – for, let’s say, a half-eaten zombie – with a small bone structure. With my long, skinny neck, I’ve played a lot of aliens – right now, I’m playing Cochise on Falling Skies [Season 4 began on June 22, on TNT], and I just finished my second season on the show.
It’s great to see your extended success on the show. When did you realize how amazing of a project Labyrinth would be – at the script phase, seeing storyboards or designs, the makeup session?
When I first read the script, I closed the last page and wiped tears away and just said, oh…my…gosh. [Deep breath, reliving the moment] Yeah…and knowing it was going to be directed by Guillermo del Toro, too, who wrote this great script, that it would be in his care, it was a no-brainer that we had a hit on our hands. The fact that it would be in Spanish was the unknown factor. Too often I hear, “Oh, that’s subtitled, right?” Don’t be a dumbass! – Europeans do this all the time.
I was honored when Guillermo handed me the script, told me the role of the Faun was written for me, and that no one else could play it but me. It was very kind, but very intimidating, I may add. With that much faith in me, I thought, I’m going to ruin the movie. He also asked me to play the Pale Man, whom I call the Hand Man. At the time, I thought, “You cheap bastard, you want a second character for free – I get it!” [Laughs] But he had very specific reasons for having the same actor play both, since the Pale Man was a creation of the Faun. As the Faun, I send Ofelia, played by the great Ivana Baquero, on three tasks, one of them being the Pale Man, which she fails.
Another beautiful thing about the movie is that it concerns making choices and living with the repercussions of them. Del Toro always features children, the fears we have as children, and lessons we learn then. The film inspires young children – it teaches them that it’s okay to buck authority when it’s wrong. Especially with her stepfather, who’s the real monster of the movie. The film ignites imagination so well. I get a lot of young, dark-clothed, goth kids come to me, telling me how much they loved the film, how it inspired them to go do art. It’s great that the story can have the kind of effect on people.
What is your headspace like when you are doing this kind of role – during makeup and acting?
With the Faun, we had to keep the mystery whether he was good or evil, up until the end. I had to play elements of both – I was a trickster, I had to encourage her, then reprimand her. I had a lot on my plate, emotionally, as the Faun. Plus, I had to learn all the dialog in Spanish [later dubbed by Pablo Adán], while wearing horns, mechanical eyes spinning on my forehead, and up on stilts with my toes getting pinched.
Really, I was worried about failing the entire time I was filming, until the very last day when I realized, I think we just pulled this off. Then, when you’re standing on the red carpet at the Oscars a year later, it’s a full ride of a story that ends happily.
How was Guillermo as a director during those scenes?
He and I don’t have to say a lot. There’s a famous photo of us to, me facing him as the Faun. It was taken on the set – it was not posed. He came over to me after about two weeks of filming, and said, “I know you haven’t heard much direction from me… [now doing Guillermo’s voice] and that’s not because you’re doing it wrong, it’s because you are getting it right!” He’s the kind of director who thinks, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We did a lot of talking ahead of time, when he helped me find the physicality of the Faun and the Pale Man. So on the set, there was little to be said. He doesn’t spoil what’s being created while it’s in progress.
With the Pale Man, we kind of changed gears on that one. He originally asked for me to wake and walk discombobulatedly down the hall. But then he said it was way too fast, and too limb-y. So he ended up saying that it wasn’t working. He changed his direction and asked for something more like a George Romero zombie. And that made more sense, since he’d been sleeping for how long, and he’s probably cranky and hungry. That’s his motivation – he just wants to eat, and doesn’t know that he’s evil. Children is like eating hamburger to him. The final product you see was a short conversation.
People see him as such a symbolic character, that he may represent something as evil as child molestation, since he sees with eyes in his hands. But you just saw him as a guy who wanted to eat.
That’s all I saw in him. And that’s all I needed.
I just became a father not too long ago, and have hard time watching films in which children are hurt. But this doesn’t apply with Pan’s Labyrinth.
Yeah, and at the end Guillermo left it open to interpretation. The question I always get is whether the fantasyland was real, or was it a head trip she created for herself. Either one could be true. I believe that Guillermo did that on purpose so viewers would see both sides, and both audiences have what they want. I want to believe that it’s all real, that her making the right choices and taking the high road landed her with the reward at the end.
When I saw her reach Heaven at the end, unlikely with you on the throne, I couldn’t help but think that was her final fantasy at the moment of death.
Again, that’s a valid answer, since Guillermo is happy to have multiple interpretations at the end.
I enjoyed seeing you as “yourself” in the new apocalyptic/alien feature, Dust of War. Can you explain what drew you to the script?
This is a perfect example of why I love doing indies. A script was sent to my manager’s office from a filmmaker in South Dakota, Andrew Kightlinger. He did everything the right way – he approached my representation with respect and with good grammar. His script was a post-apocalyptic story, which is very popular now. But what came with it was a lot heart and soul, character interaction that had some meaning behind it. This has always interested me [in stories like this]. My character, Jebediah Strumm, is a song-and-dance man travelling with a band of merry minstrels in a desolate world – trying to make the desolate plains of South Dakota a happier place. If I was alive in a post-apocalyptic world, I would be the guy trying to lighten things up for everyone downtrodden. It’s a band of people led by Tony Todd – of course, The Candyman – working with him was an absolute plus. During my first meeting with Andrew via Skype, he expressed a great vision for the film and creativity. I could tell we were going to be on a fun and colorful ride on Dust of War – and he proved me right.
Did you like the human aspect of post-apocalyptic films you had seen previously?
Absolutely – even when watching The Road Warrior with Mel Gibson, it was the personal triumph of each person, good and bad, that interested me. This kind of story makes the audience think, “What would I do in that situation?” If pushed to the edge, with no water, electricity, how would I behave? A true character comes out in those situations.
Do you have a different approach to preparing for a “non-suit” role, since you’re so well known for suited performances? It must be refreshing to have just some dirt makeup applied in Dust of War.
[Laughs] Yes, well, but with all types of roles you have to find the heart and soul of the character. It starts the same, but the added bonus of preparation I do for costumed characters is that I have to find a physical language for these otherworldly creatures. In Pan’s Labyrinth, when you are playing part man, part goat, part tree, you have to incorporate various elements of those in the prep work. I went to a dance hall with mirrors, and took time to figure out how he moves, his posture, his physical language – even how he wakes up. The makeup test is also important, when I can see prosthetics that will accentuates movement or limits it. I need to tweak what I have prepared. It takes a village to make those characters, and the artists that I have worked with are some of the best in the world.
Coming from the Midwest, there’s strong values, ties to place, and I did incorporate that into Jebidah Strum, a sense of humor that comes from Indiana, my home state.
Did you want to add more humor in the role, or did you see it all in the script as written?
Thankfully, it was written very well – the humor and sarcasm that comes with Jebediah Strumm was there. I didn’t tweak my dialog at all, and I didn’t want to ruin it by adding my own words. My director and I agreed on how the character should come out.
It must be tough to have the role of the kindest person in the film!
Being the nicest character in the story comes with the territory of dealing with the children. When the caravan stops, we build a campfire, and my character has to corral the kids. When it’s time to help the leads, the children help me hide our people on the run, since I had gained the trust of children. I see being the nicest character as an advantage, really.
He is a performer. Do you think he’s wearing a mask? At the film’s end, there’s a suggestion – along with different characters – that he may be something totally different.
He is wearing a happy mask, though he feels the gravity of the situation – especially when our leader takes a plunge, and my character takes him in my arms. That’s quite an emotional swing to go on.
One thing I really liked about the project is that, there is an alien theme, but hardly any alien action. It’s great for low budget filmmaking, but also leaves you questioning the real involvement of the aliens.
You’ve had an amazing journey as an actor. Is there a certain type of role you want to take on next?
I’m still with Falling Skies for another season, which I have enjoyed a lot. But I have enjoyed playing human roles lately. I’m in an age bracket now where I can play doctors and scientists, lawyers, detectives – roles with smart dialog, who can be fancy and funny. I would love to do a higher profile romantic comedy, with someone like Sandra Bullock. It’s a genre I’ve never really done before – maybe be a goofy office mate, or a funny neighbor. That would be really fun for me.
Mostly non-fantasy, from now on?
No – I’d love to do a classic vampire [Jones played Caesare in Caligai in 2005, which he notes was fun, but intimidating]. If I could revive Dracula or Nosferatu, that would also be great fun.
Matthew Sorrento is Interview Editor of Film International. He teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ and is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012).