When Doug Jones stepped into a quiet diner in the San Fernando Valley in mid-October, a handful of other patrons in the restaurant craned their heads to look at him. It's easy to understand why. At 6 feet 3 inches tall and 140 pounds, Jones' slender, sinewy frame and narrow, angular face make him look almost otherworldly — kind of like a living special effect.
Chances are high that the people in that diner thought they had never seen anyone like Jones before in their lives. But chances are almost as high that they have — possibly many times — and just never realized it.
That is because Jones is inconspicuously one of the most prolific working actors in Hollywood. He's approached Samuel L. Jackson levels of ubiquity, with over 150 credits spanning 30 years, including iconic performances in cult sensations like Hocus Pocus in 1993, Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1999, Hellboy in 2004, and Pan's Labyrinth in 2006. This fall, he's enjoying two of the highest-profile roles of his career, in the CBS All Access series Star Trek: Discovery (which just streamed its midseason finale on Nov. 12) and the Guillermo del Toro feature film The Shape of Water (which won the top prize at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, and will open in theaters starting Dec. 1).
And yet, in all of those projects, and many more like them, Jones hasn't shown his face, or any other part of his body. With the aid of elaborate latex and silicone masks, intricate costumes, and painstaking makeup, the 57-year-old has largely spent his career bringing to life a menagerie of aliens, demons, beasts, angels of death, and moon-headed fast-food pitchmen.
"It's been too many," Jones said of all the roles populating his IMDb profile with characteristic self-effacement. "I know, I know."
Jones is in high demand thanks to a distinctly idiosyncratic set of skills. "A creature performer needs to be a very odd combination of marathon runner and a mime, who can express himself through layers and layers of latex and acrylic and silicon," said del Toro, who has worked with Jones on six of his feature films. "It's a very, very rare discipline … [and] there are very, very few that are actual actors, in my opinion, that go beyond being able to work in a suit or under makeup. Doug is a proper actor. When you need that level of finesse, Doug is the only one I've met that I trust with that level of commitment and craftsmanship and artistry."
In person, Jones is voluble and friendly company, but he's not all that keen on preening over his one-of-a-kind professional success. "I'm hired because I'm a tall, skinny guy — with other talents, I hope," he said. "But the creature effects guys love to start with a skinny, long palette, because they can build on it and not make it too bulky." He shrugged off any suggestion that he's cracked the code for enduring multiple hours of makeup application each day — "I sit there, basically, or I stand there" — and he chalks up maintaining his strikingly lean physique to a "very boring" exercise routine of elliptical machines and light dumbbell lifting, and "the metabolism of a 16-year-old."
He is also remarkably candid about the sacrifices and setbacks he's endured building his remarkable and rarefied career. "It is isolating," he said. "I'm not always in the mood to talk and banter and joke around [on set], because I'm trying to survive the day in a different way than everyone else is." But Jones hasn't merely survived — he's thrived, by charting a rail-thin, serpentine path as an actor who's become an expert at obliterating his own appearance. Jones has also discovered, however, that his willingness to be unrecognizable in Hollywood has made it that much harder for Hollywood to recognize his singular talents.
Stumbling through early success: Mac Tonight, Batman Returns, Hocus Pocus, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer
When Jones moved from Indiana to Los Angeles in 1985, his dream was to become a sitcom star. "I was a goofy fellow who related to Jerry Lewis and Dick Van Dyke and Gilligan's Island," he said. "I thought I would be one of them. I never set out to do costume work. I didn't know that was really a career option."
But there were two special skills on Jones' early résumé — a background in mime, and the ability to put his legs behind his head like a contortionist — that landed him auditions for physically driven gigs, like a Southwest Airlines commercial as a dancing mummy. "I was wrapped from head to toe in dirty bandages," Jones said with a wry smile, "boding of things to come."
In 1986, Jones booked a regional McDonald’s ad campaign aimed at driving more dinnertime business in California, as a character dubbed "Mac Tonight" in which he wore a shiny suit and a giant mask of a crooning crescent moon. "The ad agency later said that I had the right 'Love ya, babe' attitude to play like a cool-cat nightclub guy that sung about burgers," Jones said.
The ads were a hit, and the Mac Tonight campaign went national, and then global; Jones ended up shooting 27 ads over three years. "I bought my first condo with that," he said. "So that was a happy thing."
Less happy was the fact that no one could see Jones' face, which meant, in the company's eyes, that he was expendable. "I never got [paid] above scale, and they wouldn't even hear any offers," Jones said. "Their argument was 'We can put anybody else in there.' It's a really tough place to be in, when you're trying to defend what you brought to the table and yet stay humble about it, because, you know, I don't think I'm all that."
Jones sighed. "It took me decades of keeping my representation onboard with, whenever they heard that rhetoric of 'Oh, we could just replace him with anybody' to try to alter the sales job to 'If you want to put your costume on a hanger, it's going to look pretty, but it has to move, it has to emote, so you really need an actor in there, not just a monkey,'" he said. "That's been the challenge, but I think we got there. Eventually, we got there."
The first major step on that road came almost by accident, when he was called in to demonstrate his extreme flexibility for the stunt coordinator of the 1992 blockbuster Batman Returns — and ended up also showing off his abilities to the film's director, Tim Burton. "I thought, oh, this sounds like it's a sight gag that will work a day or two," Jones said. "A half-hour later they come back in the room, and Tim says, 'Well, congratulations, you got the part.' And I was like, 'The part? There's a part?'"
Taken with Jones' beanpole stature, Burton cast him as the "Thin Clown," part of the gang of rogue circus performers led by the lead villain, the Penguin (Danny DeVito). Jones had barely any lines, but he ended up working for 14 weeks on the project, and shared many scenes with DeVito and Christopher Walken.
Batman Returns also led directly to Jones' audition for the 1993 Halloween family comedy Hocus Pocus, as the loose-limbed zombie Billy Butcherson. It was by far Jones' most prominent part to date — even if, again, it was largely silent and, again, his face was obscured with exaggerated makeup. The movie was also a flop (opening in July probably didn't help), but in the years since, it's become a generational touchstone, and Billy has become one of Jones' signature roles.
"Hocus Pocus is the one that people see that picture on my [autograph] table at a convention, and” — Jones exploded with a loud gasp, throwing his hand to his face — “'That's Billy! Was that you?!'" Jones smiled, almost sheepishly. "I understand this. If I met Ray Bolger from The Wizard of Oz, I would wet my pants."
Throughout the ’90s, however, Jones remained in obscurity, bouncing between small, nameless roles that usually amounted to no more than a couple days of work. When Jones landed an audition for Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1999, he didn't really expect it to be any different — once more, the role had no lines, and Jones hadn't been given a script. So when he stepped into the audition room, he was surprised to see executive producer Joss Whedon sitting among the other producers and the casting director. "We were given the instruction, 'Pretend there's someone lying in front of you, and you just step up quietly, smile as big and teethy as you can the entire time, and act like you are surgically cutting this person's heart out, and then hand the heart to someone in the room and smile about it,'" Jones recalled, before relaying his response with a deadpan smile: "'Oh, OK.'"
The audition was for the Season 4 episode "Hush," which turned out to be of the most beloved hours in the show's history. Jones was auditioning to play one of a terrifying coterie of demons called the Gentlemen who rob everyone of their voices in order to quietly steal their hearts. Jones learned later that the production had created masks that froze the character’s faces in a petrifying rictus grin. But Jones’ own evil grin in the audition won everyone over so much that not only did he get the part as one of the lead Gentlemen, the producers modified his character’s makeup to keep Jones’ natural smile.
"You know that thing when you're at a wedding and you're smiling for pictures over and over again, and you're [saying], 'I can't feel my face anymore'?" Jones said, pressing into his cheeks. "Well, we had that for like eight days in a row."
Jones’ performance, alongside a fellow Gentleman played by Camden Toy, proved so chillingly memorable that they started appearing in Buffy's opening credits. "We got residual checks on that, too," Jones said. "It was a huge honor for guest stars in one episode. And we also became action figures!"
That same year, Jones appeared in the war satire Three Kings, in a scene with George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube. The role also required Jones to take on a cadaverous mien — because he was playing a dead Iraqi soldier lying in the desert.
"One split second," Jones said of his screen time, with a What can you do? grin. "I was cheaper than a silicone dummy would have been to make."
Big breaks and big setbacks: Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth, and Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Jones first met Guillermo del Toro on the set of his 1997 horror thriller Mimic, playing, essentially, a giant cockroach. It was only for a few days of reshoots, but the actor still made an indelible impression on the filmmaker.
"He was the only guy handling the suits who was really, really preoccupied with imbuing these things with character," del Toro said.
Five years later, when del Toro was developing his adaptation of the beloved comic series Hellboy, he thought of Jones again. There was a crucial central character — an intelligent sea creature named Abe Sapien — who necessitated a full-body costume and elaborate facial makeup that took seven hours to apply before filming. For del Toro, there was practically no one but Jones who could do the job.
There was, however, one big catch: Del Toro told Jones up front that his vocal performance would likely be replaced by another, more well-known actor.
"I wilted at that news," Jones recalled. "I had the foresight to know that if I'm voiced over by somebody more famous than me, the thought [would be], Oh, okay, he must not be able to act. I was fighting that stigma. … It was a big deal and a big character, and now I'd have to explain that for the rest of my life."
Jones said he "begged" del Toro to reconsider, and they came to an agreement. "He said, 'Give us the voice that the character needs, and your name will be a part of all those names being considered for this,'" Jones recalled.
So that's what Jones did. "I felt like I was auditioning for the part I already got every day," he said. On set, Jones remembered getting a flood of positive feedback, including up to when he was brought in months later for the standard process of rerecording Abe's dialogue. "While I was on my lunch break that day, the sound engineer caught me in the hallway and said, 'Doug, I've got to tell you, I love the voice you're giving Abe,'" Jones recalled. "I drove home from that voice ADR session thinking, They need to look no further. We are done here."
Two weeks later, del Toro called Jones to tell him that David Hyde Pierce would be performing the voice of Abe Sapien. Jones burst into tears.
"I'm not going to try to act like I was bigger than I am," he said. "I was crestfallen."
The way Jones explains it, the casting decision was driven by marketing — Pierce had just wrapped the final season of NBC's Frasier and was at the peak of his fame. Del Toro, however, said that he'd always had Pierce in mind. "I wrote the part thinking of David Hyde Pierce and how fastidious Niles was on Frasier," he said. "That was my entry point to Abe Sapien in the movies."
Regardless of the reason, Pierce ultimately declined to take a credit on the film "out of respect for Doug," said del Toro. The director even recalled Pierce saying during his recording session, "I want to try to sound like Doug."
"People don't do that," Jones said, still clearly touched 13 years later. "I never would have expected it or asked for that."
Unfortunately, Hellboy wasn't the last time he had to come to terms with a decision to dub over his voice.
For 2006's Pan's Labyrinth, though, Jones actually welcomed it. Del Toro had set his phantasmagoric fable about a young girl navigating a world of fauns, faeries, and demons in 1944 Franco-era fascist Spain, and kept the script in its native language.
"I read an English translation of the script, and so I got so lost in this beautiful story. By the time I closed the last page, I'm wiping tears away, going, 'Oh, glory be, of course I have to do this movie,'" Jones recalled. Del Toro had told Jones that he absolutely needed him to play the ancient faun who guides the girl on her journey, but once Jones realized that he would have to actually speak Spanish, he almost turned it down.
"The Faun gives paragraphs of expository speech," said Jones. "I told Guillermo, 'I'm going to ruin your movie with this language.'" Del Toro, however, would not be dissuaded. "He said, 'You can count to 10 for all I care, I'll dub over it later, but you've got to play the role,'" said Jones.
Instead, Jones learned the language well enough to deliver the dialogue with genuine meaning and inflection — and with the complete understanding that a Spanish actor would need to rerecord his lines. "That was okay, because the cadence and the whole performance was mine," Jones said.
That performance included walking on stilts that made Jones 7 feet tall, wearing a mask that reduced his vision to little more than a pinhole, and sharing a scene with an 11-year-old girl without somehow trampling her. After spending five hours every morning applying the costume, Jones had to remain in it all day; even resting between takes required special accommodation. Due to the character’s mechanized tail, Jones had to sit on a modified bicycle seat and lean forward on a special bar.
"To me, it was another sign of what kind of actor Doug is," said del Toro. "A guy who commits — and when he commits, he's of a piece with the part."
Ironically, while the lion’s share of Jones' time and energy for Pan's Labyrinth was spent on the Faun, it's the other character he played in the film — for just one, terrifyingly memorable scene — that remains arguably the most enduring character of his entire career: the Pale Man, a pallid, loose-skinned monster who eats children and sees only through eyes on the palms of his hands. "He's the one who ended up on magazine covers and being iconically redrawn in cartoons," Jones said. "That's the character that really stuck."
It stuck so much that Pan's Labyrinth, nominated for six Oscars, won three, including for Best Makeup — largely on the strength of Jones' two characters.
It was yet another career pinnacle for him; reviews actually credited Jones for his performances. The next year, he reached another new height, starring in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer in the chrome-covered title role. Jones remembered his costars — like Chris Evans and Jessica Alba — specifically complimenting him on his vocal performance. When he rerecorded his dialogue, the sound engineer even suggested Jones say his lines a second time in whisper, and then merged them together.
"It sounded otherworldly and eerie and yet heroic," Jones recalled with a wistful smile. "I wish you could have heard it.” Two days later, with no warning, Jones read in the Hollywood Reporter that Laurence Fishburne would be performing the voice of the Silver Surfer.
"I was just: 'Not again. Not again!'" Jones said, burying his head in his hands. "Another uphill battle of fighting to convince people that I really can act. You want other people to say that about you. You don't want to have to say it about yourself."
Learning to love a life in makeup: Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Legion, Falling Skies, Star Trek: Discovery, The Shape of Water, and Nosferatu
Fortunately, by the time del Toro was ready to make 2008's Hellboy II: The Golden Army, he did know Jones could act: Not only did Jones perform Abe Sapien's voice in the sequel, the director cast Jones in two more roles, most notably the terrifying Angel of Death.
"I think he's, if not the most committed, one of the most committed actors I've ever worked with," del Toro said. "I have seen him literally bleed for a part. Like, the Angel of Death, the mechanism that moved the wings and the eyes in that creature was so heavy that it broke his skin, under the costume, under the makeup, under everything. And Doug soldiered on until we finished that day. I have perpetual admiration for that."
Despite his disappointments, Jones had built enough of a body of work that he was also generating a real fanbase, including among other filmmakers. For 2010's Legion, Jones said director Scott Stewart specifically sought him out for a small role of a (demonic) ice cream delivery man. "He thought if anybody has been following my career, it would be a special treat for them to see me come out of the ice cream truck as a guy that looks like Doug Jones, and then I morph into something hideous," Jones said with a smile.
By 2013, Jones had landed his very first series regular role, on TNT's sci-fi drama Falling Skies, as a friendly alien named Cochise. The character had "paragraphs of dialogue" to deliver according to Jones, and it called on him to wear a full mask with static, wide-set eyes that were digitally animated in postproduction. It was the first time the actor had to face the prospect of wearing makeup every day, for multiple months in a year, for an indefinite run of a show.
"Wearing rubber on my face is not a problem," Jones said. "Doing that while having to have my mind as active as it had to be for that much important dialogue — that's the hard combination. … I had to overcome a little bit of depression, wondering, Am I doomed to wear rubber and glue for the rest of my life?"
He paused, as if catching himself. "I shouldn't have said 'doomed,'" he said. "But I think it's because of the isolation. When you're on set with your costars between scenes, you're sitting in your chairs, you're getting snacks, you're telling stories about what happened last night, or whatever, and I'm the one who is doing this from behind a mask. I have no peripheral vision, and I can't hear as well as everybody else because I've got rubber over my ears, so I'm sitting amongst the banter that I would love to be more of an active part of, and I just can't participate that much. I'm a very sociable person, so when I'm in a group of people and I can't interact with them as easily as they're all interacting with each other, it's isolating and lonely."
Like with everything else in his career, however, Jones soldiered on, staying with Falling Skies for three seasons until it ended in 2015. A year later, he got a call from Bryan Fuller, who was starting to cast Star Trek: Discovery, the first new Trek TV series in 12 years, and he wanted to Jones to be a part of the show.
"I mean, he was almost cast without a character," said executive producer Aaron Harberts, who took over as showrunner of Star Trek: Discovery with Gretchen J. Berg after Fuller left the show. "Bryan just really wanted to work with him, and we didn't know what Doug was gonna do. We really didn't."
"It shocked me," Jones said of Fuller's offer. But he still had to confront once again the prospect of an open-ended run with latex and silicone cemented to his head. When he showed up for his first makeup test for Saru, the brand new alien Fuller had concocted for him to play on Discovery, Jones recognized some pivotal issues with the initial design of the character. The biggest example: Saru had 10 eyes, which rose up in giant crescent shapes above his head. The hefty design had to be held up by a helmet underneath the makeup, which kept slipping forward any time Jones looked down.
"In order to make it not slip so much, it would have to be tightened to a degree where, you know, I would need ibuprofen every day,” said Jones. “I could do it if it was a two-day role — I would gut through that. But looking at a multiple-year contract, well, that's a lot."
Jones offered his feedback, and the production completely redesigned the character "so that Doug Jones, the actor, came shining through," Harberts explained. Saru only has two eyes now, and they actually belong to the actor (albeit with scleral contact lenses that cover his entire eye), affording Jones an emotional tool long denied him for so many of his roles. The makeup application time is "ridiculously short" — just under two hours. Other than startlingly realistic silicone pieces for Saru's hands and arms — "I've never had [costume] gloves that look so real" — and a pair of hooflike boots that add five more inches to Jones' considerable height, the rest of the character is just Jones' own slim body.
By stark contrast, Jones' most recent film and latest collaboration with del Toro, The Shape of Water, subsumes the actor's appearance almost entirely, and yet it has also been one of Jones' greatest acting challenges to date. He plays an amphibious humanoid creature captured by a sinister government agent (played by Michael Shannon) and housed in a secret facility, where he encounters Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a woman who cannot speak who works as part of the cleaning crew. Unlike Abe Sapien, however, this creature is still very much a wild animal — with intelligence, but no language — and yet his relationship with Elisa swiftly transcends interspecies boundaries.
"He is the romantic leading man of the film," said Jones. "Guillermo wanted him to be sexy. … [I had to] make this animal from the wild be connectable, relatable, lovable, so not only does Sally Hawkins' character fall in love with him, but the audience does too." His eyes went wide. "That's a lot."
If the gravity of the role wasn't already apparent to Jones from the script, del Toro made the stakes clear before filming began. "He pulled me into a room by myself, and he said, 'I need you to be an actor, not a performer,'" Jones said. "'I don't want you to give me a Dougie performance.' And he did a flourish of the hand when he said that. 'I want a real, living, breathing character.' I got what he was saying. I could tell that this character meant the world to him."
“The caliber of the cast that we were having needed every commitment to that partnership,” said del Toro. “I think that you cannot have a scene with Michael Shannon or Sally Hawkins without bringing your A game. Suit or no suit, Doug needed to inhabit the character.”
Judging by the rapturous reception The Shape of Water received at the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto Film Festivals this fall, Jones more than lived up to his director’s soaring expectations. And with CBS All Access recently picking Star Trek: Discovery up for a second season (the show's first season will resume on Jan. 7, 2018), Jones has embraced the eccentricities of his chosen profession.
In fact, he recently fulfilled a career-long ambition, starring in filmmaker David Lee Fisher's spoken-dialogue version of the 1922 F.W. Murnau silent movie classic Nosferatu, due to debut in 2018. The makeup was even created by the same artist, Mike Elizalde, who worked with Jones on Hellboy and Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer. (Jones even transformed himself into the creature for the photo shoot accompanying this story.)
"I've been asked, 'Is there one [creature] you haven't played that you would love to?'" Jones said. "And my answer had been, for decades, 'Well, I've never played a vampire.'” He put his gangly fingers up to his face in an almost self-mocking pose. “I'm too old and gross to be a sparkly, pretty young one, so I would like to play an old, gross vampire — and I think Nosferatu would be the perfect one."
He began rapping the table with excitement. "That's my dream come true," he said, his smile glowing. "Are you kidding? I can't be more excited about it." ●
Adam B. Vary is a senior film reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Adam B. Vary at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.