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“You’re a dead guy, you’re being risen from the grave to help a witch on her hunt for her magical book. You’ve got some history with her that’s not pleasant; you were once lovers and then she poisoned you and sewed your mouth shut.”
That’s roughly what actor Doug Jones was told to prepare for his audition as Billy Butcherson in Kenny Ortega’s 1993 Halloween comedy Hocus Pocus. The screen test took place in a dance studio, where he physically enacted those instructions, made the director laugh, and found out he had booked the role before he got home. Reading the actual script for the movie came later, and that’s when Jones found out how substantial the role really was. Even though he only had one verbal line of dialogue — there was “tons” of visual dialogue throughout the entire film.
“I’ve learned the difference now and the similarities that dialogue is dialogue whether it’s verbal or not,” Jones tells The Hollywood Reporter, days before a Hocus Pocus reunion, with stars Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy, is set to take place 27 years after the movie first released.
He did not anticipate we’d still be talking about this movie in the year 2020. “I thought we were going to have a huge box office hit and that my face might be on some lunch boxes and things, and some toys, and that it would fade out with time, like most movies might,” says Jones, who as a child was heavily influenced by the “funny people” he saw on TV and in movies growing up, especially those characters who weren’t the romantic leads. “I wanted to be one of them,” he recalls.
Jones adds that later on at parties, he would sometimes contort his legs behind his head, which garnered various shocking reactions. He was drafted into a mime troupe in college, which then ignited his performance career. “The first agent that I had knew that I was bendable, flexible, with the contorting thing on my resume and also the miming work, so that meant physical tom-foolery and often that comes with costumes and makeup so I was submitted for lots of roles that involved heavy costuming and makeup.”
Before Hocus Pocus, Jones had only appeared in one studio movie, Batman Returns. Now over a 30-year career thus far, he has transformed into various monsters, creatures and characters such as the amphibian man in The Shape of Water and the Mac Tonight Guy in a long-running McDonalds campaign, as well as performing in many roles where he appears looking more like “himself,” such as Adaptation.
Of his expectations of Hocus Pocus, Jones recalls that the film had the opposite effect to what he thought would happen. “It didn’t open very big and just got bigger with time, television airings and home video, people’s DVD collections, and now the fans that grew up with us are having kids of their own so we have a second wave of fans coming,” the actor continues. “The movie is more known worldwide than it ever has been and with a bigger fan base than it’s ever had before.”
Morphing into Billy Butcherson only took an hour and a half each day, Jones explains, as makeup artists Tony Gardner and Margaret Prentice used a prosthetics piece for the face, neck and collarbone that was one piece, pre-molded and pre-painted. For the hands, they were just gloves that he would slip on. “I was baffled at the speed at which they did it,” Jones says, adding that watching the artistry involved is a process he always finds stunning. “The best artists in the world have had their hands on me and transformed me into different things.”
Of the costume, Jones remembers that his look almost took inspiration from Michael Jackson — the “uniform” kind of outfit, with epaulets on the shoulders — as he was incredibly popular at the time. “I’m glad they ended up going with more of a period look,” says Jones, adding that it adds to the “timeless” feel of the movie.
Over the years, Billy Butcherson has been referred to as a “dateable” type of zombie. “I think he had a very sexy look to him, and that was pretty much thanks to the design of the costuming, the wig with the rockstar hair, and the bone structure of the prosthetic dead guy skin that was put on me, was really nice and sharp and angular,” says Jones. “He was kind of pretty.” The actor didn’t specifically channel “sexy” though, in his performance. “I tried to channel goofy. The sexy look with the goofy act, I thought that was the formula that was going to sell this.”
The fact that Hocus Pocus has become, for so many people, “the” movie of Halloween is particularly nostalgic for Jones because it takes him back to his childhood when The Wizard of Oz was enjoyed annually by his family, whether it was Halloween or not. “It would air on network television once a year and it was a big night, the family would make popcorn on the stove and we’d make sure to be all home and sitting in front of the TV when it aired,” he recalls.
But the biggest surprise of Hocus Pocus for Jones is that the sexy and goofy Billy Butcherson was an on-screen love interest for many fans. “It’s quite special to me to think that a 300-year-old dead guy could spark a crush.”
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