'The Shape of Water' Star on Crafting a "Sexy" Monster With Guillermo del Toro

J. Countess/WireImage/Getty Images (Jones); Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Fillm Corporation (Hawkins)
'The Shape of Water,' Doug Jones

Doug Jones explains how strongly the director stressed making the creature sexy: "He said to me, 'This time the monster's going to f— the girl.'"

Director Guillermo del Toro has spent a career bringing monsters to life onscreen. From his first vampire-centric 1993 feature, Cronos, to the much bigger-budgeted Hellboy films, to Oscar-winning fantasy thriller Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro has brought a number of memorable creatures to life for a new generation of monster-lovers. 

In his latest film, The Shape of Water, hitting theaters Dec. 8, del Toro reunites with his go-to man behind the mask, Doug Jones. The actor has starred in five of del Toro's previous films (Mimic, Hellboy, Hellboy II, Pan's Labyrinth and Crimson Peak) as well as the director's FX television series The Strain. Jones' roles in the films have varied from parasitic alien lifeforms to hyper-intelligent aquatic fishmen to eloquent Spanish-speaking ancient fauns to the nightmare-inducing Pale Man and many more. 

From an unassuming phone call 20 years ago (to fill in for a Canadian actor for pick-up shoots on 1997's Mimic in Los Angeles) the duo's relationship grew into a artistic collaboration between director and performer. Now, with The Shape of Water earning rave reviews and scoring a Golden Lion win at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, del Toro and Jones seem poised for another hit and possible Oscar contender.

Despite their longstanding working relationship, Jones was tasked with a unique challenge in the new film: making a monster a believable love interest and leading man. In The Shape of Water, Jones plays an aquatic creature known as "the Asset" who is captured and held in captivity by the government in 1960s Cold War America. There he develops a relationship with a lonely laboratory worker (Sally Hawkins) that quickly blossoms into a romance.

Jones spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his role in the new film, what it's like to work with a visionary like del Toro, and how he managed to make an Amazonian fishman "sexy."

How’d you first come to work with Guillermo del Toro?

The Shape of Water is my sixth movie with him, and I also did his television series The Strain. We met 20 years ago in 1997 when he was doing his first American feature film, Mimic. The principal photography was in Toronto, and the tall, skinny actor who played the bug guys in the movie was Canadian. When they did pick-up shoots right before it came out, they did them in Los Angeles. Him being a Canadian, getting a work permit in America would be problematic, so they asked, "What tall, skinny actor can we get in L.A.?" Well, whenever tall and skinny comes up, my name is in that rolodex. So, I got a call one afternoon asking if I was free tonight for a night shoot. I worked for three days, and on day number two when I finally met the director — this roly-poly, delightful man named Guillermo del Toro — he sat down across the lunch table from me and told me [Jones drops into a gravelly impersonation of del Toro], "Tell me everything you’ve been in before." I told him about my past projects working with Oscar-winning makeup artists and Guillermo wanted to hear all about them. His love and devotion to monsters and creepy, crawly things was that of an 8-year-old boy. By the time lunchtime was over he asked for my card. I walked away asking if that was a fanboy who walked in here or if that was the director.

It was a little while before you worked together again, though.

He came back looking for me five years later. The design came up for Abe Sapien [for 2004's Hellboy] and all the makeup effects people who were working on it said, "Doug Jones should play this." He went, "Doug Jones? I know Doug Jones!" and he pulled my card out of his wallet that I gave him five years before. That movie is where we really connected and developed a working rapport. For me to fall into a relationship with a director of his stature, that’s a dream for any actor, and it’s a rarity that only like a Scorsese/De Niro or Tim Burton/Johnny Depp get. It’s rare and it’s beautiful when it happens.

You quickly became his go-to monster guy after that. How early on in the process were you involved with The Shape of Water?

Back in 2014, when we were working on Crimson Peak, on one of my days off he called me into his office to have a private little talk about this other movie he wanted to do after Crimson Peak. He wanted to get away from the big studio system and do a smaller movie. I loved how the talk began and I said, "Yes, yes, yes, please, please, please." (Laughs.) He said he had a story in mind, "And I want you to play the creature." That’s when he told me the entire storyline — which he had not written out on paper yet — for The Shape of Water. I thought if he’s going to direct this story he just told me we might have another piece of magic on our hands.

Often when you’re playing the monster in a film you’re more of a supporting or antagonistic role. In The Shape of Water that is a very different case.

Right, even when I’m not onscreen they’re talking about me. The fishman is absolutely the centerpiece of that film. Of course, it’s Sally Hawkins’ film and she’s absolutely lovely and brilliant. Getting to be her love interest, as a monster, is something only del Toro could pull off. That private talk he had with me in 2014 began with his concern about the intimacy that was going to be portrayed on film between Hawkins’ character and mine. He was hesitating when he talked to me so I asked what were his misgivings. He said, "I know you’re a good Catholic boy, I just want to make sure it’s OK with you to play this." I asked what could possibly be the problem and he goes, "Well, there’s a fuck scene." (Laughs.) As only he could say. 

How hard is it to make a monster a believable love interest?

A note Guillermo gave me, as far as [the Asset’s] physicality goes, he kept pushing the sexy. This character has to be sexy. When watching the film you have to believe that someone could actually fall in love with him and find him sexy and want to take their clothes off in his presence. So how do you create a monster who does that? The sculpting process, the developing this character’s look was years in the making. Guillermo enlisted the help of a fine artist who hadn’t done much in the movie world named Mike Hill whom Guillermo had discovered at the trade show Monsterpalooza. And a lot of Mike Hill’s pieces are now a part of Guillermo’s collection at Bleak House. Mike Hill was actually on set with us doing the finishing touches on my makeup every day. He develop my colors and my shapes and my silhouette that became this sexy and beautiful creature.

Is it particularly challenging as an actor to film intimate scenes while you’re wearing a full bodysuit?

Well, you have to find the mindset and storytelling brilliance of Guillermo del Toro when you’re working on one of his films. You mentioned a minute ago that monsters are often secondary. Guillermo is the one director who can make a monster the leading man. In The Shape of Water he has created this fishman mutant, last of his kind, who becomes a sexy love interest. I don’t know anyone else who could’ve pulled that off but him. When I asked him why this time does it need to involved full-frontal nudity — I mean, we’re going for it! — and he harkened back to the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Frankenstein and any of the classic monster movies that helped develop his love of monsters. There was always a romantic side to these characters and relationships on film that never got actualized all the way. Guillermo said this time, the monster’s going to actually fuck the girl. (Laughs.) A gentler way to say it is that this is the creature from the wet, black lagoon who actually gets the girl this time.

The Asset in The Shape of Water shares a few characteristics with your Hellboy character Abe Sapien. Was there any commonality between portraying the two different characters?

I was in water way more for this one than I ever was for Abe Sapien. In fact, I was never in water when I was Abe. Guillermo was very specific, he did not want Abe Sapien in this film at all. He wanted this to be very stand-alone, it’s its own piece of art. Let’s celebrate this own unique story that has nothing to do with Abe. He has a love for fishmen and mermaids, anyway. The Creature from the Black Lagoon was his favorite of the Universal monsters. He wanted this one to be very different. Abe was a very articulate, well-spoken, intelligent, poised and postured being who gestured with his hands a lot and was very gentile. Guillermo wanted the opposite [for the Asset]. He wanted it very raw and animalistic. What he specifically said to me was that he did not want a Dougie Jones performance, he wants a character. He doesn’t want a physical performance. He wanted something raw and animal and real. This character came out of the wild, it’s not a fantasy being. This is something that was found on Earth and is real and is in front of us in the 1960s. My character doesn’t speak, but he is intelligent enough that I can learn communication. Sally Hawkins' character doesn’t speak either, so we connect on a beautiful nonverbal level which is so lovely to explore on film.

With del Toro stressing for you to give a “real” performance is it safe to assume that a lot of the effects in this movie were done in-camera?

Correct, yes. Another del Toro thing is that he loves old-school filmmaking style. If you’re going to have a monster in a movie, put him in the movie, don’t paint it in later. If you can. (Laughs.) That’s nice for Sally Hawkins because she didn’t have to interact with a tennis ball. There was a real creature in front of her that she could touch, interact with and love on. And same for me. I could be there with her in that moment instead of being there later with dots on me in front of a green screen. I much prefer this method of filmmaking.