'Shape of Water' Star Sally Hawkins on How to Prep for Scenes With a Fish-Man

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
'The Shape of Water'

"You see his heart, and you feel his passion and you can see his thoughts, almost," the Oscar-nominated actress says of the amphibian character played by Doug Jones as she reveals the scene that had her in tears.

Hawkins faced several challenges on her way to landing a best actress nomination for The Shape of Water, her second following a best supporting actress nom for 2013’s Blue Jasmine. In Guillermo del Toro’s love story, her character, Elisa, a cleaning woman at a top-secret government facility, is mute (which meant the actress had to learn sign language), while her romantic interest (played by Doug Jones) is a fishlike creature with whom she engages in a lengthy dance scene.

Del Toro wrote the role with Hawkins, 41, in mind, despite the fact that he’d never met her at the time. For her part, Hawkins credits Jones’ own humanity with allowing her to look past his rubber suit and see the human being beneath.

What did you learn about acting by playing a character who couldn’t speak at all?

Oddly, it doesn’t feel like she is mute because language is so complex. She just doesn’t use words, as such. But we all sort of express and communicate through so much more than just words alone. A certain percentage of our communication is words. We fall in love with eyes and sound, the feeling — it’s a physical thing, like an energy. And that is acting for me. It’s sort of finding out the ways different characters speak or communicate.

Did you and Doug Jones have time to rehearse without him wearing his fish suit?

We had a lot of rehearsal dance-wise. I was there weeks [before]. I would be there months before, if I could. Sometimes you don’t get that luxury of time. Guillermo knew it was essential to have that rehearsal period.… That was just key to getting to know [Doug] and loving him as a human being. Doug Jones is an extraordinary human. And such a gift.

How did Doug’s performance inform your own?

This film wouldn’t exist or work in any way without Doug Jones and Doug Jones being able to do what he does. Somebody mentioned they thought it was CGI. How can it possibly work if it was CGI? You see his heart, and you feel his passion and you can see his thoughts, almost. He is in a rubber suit, so it translates and it comes through. It is only magic because of Doug. It can only exist with the chemistry. You are only as good as you are a reflection of what you are looking at.

There’s a monologue during which you try desperately to persuade Richard Jenkins to help you save the fish-man. What was filming that emotional scene like?

I couldn’t get through it without tears streaming down my face because it’s somebody’s soul, and she’s describing her heart breaking.… The only person who has ever seen her fully in life may die, and she just needs help to save him, and there’s nothing else at that point that exists in the world. For her, his death would be the death of her, too.

What were some of the other movies you liked this awards season?

Lady Bird, I adore. Greta [Gerwig] — I think she’s an incredible inspiration. And Saoirse [Ronan], I adore her. It’s great. And Dunkirk. Gary Oldman [in Darkest Hour], of course. Talk about a transformative metamorphosis.

Is there something in particular that you’re looking forward to at this year’s Oscars?

The Time’s Up campaign. I’m interested to see how it affects the Oscars. It was such an interesting thing to see at the Globes and be a part of that. It felt incredibly unique. It is a year that will be remembered for that reason alone.… It’s not something that can be brushed aside any longer or discounted or dismissed or forgotten about.… It’s not just about film — it’s about really effecting a huge change.

This story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.