Actor and contortionist Doug Jones is currently generating Oscar buzz for his performance as Amphibian Man in Guillermo del Toro’s latest, The Shape of Water. Like most of his roles, Jones is unrecognizable as the otherworldly creature bearing resemblance to the titular character from Creature of the Black Lagoon. Through heavy makeup and prosthetics, Jones is able to convey a depth of emotion with his movement and body language alone. His uncanny knack for physical acting is something very few actors can even hold a candle to, which is why the actor has a long history of bringing unique characters to life on screen, both big and small. His tall, lean frame lends a striking silhouette and presence, but his use of his expressive hands demonstrates why he’s not just a perennial favorite of del Toro’s, but a go-to actor for extraordinary character work.
With decades of work under his belt, Jones has stood out in small parts like one of the Rippers in Tank Girl or the hair-raising Ice Cream man in Legion, to major roles like heroic alien Cochise in TV’s Falling Skies. He submerses so fully into his characters that sometimes you don’t even realize it’s him beneath the makeup. From empathy to terror, innocence to evil, Jones delivers all by intricate movement alone. In celebration of his latest high-accolade earning performance in The Shape of Water and his amazing work thus far, we look back at 10 of Doug Jones most memorable roles.
Hocus Pocus – Billy Butcherson
Jones’ first major role in a studio film wasn’t initially meant to be a big role. In the original script, Billy Butcherson only had one line, but Jones’ interpretation of a zombie waking up after being 300 years dead at the audition had director Kenny Ortega and the assistance casting director laughing so hard that the role was his before he even got home from the audition. And as for that one line in the original script, well, it was really only a single word. Billy was to initially call Bette Middler’s Winifred a bitch in the script. Jones wasn’t so comfortable with that, being a Disney movie and all, so he changed it. Billy’s big moment of confrontation toward his ex-lover Winifred has Jones to thank. Hocus Pocus was a Halloween release dumped in the middle of summer, so its failure left Jones feeling like his career ended before it really began. But just like the film’s slow simmer into full-blown cult status, Jones career took a similar path.
Mimic – Long John #2
It was del Toro’s first American studio film that would begin a long-lasting, fateful relationship between Jones and the auteur. Like most things, it was a small beginning, with Jones being requested to step in as the shapeshifting Judas breed cockroach during reshoots. Jones needed the work, and his reputation for wearing monster suits preceded him, though it was Jones and del Toro’s bond over monsters that would keep Jones in del Toro’s memory for future roles.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Hush”) – Gentleman
Joss Whedon took issue with a critique of his popular show that the dialogue was the most successful aspect, so he wrote an episode almost completely devoid of dialogue. The result is the widely beloved tenth episode in the fourth season. The Grimm fairytale-like episode sees a group of ghoulish Gentlemen that come to town, stealing everyone’s voices so that the victims are unable to scream when their hearts are cut out. The tallest and most memorable ghoul was played by Doug Jones, who injected his character with an elegance that made the ghoul all the more terrifying. The episode was the only one to have earned the series an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, and I think Jones work had a large contribution to the success of that episode.
Pan’s Labyrinth –The Faun
The only non-native Spanish speaker on set, Jones was del Toro’s one and only choice to play the Faun, a fairy tale trickster and sort of guide to lead heroine Ofelia. His voice was dubbed by a native Spanish speaker, which troubled the actor, but this was overridden by Jones unintentionally becoming the face of the U.S. press tour due to being the only American actor. It was a move that finally earned him recognition for his work, allowing him more freedom and work in future endeavors, because it allowed press and audiences to finally connect with the face behind the stellar creature work. And Jones performance as the Faun nailed the tricky balance of menace and innocence of the trickster. Always the overachiever, Jones also delivered a memorable performance as the scene-stealing Pale Man, the blind, monstrous eater of children.
Quarantine – Thin Infected Man
The almost identical remake of Jaume Balagueró’s REC saw Jones playing the terrifying emaciated character that poor Angela Vidal has to contend with in the film’s final moments, a role played by equally memorable character actor Javier Botet in the original. It’s a small role, but easily one of the most intense, and memorable scenes. What makes this one notable in Jones’ long history of character work, though, is that, save for Botet, there’s no other actor who can nail what he does in terms of physicality. Botet left extremely large shoes to fill with one of the most terrifying characters in modern horror, and Jones filled them with utter ease.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army – Abe Sapien
Why Hellboy II and not Hellboy, despite Jones portraying Abe Sapien in both films? Because Jones actually got to voice the character the character this time. In the first film, Jones handled the physicality of the amphibious B.P.R.D. member, but the studio wanted a more recognizable name and hired David Hyde Pierce to voice the role. Not only was Jones allowed to fully become Abe Sapien in the sequel, proving there was no reason to have not let him handle the character in the first film, but he also portrayed the unnerving Angel of Death and the 8 foot tall Chamberlain, a creature that served as the doorkeeper for the king of Elfland.
Fear Itself (“Skin and Bones”) – Grady Edlund
This short-lived, underrated horror anthology series was derailed by the 2008 Summer Olympics, which is a shame, because Doug Jones’ work in the episode Skin and Bones was pure nightmare fuel. The episode is directed by Larry Fessenden, a director with a history of exploring Wendigo folklore, and between his execution of building suspense and Jones’ alternating between sympathy and downright ominous cruelty, Skin and Bones is one of the best hours of television ever. As the emaciated Grady, who returns after disappearing into the mountains with a group of men days ago, Jones delivers some of the most nail-biting scenes ever, like the chilling scene where he likes his wife Helen’s arm while she’s trying to feed him back to health. Jones may look like a frail skeleton in this role, but he exudes evil power.
Absentia – Walter Lambert
Jones plays a pivotal role in Mike Flanagan’s first feature, made in response to rejections over directing a feature-length adaptation of his Oculus short film. It’s also a rare appearance by the actor on screen where he’s not buried under prosthetics and creature makeup, playing a character that has gone missing in the neighborhood’s tunnels. As Walter, Jones delivers a frantic, tragic character that’s also responsible for conveying exposition on the film’s mythology and monster. Jones also offers weight to the cast of unknowns, proving how important he’s become as an actor.
The Strain – The Ancient
Once again working with del Toro, Jones memorable turn as the Ancient wasn’t the first choice of del Toro’s when pursuing the actor. It turns out he wanted Jones to be a more permanent fixture of the show, starting with the pilot. Commitments to sci-fi show Falling Skies meant Jones couldn’t take the role, but that didn’t stop him from playing the memorable leader of the Ancients, the seven original vampires created by del Toro’s unique vampire mythology books co-written with Chuck Hogan. Jones also pulls double duty in a key role as The Master, the youngest ancient that serves as the series antagonist in direct war with the rest of the Ancients and humanity. Jones may not be a series regular, but his work as the most powerful strigoi elevates the characters into something you don’t even want to cross paths with.
Star Trek: Discovery – Saru
The latest iteration of this long-running sci-fi mainstay sees Jones as a main character named Saru, a polarizing character for viewers. As written, Saru is a Kelpian, a species hunted as prey on their home planet and thus very awkward and cowardly. Because Jones is Jones, he imbues Saru with much more charm, making the loner character a perfect foil for the outgoing lead Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and just frankly adorable. What makes this exciting for Jones is that the Kelpians are a brand new species to the Star Trek universe, giving Jones a lot of leeway in creating the character. He got to work with creature effects designers and the writers in creating Saru’s look and backstory, bringing decades of his experience to the mix, making for a much more likable character than originally existed on paper. In short, the role of Saru is a culmination of Jones’ masterful work so far.