Generous, big-hearted, and approaching unnatural levels of charming are all the ordinary traits of the extraordinary man responsible for putting some of biggest movie monsters on the modern screen. Doug Jones is second to none in contemporary creature feature roles. Helping films like the Hellboy franchise and Pan’s Labyrinth skyrocket to success, he’s starred in everything from feature films to music videos. His versatility humbles even the greatest of modern renaissance men. Word truly cannot express the tremendous pleasure I was fortunate enough to have. So beasts and ghoulish geeks stay braced, Doug Jones spills all about his monstrously successful career and up-and-comings.
Many are fans of yours going back to grade school days. Hocus Pocus was a film that teachers played as a treat for us at Halloween. In it you play Billy the zombie—a lovable one at that. What is it like playing the undead and what do you think of this sort of current zombie revival – no pun intended?
“Oh but I got the pun! Billy Butcherson was not my first go-around playing a dead guy who was reanimated or came back to life. When you’re a tall skinny guy who wears make-up’s, people put you in dead guy things and alien things and mutant-animal hybrid things all the time. So…of all the dead characters come back to life I’ve played, Billy was my favorite by far because he was funny, goofy, kid-friendly, and those are all things that I like to be myself. There’s a lot of Doug Jones in Billy Butcherson.
It was an exercise. That was directed by Kenny Ortega and he is a renowned choreographer in the dance world. So the physicality of Billy Butcherson was very important to him too. So it was great to collaborate with such a director who paid such attention to physicality. So getting Billy’s stiffness down like he’s been dead for three-hundred years, getting to play with a head that kept falling off, fingers that get cut off in the manhole cover, but yet you could screw it all back on again…it was totally fun for me. Getting to work with Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, the three witches, were all delightful in their very own way. Then the kids, Vanessa Shaw, Thora Birch, and the kid who played Max, Omri Katz, were all so great. I had the best of both with the adults I got to play with and the kids that were opposite me. It was just a very fun family feeling working on a Disney picture.
At the time they also released it in the summer of 1993, so it was a Halloween movie that came out in July against all the big blockbusters that year. So it didn’t do very well at the box-office. So here I was all excited about this being the movie that might just catapult me into stardom and it just kind of tanked at the box-office. It wasn’t the right time of year and they didn’t advertise it correctly, but here we are almost 20 years later and it has become this Halloween classic that everybody your age has grown up with. So whether it was watching it on the Disney channel or ABC Family or watching it on your own DVD copy that you have at home or the VHS copy, what came out on first, you know? So I’m tickled pink with what has happened with that and how it’s kind of become the Wizard Of Oz of our time.”
Of course, now you’re an absolute horror-fantasy cult icon, even being inducted into the Fangoria horror hall of fame. How does it feel to be up there with the classics, being a sort of Lon Chaney Sr. of today, the modern Man of a Thousand Faces?
“Wow! Well it’s very humbling to be called that so answering to that is kind of difficult for me. You know, the legacy of Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr. and the legacy of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and all those great originals who were such icons in the black and white era, I get equated with them quite often and it’s always a very humbling honor to me. I don’t want to muddy up their reputations with my name added to the mix, but I also love being in their company when people are talking about that. It’s very sweet and lovely.
It’s never what I set out to do. When I came to Hollywood from Indiana back in 1985, I thought I was going to be a sit-com star. Tall, skinny, goofy guy, I’d play a great next door neighbor who came in, did some armpit farts, made a wisecrack, and left, right? But um…because I’m so tall and skinny and have a background as a mime also, that was another performance angle that spoke to me when I was in college back at Ball State University in Indiana, I discovered this art of mime – communicating with your entire body and facial expression and gestures without verbal dialogue. So all of that lends itself very well to creature make-up’s, prosthetic make-up’s, costumes that zip up the back and give you a tail and snout, you know? Whenever finding a character’s physicality. As an actor you take on a character from head to toe no matter if you’re on all four legs and have a tail, or if you’re a guy in jeans and a t-shirt. Every character has his own posture, his own stance, his own gestures, his own world and ecosystem that he lives in. That’s anything from an insect all the way to human…and I’ve played all of them. Trust me!”
Your work does hearken back to those silver screen days of classic cinema. You did a remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. What was it like to reenact that silent time in film history?
“Yes! Talk about an honor. Just like being talked about with the screen greats like Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, getting to do a remake of one of the first horror films ever and getting to play the iconic film monster in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was just mind-blowing to me. I watch the first original silent film again before filming ours because, normally I wouldn’t fill my mind with someone else’s performance but, what we did with this, as you know from watching the film, our director was a big visual effects guru. What he did was re-create the backdrops and the entire world of the original film in black and white matte shots that he was able to create by taking all the actors out of the original film and putting us into it. We were filmed in front of green screen entirely. We had props and furniture maybe in the foreground that we could use and sit on and whatever, but other than that…and it was not shot-for-shot re-created, but it was scene for scene.
In old silent films there was a lot of wide static shots that played out like a play on stage and they did not punch in for close-up’s quite as often. Hardly at all! So he did the modern film thing for coming in for close-up’s so we could get into the characters eyes more. He also re-created this movie with dialogue so it’s a talkie. And I think, if you watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the original silent film, and see its classic-ness and see that impressionistic film style the Germans had back then, look at those performances…a lot of those performances from the actors were ahead of their time as well. They were nicely understated instead of being that overdone silent film kind of look. It was really, really ahead of its time in all kinds of ways. So to watch that first and then see the re-make, or as they call it the remix, because we did use pieces from the original film, with dialogue it explains. All the questions you had with the first film will be answered in the second one because you have dialogue to flesh it all out now.
My character, Cesare, was the somnambulist, which is a sleepwalking killer. It was Dr. Caligari that gave me the power of suggestion to go do my killings at night. What I loved about the character was that he was a villain, of course, because I’m doing all the killing, but it was against his will and against his knowledge. He was asleep and being hypnotized into doing this by the evil Dr. Caligari. I was a sympathetic villain. So if I play bad guys I love them to have a duality like that where you can kind of relate and sympathize with them a little bit. I was kind of a victim myself, even though I was the villain. It really was a lovely part. To fall into the shoes of Conrad Veidt, who played the role originally, was…oh goodness, again, that’s kind of like Boris Karloff.
Speaking of which – there are plans in development now at Universal Pictures with Guillermo Del Toro directing a Frankenstein movie that Guillermo will write and direct himself. He’s already announced to the press that he’s going to have me play his Frankenstein monster. So having that experience already with Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari…it’s very intimidating because, you know, there are fans of the original. There are people who are nay-sayers, ‘They should never do a remake, it’s already been done and a classic that stands on its own, why would you want to do a remake?’ I’ve been that way with some movies myself! So I understand that. So my first responsibility when doing a remake like that is to the fans of that genre and of that original film. Hopefully we can do it justice and give it a spin that makes it interesting for them to see the remake and not to do just a carbon copy that’s not quite as good as the original. That’s useless.”
That’s wonderful! I very much so enjoyed it and I’m extremely protective of the original. That’s always been tremendously important to me, that they don’t make just a Xerox copy.
“Right! Another little point there – if you notice all the characters had dialogue except for my character. I spoke one time in the entire movie. One line of dialogue because in the original silent film Cesare only spoke once as well with a little dialogue card that came it in a key moment that kind of puts doom on a carnival goer. That’s the only time I spoke aloud in this whole movie. In fact I didn’t even make grunts or giggles and breathing noises. I left my character, on purpose, as kind of a silent film character. I was the one character in the entire film that kind of carried the silence from the original. That was fun for me to be in a talkie movie with microphones around and not make a peep of a noise. It was really fun for me.”
I’m also extremely excited for Frankenstein so I’m glad you brought that up, I wasn’t sure if that was true or not.
“Yup! You know, it’s been talked about now for, oh golly, two years. Oh! Actually, more than two years! The idea first came up in 2008. Guillermo had talked to somebody in the press, like in an interview it slipped out, and that same journalist asked me about it like moments later. It was at the premiere for Hellboy II in 2008. You know, there I was on the red carpet ready to go in and watch Hellboy II, which I was very excited about, and here this journalist says ‘Hey, Doug! I just talked to Guillermo and he says he’s going to be making his own Frankenstein movie’ and I said ‘Oh my gosh! That’s perfect for him. I know he loves the original book. I know he loves the original movie. Those both inspired him to do what he’s doing today.’ Then the journalist also says ‘He’s going to have you play the monster!’ That’s when my knees went weak and I lost all color in my face. Wha…what? That was right before going into watch Hellboy II, which was a glorious night for me. So I kind of floated home that night. Life is too good right now!”
These days it feels like most effects films are done digital. Coming from probably the biggest exception, your poor self always being covered in prosthetic, how do you feel about Hollywood’s seeming leniency today toward CGI as opposed to the more old school practical and tangible effects, costumes, and make-up’s?
“Right! I’m not bitter or a nay-sayer either way. There are people on both sides of this issue that are like ‘ARGH RAWR!’ With me, I say if it looks good and the audience is entertained then let’s do it. Of course I love the idea of protecting my own job and the jobs of everybody who creates looks on me. The people from the practical effects world do beautiful work with their sculpting and there is something magical about a real actor in a real make-up that’s being filmed with that connection with the audience that only human to human can have. Even if you’re playing a monster or an animal hybrid, there’s still a connection with a human audience.
CG, if it’s an entire CG character, the audience is constantly tilting their head thinking ‘Huh? That looks really good. How do they do that?’ which can take you out of the film for a minute, know what I mean? It might be CG that doesn’t quite cut it. That monster doesn’t have enough weight to him or the movement looks animated like a video game and then that also takes you out of the film. You never know.
But let’s take the best case. When you’ve got someone like Andy Serkis, an actor who does a performance that is so beautifully captured by a company like Weta Digital who can make Gollum happen from Lord Of The Rings or King Kong from Peter Jackson’s King Kong movie. Those were exceptions where you had the best of performance and the best of CG all come together. So what I love is when the two worlds can come together.”
“…and when I lost my power in the Silver Surfer movie, that was all the latex foam rubber make-up and costume, that’s what you’re looking at, with a little bit of CG over my eyes to take the blue out.”