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Loving Doug Jones, the invisible movie star from Hellboy and Shape of Water

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The face behind some of fantasy and sci-fi’s best creatures

actor Doug Jones at Fox/FX/Hulu 2018 Golden Globe Awards afterparty
Doug Jones at Fox, FX and Hulu’s 2018 Golden Globe Awards afterparty.
Michael Tran/FilmMagic/Getty Images

There are two groups of people who follow pop culture: Those who don’t recognize the name Doug Jones, and those who adore him and his work. I have yet to meet anyone who falls in another group, even if Google’s search results are dominated by the politician.

Doug Jones is invisible, but he is everywhere. If you watch fantasy or science fiction movies and TV shows, you know his work.

He was the thin clown in Batman Returns, and Mac Tonight from the classic McDonald’s commercials. He was Joey in Men in Black 2. He was Abe Sapien in Hellboy, and he was both Faun and the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth. He was the lead Gentleman in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Hush.” He was the creature in The Shape of Water, and he is Saru in Star Trek: Discovery. There are 160 credits on his IMDB page, and I barely listed a few of them.

He is tall and graceful in person, and has turned in some of the best performances possible under some of the most painful circumstances. His face is almost always obscured by layers of makeup and latex. His body is often covered by prosthetics that take hours to apply and remove. His impact is often felt through his eyes and his body language. He is the person behind the monster, and that’s why so many of Hollywood’s monsters feel so real. He is both ubiquitous and completely unknown. His body is its own special effect.

The Inaugural Los Angeles Online Film Critics Society Award Ceremony - Arrivals
Jones at the inaugural Los Angeles Online Film Critics Society Award Ceremony earlier this month.
Presley Ann/Getty Images

Jones has to exist in situations that would prove impossible for most people, but that’s just half his job. He has to act once he’s there, and deliver emotion and nuance on top of the ridiculous situations created by the effects teams. This is a short description of working on Pan’s Labyrinth from BuzzFeed:

That performance included walking on stilts that made Jones seven feet tall, wearing a mask that reduced his vision to little more than a pinhole, and sharing a scene with an 11-year-old girl without somehow trampling her. After spending five hours every morning applying the costume, Jones had to remain in it all day; even resting between takes required special accommodation. Due to the character’s mechanized tail, Jones had to sit on a modified bicycle seat and lean forward on a special bar.

But that’s just the special effect. This is the acting:

While The Shape of Water cleaned up at the Academy Award nominations earlier this morning, it’s unlikely that Doug Jones’ name is going to be mentioned in much of the discussion around the film. Director Guillermo del Toro will be talked about, sure. And there will be mentions of how extraordinary it is that a genre film has been able to find this level of recognition. But Jones, in his performance as the “monster,” is the film’s heart. It’s his work that helps to elevate what could have been just a creature effect into a character of pain and compassion.

Guillermo del Toro is perhaps the greatest living director of fantasy and science fiction, and I would argue that Jones provides the canvas for so much of his work. The character design of Hellboy 2’s angel of death, for instance, would be just another monster if it weren’t for the physical performance of Jones himself.

The gentlemen of “Hush” would be creepy regardless, but it’s Jones’ performance that has helped keep them in our nightmares for this long.

Jones finds the emotion and menace under the makeup, and his own childhood helped in that regard. You can’t look like Jones does and expect to fit in.

“Being a tall, skinny, goofy kid growing up in Indiana, there’s a small sliver of what’s considered normal, and anything outside of that is made fun of,” he said in a HuffPost interview. “And I thought that I was the only one, of course, so I felt like I was the odd man out and no one understands me. I could relate to the monster movies on that level, I think. Come to find out later, we all felt like that at some point or another.”

It’s unlikely that Jones will get much award recognition — Andy Serkis has also struggled with judges not knowing how to deal with characters that are part special effect and part actor — but his unique gifts, physical stamina and ability to connect with these characters have made decades of movies and television shows better.

If you already loved him, I agree with you. If you didn’t know who he was until this article, I hope you love him as much as I do. If I could send a message to him, it would be a simple one: Thank you.