Talking with Abe – we chat to Doug Jones
December 5 2008
With the imminent DVD and Blu-Ray release of Guillermo Del Toro’s excellent Hellboy II: the Golden Army, based on Mike Mignola’s brilliant comics characters, we got a chance to speak briefly to some of the people involved in the world of Hellboy. Hellboy creator Mike Mignola and actress Anna Walton, who played Princess Nuala, will feature on here later, but today we’re talking to the actor Doug Jones, who has, among numerous film and TV credits, been responsible for bringing to life some of the more wonderfully fantastic creatures in recent films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and, of course, playing Abe Sapien (and several other roles) in Hellboy (this interview was conducted a few weeks ago, by coincidence just as a new Abe Sapien collection was arriving in-store):
FPI: Hi, Doug, thanks for taking some time to talk to us. By coincidence this very day I just saw a brand new Abe Sapien graphic novel arriving, so it seems like this is an appropriate day to be speaking to you! Can I ask if you had you read any of the Hellboy comics before taking on the role?
Doug Jones: No, I was not aware of them beforehand. When I got the call about the role of a mutant amphibian fish man I was a bit, err, okay… But when Guillermo Del Toro sent me the script over he also sent me several volumes of Hellboy graphic novels, which were important for me, being able to go to the original source material. Being quite a physical actor it was important for me to see how Abe moved, how the dialogue was written, that sort of thing – it was really the only research I could do for the character.
FPI: Well it isn’t like you can look him up in the Encyclopedia Britannica!
Doug: No, exactly!
FPI: Doug, you have worked without prosthetics in movies like Adaptation, but I’d guess many of our readers will know you best for being slathered in layers of special effects make-up, latex and prosthetics. How does the make-up affect your performance, especially given how physical you make some of your roles such as Abe Sapien, communicating a lot of the character through body language and movement? Is that something you do to compensate for the layers of make-up or is that ability one of the reasons you’ve been asked to portray these characters?
Doug: A little of all of the above, I think. I never set out to have the career I’ve developed – I thought I’d end up working in sitcoms, playing the tall, white goofy guy, I never thought I’d have a career like this.
FPI: How do you find the make-up and prosthetics affect your performance?
Doug: Wearing the make-up and prosthetics is a bit like being an athlete in the strain it can put on you, that you have to keep going with it – some working days on the first Hellboy movie were 18 hours long, a little sleep and then keep going. And then there’s the unpleasant aspects like glue going up your nose and the fumes to deal with too…The flipside of having to endure the make-up is that I get to work with some of the finest talent in the world, who allow me to portray some amazing creatures I could never play with my own face; I’m very fortunate to get to play such amazing characters. I do sometimes wonder how much longer I can do it for. There was a time a few years ago when I wondered that, but in the last couple of years as I’ve been doing Pan’s Labyrinth, the first Hellboy movie, the Silver Surfer role for Fantastic Four, there’s been more recognition given to the effort and craft of creating this kind of performance. I’ve seen reviews of my work referring back to the Golden Age and names like Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, which is great.
FPI: Well Chaney was ‘the man of a thousand faces’ and some of that early make-up was amazing; I believe he created some of it himself for roles like Phantom of the Opera. Good company to be mentioned in!
Doug: That’s one aspect we’re not the same in – I wouldn’t tell these talented make-up people how to do that job!
FPI: Its interesting to me that Chaney and Karloff have come up – I know that you appeared in a re-interpretation of the silent classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and looking at your various performances I kind of got the impression that you were someone who enjoyed the old silent classics, where actors had to use their expressions and bodies to convey meaning and character and emotion to the audience, would that be accurate?
Doug Jones as Cesare in Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.jpg
Doug: Very much – as a kid I watched a lot of old black and white movies on TV. And not just the old movies, a lot of old black and white sitcoms like I Love Lucy – the style and acting was so much broader and larger than the way we would do it today. I’m also a big fan of performers like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton who could create characters from movement and expression. When I was a student at university I found there was a mime troupe called Mime Over Matter – you get that?!?! – and it was through that I found out about communicating without the voice, using body language, gestures and expressions instead. Words are a small part of communication – the expression and body posture behind words really tells about 80% of it. Much like Abe Sapien I find touch very important. Seeing an object is one thing for me, but I like to touch it and feel it. I’m the same with people, I need to pat them, touch them before I feel as I’ve really seen them. I hope that doesn’t make me a pervert!
FPI: Well let’s say you are a tactile person.
Doug: That’s a nice way of putting it.
FPI: In the first film your voice was replaced with another actor (Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce), but in the second movie and with the animated Hellboy series you got to use your own voice. I was wondering how that affected you – did you feel perhaps that knowing it would be your voice on the soundtrack this time made the role feel more like yours?
Doug: Yes, there was more confidence approaching making the sequel knowing that it would be my own voice used this time. In the first film when I started it hadn’t been decided at that point if they would go for a replacement voice. It was a possibility though and I was aware from the start that they might go with a celebrity voice-over, which I wasn’t overly happy about, but I knew it was a possibility. Of course on the set I still had to talk, to do the lines regardless because the other actors would need it to bounce off and I did exactly the same Abe voice as I would use later for the second movie, so on the set it wasn’t that different.
FPI: Did you talk to the Hellboy creator Mike Mignola about Abe before the first movie, ask for tips or advice, or would that be adding to much extra pressure?
Doug: On the first movie Mike was actually staying in the same hotel as the rest of us and he was on the sets a lot through both films. In the hotel on the first movie I saw him coming into the restaurant, look over at me and then as “are you Doug Jones?”, so I said yes and he said “hi, I’m Mike Mignola”. He was just a very nice, charming, friendly guy. He looked at me at one point and said “I know what you’re about to ask me and no, I don’t know where Abe Sapien came from.” But he was very good at helping to nail some details and characteristics.
FPI: I think a lot of writers don’t want to look to closely into where their ideas and characters come from in case they spoil the magic and can never think of another idea, so he was probably telling you the truth! Oh, looks like we’re going to have to wind up now – one last question we always like to ask our guests, please, Doug – what books or comics are you enjoying just now? What’s on your reading table?
Doug: I’ve got a comic book sitting on my kitchen counter I’m just about to crack open called Creepy.
FPI: Oh, the big archive edition that’s just come out?
Doug: Yes. It’s been sent to me by a film director I know, but I can’t go into why he sent it to me yet.
FPI: Well that’s something else for us to possibly look forward to! Doug, thank you very much for sparing us some of your time, it’s been a pleasure; Doug has his own website, the Doug Jones Experience where you can keep up with his latest work.