A master at making monsters sexy

In The Shape Of Water, actor Doug Jones (left) plays a merman held captive in a research facility and becomes the love interest of a cleaning woman (played by Sally Hawkins, both far left).
In The Shape Of Water, actor Doug Jones (right) plays a merman held captive in a research facility and becomes the love interest of a cleaning woman (played by Sally Hawkins, left).PHOTOS: NYTIMES, SALLY HAWKINS/ INSTAGRAM
In The Shape Of Water, actor Doug Jones (left) plays a merman held captive in a research facility and becomes the love interest of a cleaning woman (played by Sally Hawkins, both far left).
In The Shape Of Water, actor Doug Jones (above) plays a merman held captive in a research facility and becomes the love interest of a cleaning woman (played by Sally Hawkins).PHOTOS: NYTIMES, SALLY HAWKINS/ INSTAGRAM

LOS ANGELES • Four years ago, while filming Crimson Peak, director Guillermo del Toro called Doug Jones into his office.

The actor already had two small roles in the gothic romance - the hideous ghosts of a pair of long-dead mothers - but the director had another part in mind for him.

Del Toro spun a wondrous tale about a cleaning woman in a research facility who falls in love with a merman fished from the Amazon. In this unlikeliest of monster movies, the creature is the hero and love interest, and the director wanted Jones to play him.

It was not the first time the director had enlisted Jones, all 1.9m of him, to play a fantastical creature.

In a string of del Toro films stretching back to 1997, he has played a mutated insect (Mimic, 1997) and a spectral creature with blood-red eyeballs in the palms of his hands (Pan's Labyrinth, 2006).

Could Jones be convincing as an amphibian lover, the creature who gets the girl?

"Guillermo said, 'I know you're a good Catholic boy and there's some romance involved in this one that might get steamy'," Jones, 57, recalled.

Last Friday, The Shape Of Water opened in selected theatres, with Jones as the captive of a Cold War-era colonel who hopes to gut him and study his innards for science.

Sally Hawkins plays the mute janitor who woos him with boiled eggs, Benny Goodman albums and a winsome smile. "He's a gift, isn't he?" Hawkins said. "It was so easy to fall in love with Doug."

The movie won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in September and has garnered Oscar buzz.

It has also been praised for its pro-Other political message and tweaking of monster movies past.

Born the youngest of four boys, Jones was, as he recalled, "tall, skinny and geeky" as a child.

He became a fan of offbeat TV characters such as Barney Fife and Gomer Pyle in The Andy Griffith Show.

Actor-comedian Don Knotts was "a master and a king to me", he said. "He was not what you would consider classically handsome so I figured if he could make it, so could I."

Commercial work led to roles in features, including Batman Returns (1992) and collaborations with big names in the creature-effects trade such as Stan Winston and Rick Baker.

When Jones first met del Toro during the filming of Mimic, they bonded over their love of monsters.

The Shape Of Water represents a fulfilment of a lifelong dream for del Toro who, as a young boy, saw 1954 horror classic Creature From The Black Lagoon.

In a kinder world and film, he thought, who knows what might have been?

Mike Hill, lead creature designer and sculptor, was tasked with creating the fish-man's suit. "The main direction I got from Guillermo was, 'Make him sexy'," he said.

As lovely as the costume was, it was a bear to wear. For three hours a day, Jones sat while Hill and three other artists put the thing on: the foam latex suit and gloves, fibreglass helmet with eyes he could not see out of, sharp fangs and remote-control gizmos in his spine.

The cast and crew got a sense of what Jones endured every day when a professional dancer was brought in as a body double for a challenging dance sequence.

"He got into the suit, did one pirouette and then proceeded to vomit," del Toro said.

"That's how good Doug is," Hawkins said. "He couldn't see, he couldn't hear properly, and yet his performance is so beautiful and so delicate."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2017, with the headline 'A master at making monsters sexy'. Print Edition | Subscribe