Scary, creepy, grotesque – words often associated with movie monsters. But in The Shape of Water, you’ll find yourself falling in love with Guillermo del Toro’s latest monster, a character who makes you question the very notion of what it means to be human.

Longtime del Toro collaborator Doug Jones plays the nameless fish-man, referred to only as “the asset” in the Cold War era film. A water-dweller with blue-green scales and bulbous eyes, he was once revered as a god in the Amazon, but after he’s captured and taken to a top-secret facility, Jones is viciously tortured by Michael Shannon’s Strickland. Sally Hawkins’ Elisa, a mute janitor who cleans the lab during the night shift, sparks a tender relationship with the fish-man, bonding over their shared inability to speak and soon falling in love. It’s a dazzling romance about being an outsider, the power of being seen despite your differences, and the potency of non-verbal communication.

“How perfect for us to fall in love with each other when neither one of us speaks,” Jones told me of his creature and Elisa’s connection. “Words can lie, words can deceive, but touch doesn’t.” Jones never says a word in the film, instead using sound, touch, and gestures to make his fish-man feel both human and fantastical. It’s a performance of total physicality, which is no surprise from the guy who played the Pan’s Labyrinth Faun, Hellboy’s Abe Sapien, and Fantastic Four’s Silver Surfer. He’s an actor who’s as animated in the flesh as he is inside a body suit – at Fox Searchlight’s holiday party this week in New York City, an ecstatic Jones greeted me and a circle of film journalists with giant bear (fish monster?) hugs.

A couple weeks before the party, I spoke with Jones over the phone to learn how he brought “the asset” to life, and the challenge of acting in prosthetic suit underwater, a first for him with del Toro. Jones told me about the making of his creature suit, which is 98 percent practical effects, and the story behind the movie’s sex scene – yes, a human and a fish monster do it in this movie. He also told me that he’s still holding out hope to play Frankenstein’s monster for del Toro one day.

I was watching a behind-the-scenes interview where you said Guillermo had initially described your character as part-Silver Surfer and part-matador. How did you arrive at the right balance of how human, how animalistic, and how fantastical to make him?

Right, yeah. You know, he is a fish-man so I had to incorporate all of the above. When he said “Silver Surfer,” what he meant was the god-like, the angelic creature from another world sort of vibe. And because it hinted in the dialogue of the film that I was found in the Amazon and that the locals down there who had seen me worshipped me as a god. So he wanted me to have a regal presence about me that would warrant that kind of reaction from the locals.

Then sprinkling matador in there. That’s a sport that’s very graceful, and sexy even, and confident. When a matador faces a bull, they do so with a very dance-like quality about them. They lead with the pelvis. It’s very sexy and the confidence to face a bull who’s charging at you. Even though I was in captivity and out of my element in a U.S. government test facility and being a little bit tortured, the bull in my life would have been the Strickland character played by Michael Shannon. But I dealt with him with grace and with strength and did really leave me rattled. I had my own mission to be on and he wasn’t going to sidetrack me from that.

It’s pretty incredible how you bring so much humanity and intelligence to this character all without dialogue. What was your approach to playing him with just mannerisms and movements?

I loved that he didn’t speak a word because you know, the lead character of the movie, Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins, she didn’t speak either. So how perfect for us to fall in love with each other when neither one of us speaks verbal dialogue. But the dialogue we did speak with each other was all visual. There’s so much non-verbal dialogue that happens every day, even with us as humans in our regular life – the visuals we put off, our gesturing, our body language, our facial expressions – tells volumes more than words can do.

In this case, we use all of the above in getting to know each other on screen, but with the added element of touch as well, and we shared things like music and lunchtime with her hard boiled eggs. All those things helped the relationship grow. But when you touch someone physically, there is an honesty and a purity to that. Words can lie, words can deceive, but touch doesn’t. Touch, you know someone means it or doesn’t when it’s happening. I think all of that became a part of our romance that was so beautiful. And in this instance, words might have polluted the purity of this romance.

I was looking at Guillermo’s Twitter and he recently shared images of the creation of the creature design. I think it was entirely practical effects and you were in a suit, is that right?

I would say 98 percent practical. I was head-to-toe transformed into this beautiful creature with latex foam rubber and silicone prosthetics, but in addition to that the eyes were placed into the mask and couldn’t move on the day. So that needed some post-production animation. They did basically enhance the eye movement and the blinking, but the artists did such a subtle, beautiful job of that, you’d never know what was CG and what wasn’t. They followed my lead basically on what I was emoting or expressing in the scene and in those moments. The digital artists did a great job of following that lead and expressing the eyes to mirror what I was doing.

Fox Searchlight
Fox Searchlight

What was it like being in that suit? Did it take a long time to sit in make-up each day?

Oh sure, yeah. That’s the part of my career that I’ve grown very used to. Lots of rubber bits. This was mercifully short in the process though. Every day was about three hours and when you’re used to doing make-ups that are four to seven hours, this isn’t so bad. The creature effects team behind it were just the best at what they do. Legacy Effects, who’ve I worked with on, oh gosh, maybe 10 jobs by now. We’ve done so much over the years. Shane Mahan headed up the project, and Mike Hill was brought in, who is a fine artist that Guillermo is a big fan of. Mike Hill really was the one who kind of orchestrated the shapes and colors. He did the sculpt and paint scheme that was so beautifully worked out under Shane’s direction at the shop. So it really does take a village to make a character like this happen. I couldn’t possibly have done this all on my own.

I imagine there’s more challenges to this compared to your past creatures since you’re underwater in so many scenes.

Yes. The water element was absolutely new and different and a challenge indeed. You know I’ve played an aquatic character before in the Hellboy movies but I was never actually submerged in water in any of those scenes you saw me in. The Hellboy was all shot dry for wet. So I would be maybe in a harness hanging from wires and acting like [in dramatic underwater voice] “I’m in a room of water!” But I was really not. [Laughs] So we did a combination on this movie of shooting some dry for wet and shooting some actually submerged in water.

Now that you’ve seen the movie twice you’ll know the scenes I’m talking about, but for instance, the laboratory where I’m being housed in that U.S. test facility. The cylinder that I was in with the glass window, that was dry for wet. I would be in there on a teeter-totter with all the weight supported on my butt, my bony butt I might add. So that teeter-totter was moving up and down subtly to give me the floating motion. And then I would sell the rest of it with where my hands were going and how I moved as though I was in water. There was some smoke pumped into there and some lighting effect rippled through it to give it a water-like effect.

Then when you saw me in the actual pool in that same set, my laboratory, I did have to come up out of water and dive back into real water. So in those scenes, my gosh, that suit is foam latex rubber. It’s like a sponge. It absorbs everything around me. So I became a very heavy boy. When I got out of the water, I’d walk on dry land and it was like slogging through, my legs were heavy. Also the scene where we’re in that bathroom, one of our love scenes was, where she shoves towels under the door and turns all the faucets on and floods the room. That was an actual 8-foot deep tank that was built in that we would have to gasp for air at the top and plunge down and hear “action” over speakers that were under the water. Then do our action for that scene and wait for “cut” to go back to the surface and gasp for air again. So that was a bit of a challenge, but beautiful and so fun to play in. It’s like when you’re a kid, you’ll look forward to mom taking you to the pool that day, so we had fun with it.

The poster shot, where the two of us are floating mid-water and in an embrace; that scene was done in a bit dry studio with us suspended from wires in hip harnesses with some fans blowing on Sally to get her clothing to move and her hair to fluff a bit. Then in post production they can add bubbles and enhance those subtle water-like motions to her hair and to her hair and to her clothing. They also filled the room with some smoke and put some ripple light effects coming from above us to get that water effect as well. So between that and the digital enhancements in post-production, you totally bought that we were in water, didn’t you?

Yeah, completely. All of those scenes, I thought you were submerged the whole time.

Yeah, thank you.

Fox Searchlight

You mention the love scene, which you really don’t expect to see – a sex scene between a human and a fish creature. And it’s kept off-screen. Was that always the plan? Was it ever going to be show onscreen?

[There was] a lot of discussion, actually. In fact when Guillermo first presented this movie to me, he was verbally telling me this story while we were working on Crimson Peak back in 2014. He called me into his office on a day off and described this story to me and told me he wanted me to play the fish creature. His concern was the romance and how far it gets. In all the classic monster movies in black-and-white that inspired his career, the monster never really got the girl all the way, you know. There’s always a sympathetic human/monster relationship that had some romantic notions to it maybe, but it never got actualized because well, you know, it can’t be because they’re so different, or, oh it’ll never work, it’s destined for failure, whatever it is. This time he really wanted to make it possible and plausible.

His concern was, he told me, “I know you’re a good Catholic boy and I want to make sure this is going to be okay with you.” [Laughs] So he described it to me and told me the whole story from the beginning and got me to that bathroom after she rescues me from the laboratory and now I’m at home in her bathtub. We finally are alone together without glass between us. I’m not chained to the wall now, it’s just the two of us having intimacy. There was a purity and innocence about it that made it, “Oh my gosh, of course I’m okay with this.” And Guillermo assured me, he said “Dougy, it’s me. I’ll be the one filming this, it’s going to be tasteful.” And it was. It hinted at sex without showing it. And really the more brazen sex scene in the movie is with Michael Shannon’s Strickland character, when he goes home with his wife with a bit more aggression and maybe even some disconnected anger involved, whatever he was going through with his particular love story. But I thought that what we did was extremely tasteful and romantic and very pure.

That’s great that you were able to trust him to bring a tastefulness to it.

Absolutely. This is my sixth feature film with him and I also did a recurring character on The Strain with him. I’ve played 12 different characters for him in all those seven projects because he has me do double duty sometimes. I do trust that man with my life now. I know he would never do anything to make me look less than because he truly believes in championing his monsters and his monsters are, they’re romantic to him, personally. He would never do anything to make me look bad.

I know Guillermo was originally in talks to develop a Justice League Dark movie. Did you ever have conversations with him about that project or a potential role in it?

Oh yeah. Never talked to him face to face about it ever. I had heard rumors that he was leaning toward it and had an affection for that, but no, I think I hinted in public before that if asked to play in that universe I sure would love to give Deadman a go. But no, that was just me with wishful thinking.

His way with me is normally to develop the movie on his own, pull in all the elements and then he’ll tell me about it later in the game. Because he said once before, “I dare not tell you about a role I have for you until the movie is greenlit and it’s a go for sure, because if for any reason we can’t make this movie after I’ve gotten you excited about it, I don’t want you committing suicide.” [Laughs] He knows how much I love working with them and if I get excited about playing a yummy role, he doesn’t want it to go away in front of me. He’d rather just not tell me about it.

You’ve played so many iconic monsters. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on Universal’s Dark Monsters Universe and what has happened with that franchise falling apart recently.

Oh, the modern retelling of those you mean?

Yeah, which looks like it may not be happening anymore after The Mummy. Do you have any thoughts on that, what could’ve been, or if you’ve dreamed of having a role in it?

Well, Guillermo has a deep love for the classic monsters, the Universal monsters. Everything from Frankenstein to Creature from the Black Lagoon was a favorite of his. He had talked about, gosh I heard about this maybe nine years ago when I first heard that he wanted to make his own Frankenstein movie. And he was very vocal about saying he wanted me to play Frankenstein’s monster in that. I, of course, my knees buckled at the thought of this, like oh my gosh! What an iconic role that is! And the fact that he would trust me with that is just mind-boggling.

That was in development for a while at Universal. But I think then the Dark Universe that you mentioned where there would be crossovers and plotlines that coincide with the other movies, I think that may not have been part of Guillermo’s vision. I don’t know for sure, this is my guess. So the Frankenstein he wants to make was not going to be a part of that, from what I understand.

And you know what, we’re not dead yet, we can revisit this any time. Frankenstein is a tale that can be told again and again and has been told again and again. Let’s keep that door open and the possibility open to one day I can play Frankenstein’s monster for Guillermo.

Hopefully we can see you play Frankenstein’s monster one day. That would be amazing.

Your lips to God’s ears.

The Shape of Water is now playing in New York City and opens in limited release on December 8.

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