On Friday, Mr. Jones stars in “The Shape of Water” as the captive of Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a Cold War-era Army colonel who hopes to gut him and study his innards, for science. The actress Sally Hawkins (“Blue Jasmine”) plays the mute janitor who woos him with boiled eggs, Benny Goodman albums and a winsome smile.
“He’s a gift, isn’t he?” Ms. Hawkins said. “It was so easy to fall in love with Doug.”
The film won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in September and has garnered rave reviews and early Oscar buzz. It has also been praised for its pro-Other political message and its spirited tweaking of monster movies past. In this version, the fishman from South America is the beauty, while Mr. Shannon’s America-first colonel is the horrifying beast.
On a recent evening, Mr. Jones, 57, was in the cafe at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, discussing his earliest days in the business and the challenges of playing a sexy merman. In addition to this latest film, the actor also stars in the CBS All Access series “Star Trek: Discovery” as a peace-loving alien whose people are prey animals back home (the character is a lot more heroic than that sounds). “The reference they gave me was a gazelle,” he said. “Beautiful, graceful, but when pushed into a corner, they kick.”
Nattily dressed in a white cardigan, striped blue tie and jeans, Mr. Jones was funny and animated, illustrating points with flourishes of his giant, pianist-like hands. Although he’s spent a lifetime playing freaks, he’s remarkably normal-looking in person, despite his protests, with high cheekbones and deep blue eyes.
Born and raised in Indiana, the youngest of four boys, Mr. Jones was, as he recalled, “tall and skinny and geeky” as a child. He became a fan of offbeat TV characters like Barney Fife and Gomer Pyle in “The Andy Griffith Show,” and dreamed of appearing in sitcoms as the hero’s goofy sidekick. “Don Knotts was just a master and a king to me,” he said. “He was not what you would consider a classically handsome man, so I figured if he could make it, so could I.”
At Ball State University, he fell in love with mime. His first job out of college was a gig as a roving mime at an Indiana theme park. “Why is the painted man not talking?” kids shrieked. “I was basically scaring children all summer,” he said.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1985, Mr. Jones soon secured roles on commercials as a dancing mummy, a space alien and a nerd. The next year, he began appearing in a popular, long-running series of McDonalds ads as “Mac Tonight,” a piano-playing hipster with a giant crescent moon for a head. “I bought my first house with that,” he remembered.
“The reputation I got was that I was tall and skinny and moved well and wore a lot of crap on my face and didn’t complain about it,” he said. The “not complaining about it” part was key. “Apparently, for actors,” he said, “that makes you exceptional.”
Commercial work led to roles in features, including “Hocus Pocus” and “Batman Returns,” and collaborations with some of the biggest names in the creature-effects business, like Stan Winston and Rick Baker. When Mr. Jones first met Mr. del Toro, during the filming of “Mimic,” they bonded over their love of monsters and their creators. “We were connecting on the level of grade-school boys, like, ‘Did you see that monster? Wasn’t it cool?’” Mr. Jones said.
“The Shape of Water” represents the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Mr. del Toro who, as a young boy, saw the 1954 horror classic “Creature From the Black Lagoon” and fell in love with both the monster and its swimsuit-wearing object of desire. In a kinder world and film, he thought, who knows what might have been? “He actually doodled pictures of the two of them riding a bike together, holding hands at the beach,” Mr. Jones said.
For his own creature, the director asked Mr. Jones to combine elements of the Silver Surfer (the Christlike superhero he played in a 2007 “Fantastic Four” film) and a matador. He also had to be like an animal in the wild. “Guillermo would shout at me, animal, animal!” he said.
The lead creature designer and sculptor Mike Hill was tasked with creating the fishman’s suit. “The main direction I got from Guillermo was, ‘Make him sexy,’ ” he said. Mr. Hill got rid of the reptilian plates from an earlier design, and crafted a more kissable, less fishlike mouth. He gave the creature the broad shoulders and small waist of a swimmer, and a heroic cleft chin. And then there’s the creature’s hindquarters. “Guillermo was adamant that we give him a sexy butt,” Mr. Hill said.
As lovely as the costume was, it was a bear to wear. For three hours a day, Mr. Jones sat while Mr. Hill and three other artists put the thing on: the foam latex suit and gloves, the fiberglass helmet with eyes he couldn’t see out of, the sharp fangs, the remote-control gizmos in his spine. The suit itself was so form-fitting that Mr. Jones had to use K-Y Jelly to squeeze inside; when wet, which it nearly always was, it soaked up pounds of water like a sponge. “He never complained once,” Mr. Hill said.
The cast and crew got a sense of what Mr. Jones endured every day when a professional dancer was brought in as a body double for a particularly challenging dance sequence. “He got into the suit, did one pirouette, and then proceeded to projectile vomit,” Mr. del Toro remembered.
“That’s how good Doug is,” Ms. Hawkins said. “He couldn’t see, he couldn’t hear properly, and yet his performance is so beautiful and so delicate. He is the film. It just wouldn’t work without him.”