Q&A: Doug Jones on Del Toro's 'The Strain' and Frankenstein's Future

Doug Jones/Photo © Carla Van Wagoner/Shutterstock

Doug Jones has been a muse of Guillermo Del Toro's for many years. You may have barely recognized the actor's gangly six-foot-three-and-a-half-inch frame in "Pan's Labyrinth" (he played the title character as well as the ghastly Pale Man) or the "Hellboy" films (Abe Sapien and other characters), or seen him in one of dozens of other projects that called for a dextrous or uncanny physical performance. It ought to be no surprise to hear that Jones will be appearing in "The Strain," FX's new vampire series based on books Del Toro wrote after TV studios turned him down the first time around. As an actor and creative collaborator, Jones has accumulated rich insights into Del Toro's fascinating body of work -- past, present, and future.

If all goes according to plan, the two have yet another major alliance to look forward to: a much hinted-about Frankenstein adaptation, against which each of these recent knockoffs are sure to pale in comparison. If you ever get the chance to hear Jones speak about it in person, stick around for his imitation of Del Toro's accent -- words on a screen simply can't do it justice.

Signature: When did you get involved with "The Strain" -- was it from the very beginning?

Doug Jones: No, it was sometime before last summer when Guillermo's management offered me a role in the pilot, which would have then continued throughout the series. Unlike other pilots, I think FX was already planning to continue the series, so they were filming the pilot with plans to go full-bore ahead. On any given day I would have jumped at the chance, but I'm also in the middle of a three-year commitment to the show "Falling Skies" as a series regular. I still could have worked the pilot in, but I couldn't have carried the character any further. It was such a heartbreak!

Guillermo never tells me any specifics until it's go, go, all the way. This happened when he was in pre-production for "The Hobbit" as well -- another book to film! Remember, he did pre-production on that for maybe two 0r three years. He told me, "I have a part for you!" And I said, jumping around, "What? What do you have for me?" and he said: "Well, I dare not tell you, because if we don't get to do it, I don't want you killing yourself." Very sweet of him, actually.

So instead of me appearing at the beginning of "The Strain," he saved another role for me in the season finale. So once I finished filming "Falling Skies" season four (which is now airing on TNT, Sunday nights at ten!) I ran straight over to catch them in time to film the last episode. Here's the thing: I can't tell you exactly what I did, because it's kind of an "Ohhhh!" moment in the finale. But with that "Ohhhh!" moment comes the hope that this character will show up again in season two. I'll have the same "Falling Skies" issue again, but hopefully the two productions can work it out.

SIG: Is it any different working with Del Toro for TV?

DJ: Much like any project with his thumbprint on it, this series has a very cinematic look and feel to it, and the writing is gorgeous. I think in the age of binge-watching, television has become more cinematic -- more through-line stories that go all the way from start to finish as a series, instead of one episode at a time. Don't you think? "The Strain" is built for that. I believe they have about a five-year plan for it now, but that's up to you guys.

SIG: Wasn't Del Toro's "Crimson Peak" also filming in Canada? That must have been convenient.

DJ: The creature shops designing for both are in the same building. I was able to just run from one room to the other. Guillermo's office was easily accessible. That man doesn't sleep; can I just say that? I don't know how you direct a movie that you co-wrote while exec-producing a TV series. I don't know how you do those things and still have time for the wife and kids, which he does. He's an amazing human being.

"Crimson Peak" is going to be gorgeous. It's a haunted house story set in Victorian England, and you've got Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, and Charlie Hunnam all dressed in period clothing. Put pretty people in pretty clothes and you've got the start of a great movie already, right? Add to it this large, beautiful mansion that's kind of dilapidated and becomes a kind of character of its own. What happens there is what I'm forbidden to tell you -- that might be why I'm involved.

SIG: It indeed happens to be one of those movies -- of which there are many -- in which the Doug Jones character has been mysteriously left blank on the IMDB page.

DJ: Exactly, on purpose. Guillermo knew I'd be doing an awful lot of press this summer, and I said, "People always ask about you. What am I going to tell them about 'Crimson Peak?'" And he said: "Well, you tell them it's a haunted house story, and make them guess what the eff you're playing." I think it's kind of an easy guess, but that's all I can say.

Also playing like characters was Javier Botet, who is that taller-than-me and skinnier-than-me fellow (hard to find, by the way) who played the Mama ghost in the movie "Mama." So, we both wore some makeup and hopefully made some magic happen on film for you.

SIG: Between Botet, Andy Serkis, and yourself, there seems to be an uptick in actors who are known specifically for their movement or unusual physicality.

DJ: I don't hate being known among those names at all -- that's very kind of you. Directors like Del Toro and Peter Jackson understand that a creature can be a leading man. It's like an homage to olden golden days of the Universal monsters, and that whole era. Allowing creatures (and the actors who play them) to be central is something Guillermo has always believed in, and he writes his monster roles as leading men and women so that we, the audience, can learn something about ourselves as humans, and get in touch with feelings we might not have access to without that fantasy element. We come out of it on the other end having learned something, and feeling empowered -- that's what the "Pan's Labyrinth" experience was all about, for instance.

SIG: On the subject of all the heavy makeups you wear, isolation and sensory deprivation are the experiences people use --

DJ: -- As torture!

SIG: Ha, yes! But also to induce a sort of trance state. I was wondering if there is a meditative aspect to going under and working from underneath all of that.

DJ: So easily, yes. It's not for everybody, I'll tell you that. Claustrophobia is a very real phenomenon. I didn't realize what it was until I worked with a whole bunch of stunt guys on "The Time Machine" back in 2002. When casting all the Morlocks, they got these big burly stuntmen who take dives off burning buildings, and drive cars off cliffs. These guys are studs, right? But you can't gauge when someone might have a psychological issue with being encased in a rubber head. So they try everyone out by putting these masks on just to see: Can they handle it? And there were a high percentage of freakouts. That, I was not expecting. You can't talk them down, you can't reason with them -- if you're having a freakout, you have to let it happen and you have to take the mask off. I'm very happy that's not my issue, and I don't envy anyone who has it.

SIG: Did you end up getting fooled by all those rumors of a "Hocus Pocus" sequel a couple weeks ago?

DJ: I don't get fooled by anything I see on the news anymore. I always do some fact-checking before I start tweeting about it myself. So what I did put out on Twitter was very cautious, and it turns out I was kind of right. Variety put out an article dispelling the rumor that it was "Hocus Pocus 2" -- it is Tina Fey's "untitled witch project" at Disney. People saw "witch" and "Disney" together and freaked out.

In the meantime, a true sequel has been talked about for the last two years. David Kirschner, one of our production heads and writers, and my makeup artist Tony Gardner who made the Billy Butcherson zombie look, were in cahoots about pushing a sequel, so they pitched it to Disney studios and it went really well. The pitch involved a life-size dummy of me as Billy Butcherson being rolled into the conference room -- and what made my heart sing was hearing that, as they wheeled the dummy through the offices, everyone stood up from their cubicles and looked over going, "Oh my god, that's Billy!" Everyone recognized him immediately. So the legend of "Hocus Pocus" does live on. It's kind of become that "Wizard of Oz" kind of annual movie, like when I was a kid. It's a Halloween staple for kids who grew up on it, and now their kids. It's so weird to think I'm that old!

SIG: Well, the great thing about playing a corpse is you get to be timeless in that way.

DJ: You do, and that's why I'm the one character who's easy to bring back for a sequel. Slap some makeup on me and I haven't changed a day!

SIG: On your website it says you have a hard time saying no to parts. Is there anything you ever said no to that you later regretted, wishing you had done it?

DJ: Oddly enough, by the time I have read a script, analyzed everything, imagined it all the way through in my head, and said, "It's not right for me," then no. I've never even thought about this before, but no, I've never regretted that.

Usually what I say no to pretty easily is that one script that keeps coming to me with different titles. You know the one? "Oh, we're a bunch of half-naked teenagers running around in the woods and having sex with each other and smoking pot -- and oh no, here comes Doug Jones to kill us all one at a time!" That bores me to tears. I'll say no to that one happily.

SIG: It's a well-known fact you give the best hugs at Comic Con. Will you be appearing at any more this year?

DJ: I have two more coming up, Monster Con in Greenville, South Carolina -- I've never been to Monster Con before, let's hope it is a monster of a Con indeed -- and the weekend after that I'll be appearing all over SDCC. My big day is Friday the twenty-fifth, a big panel for Falling Skies, and then later that evening a panel for a web series I'm in called Nobility -- it's like "Firefly" meets "The Office."

SIG: Speaking of monsters, can we talk about "Frankenstein"?

DJ: At the premiere of "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," I was on the red carpet and a journalist said, "Doug, Doug! I just talked to Guillermo a minute ago and he said he's going to make his own Frankenstein movie." And I said, "Oh gosh, that's great news!" I knew he had been so inspired by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the movies Boris Karloff was in -- as a kid that's what made him want to make the monstsers he's making now. And then the journalist said, "Here's the good news: I asked him who he wanted Frankenstein's monster to be, and he said, 'Oh, of course, Doug Jones!'" That's when I went pale in the face. I'd never heard this news before! That was one of those instances when Gullermo did open his mouth too soon -- that was, what, six years ago now?

I asked him a couple years ago at SDCC, "Hey Guillermo, people have been asking me about 'Frankenstein' ever since you announced it in 2008, what am I supposed to tell them?" And he used the F-word and said, "Tell them I'm a lazy eff." He's grown up with the story and dreamed about this project his whole life, and now that he's talking about it, the response he's getting is, "Del Toro's going to make a masterpiece." Think of how much pressure that puts on the poor man. So he's not in a hurry to push it out, he wants to make it perfect in every way, which is why I think we're not seeing a script just yet.

W&J: As an actor, living with that hanging over your head must be a nightmare.

DJ: He did commission Spectral Motion -- the creature effects company headed by Mike Elizalde -- to design Frankenstein's monster makeup for me. So, they did a beautiful sculpt onto my lifecast, and it was based on the artwork of Bernie Wrightson. This is what confused me when I first heard about it. You know, I'm thinking: big shouldered, barrel chested, flat head. Who would think of me first for that? But then I saw the artwork of Bernie in an illustrated version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein that is published by Dark Horse, and the artwork is amazing: sympathetic and pathetic at the same time. Very sinewy and athletic in ways, but also misshapen, sewn together with spare parts from bodies. It's really a tragic look. So then I got it; I thought that's why he wants me. And oh my goodness. I was over at Spectral Motion for something else a couple years ago, and Mike Elizalde said, "Hey Doug, I want to show you something secret." And he unveiled the head and shoulders of Frankenstein's monster. I teared up looking at it! It was so hauntingly beautiful. This is going to be the one, this is why Guillermo doesn't tell me much ahead of time. And he shouldn't, because if we don't get to make this movie ... keep sharp objects away from me!