Thirty years of playing monsters, imps, fauns, and Silver Surfers has paid off for character actor Doug Jones, who finally has a role he’s always wanted, that of a romantic leading man.
In the new Guillermo del Toro film The Shape of Water, Jones plays as “The Asset,” a silent but curious “fish man” pulled from the Amazon Rainforest and placed inside a secret government facility in 1960s Baltimore, where he falls in love Eliza (Sally Hawkins), a mute member of the overnight cleaning staff. Set during the Cold War and Civil Rights movement, the whirlwind romance that proves love isn’t an exclusive commodity.
“The triumphs of this story is that love is available to all of us, no matter if we’re mainstream or if we are other than,” Jones tells Inverse. “That is something we can continue to hope for, even if we feel we’re hopeless and love is past us. It’s not. It’s possible and plausible.”
The Shape of Water recalls images from the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the 1954 horror classic that profoundly inspired a young del Toro to become a storyteller. As a child, Jones says, del Toro yearned to see the beautiful Julia Adams, along with her Gill-man, live out a life of romantic satisfaction.
Still, however unconventionally masculine Jones is in The Shape of Water, he’s still also playing a feral creature. Del Toro instructed him as much all throughout filming, which made the role a unique challenge. Unlike Abe Sapien, who bears such a striking resemblance to the Asset to the point it made Hellboy fans presume Shape of Water was a prequel (Spoiler: It’s not), the Asset is not a gentleman scholar, like Abe was. Although he’s intelligent and is capable of learning, everything Jones’s character experiences (besides swimming) is new to him. For example: eating eggs.
“Guillermo had to remind me I’m an animal,” says the actor. “I had to fight the instinct to have human reactions, to nod my head or shrug my shoulders like a human would.” Any time Jones made the mistake of acting human, his director growled. “Guillermo kept growling at me. ‘Grrr! Dougie’! All he had to do was make that noise and I knew, right right, animal. Got it.”
To that end, “Dougie” found inspiration from an unlikely source: Everyone’s family dog. “When you talk to Fifi and you say, ‘You’re such a good girl, yes you are,’ your dog doesn’t say ‘Well thank you, mom.’ Your dog has [their] own way of responding. They might tilt their head. They wag their tail. They have an ecosystem that doesn’t make sense to us but makes perfect sense to them.”
The idea that love transcends boundaries, be it bodily or spiritually, runs deep in The Shape of Water. All the major characters in the film, save for the arrogant Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon), have a sense of existing as “other than,” as Jones puts it. “Our leading lady is a mute,” he explains, a disability “you didn’t acknowledge back then.” Meanwhile, her best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is a woman of color and her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is an aging gay man. “All of us in the film have a sense of being ‘other than’ normal.”
While it’s set in the early ‘60s, it’s clear that the social messages in The Shape of Water ring true today. “The time we’re in is more tumultuous and conflicted, politics are more venomous than I’ve ever seen anyone talk,” he says. “Guillermo said this [film] is a fairy tale for troubled times.”
But as The Shape of Water expresses, love is the most gentle and most powerful force in the universe. The movie was born from love, too, one that’s been unfulfilled for years.
“In so many classic monster movies, there’s all the humans in that monster’s life that are sympathetic and hints of romance, but it’s a love that could never be because look how different they are,” Jones says. “Guillermo wanted to make the movie where it does work, and he created a world and two hearts that would make it work.”
The Shape of Water opens in theaters December 1.