June 11, 2008

INTERVIEW - Abe Sapien and Doug Jones, BFF

Ever since Pan's Labyrinth I've been keeping track of the man who was able to tap into our worst nightmares with a flick of his pointy red fingers. In the past few years he's become downright sought-after for certain demanding roles that few humans could ever convincingly take on. One of those is as the mysterious, amphibious Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies, who recently got his own five-issue comic book miniseries-- thanks, I'm sure, to fan interest that Jones' performance has helped generate.

Jones is a truly dedicated performer and a wonderfully entertaining guy. You can read more about the comic in this week's column, but you'll miss out on some great acting advice and interesting insights into Abe unless you read our complete conversation right here.

[Click here for the interview!]

TB: You have a great voice—I’m surprised! I mean, I’m surprised because I don't think I’ve never actually heard it before.

DJ: Yes, I’ve been dubbed over only three times, but they’ve been three notable times.

TB: I've read that you had a background in theatre, so I really shouldn’t be surprised.

DJ: Yes, we boom to the back row! [Booms]

TB: Dark Horse has released a Hellboy miniseries completely devoted to your character, Abe Sapien. Have you read it yet?

DJ: When we were filming Hellboy 2 in Budapest I heard people talking about the Abe Sapien series, but hadn’t had a chance to pick any up or study them. Now that the set is finally complete, I think I’m going to swoop them up in my arms and bring them home and devour them.

TB: Too late to help you with character work now... maybe in the next sequel, if there is one?

DJ: Certainly. Guillermo had plans for three all along... He’s got ideas, but I haven’t heard all of them yet.

TB: You play three characters in Hellboy 2. How much time did you spend as Abe, compared to the time you spend with these other two?

DJ: Abe was the bulk of the movie for me, the role was beefed up so much from the first one. The entire film was a 128 day production schedule. I worked 108 days of that 128, so I worked a lot! Most of that was Abe Sapien... I spent one week as the Angel of Death and one week as the Chamberlain.

TB: You're beginning to be widely recognized for being unrecognizable. How do you feel about the Lon Chaney comparisons that people make?

DJ: It’s the hugest compliment, as you can imagine. I feel bad, though, like I’m soiling his good name!

TB: Not at all! In a way, you’re living out a lot of dreams of his, special effects-wise.

DJ: Especially with special-effects makeup the way it is now, and our ability to use CGI to enhance what we have-- he’d be in heaven right now!

TB: In the trailer I could tell the Angel of Death was you, just by the shape of your head. Are they going to have to start burying you even deeper in makeup to keep people from recognizing you?

DJ: Oh gosh, can you imagine how much more would that take? Please, no! I actually get comments on my hands too, though. People recognize my hands, the way my thumb is structured.

TB: Do you think it's a sign of hope for theatre actors that there are opportunities for this kind of body-work in film?

DJ: I hope so. Acting is a full-body experience, and it always should be, because communicating is a full-body experience. What you can’t see over the phone is that I’m making facial expressions, my hands are waving in the air, I’m sitting here with a certain posture, and there’s so much visual story going on. My training as a mime back in college really got me in tune with how much storytelling really does go on without words, so when you bring dialogue back into the picture after being trained as a mime, then you’re very much aware of the entire experience. I’ve been able to roll that into the characters I play because they are so incredibly visual. The makeups I’ve been able to wear over the years, and the costuming, have really broadened the kind of characters that I can play, which I could never get to do with my own face.

TB: Do you have any tricks to keep from going crazy during the long hours in the makeup chair?

DJ: I have a really good relationship with my makeup artist, no matter what movie I’m working on. The people who do creature effects makeups tend to be really creative people and really funny people, and very well-read people. and crazy people who drew demons in their notebooks when they were supposed to be in math class. You find yourself being in really fascinating company. My one make-up artist who has done the most is Tom Floutz, he did both Hellboy movies and also made me up as the Silver Surfer, and he’s one of the funniest people, a very charming compassionate human being, and you find yourself really leaning on these people, because you’re with them all day. Also Simon Webber returned for Hellboy 2. Once you’re in a makeup, you can’t see as well, you can’t hear as well, you can’t taste as well because you have teeth in your mouth. You become like this nursing home patient, and your makeup people are the ones who stay with you all day and take care of you. So we have built a bond over the years... We put in a full day of work before they even start filming that day. We laugh a lot, we share stories, we watch DVDs or funny videos on YouTube. Thank goodness for the technology age and how it helps fill up our five hours! It goes by much faster than you’d expect.

TB: What have your comic book convention experiences been like?

DJ: I’ve devouring the comic convention world now! This year I’m doing a complete blitz because of Hellboy 2: I’m going to be in New York this week, and then I’ll be in Knoxville, TN this weekend, and in Mexico City for something later in the month. What I find at these conventions is a fanbase that’s different from any other in the world... they are intelligent and creative, smart, smart people. People ask me all the time whether it tires me, whether I find weirdos there, and all that-- and in any crowd there’s someone who leaves that impression, of course! But for the most part, these fans really just appreciate my work, appreciate this other world they can crawl into and fantasize in. So it’s not at all like the typical fan that’s hiding in Brad Pitt’s bushes who says, “Hey, you’ve got great abs, can we have a life together??”

TB: These people actually sound a lot like the people you were talking about who help you into your make-up...

DJ: Exactly! And it’s amazing how many of these people have contacted me on Facebook or Myspace or my own official website, and sent emails asking me, “I want to do what you do. I’m an aspiring make-up artist, can you give me any advice?” That’s a large portion of the messages I get, so they’re out there, more than I ever thought.

TB: In regards to the kind of extreme make-ups you’ve worn, I suspect that the weird facelessness is what made some of them so alien and scary-- but that lack of a human face is also what allows people to project themselves onto characters like Abe Sapien, really connect with them. Do you agree?

DJ: Absolutely, I totally agree. Guillermo Del Toro is a huge fan of that kind of storytelling. He always taps into the human condition with these otherworldly creatures that he makes-- same thing happened in Pan’s Labyrinth too. He has the golden touch with that.

TB: Do you do any special training before adopting such physical roles?

DJ: I just had my 48th birthday, so yes! A couple of years ago I asked myself, “How long can I do this?” So, especially when I have a job coming up that I know is going to be very demanding, I hit the gym in ways very specific to that character, and pay attention to whatever movement evolves for it. I usually have to really work on my core muscles like my back and abs-- a lot of the characters I’ve played had a certain stance or squat or lunge that human beings don’t normally do. In fact, I just did a cameo in a movie called Legion a few weeks ago, and I actually had to wind up on all fours, galloping toward a building! That gallop had me a little bit worried about whether I could do it take after take-- could I pull that off? So ultimately it was me, in the gym, at night when no one else was there, watching myself in the mirror crawling around on all fours and figuring it out.

TB: I think that’s an experience most film actors really miss out on!

DJ: As film actors, we depend so much on close-ups and dialogue so much that we get caught up in the words. It’s an easy thing to get trapped in. When you back off, and go back to the stag experience and pretend that you are performing to that back row in the theatre, you need to involve yourself from head to toe and work the space that you’re in.

TB: What kind of surprises did Hellboy 2 have in store for you?

DJ: Watching the evolution of the Abe Sapien character was kind of surprising to me. It’s a testament to Guillermo Del Toro’s storytelling, how he can make these otherworldly creatures-- who would never fit in at the mall, right? And he can make them into leading romantic characters. Abe Sapien was a kind of one-note intellect, just a sidekick in the first movie, and in this one Guillermo beefed up the character into a romantic leading male. As a fish-guy! He looks like a freak of nature, but I found myself really connecting with Abe this time in a way that was deper. He’s like my best friend now. He does everything from wielding a weapon and fighting bad guys, to and going on adventures with Hellboy and Liz Sherman, you see all of that buddy time and brother/sister time, but a subplot for Abe is that I am a love interest. My princess is played by Anna Walton, who did a fantastic job on this character. And this love story creates a triangle that’s a bit of a problem in the plot, which I found charming. I think that the fanboys will fall in love with the princess, because she’s like, Cate Blanchette-stunning-- such genuine regality, not pushed or fake. In the meantime, I think the fangirls will look at Abe and sort of tilt their heads and say, “Awwww.” Because he’s a bumbling idiot when it comes to love, and he hasn’t really dealt with that part of his life.

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