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He’s a Lon Chaney for today

Times Staff Writer

ACTOR Doug Jones never sought to specialize in playing creatures. When he came to L.A. in 1985 from his home in Indiana, he envisioned himself playing the goofy next-door-neighbor types.

His career changed when he landed the crescent-moon Mac Tonight character in the popular McDonald’s spots two decades ago. Ever since, the lanky Jones -- he’s nearly 6-foot-4 but only 140 pounds -- has become one of the most sought-after actors to play creatures in movies, TV and commercials.

The 46-year-old performer has become something of a magical muse to director Guillermo del Toro since portraying a humanoid cockroach in the filmmaker’s 1997 “Mimic.”

They collaborated again on 2004’s “Hellboy,” in which Jones played the sweet aquatic creature Abe Sapien. And now Jones has the pivotal role of the ultimate trickster, Pan, as well as a mysterious fleshy villain named the Pale Man, in Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which opens Friday.

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“He has an intelligence and a sensibility that is able to shine through the makeup,” Del Toro said of Jones. “That is a gift that not all actors have. He is not a creature actor, but an actor who excels playing those roles, like Lon Chaney.”

“If you want costumes or makeup to look really good, you can put it on a hanger or a dummy and it will look pretty,” Jones said. “If you want the movement and performance and character with a story line, you need to have an actor. I consider myself an actor first, not a suit performer.”

But while he does act without elaborate makeup, he’s better known for his work as nonhuman characters, such as several imps in “Doom,” a robot in “The Benchwarmers” and a space alien in “Stuck on You.” His training as a mime and his abilities as a contortionist undoubtedly help.

When Del Toro e-mailed Jones last year about playing Pan and the Pale Man in his gothic fairy tale, Jones said he was humbled to be asked. But the actor had real concerns about doing the Pan character, because the film is in Spanish.

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“When he said it was going to be in Spanish, I said, ‘There has to be someone better,’ ” said Jones. “I told him my fears and he said, ‘I can get a voice-over actor.’ That was more of a comfort.”

Yet even knowing that his lines would be dubbed, he was still worried that if he didn’t recite the lines as written, Del Toro would have a hard time matching the dialogue to his lip movement. “I wanted to give him every editing option possible, so I learned the dialogue word for word. It was a memorization triumph for me because there is a lot of exposition and explaining things. The hard part is that I didn’t have banter to rely on.”

THE Golden Globe-nominated “Pan’s Labyrinth” is set against the postwar repression of Franco’s Spain.

Ivana Baquero plays Ofelia, a dreamy-eyed young woman who is forced to move to a military outpost in the country commanded by her evil new stepfather (Sergi Lopez). To escape the cruelty and isolation, Ofelia retreats to an old garden near the house. And it is in the overgrown labyrinth, she uncovers magical creatures and fairies that are presided over by a rather decrepit and mischievous faun, Pan (Jones).

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Jones’ other character, Pale Man, is a terrifying entity with eyes in his hands who has a penchant for eating children.

The actor was in makeup for five hours a day for both parts. “For Pan there was a suit involved for the bottom part,” Jones said. “There was glue-on makeup for the face and neck and mechanics for the top half of my head.”

Pan’s horns were made out of fiberglass. “They felt heavy on my head. They were about 10 pounds, which is a lot when you are holding it up on a skinny neck.

“I couldn’t see through those eyes,” he said. “I did look through the tear ducts of the character’s eye, so it meant limited vision.”

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In the case of the Pale Man, he looked through its large, high-set nostrils. “It was kind of a cross-eyed effect,” said Jones. “It was disorienting.”

During rehearsals, the two puppeteers who operated Pan’s wide-set eyes, eyebrows and ears would watch Jones’ movement and listen to how he delivered his dialogue -- “where I was punching things and then pulling back and reacting to Ivana in certain ways. They would work in concert with what I was doing and mirror those emotions and mood in the facial expressions from the eyes up.”

As Ofelia’s reality becomes more oppressive, Pan becomes younger and more alive in her mind. “Pan ages in reverse,” Jones said. “He starts off more gray of hair and one of his ram horns is kind of eaten off at the end. I had to effect an aged posturing and walk in that first scene. And in the last scene he is standing more upright and is auburn of hair. As she needs the fantasy world more, he becomes more fluid and powerful.”

Jones admitted there was a lull in the creature effects business with the increasing popularity of computer graphic effects. “But what I think they found is that they missed a certain performance element that only human beings can give it,” he said. “What has happened is that they have realized they can enhance it with CGI seamlessly now. It’s like the best of both worlds coming together.”

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susan.king@latimes.com


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