In 2008, an independent film shoot came to Muncie, Indiana. I'd been freelance writing for a year, so I decided to stick my nose into the process. This confidence, I would learn, was unearned. I volunteered to work for the marketing department as a blogger and general buzz-maker on relevant message boards. But it wasn’t exactly selfless. I had a long and beautiful history with the star of the film. He just didn't know it.
When I was a kid in the late eighties, I accidentally saw Michael Jackson’s Thriller late one night while I was innocently constructing a couch cushion fort. It aired on Friday Night Videos. I was paralyzed by the sight of it. I watched every second of those jumping grey corpses without looking away. Except for the few moments when I allowed my eyes to dart toward the windows that faced the general direction of our town cemetery. It was only one block away. That night, zombies became my worst fear, the stars of many bizarre night terrors. Sleepwalking episodes, during which I woke my family, desperate to convince them to drive away before the shuffling undead reached our front door.
But Doug, as Billy the Zombie in Hocus Pocus was a kinder, gentler walking corpse. He was on the kids’ side. He was funny. I remember Mom gently poking me in the side, leaning over to whisper in my ear, “See? He’s a monster, but he’s nice!”
After that, Jones played the graceful Norrin Radd in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the lovable gill-man Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies, and a host of other costumed characters. He's so good at disappearing into a role, he was sometimes present when I didn't know it. For example, when he played one of the terrifying gentlemen on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.
Doug was a discovery relevant to my entire family. He represented all the classic Universal monsters we watched together. He was from Indiana, like us. He graduated from Ball State University, the same college my sisters attended. The same college where I eventually earned my degree.
But there was something else, something more significant. Mom ran a successful singing telegram business in our small town. To us, living with a professional entertainer who donned costumes, masks, and gloves was just our way of life. What was bizarre to so many of our peers was our everyday routine. We couldn't imagine not having a mom who knew how to apply a beard to her face using spirit gum.
It's not like we had everything in common. After all, Doug was famous. But if he was anything like mom, he suffered for his art. For her to bring whimsy to a local party, she applied layers of itchy makeup, stumbled around in giant chicken feet, or struggled to see through the eyes of a gorilla mask. She often worked outside in blistering heat or freezing cold. It was some of the most physically demanding work I’ve ever watched anyone do. I believed she was the hardest-working woman in show business.
Doug Jones became one of the few actors we could relate to somehow, a far away figurehead. Some people have the Queen of England on a plate. We watched Doug's star rise in the distance, our "local boy makes good" aspirational fairy tale. It was him, Boris Karloff, and Peter Sellers in our house. If we could've ordered their faces on collectible plates, we would've.
I was 25 when the film shoot came to Muncie. At that age, I wasn't one to pass up an opportunity for a brush with fame. I once got ecstatic when I saw Montel Williams at a theme park while standing in line for a log ride. I yelled his name hoping he’d look my way so I could take a photo with my disposable camera. He grimaced and gave me side-eye. I deserved it.
But this was different. It wasn’t just any famous person. It was Doug Jones. I didn’t fully understand why, but this felt exponentially more important than any previous celebrity freakout. So I flexed my fledgling writer muscle and secured an interview. After his other commitments, I would have an entire hour to ask him whatever I wanted.
By the way, this was my first celebrity interview. Ever. And I hadn’t sold it to anyone yet. This meant I had no editorial guidance on how to shape my questions and no real idea of how to proceed. I was a jangle of nerves.
On the day of the interview, I arrived embarrassingly early. As in, I was the first human present. Even a janitor walked by pushing a dry mop in an empty bucket before the room was unlocked. He checked his watch. I avoided eye contact. I wanted to sit in for Doug’s first interview so I wouldn’t repeat any questions. I had no understanding yet that answering the same questions repeatedly is a natural part of press junkets and that I didn't need to re-invent the wheel to get good coverage.
I held my questions in hand on an unevenly torn out, lined piece of notebook paper. They were already wrinkled from the way I clenched them too tight in my fist. I was Tommy Boy crushing the biscuit.
When Doug arrived, he strolled smoothly into the room. I marveled at how tall and thin he was. His head barely cleared the doorway. He appeared otherworldly and statuesque, with long thin fingers that moved elegantly by accident, like antennae. He was physically imposing, the kind of guy who would make perfect sense in a monster suit. Only he was goofy. He was silly and kind of loud and his face could change dramatically with the lift of the eyebrow or a tilt of the chin. He was every inch the performer. People forget that actors in costumes are still actors.
I put my cold and nervous hand in his when they introduced us. Initially, I managed to play it cool, looking up so high into his face. He talked about his career, his life as an actor, and his history of roles. He drank from a bottle of grape juice. He spoke about growing up in Indiana. As his other interviews progressed, I started to unravel.
The way he talked about his life was so similar to the way Mom talked about hers. All her wild anecdotes about entertaining at parties were just like his film set memories. Her stories about the pitfalls of masks and makeup were remarkably similar to his. He even displayed the same ability to change and transform from character to character at a moment’s notice.
When he spoke about Abe Sapien, his hands moved like they were in water. When Mom talked about playing a character called Mother Spring, her posture straightened, her head tilted and her eyebrows raised like Glenda the Good Witch.
Without realizing it, as Doug talked, I had gone from sitting on the couch to sitting on the floor with my legs crossed. By the end, I had my hands propped under my chin like it was storytime. Then it was my turn.
I do this thing when I’m nervous. I slip into a sort of Pollyanna mode. I smile too much like I have a slick of Vaseline over my teeth and can’t close my mouth. I get…peppy. Chipper. I say things like, “How do you do?” and accidentally mirror people’s way of speaking.
I go into a similar mode when I embarrass myself. For example, when I was a freshman in college and walking to my very first class, I took a tumble over the top of my brand new wooden clogs. (Because it was the year 2000 and wooden clogs just screamed sophistication.) In an effort to make a quick recovery, I popped back up, held my scraped palms high in the touchdown symbol and yelled, “And she’s good!” at the top of my lungs. This was my greatest effort at a comeback. So you see, I'm no good when I'm nervous. And I was very nervous.
The consummate professional, Doug was kind and unswerving in the face of an interview I steered so far off-course, we could’ve discovered a new country. I asked him what his favorite ride was at Disneyland. I did my impression of Parker Posey from Waiting For Guffman. I suggested he play Danny Kaye in a biopic. At one point I literally asked him how he managed to be such a good actor and stay so humble. To which he replied, “Well, I can hardly answer that now can I?” though he did so with a genuine smile on his face. In my memory, he maybe had a small touch of fear in his eyes.
It wasn't until years later that it dawned on me what I was really doing during that disaster. I was asking Doug a question, even though he didn’t know it. Even though I didn't know it. Can the daughter of an actress raised where you grew up also go on to live her dreams, stay weird, make a living in entertainment, and add value to society? You know, just that one, tiny little question.
And okay, I never really asked anything close to that. There was no, "What advice would you give to aspiring creatives growing up in Indiana today?" I was asking subliminally. It was implied...like some sort of strange wild bird dance or a complex semaphore routine. Something was happening, it's just that nobody knew what, including me.
Doug didn’t know he was a symbol, that I had a mother who spent the majority of her life in costumes entertaining mostly ungrateful Mid-Western masses. He didn't know Billy the Zombie almost single-handedly cured me of that all-too-common childhood ailment, living dead-related night terrors. He only knew he was being interviewed by a strangely over-enthusiastic, very green journalist who was obviously a fan.
At the end of the interview, he gave me a giant hug. His arms were so long, it felt like they could wrap around me twice. I was entirely aware I had just spazzed out. The odds were very great that Doug ran into people like me all the time. People who see him as a shadow of what they could someday become if their pent-up hopes and dreams come true.
Harry Knowles published the interview on his site Ain't It Cool News. He encouraged me to share it when I reached out to him via email at a time when I was uncertain it was even worthy of publication. Afterward, it was Doug who comforted me via email about what kind of a job I did after some of the comments were less than glowing. He wrote me the next day, “Now don’t feel bad. What would those angry little high school boys do if they couldn’t say nasty things from the safety of their parents’ basement?” Anytime I think of this experience and feel embarrassed, I remember something Doug said to me that day as he hugged me goodbye. “You, young lady, are going to be just fine.”
I guess I did ask that question.