He’s been a working actor for the past 30 years and starred in more projects than you’ve ever imagined, but it seems that Doug Jones is achieving new levels of success at a time when a lot of other acting careers could be winding down. In the past year, he starred in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water as “Amphibian Man”, and became a part of a Star Trek bridge crew for the first time in the CBS All-Access series Discovery. On the latter, he plays Saru, a Kelpian, one of a race of beings whose sole purpose of existence is to serve as prey. But Saru has transcended that, and over the course of the show’s first season, Jones has transcended what could have been dismissed as just another prism from which to look back at humanity, such as Spock, Data, Odo, Neelix or T’Pol. How far he will be able to take it remains to be seen, but the journey to this point has been a fascinating one.
GEEK: When watching you in Discovery, I’m struck with the notion that this must represent a career high for you in terms of what you’re being allowed to do.
DOUG JONES: Oh, absolutely. I have been doing creature roles for about 30 years now, so I’ve worn every kind of imaginable rubber on my face. I’ve crawled down hallways, I’ve swiped at people, and I’ve had great dialogue as well. But Discovery is a show where they brought it all together for me. Where I get to wear a beautiful design, and offer up a physicality that is unlike anything I’ve played before — thank heavens for those shoes that have informed a whole new way of walking. But with the relationships built, and the layers to those, and the layers to him personally with his insecurities, but his intellect, and how he’s the only one of his species who ever climbed to where he is, to ever break out of being a prey species, has been an amazing opportunity. I’m the only one who’s ever got on to Starfleet Academy from my people, the Kelpians.
So, there’s just so much to him that is delicious and triumphant and charming and kind of cute at times. And yet, when he wants to make a point, he can be very strong. I get to play so many different colors with this character, and part of that career high as well is being in a Star Trek project. I mean, I’m a part of a legacy franchise now that I was watching on its first run in 1966 with my family at home, on our black and white TV.
Now that you mention it, it’s kind of odd that you haven’t actually been in Star Trek before.
And when you do as much rubber makeup on the face as I have over the years, you get asked quite a bit by fans, “Have you ever done anything in Star Trek before?” And so for all these decades, I’ve said, “Well, no, I sure would love to one day, but I haven’t yet.” In my mid-fifties, I’m thinking, “Ah, maybe opportunity has passed.” So, to get that phone call that surprised and shocked me that I didn’t have to audition… well, I couldn’t believe it. My name came up by the creature creators, Glenn Hetrick and Neville Page, when the design process was underway, and our original showrunner, Bryan Fuller, was a fan of mine, thank heaven. This kind of a shot in the arm now is a career high for sure. It came unexpectedly, and I was very content and happy with my life and my career. I’ve never stopped working, so it wasn’t about that. It was that this was a yummy piece of cake I’d been looking for, and felt, “Well, maybe I don’t need dessert.” I’d come to that kind of conclusion, right? But then dessert showed up.
Is it fair to say that this has been your largest continuing opportunity?
Well, it’s my largest role on television ever, yes. Now, in my film career, I’ve had some highs there with some layered performances and lots of great dialogue and whatnot, and screen time. In the Hellboy franchise, for instance. Or in Hocus Pocus or Pan’s Labyrinth, the Silver Surfer/Fantastic Four movie. So, by the time Season Two is done, my character, Saru, will hold the record for the most days in makeup for anything I’ve ever played, and it will probably hold the record for most screen time by that point as well. I was on two seasons on Falling Skies as well on TNT as an alien character, so I need to beat that record, and we’re getting very close very fast.
How would you describe Saru’s journey in season one?
When you first meet him, he’s third in command on the Starship Shenzhou. He’s the lead science officer, so he’s intelligent, but he hasn’t seen a whole lot of battle and a whole lot of wartime. And it’s dually noted by other characters in that first couple of episodes that I’m the scared one, I’m the nervous one, I’m the fear-driven one. If we’re driving toward a cliff, I’m the first one that’ll say, “Let’s stop before we go over it.” By the end of this season, I think the evolution that he sees is a promotion, so Starfleet must believe in me more than I do in myself. And so with that promotion, I’d been straightening my jacket and hoping people buy it. But I think the confidence has grown throughout the season. Probably the major change for me is that.
One of the more fascinating relationships has been the one between Saru and Burnham, the two of them relating on much deeper levels than you could have imagined at the start of the year.
That’s a beautiful relationship. That’s another favorite reason for even being on the show, getting to work with Sonequa Martin-Green as much as I do, and the relationship that her character, Michael Burnham, and I have is really delicious. That evolves as well, of course. You see us in the very, very beginning as brother and sister kind of characters with that dynamic, and with Michelle Yeoh as our maternal figure, because we were both brought up in our responsibilities in Starfleet learning under her tutelage. So that’s there. But you can tell we’re competitive with each other. We want to outshine each other. We want Mom’s attention more than the other kind of a thing. That’s at the beginning. Then she attempts mutiny and there are trust issues that came out of that, with trust having to be earned back when she finds herself on Discovery. At one point Saru is brutally honest with her, but you can tell that there is a love and respect for her as an undercurrent always. In the end, Saru really respects her and knows that she does think outside the box, although he’s more of a by-the-rules kind of a guy. I respect that her outside-the-box thinking is always for the greater good.
The vibe I get is that as things go on, the two of them could become the Kirk/Spock of this show — not to put it into too specific a box.
That’s extremely humbling to hear. That Kirk and Spock magic was something delicious to watch, wasn’t it? But even when Discovery started, the writers all told me over multiple times that Saru kind of is their Spock of the show, is their Data of the show. That one character on the bridge who doesn’t look quite like everybody else, and has a quirky, fun relationship with the powers that be. So, to be equated with him … Spock was my favorite character watching when I was a kid in that living room in the 1960s with my family because I could relate to his being tall and lanky. I could relate to his being a little bit different than everybody else because I certainly looked different than all the kids at my school. So I kind of was the Spock of my elementary school. So, now getting to play a character that is maybe patterned after him a little in heart and in his position, that’s quite an honor and I don’t take it lightly at all.
How do you view Star Trek‘s place in the world today?
There’s a heavy question. Hopefully, it does what entertainment should do, and that’s make us think and make us inquire about what our possibilities are. And hope for the future, I think, is what it’s offering. Our world is in more turmoil now than I’ve ever remembered in my entire lifetime. In my 57 years on this planet, right now is the most upheaval with two sides being at odds with each other within our own borders. If you want to make current world issue parallels with our show, you certainly can. But it’s presented in a way that you can put into or get out of it whatever you wish as an audience member, and that’s what’s great. Wear whatever your growing points are, you might find some inspiration for those growing points here on our show. That’s the service it hopefully is providing. And basically that hope for a peaceful future. That’s the most important part to me, personally, is that we’re at battle right now, and it is a bit dark. Our storylines and our conflicts can be dark on the show, but working through them and working them out and finding solutions and using intellect as opposed to emotional, knee-jerk reactions to solve things … Hopefully, that’s a way to educate as well as we entertain. Gene Roddenberry’s legacy is living on, I do believe.
The season finale of Star Trek: Discovery will be streamed on CBS All-Access on February 11th.