Of all the parts in his prolific acting career, Doug Jones is proudest of Amphibian Man in the multiple Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water.”
The film’s story — a lonely janitor (2018 Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins) falls in love with a humanoid fish god (Jones, ’82) held in a lab during the Cold War — and the movie’s heart touched him. And he didn’t mind being the romantic lead for once.
As has been true for most of his roles, he brought his character to life without the audience seeing his real face, using physical and acting skills he honed at Ball State.
Campus is also where he began a lifelong romance with then-freshman Laurie Pontoni, whom he met on Valentine’s Day his junior year.
Laurie was performing in “Godspell” at Muncie’s College Avenue United Methodist Church. She noticed “a cute, tall boy on the end of the second row who was staring at me the whole time.”
“They were hosting a Valentine’s Day dance right after,” Doug said. “And so I stayed around for the dance, and she did, too, and that’s when we started dancing the night away and talking in the hallway and ‘What’re you doing Monday?’”
Laurie remembers Doug telling her that he performed as Ball State’s mascot, Charlie Cardinal, for men’s basketball games. She hadn’t been to a game yet, so she asked: “What do you wear? A bird suit with yellow tights and stuff?”
“Yeah, actually. All those things,” he replied.
“OK. We’ll see how this goes,” she thought. “And then it turned out to be some of the best memories. … I had a shirt made that said ‘Charlie’s Chick’ on the back of it.”
Finding his future on TV
The lanky 6-foot-3 Doug said he was often teased for being tall and skinny growing up. But he found a haven watching wacky characters on TV, including Don Knotts as Deputy Barney Fife, and learned from them. “Seeing goofy people making a career made me think it’s possible. That’s when the dream started.”
He forged his first Ball State connection at Indianapolis’ Bishop Chatard High School, where his drama teacher helped cultivate his talents. Nancy Wright, ’72, who said Doug and other theater kids nicknamed her “Nanny,” became Nancy Montgomery after marrying during winter vacation of his junior year.
“He had the physicality, he had the timing, he had the comedic ability to take it and roll with it,” she recalled. “And it was going to be an interesting character. That’s what I loved about him.”
Montgomery was thrilled when Jones decided to go to Ball State, as she’d thrived with the one-on-one attention and creativity that made the theater department special for her.
At Ball State, Jones was an Honors College student and majored in radio and TV broadcasting, with a minor in theater (his parents never thought he’d find acting work). In addition to being Charlie, he was in the campus troupe Mime Over Matter.
“With mime training, you learn how to express and do nonverbal dialogue with facial expressions, body movement, creating things from the neck down that aren’t there,” he said. “As Charlie Cardinal, there’s this big bird suit that I had to animate and make come to life and perform in front of a stadium full of people. It was absolutely great training ground for the career I was about to have.”
After Laurie Jones, ’84, got her visual communications degree, they moved to Los Angeles, where his first paid acting job was as a dancing mummy. That began a career under latex, foam, mechanics, glue, makeup, and/or scales while playing varied creatures.
When he later met director Guillermo del Toro on the film set of “Mimic,” the two bonded like schoolboys over their love of monsters. Del Toro has since featured Jones in five other movies, including the fantasy horror “Pan’s Labyrinth,” where Jones portrayed The Faun and the terrifying demon, The Pale Man, plus “The Shape of Water.”
Jones’ work includes more than 65 movie credits plus scores of TV roles. He was recently in Toronto, filming the second season of CBS All Access’ “Star Trek: Discovery,” where he plays Commander Saru, a Starfleet officer attuned to danger because his species was bred as prey back home.
Among other jobs, Laurie’s been a media buyer for an ad agency. She’s now a visual merchandiser for a local store where they live. “I love it, because interiors was another of my interests.”
A favorite human character, and a gift to Ball State
Doug starts preparing for each role alone in a dance studio, searching for the character’s physical center. The rest of his role springs from there.
It’s one way his Midwestern work ethic has served him well. “Actors have a reputation for being selfish divas. And when you show up to work on time and are willing to do what you said ‘yes’ to, apparently that makes you exceptional.”
Montgomery admires that he’s remained so humble and open.
“I see it in the interviews, in the things that he says on Facebook, and the people that he’s in contact with. He doesn’t ever forget where he has come from.”
Since graduating, Jones has remained in touch with his alma mater. In 2009, he starred in Ball State’s first commercial film, “My Name is Jerry.” More than 50 students worked in making, producing and promoting the film. It’s his favorite human role and brought him a film festival best actor nomination; the movie won festival awards.
He and Mrs. Laurie (his term of endearment) also endowed the Doug Jones Scholarship Fund. The four-year award goes to a talented theater student with financial need and has been a huge help, said Bill Jenkins, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance. “I would say that no single graduate better epitomizes beneficence than Doug Jones.”
Laurie said of the scholarship, “Since we never had kids of our own, and Ball State has been so much a part of our beginning and our history, that was something we really wanted to do: Bless the school that blessed us so much.”
In April, Doug and Laurie celebrated their 34th anniversary. They wed at the church where they met; parishioners and staff still remember them fondly.
To Laurie, Doug remains that cute boy she spotted staring at her from the audience’s second row 37 years ago.
“He’s not changed,” she said. “And I am so proud to be on this journey with him at this part of his career and just get to see him get the recognition that I feel like he’s deserved.”