Q&A: Actor, alumnus Doug Jones discusses role in 'Hocus Pocus'

Ball State Alumnus Doug Jones, left, is well known for his role of
Ball State Alumnus Doug Jones, left, is well known for his role of

Before there was "The Walking Dead" there was "Billy Butcherson." A lovable zombie character from Disney's 1993 Halloween film, "Hocus Pocus," Billy, played by Ball State graduate Doug Jones, has been asleep in his grave for the past 300 years after being poisoned by Winifred Sanderson, one of the three Sanderson sisters. 

Jones is best known for his past theatre work at Ball State, Abe Sapien from "Hell Boy," the Fawn and the Pale Man from "Pan's Labyrinth" and the Silver Surfer from "The Fantastic Four." 

Q: How did you receive the part of “Billy Butcherson”?

A: "Well, it was a combination of my manager at the time knew the casting director pretty well and so he made a phone call when he saw the breakdown come out, but that meant it set up an audition for me so from that point on it was up to me. So the audition was with Kenny Ortega, our director, and instead of doing it in a casting office with a desk and a chair it was in a dance studio because Ortega was and still is not only a film director, but he’s also a very good choreographer. So movement and body shapes were very important to him, he’s a very visual director... Without much dialogue in the script to audition with he wanted us to act like we were waking up from a grave, so get over to the other side of dance studio, do a wake up, stand up and be goofy and funny and creaky as you can...It was one of those auditions where I drove away feeling very confident that I’d done a pretty good job. By the time I got home the call was already waiting for me on my answering machine."

Q: Did you have to go through any other “Billy” training like running, walking, talking like him?

A: "Not training from anyone else. That was my responsibility. As an actor when you take on a role it’s the actor’s job to read the script, interpret that script and a sit down with your director and say, “Here’s my vision for the character that I want to play,” and the director might say, “Well, that’s exactly fitting with my vision” or “Here’s another quirk I want you to work into it.” It’s a collaborative effort. We developed a walk and a basic stance for him. And being dry as dust, they put dust on me all the time, almost before every take, every scene that I did so that dust would fly off of my clothes or my hair, so I also looked like I had just come out of the earth. So being that dry and dead inside, I was a reanimated dead body. His movement would not be fluid and healthy, it would be like he had just woken up from a three hundred year nap."

Q: How did they do the moths coming out of your mouth?

A: "The first line of action was to have real moths come out of my mouth, so I was wearing a protective, latex sheath in my mouth that tried to keep the moths as dry as possible. They had a moth trainer who came with the moths, and he was an expert on how they flew and what keeps them healthy. Moths are very dry, and if they get moist at all they’re not going to fly. The key was to keep them as dry as possible so that they would fly out of my mouth and flutter into the air. They would place these moths into the rubbery sheath over my tongue and the moth trainer used tweezers by their wings from their cage into my mouth. Then, the makeup artist, Tony Gardner and Margaret Prentice, would have to run in and lightly tack glue my stitches across my mouth, so that I could take that knife and run that across the pre-cut stitches and cough out the moths and the dust.

Q: How long were you in make up for your character?

A: "It was relatively short. Usually a job like this where you’re covered in a complete transformation makeup, you’re looking at a minimum of three hours or up to seven hours. The face and neck was all one piece with two ears that were put on each and side and glued onto my skin and a wig and gloves went on. I had an under suit that had arms and legs built into it with zombie skin on them, so I could slip that on like a leotard. All that was done in about an hour and half.

Q: Did you feel ready to play the part of “Billy” in “Hocus Pocus”? How did your past film experiences help you prepare for it?

A: When I got casted in “Hocus Pocus,” I had at least had on-camera experience to know what the protocol is and how the system works. This was only my second large-film experience. I had been on “Batman Returns” with Warner Bros. so that was my first big-budget film before this and that was just the year before, so I was coming off of a pretty big movie, but with a very small part. But then I got “Hocus Pocus” and it was a bigger deal. My name showed up in the front credits of the movie for the very first time in my life and I had key scenes that were just mine. I felt more of a gravity, more of a weight to this job, I knew more was riding on it."

Q: What was it like working with Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy and the other actors on set?

"Kathy Najimy had just come off playing a funny nun in “Sister Act,” and Sarah Jessica Parker was coming from Broadway and had a musical background. Najimy, who played ‘Mary,’ was very quick-witted, so a lot of what you saw onscreen she had improved. She was just a delight to work with. [Parker] was absolutely delightful, happy-go-lucky, very quick-humored, I loved working with her. She was my love-interest-gone-wrong in the movie. I was originally Winifred’s (Midler's) boyfriend and the reason I’m dead was because she poisoned me when she found out I was cheating on her with her sister, [Parker's character.] And the reason that my mouth was sewn shut was so that I couldn’t tell her secrets in the afterlife. Midler was the one I was most nervous to meet and excited about meeting the most because she was such an idol of mine already...meeting her was just a complete treat and she was very gracious, very kind, very easy to work with. My first night, I was in a scene that was face-to-face with her and I’m looking right at her and it was so hard not to get the giggles because they had her eyebrows completely removed and this makeup on her that made her look less than pretty and those big buck teeth. I couldn’t look at her very long without bursting into a giggle."

Q: Do you still watch “Hocus Pocus” today?

A: "Oh, yes, I do. I’ve seen it more than any other film I’ve been in. Now, when I talk to people 21 years after its first release in theaters, I talk to people who are in their twenties and they say, “I grew up with this movie” or “I have a baby of my own and now she watches it.” It’s such a heartwarming experience to be a part of this long, successful ride. It’s taken on many life forms since it’s first theatrical run in 1993."

Q: What’s something about the movie that no one else knows about?

A: "A side tidbit about “Billy Butcherson” is that when they were designing the look of “Billy,"...[it was to] make him accessible for children...They wanted him to have a certain romantic appeal that the audience could fall in love with. I cannot tell you how many young women I meet that tell me that “Billy Butcherson” was their first onscreen crush they ever had."

Q: How has playing “Billy” helped with your acting career?

A: "The same way that any notable role will help you in the casting process whenever people are considering me for another movie or another role. When “Hocus Pocus” is mentioned in my credits, a lot of casting directors and young directors now are also people who grew up with the movie. It helps me get in the door when there’s a sentimental love for my past work."

Q: Was playing the role of “Billy” your favorite acting experience?

A: "One of, yes. I’ve had several favorite acting experiences. “Billy” ranks right up there with “Pan’s Labyrinth.” I played both the “Fawn” and the “Pale Man,” a very exciting film. The “Silver Surfer” in the “Fantastic Four” is also a favorite. Probably my favorite costume character, because I’ve lived with him for so long, is “Abe Sapien” from the “Hell Boy” movies. After doing two feature films as him, two animated features and a videogame, it’s a lot of life we’ve shared together, so he probably takes the top spot. But “Billy Butcherson” is in my top handful of favorite characters I’ve ever played. I just love him."

Q: How does working with a Disney film company compare with other film companies that you’ve worked with?

A: "It’s the audience that makes the difference. Filmmaking is film making. The process is pretty much the same no matter what. But when you’re on a Disney film, you do feel a certain magic. The material itself is lighthearted, it carries a lesson of some sort. Disney is very good about telling a story with lots of funny moments in it, lots of colors and actions, but at the end of day you’ve learned something and you take away something away from it."

Q: What would you say to Ball State students who are pursuing a career in acting or pursuing their dreams in general while in college?

A: "The most important thing is to be good at what you do. Practice make perfect. Keep doing your thing until you’re the best at it because then people will want you. A lot of people make the mistake of trying to do the business part first, like, “Who do I need to know?” “What phone call do I need to make?” “What connections do I need to have?” Those are the big, scary questions that no one knows, that I don’t even know. All I know is that if you’re good at what you do and you can find people who will hire you, you’ll always be working, that’s the magic of it all."