12:10pm PT by Scott Feinberg
'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Vince Vaughn ('Hacksaw Ridge')
"I think what happened to me after The Break-Up was I was kind of more 'booking jobs' and not working from that same catalyst of, 'I really believe in this and we all want to make the same movie,'" acknowledges the actor Vince Vaughn as we sit down at the London West Hollywood hotel to discuss his career on The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. Following a remarkable run of hit comedies in the early 2000s — among them, 2003's Old School, 2004's Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and Starsky & Hutch and 2005's Wedding Crashers — Vaughn had deliberately pivoted towards drama with the 2006 dramedy.
"But I didn't follow through on it," the 46-year-old says with unmistakable regret. Instead, he lost his way for a decade, during which he was humbled by critical and commercial disappointments — see Fred Claus (2007), Four Christmases (2008), Couples Retreat (2009), The Dilemma (2011), Delivery Man (2013) and The Internship (2013), or better yet, don't. He has found his footing again, though, in Mel Gibson's 2016 war film Hacksaw Ridge, in which he plays a tough sergeant who oversees — and ultimately goes into battle alongside — a soldier who refuses to touch a gun, and for which the actor has received some of the best notices of his nearly 30-year career.
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Vaughn was born in Minneapolis but raised in Chicago, the youngest of three kids and, from an early age, a ham who hosted talent shows and performed in plays. While in high school, he began studying with Windy City improv legend Del Close, landed a Chevy commercial and, upon turning 18 in 1988, headed out to Los Angeles with the dream of becoming a working actor. Following a year of unemployment and several more years of underemployment, he finally landed his first movie job, a small part in the cult classic Rudy (1993). It was on the set of that film that Vaughn first met and became close with another young actor, Jon Favreau, a friendship that continued in L.A. and largely inspired the script that Favreau soon wrote for them to star in, Swingers (1996). That comedy about the L.A. dating scene, which was shot for just $250,000 in only 21 days, ultimately — after being rejected by Sundance, but acquired by Miramax — grossed $4.5 million at the box office, took off on VHS and put Vaughn and Favreau on the map. "It got in the culture," he says.
A year later, Vaughn starred in Steven Spielberg's The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), an experience that he cherishes because he got to work with the legendary director, but one that also taught him what he didn't want to do going forward. "I remember coming out of that and really making up my mind that I didn't want to do studio films and that I really wanted to stay on a trajectory of doing character stuff, which I did for another six or seven years," he says. Sometimes it worked out better (e.g. 1998's Clay Pigeons, his first film with David Dobkin, who later directed Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus) than others (e.g. Gus Van Sant's 1998 Psycho remake, which critics massacred).
It was only when Vaughn returned to a comedic persona somewhat like the one he inhabited in Swingers — the straight-faced, motor-mouthed, lovable man-child — that he achieved super-stardom. He says of the first hit comedy of which he was a part, 2003's Old School, "When Todd Phillips wanted to cast me in that, the studio didn't know that I could be funny ... at the time, I was considered an independent, darker actor." Even after putting his improv skills to the test in that comedy, which he regarded as "punk-rock ... fun and edgy," he still wasn't an easy sell for a comedy, as Ben Stiller learned when he tried to get him cast as his co-lead in Dodgeball.
But once those two films entered the ether, Vaughn says, "Then it started to really roll — I sort of found my way where I connected to these comedies that were R and that felt like we were pushing boundaries and questioning authority. We ripped off a bunch in a row that worked from a really collaborative place." Of his collaborators like Stiller, Owen Wilson and Will Ferrell — a group that began to be known as "The Frat Pack" — he says, "We were kind of like a band that was like, 'Hey, this sounds cool to me,' and there was a defiance to it where we were just kind of doing what we liked."
After that remarkable run of comedies, though, Vaughn felt like a hamster on a wheel, he says — bored, typecast and hungry for other experiences. He decided that The Break-Up, an "anti-romantic-comedy" that he guided to fruition, would mark a turning point in his career. "I remember, as an actor, feeling, 'That's the end of it — I'm done with these comedies and I'm going to move on after this to other things,'" he says. "I really designed The Break-Up to go from comedy onscreen to drama, versus just stepping into a drama." There was, he grants, one major problem: "I didn't have a plan after that."
Around that time, Vaughn got married, became a father, moved back to Chicago and began focusing more on his family than his work. "I just wasn't, at that time, as defiantly connected to the stories or a calling; I was more, kind of, taking jobs," he says, "jumping into these movies without the same plan or passion or connection." Films that were offered to him increasingly were tailored for a PG-13 rating, "going for larger audiences," which, in the end, meant they were less edgy and effective. And movies that his own production company churned out, he confesses, weren't much better. (Among them: disastrous onscreen reunions with Favreau in Couples Retreat and with Wilson in The Internship.) "These were all good lessons for me," he says. "I learned from all of these experiences, both good and bad, about not getting into stuff unless it's really clearly defined."
But evidence of Vaughn's underlying talent — and drive to return to drama — never fully disappeared. It emerged in everything from a small cameo in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007) to a large leading part in the divisive second season of HBO's True Detective (2015). And it is on full display in Hacksaw Ridge, for which Gibson — "one of my very favorite directors," Vaughn notes — called on him to play a key and tricky supporting part: a military man who is brutally tough on his battalion, and especially on its religious outlier, but who, through straight-faced humor (much of it improvised), avoids ever becoming loathsome, and actually becomes quite the opposite. It's hard to imagine that anyone could have played it as well as Vaughn. He was, you might say, so money.