The Total Film Interview - Vince Vaughn

Here’s how it works. Vince Vaughn talks, Total Film listens, occasionally lobbing in a crafty query during very, very occasional breath breaks. At one point, he talks non-stop about how he’s been compared to Brando (everyone is) and why he won’t do big action movies (rubbish scripts) and how much he likes documentaries (simple truths) and why Harrison Ford is great and what makes a good sports movie and how The Lord Of The Rings relates to ’80s action heroes and why James Bond is cool… all in around three minutes. The guy must have gills hidden away somewhere.

When he was five years old, doctors tried to tame Vaughn with anti-hyperactivity drugs. His parents resisted, but teachers insisted on “special” classes. A counsellor once resorted to belittling tactics, telling Vaughn he wasn’t special and it might be an idea to stop thinking he was. He says he just laughed in her face (“I knew I was bright and I wouldn’t take shit”).

Growing up in suburban Chicago, he “wasn’t very good at sports”, so his folks enrolled him in after-school theatre workshops where he channelled his wise-ass dynamism into acting. As turbulent teenage hormones lent him an early Brando vibe, he bagged a national ad for Chevrolet and moved to LA to hunt for movie action. For seven years, he schlepped, scrapped and hawked round those cheesy head-shots.

Then he met Jon Favreau and the two conceived Swingers, the witty, soulful story of plausible faux-hipsters sashaying around underground nouveau-swing clubs, trading pick-up tips. It was a hand-to-mouth, guerilla shoot for dogged Doug Liman, who sent the finished film to Steven Spielberg for a yay or nay on a sequence featuring the Jaws music. Spielberg gave his blessing and nabbed Vaughn for a part in Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World while he was at it.

That’s where the choices get a little uneven, as though hanging out with The Beard brought on a touch of perspective loss. There was serial-killer schlock (The Cell), child-in-terror poppycock (Domestic Disturbance) and that copycat Psycho remake, complete with the notorious, critic-baiting scene where Vaughn transforms not-so-normal Norman into Master Bates.

As 2003’s Old School inaugurated a much-gabbed-about comedy new wave (Owen/Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Jack Black), Vaughn’s acting classiness gave the group a steadying influence which has secured him a part in every ‘Frat Pack’ film since (Zoolander, Starsky & Hutch, Anchorman, DodgeBall). Vaughn has pretty much been the best thing in each. And while he hasn’t quite been handed the leading-man reins yet, recent show-stealing turns in Be Cool and Mr And Mrs Smith have sealed that reputation with aplomb.

Next is a hook-up with another Frat Packer emerging as a rangey acting force, Owen Wilson, in Wedding Crashers. “It’s the best of the lot,” Vaughn says. “The funniest movie I’ve ever been involved with.”

So, yeah. Settle in. Vince Vaughn, son of a toy salesman and real estate saleswoman. Most definitely “money”. And talking…

Shall we start with masturbation?
[Laughs] Uh, yeah! You mean the Psycho remake, right? Listen, man. That scene – where Norman is spying on Marion in the shower? Here’s my interpretation… He’s sexually aroused by women and he’s turned on, so he’s gonna sort of punish himself and feel guilty and become his mother and kill the women because he’s not supposed to have those urges. How would he do that before he’s climaxed? With sex – for me, anyway – you only regret sleeping with someone after you’ve done it. You have this strong, primal, physical drive to sleep with them and it’s only when you release that urge that you’re in a place to start getting fucked up about it. While aroused, you’re not thinking logically. In the original, Norman kind of rises and rises up to that point but then – click! – he suppresses it and turns into Mother. For me, it’s an even dirtier act in the mind of someone like that if they achieve some kind of sexual release – through masturbation.

What do you think ol’ Hitchcock would have made of it?
Well, he was kind of a mischievous guy… And he was never shocking for the sake of being shocking. He always tried to justify the things he did. His stuff pushed the envelope but it all made sense and it was all very real. I like to think he’d appreciate it. The most important thing is that I thought it was right – and all the critics who hated it, they were wrong.

How much of you is there in Swingers’ Trent?
A lot. Favreau and I totally based it on us. We were regular guys who wanted to be actors. We played lots of videogames and gave a lot of power to chintzing the girls but weren’t really the greatest operators, truth be told. A lot of it is obviously exaggerated for comedy, but the phrases – “money”, etc – yeah, I used to say that. To me it was a sort of hip-hop urban term – you know, he’s so money, so on the money. I was just making a little fun of it. Swingers was great for me, because I’m a gambler. I still go to Vegas a lot. My dad was a very good card player. He taught me all the games from a very early age. I’ve been playing Blackjack since I was four.

The scene where Mike (Jon Favreau) blows his chance with a girl by calling her too soon is still chilling...
Yeah, that’s my absolute favourite scene in the movie. It’s such a male thing – the way you meet someone, get on well and then have to resist the urge to just dive in and mark your territory before someone else claims it. I think we’ve all felt caught up in the moment like that. It’s a slippery slope where you just keep giving energy and giving energy. You start chasing it when actually you should just cut off and leave it alone. You’re looking for a result so badly, you can’t help but go about it the wrong way. That’s the sort of comedy I like and that’s where Swingers came from. It’s painful. It makes you want to hide your eyes. But it’s real. As humans, it’s good that we can laugh at ourselves like that.

Ever done anything that desperate yourself?
Sort of. I tend to go the other way. Not letting myself be vulnerable. Being a little too cool. So that whatever happens, I can think, ‘Oh, it doesn’t bother me.’ The stuff about the four-day call-back time still stands, though, guys. You know – make it look like you’ve got... stuff to do before you call ’em.

So, how was it working with Spielberg on The Lost World?
Ha. I went in to meet Steven and we talked about the script, character development, how he wanted the sequel to be grittier than the first one. We talked a lot about Westerns. I was more excited about working with him than I was about what it meant for my ‘career’ in general. I’m kinda child-like so, yeah, it was great to play videogames with my director on set. He’s pretty child-like, too. But also very smart and confident with a lot of time for actors. I couldn’t have gone from more of an extreme – shooting Swingers in 21 days to doing Jurassic Park 2.

Did you sense any resentment from other actors, that you’d gone from zero to hero in such a short time? You know, you hadn’t quite paid your dues?
Ah, I don’t really give a fuck. I guess there was some resentment, but I never paid any attention. I didn’t feel it from anyone in my life I cared about. That kind of stuff usually has more to do with the person who’s projecting it on to you. I try hard not to give any energy to things that feel negative or destructive like that. You’re better off focusing on what you can do to make your life more how you want it, rather than projecting ruin on someone else.

Do you still think the Psycho remake was a good idea?
Fuck, yeah! No apologies. A lot of songs and plays have been re-interpreted by lots of different people, so why not films? I never look at art as a kind of religion. I always try to see these things through child-like eyes – you know, a place to play, a place to explore and ask a few questions – investigating human nature and the human spirit. It’s a movie. Whatever anyone does with it, the original will still be there. I saw it very much as a compliment, a homage. I remember Hitchcock’s daughter was very excited about it. If someone tried to remake a movie I’ve been in, I wouldn’t see it as blasphemy. I’d think it was pretty cool. To just say, ‘No, you can’t touch it. It’s sacrilegious...’ That’s kind of like censorship. Art is there to be interpreted. But, your point about unlikeable characters… Yeah, the more flawed your character is, the more interesting the job is as an actor.

Yeah, you don’t want to be Jimmy Stewart all the time.
Well, I love Jimmy Stewart, but I know what you mean. I don’t want to be the kind of guy who’s looking to please all the time – a nice guy, a sweetheart. It’s not interesting to me. I think all of us have many, many different sides and as an actor, it’s fun to bring a few of those up and kick ’em around a little. It’s like DodgeBall – it’s basically a more child-like version of the classic sports movie structure. We got to fuck around with all the obligatory stuff in a knowing kind of way – the coach dying, the moment of doubt, the underdog triumph... DodgeBall is kind of a punk-rock sports movie.

Are you and Jon still up for making Swingers 2?
People thought we’d already done that with Made... But that was a little darker than Swingers, a little different. Jon’s written a screenplay for an actual Swingers 2, though, and it’s incredibly good. It’s all about commitment – which is a very male concern. Favreau’s character is agonising about whether to marry the Heather Graham character. My character, who was always on top of everything, is now battling depression and won’t leave his house. Ron Livingston’s character – the guy who was kind of square – is now dressed as an older hip character and talks like a rapper. He’s a straight-up Yale guy who’s now been infected by LA, trying to play it all ‘street’. It’s meant to be four or five years later. We were due to shoot in the late ’90s, but we decided there was just no reason for it. Swingers was its own animal and we were so proud of it we figured it best to just leave it alone and let it live by itself. I’ve often said to Jon that he should release it as a screenplay because it makes a great read. But Jon and I have a new pet project – a Jewish Western where he’s the fastest gun in the West but won’t shoot on Saturdays. Who knows whether we’ll ever get it off the ground, but for the moment, Jon is playing my best friend in a movie I’m shooting with Jennifer [Aniston, The Break Up]. We’re never too far apart.

What’s the story with the David O Russell film you’re working on?
It’s in development. We’re working on the script. It’s about a talk-show host who has these grand mission statements about how everyone else should live their life. Then he starts to take on his callers’ characteristics and has to walk in their shoes. It’s gonna be great. Am I nervous about David’s reputation? Not really. I try to judge people on how they are with me, not how they’ve been with others in the past. I hear some pretty silly stuff about my own reputation, man! You never know for sure until you work with someone. I like David’s movies. I find them to be very passionate and child-like. I always like to work from a place of trying to connect to something emotional and human. A journey of someone’s inner character.

It must be hard moving from serious films to comedy. How did you play your cartoon bad guy in Starsky?
I think my job there was to ground the movie. I couldn’t be too goofy because then the movie would be too fluffy and have no threat. The bit in the beginning, he shoots the guy and you realise – woah! – this is a comedy, but people can actually die. So I knew I had to play him up a little but not go too far. I did a lot of improv work in actor training. I don’t go for Method acting, but it’s very similar to improv. You’re in the moment and you can respond to what the other actor’s doing in a way that’s real. You’re not just there to obediently read your lines. I can work with anyone. You just have to get into a place where you can deliver and then be respectful of someone else’s process and allow for it.

How’s Wedding Crashers?
It’s terrific. The best of the lot. Owen’s great in it, the story’s really good. It resolves in a satisfying way but not the way you’d expect. It’s the funniest movie that’s been out in a long time. In the beginning, Owen and I are total operators – lying to women so we can sleep with them, sneaking into weddings by pretending to be people we’re not...

So it’s a guy movie...
It’s funny, because it’s been testing incredibly high with women. I think it’s because there’s a kind of innocence to Owen and myself. They’re not nasty guys, just rogues. Apparently, it’s one of the highest-testing movies in New Line’s history. With men, it touches on something that kind of goes back to the Swingers thing. You want to get over on a particular girl so you do or say what you want, but at some point you have to take responsibility for all that bullshit. They have to face up and show some character – and both the male and female test-audiences have really responded to that.

You seem to be the key man in the ‘frat pack’. The constant, dependable guy. You did Anchorman with Will, DodgeBall with Ben and now Wedding Crashers with Owen...
Yeah, I love ’em all. I can see how it might look like a big clique from the outside, but that’s just been constructed – it was never done like a team. Will is hilarious, he’s so over-committed to a character, taking it so far but with a lovability and warmth that you root for. Ben has a little of both but he prefers to really push it with extreme characters. It’s a big thrill to be working with and learning from those guys. I’ve liked Owen since Bottle Rocket. His comedy is like mine in that he comes from a place that’s very real – as in The Life Aquatic. That’s what it’s all about for me. Funny but real. Acting is all about knowing who you are and being comfortable enough with yourself that you can become different things.

Have you ever been offered anything enormous, like Spider-Man or a big action-movie lead?
I have, but I don’t wanna be an asshole and start naming the stuff that would have been better with me in it. I wouldn’t have a problem with doing those kind of films, but the scripts they’ve sent me just haven’t been very good. I like the way action films were done in the ’70s and ’80s. The heroes were much more interesting. Take Harrison Ford. In Star Wars, he looks like he’s doing exactly what he’s told, but there’s something there underneath. Then, in Raiders, he’s kinda nervous and vulnerable. He’s become big enough to get away with being more truthful to the character. Same with Clint Eastwood and Dirty Harry. He’s kind of a villain and mean and uncompromising but he has so much rage in him and feels like a genuine person. You feel that something really horrible must have happened to this guy. These days, they all know kung fu and it’s all so slick and groovy and boring. I like action movies to be character driven. It’s like how any great sports movie isn’t about the sport it’s about what’s going on with those guys emotionally, what their sporting struggle symbolises. Average guys put into sensational situations.

Uh-huh... It’s...
Look at The Lord Of The Rings, man! That’s exactly what that is. These average little Hobbit guys put into Middle-earth in this amazing situation and being forced to deal with it. These days, all you get is [adopts gravelly trailer voice], ‘Heeee was a slick, trained killer!’ Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I like the Bond series because that’s almost like a comic-book or superhero. Even though you know that Bond is always gonna survive whatever they throw at him, it’s played like more of a tease. You get to participate in the fantasy – wouldn’t it be great to win at gambling, get the hot girl and beat up all the scary dudes, y’know what I mean?

Yeah. And...
I just want action heroes to have a bit more vulnerability! People like Steve McQueen. You can watch them and take this emotional journey with them. Even the Westerns did a good job with that, because it was always about revenge. Bruce Willis in Die Hard was another one. An ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation. And Stallone with Rocky. He was vulnerable and likeable but not all good. He was working for a loan shark, remember? He didn’t have the heart to break that guy’s thumbs, but he still had to chase him down and demand the money. He’s like the rest of us. Like me, like you. I’m not this slick, perfect guy. I have my demons.

So, are you a film scholar? Do you study performances? Analyse DVD commentaries?
Nah, man. I don’t buy DVDs. I’m a member of the Academy, so I get ’em all sent to me. It’s a scam. I would never buy a DVD, personally. I watch ’em and give ’em away. The only stuff I keep are my absolute favourite films – like The Bad News Bears. I recently visited my dad in Arizona and we rented Maria Full Of Grace, which I loved. Really minimalist and ’70s. I’m not a collector of anything. I find it a bit unhealthy. But I’m pretty simple, really. Yeah – old school. I don’t have a cellphone, I don’t use e-mail. I’m just a scared old man. A dinosaur drowning in a sea of... technology tar. The guy in the village who invented fire? I’d be leading the charge to have him burned at the stake...

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.