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THE DOOR IS OPEN

The Stop Smiling Interview with Vince Vaughn

 

 

BY JAMES HUGHES

While the two top-grossing films of the summer were fruitful returns to outer space for perennial favorites George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the season will be remembered for an entirely different reason: the return of the R-rated comedy. With admissions down 13 percent over summer 2004, according to the Hollywood Reporter, studios and analysts were left searching for a silver lining. The biggest winner: Wedding Crashers, an adult comedy starring Chicago's own Vince Vaughn and frequent co-star Owen Wilson, which became the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, with over $200 million in earnings. Add to Vaughn's successful season a supporting role in the action-comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith, another overachiever (to the tune of $180 million), and one thing becomes abundantly clear: the tradition of Chicago supplying the industry with quality comedic talent continues.

Born in Minneapolis in 1970, Vaughn moved with his family to Illinois in the mid-'80s, eventually settling in the North Shore suburb of Lake Forest. It was there that he began performing. While his family encouraged the usual public school outlets - school plays and talent shows - Vaughn had larger ambitions. While shadowing a high school friend's audition at a Chicago casting session, he was given his first chance. "The casting director asked me to read for the part, and I ended up getting cast in this industrial film that was later shown in health classes," Vaughn told us recently in Chicago. "I was something like a boyfriend who was mad at my girlfriend because she wouldn't sleep with me." Much of Vaughn's early work - straddling exercise equipment for a Sears Roebuck infomercial, appearing in a spot for Indiana Farm Insurance - was instrumental in getting him noticed, but he wanted to expand beyond commercial work in the Midwest. In 1988, he headed for Hollywood, eventually picking up supporting roles in after-school specials and sitcoms, while remaining largely unaccustomed to industry protocol. "My first headshots were of me holding a tennis racket, me with glasses on holding a phone. I had no idea what these shots were," Vaughn said. "I just wanted to act."

After years of paying dues in bit parts, Vaughn and fellow actor Jon Favreau sketched out a story about a circle of self-deprecating L.A. actors over-compensating for their lack of work by inflating their social lives to mythic heights. Swingers (1996) was written by Favreau and directed by Doug Liman, who operated the camera himself through Los Feliz nightclubs as the actors worked the room and launched into epic rants about the rules of dating. Vaughn was the undisputed standout as Trent, a brash but disarming sidekick who rattles off each line with the immediacy of a coach giving a fourth-quarter pep talk. Audiences embraced the film's quotable dialogue, throwback soundtrack and refreshing editing style. Directors also took notice of Vaughn's command onscreen. Focusing for a while on darker material with the likes of Steven Spielberg (The Lost World), Gus Van Sant (Psycho) and Tarsem Singh (The Cell), Vaughn decided to move back into comedy, most notably as the ringleader of an aging frat house in 2003's Old School. As a tribute to the movie, a USA Today article from May 2004 dubbed Vaughn's crew of recurring co-stars "the Frat Pack." The alumni - Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller and Luke and Owen Wilson among them - would cross paths in a string of 2004 buddy pictures and remakes (Starsky & Hutch, Dodgeball and Anchorman) before graduating to the ranks of blockbuster with Wedding Crashers in 2005.

With his next project - the romantic comedy The Break Up - set in Chicago, and the West Coast-based actor bracing for a move back to the Windy City, STOP SMILING got a preview of Vaughn's homecoming at a hotel on North Michigan Avenue this past October.

Stop Smiling: What's been the reaction to you leaving the West Coast for Chicago?
Vince Vaughn: No one really says anything. People are more curious about it, but I'm not really in many social settings with actors. I love actors, and there's a lot of them I respect and like, but I also like people who do something different. For me it's fun to hear other perspectives. One of the things I like about Chicago is that it's not driven by a fashion industry, whereas in Los Angeles, everyone is in that industry to some degree. I kind of like hearing about people who work in a completely different background. Chicago is the Second City not because of New York, but because it burned down and was rebuilt. There's an optimism and friendliness here.

SS: Does it worry you that every step you take in Chicago is documented in the press?

VV: Where the tabloids are concerned, I've never really been in the situation I'm in right now, as far as being followed. I've always managed to be an actor and be recognized, but I've never been covered in this way. I always look at it as them doing their job, it's not personal. That's not to say that it can't be unpleasant sometimes. On one hand, especially being from the Midwest, I can't help but think, "Oh, poor actor. Poor movie star. How exhausting to get paid money to do what you love and have people follow you." I completely understand that. But when lines are crossed - for example, if you're driving and they try to steer you off the road or cut in front of you because there's such a big financial reward for getting these shots, then it becomes a safety issue. You can't really say that publicly as much, because people will say you chose to be in the public eye and this is what comes with it. I think there's some truth to that. But it's also true that boundaries are crossed. That said, you have to take it with a grain of salt and laugh at it. It's unfortunate, because, especially when it's kids, I like when people have something to say or want to strike up a conversation about movies. I can enjoy that a lot. You're thankful people like your work.

SS: After high school, you moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an actor. How was the transition?

VV: I moved in 1988. My parents insisted I sign up for community college while I was there. I lasted two weeks, and never went to college after that. I just got an agent and started auditioning. I was discouraged, getting turned down for a year. Then I got an after-school special, some small parts on sitcoms. Maybe I'd get a lead guest star, but otherwise it was spurts.

I got a call from my manager that I was getting a part in this movie Rudy. They were filming in South Bend, Indiana, and having a hard time casting locals for the part, so they were looking at tapes from L.A. It was a weird coincidence that I got it. I went to South Bend and I knew Jon Favreau, who had a larger part in the movie. Most of my scenes in the movie were cut. I was disappointed, but Favreau and I became friends.

We lived in L.A. together. Favreau was dating a girl in Chicago and he was depressed about leaving her behind. I'd take him out at night. The dating scene in L.A., even to this day, is very different than Chicago. A lot of wasted energy goes into it - you have to act like you're not interested there. It's a strange ritual. But the kind of places I liked hanging out in were different. I would go to see the lounge act Marty & Elayne at the Dresden or the Derby, where these ex-punk bands had now become swing bands. I liked the atmosphere at these places - the people were friendly, it was more conversational. That's where I took Favreau, and I gave him some encouragement and advice about talking to girls. Years went by and I said to Favreau, "I'm really frustrated. I don't like being reactive and waiting to go audition, especially when it's material I'm not connecting with. It's not truthful or interesting. I'm gonna write a movie for us." So I started writing a screenplay. I got about 90 pages in. Two weeks later, Favreau came to me with a finished screenplay, which was Swingers. In looking at my screenplay, it was oversincere and had an inflated importance compared to the events that were taking place. Like most young people when you're starting to write, it's all so profound. When I read Swingers, it was based on our experience, but exaggerated for comedy. As soon as I read it, I stopped writing my project and said, "This is great. We gotta make this."

Then Jon and I began the journey of trying to raise the money to get the movie set up. We found Doug Liman, who wanted to direct the movie and help with funding. He had people who wanted to sponsor him for $250,000. For that price, we could make the movie. And Favreau really stuck up for all of us to get to play the parts he wrote for us. So we went to a lot of the places we really did hang out in and asked if we could shoot there. Most people agreed. They said they couldn't shut down or lose business over it, so we were allowed to shoot while the bar was open. We benefited from having real patrons in the frame.

The thing about Los Angeles is that it's not very cool to look interested - it's not cool to act like you're really trying at something. So here we were, doing our makeup on the set, setting up the cameras, and we had all these kids rolling their eyes at us, like, "Look at these nerds." For them, it's better to act like you're not that concerned about doing well. We made the movie, really just hoping to get the thing shot and finished. We had no grand plan, other than getting into Sundance, which we didn't. But we had a screening for it, and we sold the movie. It did okay domestically, but it really got its legs afterwards on DVD or, before that, on video and cable. At the time, the pendulum in music had swung so far that things became androgynous and rap had gone real aggressive. It swung back to men in suits, women in dresses and a kind of throwback romance. People liked that. This was a small community in Los Feliz that we had no hand in starting, we were just there observing it. But it got so popular, and we were able to get it out there.

SS: After Swingers, there was an effort to steer you into a leading man role. Were you comfortable with that?

VV: I didn't have anything to balance stuff on. I'd done Swingers and been offered a lot of roles that were similar in spirit, or bigger films. Everyone said I was funny and charming, and I thought, "I don't want to be known as that. I have to take roles that are really opposite of that." I did Clay Pigeons, and the role was a funny guy who's charming, but then he's really dark and starts cutting girls up. In my mind, that destroyed the myth of that character.

SS: How about getting involved in larger projects?

VV: I wasn't motivated to do bigger movies, because I didn't like any of them. So I did smaller films without realizing at the time that not many people knew who I was. I started playing more-traditional villains and bad guys. Suddenly I found that when I wanted to go back and do comedy, I couldn't get hired. Studios were saying I wasn't funny and I would get offered villains instead. Even after Old School, there was still a reluctance to hire me in a comedy, because I think you're known for whatever you've done most recently. I made a real effort to do comedies, the kind that are grounded in reality and influenced by the films I watched growing up, especially from the '70s, where the characters were flawed. Even with Dodgeball, it's a family comedy, but you get layers to it that make it a little more effective because there are some flawed characters that people can relate to.

With Wedding Crashers, the studio left us alone. We all knew the director. One thing that's great about New Line is that they're one of the few studios left that really love movies. The movie industry originally was kind of circus people, and people with life experience. As it's developed now, you get a lot of kids - and not to come off like I'm knocking it down - but kids who come from colleges and go the corporate route and approach it from the business perspective. They really know film, but they don't love movies. They see it as a place to be profitable, and maybe think it's fun. They like movies, but they don't love movies. When it comes to wanting to make movies and take chances, New Line is the best. I would do stuff in dailies on Crashers and think, "I'm sure I'm gonna hear notes on this shit." And they came in laughing.

 

SS: Wedding Crashers was last summer's highest-grossing comedy. What drove its success?

VV: I think people wanted to see an R-rated comedy that wasn't just language based, but situation based. The situations make it more R than shocking language. I think there's such a calculated process with PG-13 and figuring out what can and can't be advertised. We just had fun and our movie wasn't about people who, on the surface, are characters you can root for. Because it did have an innocence to it, with a reckless abandon that I think audiences really responded to. Now in Hollywood there's a movement to make R comedies. But it comes from the wrong place. They always think it's the genre that's topical, not the specific story that takes place within that genre. You can't just go in and say, "Let's make crazy R-rated comedies." It's like when Unforgiven came out, there was a slew of westerns. But they couldn't match the story. They would follow the bullets and have crazy camera shots versus establishing characters that you were worried about, or at least knew what was at stake for them, and then putting them in situations of life or death. But I feel like, a lot of times, given how things are, studios react more to what's been successful and focus on the wrong thing. They don't quite understand what is it that makes something get over. Even in the casting of actors and actresses - with young actresses, you see a lot of girls and their focus is being as pretty in a traditional sense as they can be, even to the extent of plastic surgery. When you look at the great actresses, like Meryl Streep or Sissy Spacek, none of them are necessarily women you would see on the cover of a magazine. I think it's because their emotional truth is so great, you connect to them and you take a journey with them.

SS: How can you tell when a project is really working?

VV: I used to watch movies with my dad, and he would always say, "Oh, that's bullshit. That would never happen." And the movie was over for him at that moment. "That ain't how it goes down, Vince!" That became my litmus for acting and watching films. "Do you buy it?" For me, it's always been more fascinating to start someone in an extreme place and have them move just a little bit by the end, just a glimmer of hope - the door is open, they could go in this direction. But it's not wrapped up entirely. That, versus taking someone and making a complete transformation and having everything fall into their life perfectly at the end. I liked those kinds of movies where you start in one place and leave with the possibility of things changing. In life, you're always in transition. Nothing is ever completely over. There will be more good times and more bad times to come, you're just talking about this one transition.

SS: That's consistent with your characters, because you often play someone who's encouraging your co-stars or freeing them up to get at what they want. Is that something you seek out in scripts, or something that you develop on the set or with the director?

VV: On some level, I unconsciously bring that specific thing. In Wedding Crashers, it's a little different because I'm being put upon the whole movie. I'm telling Owen Wilson not to go. I'm giving him the wrong message, that we shouldn't really care about these girls, then I'm having events happen to me that I'm forced to deal with, and I'm not encouraging him, I'm saying, "What's wrong with the way we live?"

SS: In Thumbsucker, you play a debate coach trying to break through to a student because he sees potential there.

VV: There was even a flaw there, in that the teacher might even be getting a crush on the kid. I played that a little bit. It was in the screenplay more so that the teacher was hitting on the kid, but I didn't want to go so overtly with it. It was played in a way that is not necessarily sexual, but this is a teacher that obviously has invested a lot into these kids, and why does this matter so much to him? He's really pressuring his student to be the best, so he's living vicariously through him and telling him to do things that my character isn't comfortable doing. It's not sexual, but it's a codependent relationship. He's deficient and not self-reliant and there's an imbalance there. It's not just that the kid went wrong, it's that the teacher was crossing boundaries for what this relationship was.

SS: How were your own experiences in school?

VV: When I was younger in school, I had learning disabilities. I was tested for ADD. I had to go to classes where they asked questions like, "Vince, where does paper come from?" I felt a real need to give the right answer, or they might have thought something was wrong with me. Here I was, seven years old, and I'd say, "From trees." They would ask, "Is that it?" I'd say, "No, they put it through some type of machinery and then there's paper." I was doing everything to appear normal, because I was terrified that I was going to be sent away from school. I had that feeling of being in school and seeing everyone have sack lunches and being happy and having their day planned out, but knowing that one period a day, I would have to go to this classroom. It was depressing, when they'd call your name over the intercom and say, "Vince Vaughn to Mrs. Cross's office," and all the kids would look at you like there's something wrong.

SS: Was that how you were treated by the other students?

VV: I was always very well liked because I always had a good sense of humor and could joke around. But a lot of the kids that were in this class were not very popular. At first I was sort of mean to the kids. It was like, "What am I doing at age seven playing Candyland?" So I was mean because I was almost denying that I had learning disabilities. Then I became very protective of the kids, and I really liked them and lured them over to play kickball at recess. I'd tell everyone they were on my team, what's the problem? I stuck up for them and looked out for them. I could switch from being insecure, and then identify with how I could feel small inside, but not allow it to feel that way. It's like the tallest kid in school who would never talk because she sticks out already - she doesn't want to raise her hand and talk more.

SS: How did your family react to these classes you were taking?

VV: I was lucky because my dad said, "You're not taking Ritalin. You're not going through life doped up, you won't process anything." He refused to let me take Ritalin. When I read Thumbsucker, I could identify with those types of things - a family trying to do its best to navigate without a lot of information, what's the right way to handle it. It was difficult at times, words used to move around on me. If you're deficient in some areas, you probably have more aptitude in other areas. You just need to find where those areas are. Some people learn differently. But you learn a great work ethic, that by nature you have to work harder, and I think that you can then have more acute perception in other areas. But the big thing is that I was lucky enough to have parents who kept my self-confidence and made me feel like I could accomplish something. What happens to a kid who doesn't have that voice? Especially if you're giving a kid medicine, you're telling him he's sick. They don't have someone telling them they're smart or that they can do something. There's someone who could maybe go on and do something great, or have a high quality of life, that's not going to be given that chance. There are kids out there that are feeling that. I know that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you're made to go to that class.

 
 

FROM HOLLYWOOD TO THE HEARTLAND

On October 11th, the Vince Vaughn Wild West Comedy Show wrapped up its 30th show in 30 nights at the Vic Theatre in Chicago. The tour featured four national touring comedians (Bret Ernst, John Caparulo, Ahmed Ahmed and Sebastian Maniscalco) from the Los Angeles Comedy Store, with Vaughn serving as master of ceremonies. A documentary about the tour is currently in the works.

SS: With the Vince Vaughn Wild West Comedy Show, you were able to reach people who don't often get a full-scale comedy show in their town. Did the tour fulfill your expectations?

VV: I think I had a much more romanticized notion, as far as seeing the country. It really came out of inexperience on my part. For some reason, 30 dates in 30 nights rang in my head and I thought, "That's great. From Hollywood to the Heartland." Also, I'd get a chance to go through the South on the way to where I'm from, the Midwest. But, by playing a different venue every night, we didn't really get much time to spend anywhere, especially when the drives were extremely long. Even when they weren't, it didn't account for getting out and seeing much, just glances from the bus window. But, as far as hitting the most places possible, it was effective. That was the fun part - getting a chance to go to the kinds of towns that don't normally get that kind of entertainment. It was also good for the comedians to go to places where they're not from and see how their material related to different crowds. Regionally, some of the struggles are the same, it's just with a different accent. They'd have to change their set-ups if a place didn't have what they were talking about. If you have a sense of humor about yourself and are self-deprecating, it's easier for people to hear things. Otherwise you come off threatening, as if you're arrogant about whatever your background is and it's cooler than everyone else's.

When these comedians work out material at a place like the Comedy Store during the weekdays, you sometimes only have 20 people in the room. So there's an adjustment to playing a larger room, like most of the venues we were in. But they all did really well. They all had their own ways of getting in, and other than that they weren't gimmick comics and the jokes were about their life experiences. They were hard on themselves. The thing I was most impressed with was the camaraderie that they had. I think everyone wants to strive to do their best, but they weren't competitive with each other - they were almost protective of each other, because the environment they were going into was so unknown.

SS: You've done a little stand-up here and there, but did you ever pursue it seriously?

VV: I never had a calling for it. I much preferred situation comedy, particularly awkward situations. But I've always had respect for comedians. When I was younger, there was "The Tonight Show" and "Late Night" and they had a lot more stand-up. There was a time there in the '80s and '90s where a lot of stand-ups were getting exposure and it would change their lives. Nowadays it's interesting because most of the talk show hosts were stand-ups, but they don't really have stand-ups onstage all that much. This is a kind of depression time for stand-up comedians. They're not getting the opportunities they once did. So I wanted to get exposure for some guys who obviously chose stand-up because it's really what they like. There's something pure about the art form - you're just up there by yourself with a microphone, standing in front of a crowd and trying to connect. I respect that purity.

 



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