Just turned 27, Vince Vaughn is enjoying one of those career arrivals that make struggling actors grit their teeth (and make wannabe’s get on the next Greyhound from Kansas to Hollywood). As the martini-sipping, skirt-chasing Trent in Jon Favreau’s Swingers, Vaughn used a refrain that fit him like a lounge lizard’s suit: “You are so money, baby.”
And so he is. From the low-budget ranks of Swingers, Vaughn graduates this month to the major leagues with The Lost World: Jurassic Park, the $73 million sequel to Steven Speilberg’s worldwide box-office champ. Vaughn is somewhat bemused about landing the juicy role of Nick, the video documentarian on the hunt for rogue dinosaurs. Co-stars Jeff Goldblum and Julianne Moore join him for the scramble. “To have Steven Spielberg,” Vaughn says, lingering over the syllables, “who is one of the greatest filmmakers of our generation, if not of all time, look at my work and say, ‘I’d like to put you in a film,’ is just…” Sitting over breakfast the day after seeing his very own Lost World action figure, Vaughn nods at the goofy gravity of it all. “I grew up watching E.T. and watching Jaws,” he says. “Steven’s films are part of what inspired me to be an actor.”
What could sound pro forma from another actor’s mouth seems quite heartfelt from Vaughn’s, despite his low-key, ironic manner. “It’s a very sophisticated, dry sense of humor he has,” recalls Moore, one that she finds “not terribly far off” from Trent’s in Swingers but with an essential difference: “[Vince has] got more heart than that guy.”
If Vaughn seems to be doing it all with maddening ease, check him out one night late into the long shoot for the dinosaur epic. Says Moore: “Our catch phrase was, ‘It always rains in the Lost World.’ We were always soaking wet. So this night at some location in Pasadena [Calif.], it wasn’t raining. Any scene you were dry, you were so grateful. So it’s 3:30 a.m., but no rain. Steven turns to Vince and says, ‘I think you should enter from the lake.’ I laughed so hard I thought my pants would split.”
Vaughn, to be sure, entered from the lake. First of all, he’s a gamer who spent his youth in apple-pie Illinois towns, and, second, he’s willing to do whatever it takes for Spielberg – even though Vaughn doesn’t expect to steal many scenes. “Ultimately, the dinosaurs are the stars,” says Vaughn. “Not to discredit what anybody did in the first Jurassic Park, but it’s those beasts that blow your mind – they look so real.”
“I knew nothing of Vince,” says Spielberg, “until I saw Swingers. That made me interested in meeting him for Lost World. I found him to be so different from Trent that immediately I was struck by his ability to play character parts. And what about that name? Tell me that isn’t the name of a ’40s movie star. One would think he made it up to get into the business, but they tell me it’s for real.”
“If Steven had any doubts,” says Jeff Goldblum, who’s back in Jurassic Park as the loopy mathematician Ian Malcolm, “they disappeared as soon as he shot Vince’s first close-up. You could see Steven get excited.” Goldblum, 6 feet 5 inches, instantly bonded with the 6-foot-4-inch Vaughn. “The last time I saw something like this happen in one of my movies,” says Spielberg, “was the playful sparring between Sean Connery and Harrison Ford [during] the third Indiana Jones filming.”
The on-set shtick between Vaughn and Goldblum often lapsed into slapstick. In the apparently too-staid first-class cabin of the actors’ flight to Hawaii, Vaughn pulled the plastic bag that had encased his headphones over his head and simulated asphyxiation. “The stewardess was standing there saying, ‘I don’t think that’s funny,'” says Goldblum. Vaughn, bug-eyed under moistening polyethylene, began a muffled chant of, “I won’t be good! I won’t be good!” Vaughn was calmer when the group started dancing at a Honolulu restaurant that night. Later, though, he secured a Polaroid of Goldblum line-dancing in a silly hat and, the next evening in the dining room of a swank hotel, showed the photo to every one of their fellow patrons.
Bratty? Maybe, but not on the predictable order of Chain-sawing hotel furniture, overdosing in a limo or starting a mediocre rock band. It seems that Vaughn got most of the wildness out of his system early on. “I was a kid who didn’t get very good grades, cut school, ran around with my friends, drank, always had a good time,” says Vaughn. “I wasn’t a mean kid; I was warm-spirited, but the teachers really had a problem with me. They wanted me to see the school psychiatrist’ cause I didn’t have the same type of academic pursuits that the other kids had. That wasn’t where my focus was, and that’s strange to people, especially when you’re someone who is articulate and gets it, but you don’t buy into it. That scares people.”
Vaughn entered his senior year needing to pass every course, or he would be shy of the credits needed for his diploma: “I figured if I was class president, I’d have to graduate – you can’t flunk the class president. I ran and won, and that made it so much easier.”
The quietly analytical Vaughn now recognizes his authority problem as one of his compensations for going from the middle-class Buffalo Grove to a privileged, stodgy Chicago suburb. “To spend my high school years in Lake Forest was a weird thing,” he says. “My dad is the first generation off the farm from Ohio. He used to work in steel mills in the summertime to make money for college. My dad always liked country music and blue-collar ways, although he became a salesman, and now he’s a manufacturer’s rep for a toy company.” As it happens, the day before this chat, Vaughn had been with his dad at a toy fair where his Lost World character’s action figure was introduced – a coup that dad evidently handled with proud aplomb. “In a weird way,” says Vince, “my parents always trusted that things would work out for me.”
Vaughn had grown up as a bit of a stage rat. “My mom was always a big fan of theater,” he says, “and there was a local community theater that would put on musicals – a bunch of kids 10 and under doing The King and I. I’d be there morning till night – almost like day care. I really loved it.”
Thanks to his frame, Vaughn was as interesting to his school’s athletic coaches as he was to the guidance counselor. “In high school I played sports, that kind of thing,” he says. “Then, when I was 17, I was a passenger in a one-car accident. A Jeep flipped, and I hurt my back a little bit. [Vaughn also injured a thumb that still won’t fully cooperate.] I’m fine now, but I had to take it slow for a while, so I wasn’t able to go out for any sports. There was a high school play going on, and I got one of the leads. I just found acting again. After that I wanted to get involved professionally.”
One of Vaughn’s pals had an agent in Chicago, and when Vaughn tagged along on an audition and was asked to read by a casting agent, he landed in an industrial film and “things started rolling.” Vaughn spent some time onstage, polishing his natural improv skills with Chicago fixture Del Close’s ImprovOlympic. Within a couple of months, Vaughn was in a nationwide 30-seconds-during-the-Super-Bowl Chevy ad as the younger brother awestruck when big brother tosses him the keys. He was at once famous and anonymous. “So right after high school, I made the decision to move out to Los Angeles to pursue [acting] full time,” he recalls. “I said, “This is really what I want to do.’ At the age of 18 I moved to Los Angeles, and I had an agent right away. I was very aggressive.
“When I first got there, I was in a one-room studio – you know, one room and my dreams. The Chevy commercial had been a huge deal in Chicago, where there’s less opportunities. When I came to L.A., I had a swagger, and I thought I was the kid, you know: ‘Here I am – let’s go.’ And I found out that it wasn’t that easy. There were times I sat there in Los Angeles with a culture so different from where I was from, by myself, didn’t have any friends. I’d have an audition for three lines on Who’s the Boss?, and I’d say, ‘What am I doing?'”
Vaughn isn’t moved now to thumb his nose at the agencies who wouldn’t take a chance on him (though he did have reps, on and off, during several years of struggle). His battle was internal, partly because he was learning about life itself. “I was just coming into my adulthood,” he says. “For a lot of kids, college is their growing time. I never went to college; I went straight from living at my parents’ house to living on my own. So those first four years I went through a lot of just learning how to do my laundry, which I’m still not any good at. I think the greatest thing you can have is just blind faith. I went out there and had faith that I was good. I don’t know where I got it, but that way, all the rejection and everything is so much easier to stomach. I love the competition of it all.”
Then came Vaughn’s crucial career encounter: “I met Jon Favreau on Rudy” – fellow Chicagoan Favreau had been struggling, too, before winning a role in the 1993 Notre Dame football tear-jerker – “and I thought that was the part that was going to change my life. Coming from Illinois, Notre Dame was a big deal. And, of course, my part got cut down, and the film didn’t do as well as everyone hoped.”
The duo scuffled on as Favreau sought backing for his Swingers script, which depicted the Hollywood club life that the pair inhabited. Vaughn would play Trent, best pal to Favreau’s unlucky-with-chicks Mike. (“They’re gonna give Daddy the Rain Man suite,” insists Trent as he speeds Mike to Vegas for a lesson in junior Rat Packing.) Shot for $250,000, Swingers was picked up by Miramax for $5 million and became a sleeper hit, putting the no-longer-scuffling pals into frantic Hollywood play. The film has drawn fire for its male strutting, but Vaughn isn’t buying it. “Our focus was not, ‘Let’s try to be liked,'” he says. “Our focus was, ‘Let’s do what we understand, honestly.'”
On a muggy night an hour outside of Houston, Vaughn stares into the rain in the person of the disconsolate Clay, who’s drifted into the small-town love-and-death scenarios of The Locusts, from writer and director John Patrick Kelley. Over Vaughn’s shoulder, the camera sees Ashley Judd, playing Clay’s lover, Kitty. Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz is a co-producer of the low-budget film, which also features Paul Rudd, Jeremy Davies and Kate Capshaw, who is Steven Spielberg’s wife. To Judd, who signed on when Matthew McConaughey was briefly slated for the part of Clay, Vaughn is “just magic.” She has jokingly referred to him as “my love slave” at parties. “Vince caught me off-guard,” says Judd. “He’s got the most impeccable, spot-on ability, yet he’s so open – an emotional fullness and a ready access to it.”
The Locusts is being dangled before film-festival pickers, but the basic plan is to wait for The Lost World to have its impact. (Vaughn is currently shooting a black comedy called In Too Deep in Utah, portraying a serial killer in a film that co-stars Joaquin Phoenix and Janeane Garofalo.)
Still, it’s The Lost World that occupies Vaughn’s thoughts this summer. “Vince’s character, Nick, has had his share of near-death experiences shooting high-risk news footage,” says Spielberg. That’s why the entrepreneur John Hammond, played again by Richard Attenborough, has hired him. “In fact,” adds Spielberg, “Nick is much more of a militant environmentalist.” Nick’s camera is a cover for his real purpose: to sabotage a corporate dino hunt. Naturally, earthshaking developments will change all that.
And, odds are, change Vaughn’s career, as well. To emerge as a hero in a franchise the size of The Lost World is to win not only your own action figure but a heap of A-list role offers as well. Vaughn is pleased by the prospect. But he’s not overthinking. “My whole way of working is: I’ve never been a guy to overanalyze things,” he says. “I’ve been that guy in Hollywood who’s on the outside, who’s not in the mix, who’s not getting the first-class auditions.”
Can an actor anointed by Spielberg remain an outsider for long? Vaughn vows to keep nourishing the star-struck farm boy he harbors inside. “You know,” he says, “the kid who would stay up late, sneak out of bed, go downstairs and turn on the TV to watch Letterman.” Vaughn has another defense against the encroaching Hollywood raptor of success. “I don’t look at acting as a religion, as something that’s so sacred – this great institution,” he says. “But I have always enjoyed it. I can’t wait to step on the stage.”