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Vince Vaughn Gets Serious

Photo/Lorenzo Agius

After years of making people laugh, an actor best known for buddy comedies is ready to explore his darker side with HBO’s second season of “True Detective”

Vince Vaughn, all six-foot-five of him, rolls the large Cohiba between his fingers as he sits in a back room at the Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills. On this Monday in early April, Vaughn is taking a break from filming "True Detective," which returns for its second season June 21 on HBO. He stars opposite Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch as the hit show makes a fresh start in a limited run of eight episodes.
It's one of the most eagerly awaited second seasons in recent years. The multi-Emmy-nominated first season—which teamed Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as conflicted cop partners chasing a backwater occult killer in rural Louisiana—was a TV phenomenon. The casting announcement for the show's second round received coverage as breathless and eager as that for the upcoming Star Wars sequel.
HBO has been tight-lipped about this year's model. From the series' moody, enigmatic trailer, you can glean that Farrell and McAdams are cops, that Vaughn is probably on the wrong side of the law in some way and that the show is set in contemporary Los Angeles. Everything else? Simply speculation.
Vaughn looks in fighting trim, both in the carefully draped suit he wears in the "True Detective" trailer and in person, beat-up leather jacket, black T-shirt, jeans. The 45-year-old's brown hair sports a few gray threads but his face is still boyish. Another puff of the cigar and the big man smiles, revealing a grin that has made him synonymous with such hit comedies as Wedding Crashers and Old School.
Landing a major role on one of the hottest shows on cable is the latest stop on a long acting journey that began when Vaughn was only a teenager. Born in Minneapolis but reared in the suburbs of Chicago, Vaughn came to acting early: "I was always interested in movies and plays," he says. Growing up in Lake Forest, Illinois, acting was an after-school activity that interested him, but not to a level where he expected to make it his career.
"I never saw it as something I would pursue," he says. "But I always enjoyed it and liked doing it. I figured that, if you felt confident doing something and were having fun, it was easier to spend your time doing it. I mean, you've got to work hard at whatever you do in life. You might as well pick something you're interested in.
"From the very beginning, I enjoyed it. I like to laugh and I like making people laugh. I read a lot and I loved reading plays. But in terms of the steps to get from A to B with a career, I had no clue. I remember just trying to survive in the moment. I figured if I could get money to live on by acting, that would be great."
His goals changed after he landed a role in a Chevrolet commercial. He was still in high school, but it sparked the landmark decision to move to Hollywood and turn his hobby into a full-blown career. "I cut class and got an agent and then got a couple of commercials. And then I thought, ‘Well, I'll go to California and be an actor,' " he says. "There was not a big picture, beyond my decision not to go to college and to pursue acting."
What did his parents think? "My dad had put himself through college," Vaughn says, "and he had the point of view that you had to work hard at what you did. That's what he said: to try really hard. So when I started, it wasn't about ‘Can I make money?' His value system served me well: Try your best at everything, work hard and be responsible.
"Letting me skip college and move to L.A. to be an actor was a very forward move for them. It's one thing to encourage your kids' dreams. But you also have to be practical. But for me at 18, I was less interested in sitting in a classroom and downloading content than in enjoying and applying what I was learning about acting."
When he arrived in Los Angeles, Vaughn worked a variety of day jobs while chasing acting roles, landing enough small parts to encourage him. He wasn't getting rich, but he was doing what he wanted to be doing. The roles came slowly, small parts on after-school specials and on shows like "China Beach," "Doogie Howser, M.D." and "21 Jump Street." And there were missed opportunities as well. He contended for the role of Chandler on "Friends" and was cast in a pilot for a remake of the late-1950s TV hit "77 Sunset Strip" that never went to series. "I was just pursuing something I was interested in and trying to get better at it," Vaughn says. "There was no thought beyond getting a good part."
The breakthrough came while playing a small part in the 1993 film Rudy. He became friends with Jon Favreau, one of the film's other supporting players, and between shots the two would talk about a script Favreau was writing, centered on his experiences as a struggling actor who also struggled with women. Vaughn worked with him on the script, and Favreau eventually created a character—Trent—for Vaughn. The movie became Swingers, and it was a sensation at the 1996 Toronto Film Festival, an art-house hit that earned critical acclaim and got exactly the kind of attention necessary to launch the careers of both men.
"It was this small movie that we were hell-bent to make," Vaughn says. "It cost $250,000 and took 21 days. I remember we were in New York walking around after it was released—and we were getting recognized, which we thought was crazy. We weren't trying to blow up and get well known. We just made an honest movie about guys helping each other get through a breakup. When we started making it, our goal was just to finish it without having to compromise."
Almost immediately, Vaughn accepted an offer from director Steven Spielberg to star in The Lost World, a sequel to Jurassic Park. But the dinosaur film was the only studio offer he took for several years.
"I was very defiant," he says. "I was more interested in playing characters I thought were cool. So I did that for a while."
He returned to the studios with Old School in 2003, which paired him with Will Ferrell and Luke Wilson as pals trying to revisit their youth by forming a fraternity. "And that started a run of comedies," says Vaughn, ticking off the films Dodgeball and Wedding Crashers, which he describes as "movies that were fun and interesting as well." That trio established Vaughn as a comedy talent to be reckoned with and a box-office force. Several earned more than $100 million domestically, including Couples Retreat ($109 million), Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story ($114 million), The Break-Up ($119 million), Four Christmases ($120 million) and Wedding Crashers ($209 million).
Today this comedic powerhouse is ready to take a break from making people laugh. So how would he describe the character he plays on the new season of "True Detective"? 
He takes another puff of the Cohiba.
"I can't talk about it," he says.
"I really can't," he adds, with a shrug and an enigmatic smile.
Vaughn is not just giving reporters the silent treatment: "I've been trying to pull stuff out of him about it but he's very tight-lipped. It's a very secret plot," says Peter Billingsley, Vaughn's partner in his production company.
"True Detective" writer/executive producer Nic Pizzolatto is equally lean on details. Asked in an e-mail interview what made Vaughn right for this role, Pizzolatto will say little beyond: "When people see Vince's performance, it makes perfect sense why he was cast."
Though he refuses to get specific, Vaughn does open up a little when he starts talking about what drew him to the HBO series. While television has become a magnet for film stars in search of more complex roles and more expansive storytelling models, Vaughn wasn't hurting for work: He has as many as a dozen film projects—as an actor, producer or both—in various stages of development through his production company, Wild West Picture Show Productions. He already has showed up in multiplexes this year in Unfinished Business. So why make the move to the small screen?
"It wasn't that I was so interested in TV—it was really about ‘True Detective,' " Vaughn says. "The quality of the characters and the storytelling—they're incredible. It's fun to dive into something the caliber of this.
"What's interesting about this kind of storytelling is that, with eight parts to tell it and that's all, you've got a long time to investigate the story. This isn't like a regular series, where you've got to back into the story for next year at the end of this season. We've got a longer period of time to just tell this story."
He takes another puff of the cigar, the thick smoke curling in the air as it rises.
"And," he says, "I haven't done something dramatic for a while."
While it seems unusual for a reigning clown-prince of movie comedy like Vaughn, who seemingly has been riffing his way through R-rated comedies for his entire career, to take on something as serious as "True Detective," the actor has repeatedly shown not only a willingness but a distinct ability to play it straight. From early in his career, in films as diverse as Clay Pigeons, The Cell, Return to Paradise and Sean Penn's 2007 Into the Wild, Vaughn has regularly dipped into serious roles. That, he says, is where he truly began as an actor.
"I started doing drama after Swingers," he says. "Early on, there were these independent dramas and interesting films with dramatic elements.
"After Swingers, I was reluctant to dive into studio comedies, so I did other things. I did films like Clay Pigeons and Return to Paradise—until the studios came to me with Old School, this R-rated comedy that I thought was cool. So I started doing those."
Those who know Vaughn will say he is returning to familiar territory.
"I look at ‘True Detective' as Vince returning to his roots," explains Billingsley, a former child actor who may be best remembered as playing the bespectacled Ralphie in A Christmas Story, the 1983 classic comedy. "He's done some significant dramatic work that people don't remember."
"When you've got somebody as good as Vince, it's hard to think of anything he couldn't do," says actor Owen Wilson. "I had pretty high expectations when we went into Wedding Crashers because I thought Vince was great with my brother Luke in Old School...But he exceeded them. I had never worked with anyone who was so quick."
It was more than drama that attracted Vaughn to "True Detective." The gravitational pull of writer-producer Pizzolatto, a former academic and fiction writer who broke into TV on the series "The Killing," was exceptionally strong. Pizzolatto not only created "True Detective," but he writes every episode himself.
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