Cigar Aficionado

Vince Vaughn Gets Serious

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.

Seriously?

"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.

"I think Nic is on a different level from most people—he makes a very interesting creative force," Vaughn says. "He's a phenomenal writer and he's involved in every aspect of the filmmaking."

For his part, Pizzolatto is just as admiring of Vaughn's abilities as an actor. "I was interested in harnessing Vince's talent and giving him the material to let him bring his great diversity of skill to bear," he said in the interview. "I expected the great performance he gives us, because I never doubted he had it in him. But it was really moving to see how dedicated he was to the material and to the other actors, to being there for the production and giving everything he had for us, and for his fellow performers."

Over the course of the past 20 years, Vaughn has loomed large in more than two dozen starring roles, playing a number of selfish guys who reform. These are good-hearted party animals with no self-editing mechanism, motormouthed smart alecks with a less-than-reverent attitude toward authority, but with a big heart beneath all the bluster.

So who is he in real life? Vaughn's friends call him the "after" portion of those "before/after" roles: the go-getter with the good soul who urges his friends along, minus even the tiniest smirk of irony. Comedian Ahmed Ahmed, a longtime pal, describes Vaughn as someone who approaches life with a head-first, let's-do-this-thing attitude that is contagious to the people around him.

"Before anyone knew him, he was looked at as a leader, the captain of the team," says Ahmed. "As Favreau once said, Vince Vaughn was always famous. It just took Hollywood this long to catch up."

Fame has been good to Vaughn, but he saw its rough side when he dated Jennifer Aniston, his costar on The Break-Up, which came out in 2006. The relationship lasted about a year and was one of the few times Vaughn let himself be pulled into the kind of paparazzi-infused orbit that Aniston inhabited. It was also a moment when the combination of the explosion of celebrity gossip sites on the Internet, and the advent of the camera in cell phones changed the way stars dealt with the press and the public.

"When I was younger, actors were interested in being actors—now it seems to be about being a celebrity and perpetuating that lifestyle," he says. "I wanted to be playing a part, but I didn't want to be out in front of the public when I wasn't acting."

Vaughn doesn't like to take part in that aspect of the fame game. "He doesn't chase that machine," Ahmed says. "I've been out with him where the paparazzi come after him and he's very cool: ‘Hey, guys, not today, I'm just trying to relax,' and they leave him alone.

"Of course," says Ahmed, "he is a big guy. But all he had to do was ask one time and the paparazzi backed up."

Today, Vaughn and wife Kyla Weber, a Canadian realtor he married in 2010, rarely turn up on the celebrity photo pages or in gossip columns. "You make choices," Vaughn shrugs. "We all have things we have to learn to navigate. You don't recognize it as a nuisance when you're young, because it just comes with the job. Some people do enjoy it, but it was never my favorite aspect of this."

Vaughn was almost 40 when he got married. He waited, he says, mostly because his career kept him so busy that he didn't really stop to focus on that aspect of his personal life.

"When I was younger, I was always traveling and never knew where my life would take me," he says. "I didn't think and plan about those things. I was enjoying meeting women and dating.

"But when my sisters had kids and I got north of 35, I thought, well, I better look at that and start thinking about it. Who do I want to be and what am I looking for? I got to an age where I decided that children and a family were something I wanted. My wife was the first woman I dated once I set my sights on that. So we got married and had our first daughter. I was open to the shift when it came. I matured late so I figured, well, if you want it, you better find it."

His daughter is four, and his son will be two this year. Having young kids hasn't changed the movies he chooses, though he admits, "I'd like to do something they could go see."

Vaughn has a perspective shaped by the environment in which he was reared: "I'll always feel a connection to the Midwest," he says while smoking his cigar. "It shaped my outlook on things. But I like to say that, while I was raised in Illinois, I grew up here in L.A. "I can appreciate what a place has to offer and not look for what it's lacking. Too many people spend time pointing out what a place doesn't have, instead of appreciating what it does. I'd rather connect to the positive things: OK, so the pizza in L.A. is not as good as Chicago. But you can hike in January."

His roots in the Midwest and L.A. have become concrete: Even as he's built his acting career, he's quietly built a real estate portfolio, with a collection of office buildings, houses and apartments in L.A. and Chicago.

"As I looked around, I thought that investing in the stock market was a full-time job, to stay on top of which companies are doing what," Vaughn says. "And there's the whole issue of the market in general and its volatility. But real estate is something that doesn't completely take over your life. I figured, if I'm going to rent an office, why not buy the building and pay myself rent? It was a practical way to have something tangible that would generate income."

Notes Billingsley, who has known Vaughn for more than 20 years, "Neither of us went to college. We've both always been the kind of people who had to learn how to learn. When there's a subject or an area that Vince is into, he's very good at immersing himself. If there's an investment opportunity, he'll go all out doing research. In the case of real estate, he just started reading a lot of books. It's an arena that a lot of people try to play in and lose. But he's been successful because he applies the same philosophy to doing his research."

Vaughn doesn't have hobbies, preferring to use spare time to read and play with his kids. Growing up in a family with two older sisters, he allows that he has a weakness for board games, admitting, "I'm very competitive."

He'll also indulge in fine tobacco when he gets the chance to relax with friends at dinner and afterward: "I like to have a cigar with a group of friends, just hanging around and talking. You talk about things and commune after dinner. It just kind of goes with the moment."

Vaughn maintained his fondness for cigars when he quit smoking cigarettes. When he does smoke a cigar, he opts for moderate strengths and sizes.

"I really like the Cubans," he says. "I like to try different things. I have had some nice Dominicans. I like a nice little Punch if I want a cigar but can't afford the big time commitment."

He began smoking cigars as a young actor, playing poker with his pals "back when people didn't care if you smoked a cigar in the house. You have a period where you explore, you listen to friends who are into them. They've done the research and explain things to you."

Vaughn has a couple of humidors at home. "It goes in phases. Sometimes I'll smoke a couple in a week. Sometimes I'll go for a month without one."

Though he smoked a cigar in Swingers Vaughn has yet to play a character who is a committed cigar smoker. Having one in your hands, whether it's during a scene or in real life, "makes arguing your point much more effective," he notes.

The afternoon light is fading and it's time to wrap up, as Vaughn finishes his Cohiba. It's time for one more try: Anything he can offer about the coming season of "True Detective"?

Well, Vaughn allows, there's a very different feel to a story set in California than one set in Louisiana.

"The worlds are so different and that dictates how things play out," he says. "There's something badass about California and criminals, more of an understanding of a level of corruption. But in its DNA, there's a very different rhythm.

"It's not the kind of thing you can get into quickly. The characters are complicated, the story is interesting—this is not a bite-size thing. It's more of a journey to peel back the layers and see where it goes. Look at the first season: You can't explain it in one or two lines. It couldn't possibly be the sum of those parts."

Can he at least say whether his character in "True Detective" smokes cigars? He smiles and shakes his head.

"I can't define the character," he says. "But hey—the fun is to watch and see what unfolds, isn't it?"

Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website, www.hollywoodandfine.com. Follow him on Twitter @hollywoodnfine.