Vaughn supremacy: The rise of Vince

Vince Vaughn has gone from class joker and cruising bit-parter, to ex-Aniston man and $20m-a-movie star. Gill Pringle talks to Hollywood's rebel with a Claus
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Vince Vaughn talks so incredibly fast that an hour in his company is equivalent to four hours with anyone else. Known for his speedy screen spiel, his wry motor-mouth monologues are more evident than ever in his latest movies, Into the Wild, Sean Penn's film in which he plays a good-natured, talkative farmer and Fred Claus, family fare laced with Vaughn's trademark wickedly adult humour.

When Vaughn captured Jennifer Aniston's attention in the aftermath of her 2005 split from Hollywood golden boy Brad Pitt, the public perceived him as an unworthy contender for the A-list actress' affections.

It was almost as if she'd taken a step down into the B-list when she fell for her party-loving Break-Up co-star. But the movie industry is fickle and Vaughn suddenly found himself in public favour following the huge success of Wedding Crashers that same year.

Paid $3m for his hilarious role as Owen Wilson's dissolute partner-in-crashing, the film became the highest-grossing R-rated comedy in US movie history, taking $178m (£85m) at the box office and propelling him into the elite $20m-a-movie league, alongside his old pal – and Aniston's ex – Pitt.

But the hollow seal of tabloid approval was meaningless to Vaughn, who'd thus far flown beneath the Hollywood radar and had rather hoped to keep it that way. The home-loving, Chicago-born actor's discomfort with life in Aniston's ever-present spotlight was painfully evident as he embarked on a rocky 18-month romance which ended late last year. Not that he has any regrets.

"For me it's more, if you like someone, you like someone," he says, proffering a disarming smile. "I think when we're younger we all say that, don't we? We say: 'I won't date anyone like this or that...' And then you always end up dating someone like that. Because that's what love is. You can't really pick from a logical place. For me, the people I've dated for any period of time, there's always been a friendship there. Life is made up of all those little moments, so it's nice if you have someone who you enjoy doing things with."

One can only speculate but you get the impression that Aniston must have had a hell of a lot more laughs with Vaughn than she did with Pitt. He scrubs up rather well, too.

He is considered a leader of the media-invented "Frat Pack" along with fellow comedy icons Ben Stiller, Wilson, Will Ferrell and Jack Black – his co-stars in Zoolander, Old School, Anchorman, Dodgeball and Starsky and Hutch. It emerges that he and Wilson are discussing a possible Wedding Crashers sequel: "I've never done a sequel. I always have to know: is it a movie that can stand on its own? Or are they just trying to be a sequel and there's no real story there? Crashers was so much fun so we started kicking around ideas of what it could be and we came up with some really funny stuff for what that next transition would be."

Reluctant to discuss the recent suicide drama surrounding his old pal, he says: "Owen's great. He's doing good. I think he's funny and he's a nominated writer and he's just a terrific actor. He's one of the most genuine, kind people I've ever worked with. "

Vaughn claims that laughter has helped him survive many personal trials. "When I was younger I did dramatic stuff and small movies, and then I started doing a lot of comedies," he says, referring to his early roles as drifter Clay Hewitt in The Locusts, A Cool, Dry Place's single dad, Domestic Disturbance's sinister step-dad opposite John Travolta, plus an improbable turn as Norman Bates in the 1998 remake of Psycho.

"But I felt like things in the world got really tense. Things have been so heavy lately. I really like comedy that brings people together. There's a lot of comedies lately that have been at people's expense or been kind of acidic or mean-spirited. And some folks like that, and I think there's room for that, but that's not my style. I like something that makes us all feel closer. Comedy, at its best, can be healing."

Having watched Vaughn deadpan similar corny sentiments in countless comedies, it's hard not to respond to his seemingly heartfelt speech with a pinch of scepticism. My suspicions are confirmed when, following an overly sincere discussion of the tragedy surrounding the recent California fires, he adds: "I will also say, nothing screams Christmas more than California brush fire..."

Even Penn – who lost two trailers in the Malibu fires – would recognise the humour in Vaughn's off-the-cuff remarks. The two men bonded after Penn cast him in a pivotal role – as a farmer who employs Emile Hirsch's character Christopher McCandless, a spoilt rich kid who abandons everything he owns and hitchhikes to Alaska to live in the wilderness – in his drama adapted from a true story, Into The Wild.

In person, Vaughn comes across as the guy-next-door, a regular bloke who doesn't quite understand what all the fuss is about. This despite the fact that he's been an unofficial babe-magnet for 11 years since Swingers established the 6ft 5in actor as the new face of masculinity and a poster boy for every woman who insists that a sense of humour is the biggest turn-on.

In Fred Claus – also upcoming – Vaughn plays Santa's naughty brother Fred. It's not a million miles from his real life personality. "As a kid, I think I was naughty in a nice way, hopefully. I always liked to joke around. I've always found in life that you go through peaks and valleys. Sometimes things run smoothly and sometimes you have tough stuff. But a sense of humour has always served me well. Being able to laugh at things, and most importantly, being capable of laughing at myself. I was an OK student; nothing great; just an average athlete so I started making jokes when I was younger in order to get along and make friends."

Today, heading Fred Claus' stellar cast of Oscar winners Kevin Spacey and Rachel Weisz along with Academy nominees Paul Giamatti and Miranda Richardson, Vaughn knows his place in Hollywood's hierarchy: "This movie had a bunch of big stars – and me," he quips, confident in the knowledge that, in fiscal terms, he tops the list with a $20m pay cheque.

Vaughn is one of that rare breed of untroubled, undamaged actors who relishes spreading his good fortune among family members. He put his divorced parents on the payroll as minor actors in The Break-Up, Vernon Vaughn playing Aniston's dad while Sharon Vaughn makes a fleeting appearance as a boat tourist. Vaughn's older sister Victoria likewise served as associate producer on the film. A former salesman, Vernon has further appeared in cameos in his son's Swingers and Made, while Vaughn's other sister Valeri has progressed from assistant duties on The Prime Gig to director status on Vaughn's upcoming documentary, The Untitled Belfast Project.

Unashamed to admit how much effort he's put into his craft, Vaughn is mystified by his fellow thespians for whom fame is the ultimate goal.

"When I was 18, Entertainment Tonight was the only movie business show in America," says the 37-year-old actor who, at 18, won his first break with a Chevy commercial, following through with bit parts on TV series 21 Jump Street, China Beach and Doogie Howser MD. Steven Spielberg would later see Swingers, casting him in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, thereby launching Vaughn into mainstream Hollywood.

"All my friends, like the guys in Swingers, were more like vaudeville actors – none of us ever even thought about being famous. We just thought: 'Can I work as an actor?' When we talked about Swingers, we'd talk in terms like 'Can we get our movie made?'

"I was happy to get a TV commercial or get a couple of lines on a TV show. There was never a thought of: 'I want to star in a movie' or 'I'm going to have my own show.' I don't even think I felt, at 18 years old and coming from middle America, that that was even possible.

"When I was younger you were embarrassed to say that you hadn't taken classes. People would be uncomfortable to admit that. I don't know of any industry where hard work isn't its own reward. To me that's how you learn about yourself by working hard at something.

"My grandfather was a farmer so I was always raised that you worked very hard whatever your job is; my sister was a teacher. You're to be respected if you try hard and try to be good at something and the results are less important. You can't control that. The more important thing is that you tried your best. But now there's much more of an intention where some of these kids don't want to be actors – they want to be famous! Their focus isn't necessarily on craftsmanship."

Despite the tabloid hysteria surrounding his relationship with Aniston, Vaughn still obstinately refuses to perceive himself as a celebrity: "If you go out with someone famous, you'll get a certain level of attention around you but it was never something I focused on.

And ultimately I do the best I can; I make my movies, and that's all you really can do. I've never done a lot of magazine covers. I don't go to a lot of premieres. I don't really cultivate that. To me that's almost a separate thing from the making of a film. And I think it's fine if people do that. For me I've always made the best movies I can make and then just walked away. That's kind of it."

'Into The Wild' opens on 9 November and 'Fred Claus' on 30 November