Vince Vaughn: Who's laughing now?

After his dazzling turn in Swingers, Vince Vaughn seemed to go into hiding. Now he's back, as one of Hollywood's comedy elite. He talks to Ryan Gilbey
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The Independent Culture

The trajectory of Vince Vaughn's career couldn't accurately be described as "rise and fall" - at least, not to his face, and not by someone who measures a measly 5ft 9in, as I do, to Vaughn's chandelier-bothering 6ft 5in.

The trajectory of Vince Vaughn's career couldn't accurately be described as "rise and fall" - at least, not to his face, and not by someone who measures a measly 5ft 9in, as I do, to Vaughn's chandelier-bothering 6ft 5in.

Certainly, there was a slight falling-off after his dazzling turn in the 1996 slapstick comedy Swingers, as I'm sure Vaughn himself would concede. Then, Steven Spielberg acclaimed the newcomer as "an icon-to-be" before rather unfairly casting him in the most boring role in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. (Vaughn's spin-off action figure seemed to be having more fun than he was.)

But, after a period of being absent from cinema screens, or starring in the kind of films that seem to be made exclusively to fill days of air time on in-flight entertainment channels, the 34-year-old is now part of Hollywood's new comedy establishment, along with his buddies such as Ben Stiller, Luke and Owen Wilson, and the current King Midas, Will Ferrell.

Vaughn wore a zany moustache last year to play the villain opposite Ben Stiller in Starsky & Hutch. In the comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, it is Stiller who is on "wacky facial hair" duty, while Vaughn gets to be the straight-up, good-egg hero in a yarn about searching for the hero inside and laughing at overweight people.

"Everyone else in Dodgeball is really 'out there', really extreme," Vaughn says, spilling out of a tiny armchair. "I have to be the eyes of the audience. If the world around you is insane, it's important to be the sane, still centre. Like Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings. Or Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz." He smiles weakly, perhaps realising that this is the first and last time anyone will hear Dodgeball mentioned in the same paragraph as those films.

We chat briefly about Dodgeball. But what is there to say about it? It's sleazy fun, and will no doubt repeat its US success internationally. Who cares about the film's inherent hypocrisy - denouncing body fascism while wringing humour from the sight of obese characters attempting strenuous physical activity - when the repeated shots of someone getting thwacked in the face and/or genitals transcend all language barriers?

There is a sense, though, that Vaughn might be slightly above all this. He has shown in a handful of films - Swingers, Psycho (1998), Return to Paradise (1998) and Made (2001) - the kind of versatility that makes Dodgeball look like a stop-gap, albeit a highly lucrative one.

He tells me that he doesn't differentiate between comic and dramatic parts. "My approach is always the same. I like character-based films. Comedy isn't about trying to be funny. It's an over-commitment to something that's absurd, whether it's the rules of dating in Swingers or the competitiveness in Dodgeball."

Vaughn got his early breaks in the improvisational comedy troupe Second City, in his hometown of Chicago. "I was performing there after two weeks of joining. Some nights, I really bombed. But I learnt to be calm and serene even when I was bombing."

After landing roles in commercials and TV series, Vaughn upped sticks to Los Angeles, where he befriended another struggling actor, Jon Favreau. "A lot of actors in LA were very self-important," he remembers. He extends his arms and puffs out his chest in a parody of Shakespearean acting. "Jon and I never took it that seriously. We worked hard, but we didn't have any pretensions. Even now, I get embarrassed because my sister's a teacher, whereas I'm just an actor." I check for a smirk, but he means it.

Swingers was based largely on Vaughn and Favreau's experiences hanging out together in 1950s-style LA nightclubs, unsuccessfully hitting on beautiful women and scratching around for acting work. Even the characters' exuberant vernacular was drawn from their own slang - Vaughn's habit of using "money" as an approving adjective (as in: "That's so money!"), and adding "baby" to the end of every sentence, was exaggerated in his role as Trent, a sharp-suited, quick-witted, deluded wide boy to set alongside Michael Caine's Alfie.

"There were similarities between me and Trent," he agrees. "I didn't dress as well as him, but I liked hanging out in those places. I liked the scene. Fashion at that point had got to a very androgynous place, with violence and piercings." He gives a little shudder. "That wasn't my thing. I liked it better where the guys wore suits and the girls wore dresses." Again, there's no hint that he's joking.

He looks back fondly on Swingers. "One time, I went over to the sound guy, Big Al, who usually worked on soft-porn movies. I said, 'Whaddya think, Big Al? We really got something here, huh?' He said, 'Let's be honest, Vince. You and your friends are getting a kick out of this. You can say you've made a movie. But no one's gonna see it.' I thought, 'God, maybe he's right.'" But Miramax snapped up the film, and the rest, as they say, is quoted in student bars around the world. And Big Al? "Oh, Favreau hired him for a pilot he was doing, and Big Al fell asleep on set. Favreau had to fire him."

In the years after the success of Swingers, Vaughn more or less swore off comedy. "I kept getting sent these lousy scripts, so I decided to seek out some darker material," he says. Actually, his background in comedy helped to give a distinctive edge to those more sombre roles. He was a welcome presence in Return to Paradise, in which he and Joaquin Phoenix were sentenced to death after being convicted of drug smuggling. Swingers was still fairly fresh in the memory then, and there was the feeling that Vaughn's wiseacre persona would save the day and spring the heroes from jail. It didn't.

It was brave, too, for him to play Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant's audacious Psycho remake. I mention how he made the role his own, exaggerating Anthony Perkins's effeminacy: he was a drag queen trapped in a psychopath's body. Vaughn talks me through the difficulties of playing another actor's part in a shot-for-shot remake, and takes special care to mention rehearsing at home with "my girlfriend at the time". Possibly he didn't want me to think he was gay. Or for anyone else to think it, for that matter: when reporters collared him a few years back about an alleged affair with Cameron Diaz, his response was gleefully indiscreet and un-Hollywood: "How did you guys hear about that?" he spluttered.

Not that I did think he was gay - more like "heterosexual with aggressive latent homosexual desires". After all, there is a degree of ambiguity to him. There was his undoubted chemistry with Viggo Mortensen in Psycho. And Vaughn looked prettier than any of the women in Swingers. Then there is Made, which challenges Top Gun and Heartbreak Ridge for the title of queerest "straight" movie ever released. In that unexpectedly dark follow-up to Swingers, Vaughn and Favreau share long, wordless looks in between squabbling, and end the movie adopting a child together.

But, rather than representing any kind of coming-out, Made transpired to be something of a retreat - a devilish tease to fans who expected this likeable double-act to yield more vaguely laddish jollity. "There was actually a very funny sequel to Swingers that we had written before the first film was released. But with Swingers becoming what it did, we thought we might be better off just leaving it alone. We didn't want to do the same thing. So we took those character types and made them slightly off. Trent was perceived as being loud but cool: well, what if I played someone who wasn't cool, he was just annoying?" No one went to see the film, of course, but it was full of dry, uncomfortable humour, most of it involving Vaughn being hostile - harassing a flight attendant, mocking an interior designer, bullying a bellhop.

He played that gentle menace so convincingly that I was expecting to encounter it in some form during our meeting. In 2001, he was involved in a bar brawl along with the actor Steve Buscemi, for which he was fined $250 and ordered to undergo an alcohol assessment programme. And on his 33rd birthday he was bopped on the nose by a stranger in West Hollywood.

On screen in Dodgeball, he seems to have gone to seed, with eye-bags and a double chin, though I suppose no man looks his best when called upon to wear pyjamas and have his crotch nuzzled by an excitable Labrador (it's that sort of film). But there is nothing of that big, bedraggled lug in person. The worst you could say about him is that his socks are too white to go with his grey suit. And that he could do better than Dodgeball.

'Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story' is out now on DVD