Vince Vaughn on new film Brawl In Cell Block 99: 'These are real punches being thrown'

The 'Swingers' actor is hardly recognisable in his role as a drug dealer inmate on a mission to kill a fellow prisoner

James Mottram
Tuesday 24 October 2017 14:13 BST
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Vince Vaughn as drug dealer Bradley Thomas in 'Brawl In Cell Block 99'
Vince Vaughn as drug dealer Bradley Thomas in 'Brawl In Cell Block 99'

Vince Vaughn wrinkles his nose. An amiable comic star, in films like Wedding Crashers, Old School and The Internship, he has more recently made a break for the dramatic.

After starring in True Detective season two and military drama Hacksaw Ridge, he now takes the lead in the exhilarating prison tale Brawl In Cell Block 99. But any suggestions that he’s been climbing a career ladder of late leaves him with a perplexed look on his face.

“A ladder sounds exhausting to me,” he says. “I don’t know if I see it as a ladder. In life you’re going to go through peaks and valleys. Just individually, you’re trying to get better at things in your life, personally, professionally. But it is nice to put your head in the sand and take a day off as well. You find that balance, I think, within that. You’re always trying to find better and healthier ways of navigating things, whatever that may be. Even a marriage can have that side of itself.”

He’s 47 now, and he’s never had a role like Brawl. He plays Bradley Thomas, a shaven-headed, tattoo-clad drug-dealer who is sent to jail after a narcotics pick-up goes wrong. It’s the first time the 6ft 5in Vaughn has got to use his physique – he was a former football player and wrestler in high school – like this on screen. “You’re doing live, multiple takes, sometimes with multiple people, and everyone is jacked up,” he says. “These are real punches and real things being thrown.”

The poster for ‘Brawl In Cell Block 99’
The poster for ‘Brawl In Cell Block 99’

The violence comes with an emotional core, when Bradley is given a mission – kill a fellow inmate or his pregnant kidnapped wife's unborn baby will be mutilated. The problem is the intended target is in another prison altogether, a maximum-security dungeon run by sadists. How Vaughn’s character gets a transfer, then works his way towards the notorious cell block 99, descending through the Dante-like circles of hell, is the key to the story; suffice it to say, he doesn’t ask nicely.

If the violence is memorably bone-crunching, Vaughn is more enamoured by the film’s emotional beats. “We talked a lot from a character place,” he says. Like the opening scene when, after being fired from his job, Bradley discovers his wife has been unfaithful. Rather than a typical violent reaction, he forgives and moves on. “[That’s where] I fell in love with the character,” says Vaughn. “It felt like a good relationship. Not one that you see a lot in film. I was really surprised by it and it moved me.”

Vaughn and Jon Favreau in ‘Swingers’ (Rex)
Vaughn and Jon Favreau in ‘Swingers’ (Rex) (Rex Features)

The film is the brainchild of S Craig Zahler, who similarly put a visceral twist on violence in the Old West in his 2015 frontier-set debut Bone Tomahawk. “It’s not often you see that original thought. It’s exciting to work with someone who I find defiant in what he does,” says Vaughn, who praises the manipulation of tone. “I find myself laughing at the absurdity of it, but then at the same time you’re really moved. There’s a real masterfulness there.”

Already, Vaughn has reunited with Zahler for a second outing, Dragged Across Concrete – the story of two cops who descend into the criminal underbelly after a video of their strong-arm tactics goes viral. The film reunites him with Mel Gibson, who directed Vaughn in Hacksaw Ridge. He’s been a fan of Gibson, not just on screen but his work behind the camera, for years. “I thought that Apocalypto [Gibson’s 2006 Mayan adventure story] was pioneering,” he says.

Vaughn with in ‘Wedding Crashers’ (Rex)
Vaughn with in ‘Wedding Crashers’ (Rex) (Rex Features)

Vaughn, who was born in Minneapolis, the son of a real-estate agent mother and a salesman father, hasn’t quite made the behind-the-camera moves that Gibson has. Directing is still to come. Yet after graduating from the indie scene – notably in his 1996 breakthrough, the Jon Favreau-scripted Swingers – he started producing. The first was the 2001 film Made, in which Vaughn and Favreau starred as two friends involved in low-level crime.

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He’s also written scripts including The Break-Up – in which he co-starred with former squeeze Jennifer Aniston – and other comedy films, Couples Retreat and The Internship. More recently, he’s turned back to producing – including Netflix animated show F Is For Family – rather than continue writing. “Maybe because my kids are young [he has two, daughter Locklyn and son Vernon, with wife Kyla] I’ve had some interesting ideas but nothing that I’ve sat on.”

Vaughn and Colin Farrell in ‘True Detective’ (Rex)
Vaughn and Colin Farrell in ‘True Detective’ (Rex) (Rex Features)

What is impressive is the way Vaughn has turned around his mid-Noughties career slump, when films like Fred Claus and Four Christmases were threatening to derail him. “Right now maybe I’m a little more conscious than I was a few years back,” he says. “In life you always go through different moments, and you adjust, right? You go through things that are experiences and you adjust coming out of them.” It was a tricky phase not least because, in his early years, “I always got love letters, from reviews, for the most part.”

Even appearing in the maligned shot-for-shot remake of Psycho didn’t torpedo him. Rather Vaughn pinpoints something else. “At one point, Owen [Wilson] said in the press that I was a Republican and it kind of got traction, so much that I got invited to Republican National Conventions. That’s the thing – I’m a libertarian. I think there’s less of a difference between the two parties – a longer conversation, not one worth having. But anyway I got seen this way and literally from that time on, I could tell a major change, where people would come after me for views that I don’t even have entirely.”

Vaughn in ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ (Rex)
Vaughn in ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ (Rex) (Rex Features)

Whether or not critics had an axe to grind, Vaughn was a backer and friend of two-time Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, and an endorser of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid. He also holds some controversial opinions on firearms; as he told GQ in 2015: “I support people having a gun in public full stop, not just in your home.” Then there was that picture of him and Gibson looking none-too-happy at Meryl Streep’s Donald Trump-bashing speech at the Golden Globes, which became an instant internet meme.

If he’s an outsider in the defiantly left-wing Hollywood, he’s not alone. Take Clint Eastwood, whose pro-Trump views led him to be swiftly crucified in the media. “He gets away with it more so, having been around forever,” sighs Vaughn.

He swiftly circles the conversation back to criticism and a culture shift. “People with reviews, they started to become so much more personal, visceral or extreme because they really wanted attention,” he says. “It feels like it’s a different time.” Somehow, Vaughn has survived it all.

‘Brawl In Cell Block 99’ is out on 20 October

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