Vince Vaughn is trying something different these days. Having built a career on delivering rapid-fire jokes in a string of comedies—from SWINGERS to OLD SCHOOL to ANCHORMAN to DOGEBALL to WEDDING CRASHERS to COUPLES RETREAT to THE INTERNSHIP—Vaughn seems to have made an effort to work outside his comfort zone and dive into a more unpredictable and exceedingly interesting series of roles. He was probably the best thing in Season 2 of HBO’s “True Detective”; and his next two films were directed by THE KILLING FIELDS’ Roland Joffé (THE FORGIVEN) and BONE TOMAHAWK’s S. Craig Zahler (BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99).
Vaughn’s latest work is the World War II-set HACKSAW RIDGE, from director Mel Gibson, who returns to the director’s chair for the first time since 2006’s APOCALYPTO. The story center on U.S. Army Medic Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), who served during the Battle of Okinawa, all while refusing to pick up a weapon or kill people Doss became the first Conscientious Objector in American history to be awarded the Medal of Honor, and it’s a remarkable telling of a story that will likely alter your definitions of heroism and cowardice. Vaughn plays a hybrid character, Sergeant Howell, the drill sergeant at Doss’s boot camp and later his commanding officer on the battlefield. While Howell is relentless in his challenging of Doss’s faith-based stance on weapon and killing, he also becomes something of a protective force for the scrawny young man, and Vaughn is fantastic in the role. The film is gritty, bloody and every bit as horrific as you’d imagine war to be, and it’s also some of Gibson’s finest work as a storyteller.
Vaughn was in Chicago over the weekend for some sporting event or another on the Northside, and we had a chance to sit down and chat about the film, working with Mel Gibson, and what he has coming up. Please enjoy my talk with Vince Vaughn…
Capone: The role of the hard-nosed drill sergeant is literally as old as war films with sound. What did you want to do to make your version of that a little different, make it a more interesting?
Vince Vaughn: Well, you really want to make something your own, and we had some characters to draw on. It was a combination of characters, the character I played. It’s a unique thing, because you are going with that troop over to the battle and meeting them there, so your’e like a father and you have the greatest responsibility, which is to keep them alive. You’re responsible for these kids’ lives. It’s very emotional. So you’ve got to reach them. You can’t just scream all the time. It’s not about you, and you want to be tough and you have to push them, because they’re going to be in chaotic situations over there, and their ability to go to their training and to make quick decisions could be the difference of not just their lives, but the rest of the company’s lives.
So I took that very seriously, that it was my responsibility to reach them. And part of that is using a sense of humor. You can’t get them tone deaf. You want to try to use the different skills that you have to get them to laugh a little bit or pay attention to this guy. You’re trying to form a bond between them. Can they love each other? Because if they love each other, they’ll do a much better job of caring each other and putting themselves on the line for each other than if they don’t. So you’re really trying to form a cohesive unit that has love for each other and also has the ability to think under these circumstances, and uniquely, you knew that you had a very short window before you went to hell on earth. One of the worst battles—Okinawa in the Pacific, just horrible loss of life.
So I think it really allowed me to go through the character’s journey, which was a true story. That blew me away. I’d never heard the story of Desmond Doss. At first you go, “Does this guy even mean what he says?” And then you go, “He does, but it’s still not a fit. There’s too much at stake, and it doesn’t work.” And I think you see the humanity that he brings to the table, and that’s very moving. I think you get inspired by someone who has that level of conviction.
Capone: His conviction is based in his faith, and one of your jobs, at least in the beginning of the film, is to be a chief architect of breaking down this guy’s faith to get him in step with everybody else. Did you feel a little bit bad about being assigned that role?
VV: No, because the place that I was coming from, and I think that’s why I could joke with them, was like, I know what we’re going to ask of these guys, and they didn’t look at it so much as a conflict, because I think his interpretation is so unique in that he was a conscientious objector. I think there are a lot of guys who see war as something different. And of course, it’s unique because, not to give too much away, he helps my character, but my character does help him too. So it’s interesting between the two of them.
I felt that you have to reach these kids, but you’re a human being; you’re affected by him, they clearly all were, and so you just go through that experience hopefully as organically as possible, subtly. Go through those little changes, those little moments in a way that feels authentic to the movie. A lot of that’s a compliment to Mel. He’s a master storyteller. And Andrew Garfield is so tremendous in the movie, just terrific. So it was easy. All the actors really were. We had a great group of people, and it was a very fun part, a rewarding part, but it was very demanding. It’s nice to be in a movie that’s about people and about human beings, so much so now that if something doesn't have an obvious sequel or a franchise, they throw it out. So it’s really nice to be in something that’s such a great story about us, about human beings.
Capone: A lot of people who were in the audience that I saw it with were coming out saying that they never really thought of this war in those violent, bloody terms. The film has a very ’40s and ’50s feel to its set up—with the different archetype characters—but then you get over to Japan, and it’s the down-and-dirty horrors of war. Was that a different take for you?
VV: Mel had a real vision that became more clear to me. I think he deals with PTSD with the father in the movie, a guy coming home from World War I; we haven’t seen that, but these guys did. This made a dent on their souls, on their mind, on their psyche. It’s a lot to go through, and there’s almost like a Ghost of Christmas Future with Hugo Weaving’s character [who plays Doss’s father], which is fantastic. You’re going into this thing, and look what he’s dealing with. Why is he so afraid for his son to go?
We had taken the movie to Fort Benning [in Gerogia] for the Disabled Veterans Conference, and we’ve taken it to the WWII Museum to play for veterans in New Orleans. Drew Brees’s grandfather was at Okinawa. They found it therapeutic. There were emotions, and they were moved by it, but they ultimately found it very healing, and I think the good news is that people get a glimpse of what these guys are going through. We have men and women unfortunately today coming home from these terrible settings. I can’t figure it out for the life of me what we’re doing, but they’re coming home from this.
Capone: And in theory, we should be more well equipped than ever to handle that, and we’re not doing anything.
VV: We’re not doing anything. It’s just heartbreaking. And now, these images I think hit home a little more so. In the movie, these guys are really friends, people, and they’re going through these really challenging events, and yet hopefully, it will bring some awareness and attention, maybe some love—it could go a long way and it’s needed and deserved by these people.
Capone: I think the scene that killed me in this was at the end when all of Doss’ fellow soldiers are basically apologizing to him, because they’re literally having their definitions of heroism and cowardice is redefined in front of their eyes in that battle.
VV: Beautiful. But my character does so differently, which I like. There’s kind of a sense of humor between us, right? I’m not so sincere. I don’t really apologize. I feel like I have a connection with him, and I honor who he is, and clearly he’s changing, but I think there’s a recognition that he’s legit in who he says he is. But you know, Howell too is like “Get the other guy out of here. Get out of here.” There’s a different side of the coin of sacrifice, I think. So there’s a camaraderie and a friendship that’s shared differently than how it goes down with the other characters. But it’s still a recognition of “Oh my goodness, who ever saw this coming?”
Capone: To me this is an antiwar film. Mel has always come out of that theory of filmmaking that’s “Hate the war, but love the warrior.” I’ve heard him say it before.
VV: Yes, you’re right. I don’t know who would be pro-war. I don’t know anyone who’s pro-war. I think we’re pro the people that make the sacrifices. I think we respect the guys that did that. I think there’s a time for war. I think there’s such thing as a just war. I don’t think there’s nearly as many as we participate in. We just don’t seem to learn our lesson. We take 23 years off, then we go back to it. It’s horrific. But I do think there’s an acknowledgment of these stories and this humanist. This is a very unique one of this guy who really transcended and came from such a higher purpose and faith that really had a lot of love for all people. It’s amazing how he conducted himself in the throes of this type of stuff. I find it inspiring and I think people in the theater do. The best thing a movie can do on some level is elevate you or enlighten you to want to do better. It’s one of the great things that a movie can do, and this definitely does that.
Capone: How did you first get approached to be in this?
VV: They just came to me. I’ve always loved Mel as a filmmaker, and I was blown away by the story, and like I said it was just nice to be in a movie about people and about people doing something exceptional. An ordinary guy, as cliche as it is, doing extraordinary things.
Capone: Over the last 10 years, I’ve just been rooting for Mel to just get back to where he was since APOCALYPTO.
VV: APOCALYPTO was on a whole other level. It’s just incredible. Unbelievable.
Capone: I know you’re a huge fan of his; I feel like you would have been in this movie for free, just to be there when it’s happening, to watch him go.
VV: Yeah, I was excited to participate. He’s a lot of fun, he’s smart, he’s really including, he sets up a great environment on the set, he’s got great taste. He’s passionate. He cares about what he’s doing, but he does it in a way that he gets the best out of people. I had a blast. I’ve known him forever. I really think the world of him. He’s just a phenomenal storyteller.
Capone: You said that your character is like a father of these guys. Did you, being the slightly elder statesman of the bunch, also take on that role among the actors?
VV: For sure. Just naturally. I love those kids. They were so easy, so supportive. You make sure you know all your stuff and you’re getting there and setting an example, setting a good tone for what’s expected of you. That’s always the best way to do stuff, by how you’re doing something. So we had a good time hanging out. I really love the kids. They were terrific and did a great job. I spent a lot of time with Mel and Andrew. We would go out and have dinner on Saturdays and have some laughs. It was heavy material, so it was nice to be able to enjoy.
Capone: Do I understand you are either shooting or about to shoot a film with the guy who did BONE TOMAHAWK?
VV: He’s the greatest, Craig Zahler. He is so talented. We finished; it’s done. That’s why my hair’s growing back from that [Vaughn is sporting the tiniest layer of hair on his recent shaved-bald head]. It’s called BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99. He is one of the great writers and directors of our time. I haven't seen an original voice like that. Coming from the ’90s with independent film, it’s been awhile since we’ve seen any consistent voice coming out for whatever reason. I thought BONE TOMAHAWK was original, it was multi-genre, and it did it really effortlessly as a single voice, so I love that movie.
So when I got the script for that, I was so thrilled to participate with him. He’s just a real talent. It’s very unique that you meet someone who really knows what he wants, it’s not by committee, he has real opinions about things, and again it’s like these guys that are confident like that. He was very fun, he made the set fun, he knew what he wanted, he was fun to collaborate with, we had a lot of fun making the movie, we would laugh and joke a lot. But it’s a pretty intense film.
Capone: Do you have any clue when he’s trying to get it out?
VV: I don’t know. He’s editing it now. It’ll be next year sometime, but he’s editing it now. It’s just tremendous to watch him work. It’s so unique. The dialogue’s incredible, the action—a lot of the action we did would take place in one take without cuts. He’s a very stylistic and has very good taste.