Out of Nowhere: Vince Vaughn in Swingers
A sober appreciation of inspiring acting.
Movies about guys hanging out and tallying up their sexual conquests-- Diner clones--have become terribly stale. But last fall's Swingers was scintillating nonetheless, thanks in great part to total unknown Vince Vaughn's savory portrayal of the dapper, slightly dense ladies' man Trent.
Trent is the ringleader among a gang of wannabe actors who spend their nights prowling Hollywood in search of beautiful "babies." The originality of Vaughn's characterization is that Trent is a not-so-smooth smoothie, a womanizer who's more lamb than wolf. The sweetness of his hustler patter redeems his swagger. What makes Vaughn's portrayal especially rich is that he makes us feel that Trent genuinely cares about his sad-sack pal, Mike (played by the movie's writer, Jon Favreau), who's been in a funk for months because he left his girlfriend in New York.
Vince Vaughn had little but bit parts and frustration to his credit when he took on the role that inspired him to a jazzy, blissfully funny performance. "I hadn't had an agent for a year and a half before I did Swingers," he says. Still, he had a clear notion of what to do with his character. "I got a lot of pressure from the director to play Trent as a romantic," Vaughn says. "But I didn't want to do that. I felt if I made him goofy and nuts but also made it clear that he's enjoying himself, people would ultimately like him. As long as he didn't have cruel ulterior motives, I felt people would warm to him. When I was thinking about the character, I thought of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Walter Matthau in The Bad News Bears, which are two of my favorite performances. Matthau is not sympathetic at all at the start of that movie. When you see him, he's drinking and driving a carload of kids. In Cuckoo's Nest, Nicholson meets the Indian and calls him 'Chief,' but in the long haul you realize that he has a good heart. I wanted to make Trent brash in the same way."
On the strength of his performance in Swingers alone, Vaughn has become instantly recognizable around town. It was his friendship with Jon Favreau that led to the breakthrough. The two met a few years ago while making Rudy, in which Favreau, who was then much heavier, had the choice supporting part of Sean Astin's fat friend, and Vaughn had three brief scenes. When Favreau wrote Swingers, which was partly based on their experiences hanging out at L.A. clubs like the Derby and the Dresden, he wrote the part of Trent for Vaughn. They shopped the script around town, but got no buyers.
"People said it was too L.A.-specific, that there was too much Trent, that a woman should be part of the group," Vaughn recalls. "We were under a lot of pressure to change the script. But Favreau and I both read The Fountainhead during that time, and we said, 'We can't put columns on our building!' If we compromised, we would be Peter Keating, and everyone wants to be Howard Roark, not Peter Keating."
Eventually they hooked up with Doug Liman, who had access to private funding. Favreau turned the project over to Liman to direct, and Liman agreed to cast Favreau's buddies and stick to the script. Then came a stroke of weird Hollywood luck. For a scene of Trent stalking a woman at a party, Liman wanted to use the music from Jaws, and Steven Spielberg had to watch the picture to give his approval. He was so captivated that he offered Vaughn the costarring role of a nature photographer in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Before starting that, however, Vaughn made an independent feature called The Locusts, a neo-noir thriller in which he coincidentally was costarring with Mrs. Spielberg, Kate Capshaw. "Before we started The Lost World" Vaughn reports, "Spielberg came to the set one day. It happened to be a scene where I have my shirt off and I'm strangling his wife. I thought I was going to lose the part after he saw that."
Instead, he's wrapping up the movie that'll be this Memorial Day's must-see pic. It's a little different from improvising his scenes on Swingers. "Acting in The Lost World is about hitting your mark while a helicopter's flying overhead," Vaughn points out. "I can't grab Jeff Goldblum in the middle of the take and shake him, which is the kind of thing I did in Swingers."