Vince Vaughn takes a stab at horror with 'Freaky'
By JOSH ROTTENBERG | Los Angeles Times | Published: November 19, 2020
Vince Vaughn has been starring in movies for a quarter of a century, ever since his breakout as a swaggering wannabe actor in the 1996 indie comedy "Swingers." But in these strange and stressful times in which we find ourselves, his life is perhaps not as different from yours as you might imagine.
His days are punctuated by Zoom meetings. With his family largely confined to their home in Southern California, the 50-year-old actor frets over keeping his two kids, who are in the second and fourth grade, from falling behind where they should be academically and socially. Like most of us, he is looking for new ways to occupy his time; over the last few months, he’s been playing the occasional Friday-night game of Dungeons & Dragons online with a group of friends led by Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.
"I used to play as a kid," Vaughn said over Zoom from his home in late October, just eight days before a presidential election that would further test everyone’s sanity. Outside his window, his children were spending the afternoon with six school friends and two teachers who have joined together in a learning pod. "I have to tell you, man, it’s a blast. It’s just so fun and nerdy."
In his career as well, Vaughn has come somewhat down to earth. Since the mid-2000s, when a string of hits including "Old School," "Wedding Crashers" and "Dodgeball" made him one of the most bankable stars in town, Hollywood has largely backed away from the type of R-rated, male-oriented comedies that were once his bread and butter. Following a series of box office duds including 2013’s "Delivery Man" and 2015’s "Unfinished Business," Vaughn has recently pivoted more toward drama, starring in the second season of HBO’s "True Detective" and the gritty indie crime thrillers "Brawl in Cell Block 99" and "Dragged Across Concrete."
Now, in the midst of a pandemic that has brought the movie business to its knees, Vaughn finds himself looking for laughs again in his highest-profile film in years: the Blumhouse horror-comedy "Freaky," which opened Friday. In director Christopher Landon’s new twist on the tried-and-true "Freaky Friday" formula, Vaughn plays a serial killer called the Blissfield Butcher who switches bodies with an insecure high school girl named Millie (played by Kathryn Newton) after stabbing her with a supernaturally cursed dagger.
With 24 hours to figure out how to reverse the curse, Vaughn - playing Millie inside of the Butcher in a Russian nesting doll of a performance - awkwardly struggles to adjust to a suddenly oversized body, performs cheerleading moves to persuade Millie’s friends of her true identity and, in one unexpectedly touching scene, reveals a secret crush on a jock named Booker.
One of the widest studio releases since cineplexes around the country shut down in March, "Freaky" marks a test not only of moviegoers’ appetite to return to theaters but of Vaughn’s enduring appeal. Reviews for the film have been largely positive, with a number of critics highlighting Vaughn’s game performance. In September, no less a horror authority than Stephen King enthused on Twitter, "Based on the trailer of ’Freaky,’ Vince Vaughn has GOT to get nominated for an Academy Award." (Though considering how often the Oscars recognize horror or comedy, that is exceedingly unlikely, even in a season as upside-down as this one.)
Signing onto the film, Vaughn was well aware that such a gender-swapping role had the potential to go off the rails. For every "Mrs. Doubtfire," after all, there is a "Jack and Jill." "It scared me a little at first," he says. "But I felt like, ’Well, that’s probably good.’ I’d sort of been wanting to do stuff where I feel a little like your feet can’t touch the bottom."
While it may have been tempting to lean into slapstick, Vaughn worked to get into the emotional headspace of a vulnerable teenager, drawing inspiration in part from his own nieces. "The very first time I met Vince, we both arrived on the same page in terms of not wanting him to play a caricature of a girl," says "Freaky" director and co-writer Christopher Landon. "I felt like the movie would only succeed if we really invested in this character and were rooting for her. I wanted him to take it seriously."
"Freaky" producer and Blumhouse Productions CEO Jason Blum credits Vaughn, whose most significant previous foray into horror was starring in 1998’s ill-fated shot-for-shot remake of "Psycho," with opening himself up to new challenges. "He’s a great comedian but he’s also a really good dramatic actor and I think he’s choosing interesting material," Blum said. "Those (R-rated comedies) have all migrated to streaming, and I think it’s cool that he’s deciding to not only do that but also trying other things."
Where some may see a stab at a commercial comeback in a genre with a steady box office track record, Vaughn insists he has simply been moving in the direction of what interests him. Those edgy studio comedies that had once been his forte had started to grow increasingly safe and bland, he says, pointing to 2013’s underwhelming "The Internship," which the studio watered down from a planned R rating to a PG-13.
"When anything becomes so much by committee or you’re walking in playing defense, it’s not as rewarding a journey to go on," says Vaughn, who popped up recently in a small role in the latest season of HBO’s "Curb Your Enthusiasm." "What I liked about the R comedies at the time is it felt like they were like these defiant rock albums. It felt like you were part of a band. I will go back and do comedies again. But I think I do better when I’m excited or challenging myself than when I’m trying to read the tea leaves of where the market is going. I don’t really have that skill set."
In the era of social media, navigating those sorts of career vicissitudes has only become more challenging. In January, Vaughn found himself being slammed on Twitter and Facebook when a video showing him chatting and shaking hands with President Donald Trump at a college football game in New Orleans went viral. Some on the left called for Vaughn - a self-identified libertarian who has drawn fire in the past for his comments on hot-button issues like gun rights - to be canceled.
Vaughn insists the episode was overblown. "In my career I’ve met a lot of politicians who I’ve always been cordial to; I’ve met Nancy Pelosi and was cordial to her as well," he says, noting that at that same football game he also greeted Democratic strategist James Carville, who had a cameo in "Old School." "It was the only time I’ve ever met him. We said hello. He was very personable." He laughs. "I didn’t get into policies."
"I think people are more charged than ever about these things," he continues. "But I don’t think most people take that stuff as seriously as the small percentage that’s making noise about it. I was raised with the idea that you could have different likes and beliefs and you should respect and defend that in other people, not shout it down. The people you disagree with the most, you should stand up for their right to do that."
While some jumped to the conclusion that he was a backer of the president, Vaughn says, "The only candidate I ever supported is (former Libertarian presidential nominee) Ron Paul. ... I don’t have a party that I support and endorse. In fact, for me sometimes it’s difficult to find a candidate that you feel is philosophically consistent and not just going along with whoever is funding their particular party. That’s as much as I’ll get into it at this point."
Whether it’s his personal politics or the state of his career, Vaughn isn’t hung up on what other people might think. He’s about to start shooting his next film, the dark comedy "Queenpins," based on a true story about a pair of women (played by Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste) who started a counterfeit coupon scam. He is eyeing a potential sequel to "Wedding Crashers." As far as how "Freaky" might perform or what it might mean for his career, he says, "I have no idea how it shakes out."
If he’s sweating that uncertainty at all, he isn’t letting on.
"Before ’Old School,’ I remember my agents calling me and saying, ’You’re not getting as many calls and you’re in jeopardy of continuing to get hired,’ " he says. "I think everyone goes through those stages and we all evolve and change. Any time you go into a different area, people are reluctant because it’s not what they’re used to selling. But when you play it safe or try to strategize based on what you think audiences want to see, I think things actually go worse.
"For me personally, I really don’t care to a large degree about people’s opinions. How I feel about my choices and what I’m doing, whether that’s in your work or in your own life -- that is more of a focal point to me than ’Is it coming off well?’ "