Like so many young American men during World War II, Desmond Doss volunteered to join the Army because he wanted to do his part to serve his country to the best of his abilities. The difference with Doss was that, due to his personal religious beliefs as a Seventh-Day Adventist, he refused to even touch a gun, let alone fire one at another person. Instead, his hope was to serve as a medic and help save lives instead of taking them. Unfortunately, he was assigned to a rifle company where his deep-seated convictions did not sit well with his fellow soldiers or military brass, who suspected him of cowardice. However, when he went into combat with them during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, he not only went into the thick of battle as a medic completely unarmed, he managed to almost single-handedly save the lives of a number of his wounded comrades (and even a couple enemy combatants) in the process. Because of his efforts, he would go on to be awarded the Medal of Honor, one of only three conscientious objectors to be given that honor.
Returning to the director’s chair for the first time since 2006’s “Apocalypto,” Mel Gibson has brought Doss’ amazing story to the screen in the intense war drama “Hacksaw Ridge” with Andrew Garfield in the role of Doss. Vince Vaughn plays Sergeant Howell, the drill sergeant who tries at first to drum Doss out of the service until he realizes just how deep-seated his beliefs are and then bears witness to his incredible bravery and heroics. For Vaughn, the role is a marked change of pace from the glib, fast-talking types that he has portrayed in such films as “Swingers,” “Wedding Crashers” and “The Internship.” Like the film as a whole, Vaughn’s work is strong, smart and manages to avoid most of the usual war movie cliches. The result is one of the best performances that he has given to date.
Recently back in his hometown of Chicago to promote “Hacksaw Ridge” and sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during Game 4 of the World Series at Wrigley Field later in the day, Vaughn sat down with me to talk about the film, working with Mel Gibson and the new challenges of playing an authority figure.
“Hacksaw Ridge” is, I believe, the first war movie that you have done—certainly the first one dealing with World War II. What was it about this particular project that interested you?
I had a very small part in “For the Boys” as an extra and I did an episode of “China Beach” one time when I was a kid. But this was the first real part in one that I had. Mel is my favorite director—if you look at “Apocalypto,” which I think is on a whole other level, and “Braveheart” and “The Passion of the Christ,” those are great movies. I had never heard this story before when it came across my desk. I didn’t know who Desmond Doss was and I was really inspired by this guy’s conviction. You know, war can bring out the worst in people and this guy came from love and refused to hurt someone even as he put himself in harm’s way to help people, even where the enemy was concerned. I couldn’t believe that this had happened and at that level. He did it consistently. It wasn’t just one moment that he did this—he was this way for his duration—and I found it to be really inspiring. I think at a time when they throw a movie out if it doesn’t have a clear-cut sequel or franchise, it is nice to be a part of a movie that is about an ordinary person who did extraordinary things that were coming from a place of love. For me, the character was great because I got to show so many different colors. You get to be funny, you get to be strong and show some empathy, so I really enjoyed the part on top of it as well.
It is a change for you because in many of your films, you have played anti-authoritarian types but here, you get to play the ultimate authority figure—a drill sergeant.
That is an interesting perspective. I hadn’t looked at it in that context. I think I just approached this role for what it was, which was that these kids were my responsibility, that we were going to the worst place possible and I want them to stay alive and I want them to be able to help their brothers next to them to stay alive. It is my responsibility to prepare them for that. I did my research—I have military in my family and a lot of military friends—and I just approached it from that perspective. It was good to use a sense of humor so that you don’t go tone deaf and sometimes you have to be strong but coming from love. Not to give away too much but I have that scene after Desmond has gone what he has gone through and I can see there is real conviction in him, there is empathy. I think that you just really load yourself up with the purpose of the character and then just sort of react. Of course, Andrew Garfield is so tremendous in the movie that it made it easy to work across from him because he was very connected to the scenes.
It is interesting because instead of your character simply being an unyielding hard-ass until he discovers the depths of Desmond’s convictions, he does actually have a point regarding his belief that he is not fit for combat because his refusal to handle a gun could very well put his fellow soldiers at risk.
I agree. I really think that was the perspective of the time. Your job then was to kill people and to stay alive, so he was an odd fit. At first, you are right in thinking “Is this guy really who he says he is?” Then when he shows that he is who he says he is, you can respect that but think that it is not a fit for this because the value of everybody’s life is what is important. Eventually, you get won over and realize that he is exactly who he says he is. Part of it is the way that Desmond did it. He didn’t go around preaching and campaigning and telling people what to do. He did it by example and it was how he conducted himself that caused people to change their minds and hearts. As a reader, I found myself in similar shoes. At first, I thought that this was not a good idea but as it goes along, you can’t help but be moved and inspired by it.
Beyond the research, what sort of training or preparation did you have to go through in order to get ready for the film, especially considering that your character is one that outranks the soldiers serving under him?
I did some physical training because it was important to come into this in shape because I knew that it was going to be physically demanding. I also did a lot of research into sergeants and that relationship with their men—I was lucky that I knew such people and was able to have conversations with them and do that research. Then we got to spend some time together because we had about two weeks of drilling and preparing together, which was invaluable. As an older actor on the set, a lot of those very dialogue-heavy scenes from me came very early and so it was important for me to come in very prepared as an example and be ready to go. I think the mixture of it all played into how we sort of interacted with each other. There were a lot of young Australian actors who were really nice and working hard and happy to be there. It was nice that they were so supportive of each other and not competing with each other. The whole setting, and I think it came from the movie we were doing and from Mel, the whole mission of the movie was very committed and very supportive.
Most of the last half of the film is dedicated to a long and graphically violent recreation of the battle in Okinawa, where your troops attempt to take Hacksaw Ridge from the Japanese. What was the experience of shooting such a presumably physically grueling sequence like for you?
If you watch the film, you notice that most of it was shot practically, so you have real explosions going off. There were physical moves that had to go off that were challenging at times. There were explosions that actually helped you commit to the scene because you had something to react to. Mel is coordinating 100+ people with these very sophisticated movements where timing is everything, so you become very focused on getting from here to here and doing this successfully. You just become very committed to the circumstances and really throw yourself into those moments as best as you could. Just participating in the recreating of this war was emotional—I can’t imagine what it is like for the men and women who really go through it.
One of the things that I love about the movie is that it really draws awareness to PTSD, especially in the stuff with the father played by Hugo Weaving who is the veteran of World War I. We’ve taken this movie to Andrews Air Force Base and the Disabled Veterans Conference at Fort Benning. We went to a WWII museum in New Orleans and Drew Brees was there with his grandfather, who actually fought in Okinawa. They were very emotional and said that it was one of the most realistic depictions of battle that they had ever seen. They were moved by it and found it painfully therapeutic—they said they were glad that people could have a better understanding by seeing the images in this movie of the things that they have lived with and dealt with. Hopefully we can bring a little attention and do a better job of helping our men and women when they come back from those circumstances and try to move on their lives.
This is Mel Gibson’s first film as a director in about 10 years and his first in English in about 20. What was it like working with him and does it help you as an actor to have a director who has acted as well?
I thought he was fantastic. He is a great actor and he has a great sense of humor and he kept it light on the set. There are a lot of lessons in this film for me in that it is dramatic and there is a lot of powerful stuff but he also makes sure that there is some vulnerability and humor and other human feelings as well. I think those war scenes, as visceral as they are, are even more powerful because of the love story between Andrew and Teresa [Palmer] earlier in the film. There is an innocence and charm and affection there and when you then see him in war, he is a character that you have invested in and it makes the battle more real. He really brings scenes alive and brings a visceral experience to the film as opposed to an intellectual one.
Considering that a good portion of the potential audience for the film, regardless of where they stand in the political spectrum, is most likely profoundly war-weary, what do you hope that they get from seeing “Hacksaw Ridge”?
I don’t think that anyone in their right mind would ever want to be pro-war. Speaking for myself personally, I detest war. I think there are stories like this one that come out of those terrible circumstances that show humanity. I think it is a love story because it is about a guy who had a lot of love for people and made a really strong choice in the middle of a terrible conflict. I think there is something very inspiring about someone who stays true to their personal convictions against a lot of adversity and who was ultimately coming from a higher place of love, even where the enemy is concerned. There is something powerful in that because in those settings, people are often brought down to the animal side of themselves. But this guy was able to transcend that.