Drill sergeants factor into a number of fearsome performances in film. Think Louis Gossett Jr.'s Oscar-winning performance in An Officer and a Gentleman or R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket.
Director Mel Gibson recruited a startling choice to get right up in the faces of his World War II-bound soldiers in Hacksaw Ridge: Vince Vaughn, best known for big laugh roles in comedies like Wedding Crashers and Dodgeball.
"This isn't Wedding Crashers Vince, this is Sergeant Howell Vince — it's a different animal altogether," says Gibson, whose new drama earned $14.8 million in its first weekend. "People say, 'That's interesting, I never would have thought.' But I thought (Vaughn) was perfect from the first moment."
USA TODAY's Brian Truitt calls Vaughn's performance "a revelation, combining the acerbic wit of his best comedy roles with a tough-guy edge and impressive emotion."
But Vaughn says there's no "conscious" move to dramatic roles. He insists he's just picking scripts and roles that energize him.
"It’s more about feeling overtaken by something that makes you a little nervous and you just can’t stop thinking about it, making sure you're stepping into stuff that you’re really excited about," says Vaughn, 46.
The shift started when he starred as mobster Frank Semyon in HBO's second season of True Detective in 2015, followed by a forgettable role as a low-level criminal in 2016's Term Life.
The 6-foot-5 actor is still sporting the remnants of the shaved-to-the-scalp haircut he wore as a former boxer in the just-finished prison action drama Brawl in Cell Block 99 (expected out in 2017).
He notes that he had no game plan when he started in Hollywood in the late '80s. "I thought maybe it would be great, God, if I could be in a movie. I never had any plans of even starring in something."
There have been Army fatigues in his past. One of his earliest roles in 1989 was as an Army motor pool driver on TV's China Beach, followed by an appearance as a "cheering soldier in the crowd" for 1991's For the Boys. Then came decades of reigning as one of Hollywood's most bankable comedy stars. There were occasional dramatic roles, such as Norman Bates in 1998's Psycho remake and a scene-stealing part in 2007's Into the Wild, which caught Gibson's eye.
The comedy background helps even for Howell, who Vaughn says uses humor (amid plenty of yelling) to train his recruits for battle — including Andrew Garfield, who stars as heroic Army medic Desmond Doss. "When (Howell) is being funny, it's a way to reach these kids," says Vaughn.
Garfield agrees the humorous edge is effective onscreen, but says it made for difficult moments trying to keep from cracking up. When Vaughn's Howell first ripped into the assembled battalion, "every single actor had tears in his eyes trying not to laugh in front of maybe one of the funniest men on the planet."
Vaughn says he's considering his next role and doesn't rule out a full return for laughs.
"I'd love to do a comedy again," he says. "I just want to make sure going into it, it's something combustible and exciting."