Since his off-screen image was that of a rowdy party animal, Vince Vaughn took me completely by surprise with his soft-spoken politeness when I interviewed him for Indie Magazine in 1998. Although his high hopes for applause as creepy Norman Bates in the remake of "Psycho" were dashed, it’s still possible that Vaughn will deliver on the promise he showed in "The Swingers," "Clay Pigeons" and "Return to Paradise." I hope he does. --GUY FLATLEY

His smile dazzles, his voice caresses, his dark eyes signal pleasure. Standing in the dusky light of the country-western bar, this 6’5" drifter—the very image of the Marboro Man in is crisp jeans and his rakishly tilted cowboy hat—is a sexual magnet. He’s sure to walk into the Montana night with a woman on his arm. Maybe it will be the brunette sitting on the next stool, the city-cool girl who’s beginning to warm to his good-old-boy charm. In which case, this may not be her lucky night.

The fate met by the town’s sultriest blonde a few evenings ago could be the fate of this brunette, as well. On the threshold of what promised to be the orgasm of a lifetime, that woman was knifed to death. And if the tall, dark-eyed drifter killed on that night, he’ll kill again. Because that’s what serial killers do.

As we sit in the dark of the cineplex watching David Dobkin’s shivery indie comedy "Clay Pigeons," we are not surprised when the murderer strikes again, but we are astonished by the way in which the actor playing him manages to come across as such a personable, amusing, almost lovable psychopath.

On the other hand, it’s not the first time Vince Vaughn has astonished us. In 1996, he charmed us into rooting for a macho, club-hopping boozer-loser in Doug Liman’s "Swingers"; earlier this year, in Joseph Ruben’s "Return to Paradise," he made the high price of courage heartbreakingly real as an American whose loyalty to an imprisoned friend leads him back to barbaric judgment in a Malaysian courtroom. (Last year, Vaughn had stooped into the mainstream in "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," but why not let sleeping dinosaurs lie?)

Not that he’ll restrict himself to indies from here on in. For Fox, he recently completed "A Cool, Dry Place," in which he stars as a man who’s been dumped by his wife and must now play full-time father to his son, and in December Universal will showcase Vaughn as sinister mama’s boy Norman Bates in Gus van Sant’s indie-at-heart remake of "Psycho." It’s no wonder Norman went wrong, wearing long dresses, high heels, and making a bloody mess in the shower. He had a rotten childhood.

But Vaughn’s childhood was no picnic, either. "I was considered hyperactive in school," recalls the 28-year-old actor, basking in the L.A. sun, his manner polite, almost serene. Physically and emotionally, he’s traveled a great distance from suburban Chicago, where his father, a representative for toy companies, and his mother, a real estate agent and occasional beautician, raised him and his two older sisters. The Vaughns' marriage was less than idyllic—they finally divorced in 1971—and turmoil was no stranger to Vince as a child.

"I had a real problem with authority figures. If I disagreed with something a teacher did, I would always vocalize my opinion. If a kid was called up to give a speech and he’d start to cry in front of the class, I would tell him to sit down. The teacher would say, ‘You stay up here and finish your speech,’ but the kid would listen to me and sit down. So they made me go to these special classes, with the problem kids—like the girl who was taller than everyone else, so she would never talk, and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks who tended to get a little bit violent. When I first went into that class, I was very mean to those other kids, because I’d always been popular at school and was very big on sports and didn’t want to be grouped with these kids. I thought of them as freaks. But after a while, I was like McMurphy in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest'—I looked out for them, because I grew to identify with them. They became my friends.

"Then my dad became more successful, and we moved to Lake Forest, a really wealthy suburb," says Vaughn, neither cherishing nor shying away from the memory. "But my record went with me; when I transfered to a new school, they treated me the same way. Up until I was 13, I had to go to a special class once a day. That experience shaped me a lot, it made me an individual, someone capable of thinking for himself."

What the teenager thought for himself was that he wanted to grow up to be an actor, to play a cowboy like Alan Ladd in "Shane," one of the many westerns he’d watched on the tube with his moviestruck dad. Getting hooked on movies may have prevented him from getting hooked on the sort of drugs that sent some of his peers to jail.

"I never got into drugs," says Vaughn, who certainly fools us with his bang-up job of getting high with Joaquin Phoenix in "Return to Paradise." "I did get arrested for being drunk and for fighting and stealing street signs. But I was lucky, because I always knew I loved acting and that’s where my focus was. There was no way I was going to slip into the destructive world of drugs."

By the time he was 18, Vaughn did his father proud by becoming a familiar face—if not quite a cowboy star—on the tube, appearing briefly but memorably in a "Heartbeat of America" commercial for Chevrolet. He then deemed himself ready for Hollywood. Although movie stardom was not instant, Vaughn did earn martini money by doing bits on such TV series as "Doogie Howser," "M.D." and "21 Jump Street" and in such forgettable features as "For the Boys" and "Rudy."

His lifestyle—consisting of auditioning, bar-hopping, skirt-chasing and schmoozing with other wannabe superstars—was remarkably close to that of Trent, the party-boy of the $250,000-budgeted "Swingers," a role for which his buddy, actor-screenwriter Jon Favreau, persuaded him to write his own hip dialogue.

Vaughn also improvised in "Clay Pigeons," most notably in the tense but hilarious barroom flirtation scene with Janeane Garofalo as a hard-drinking FBI agent. In a weird way, his intriguing take on Lester, the aw-shucks serial killer in that film, can be traced back to the days when he watched westerns with his dad.

"Lester is a guy who isn’t necessarily from the west—that’s just an image he’s created of himself. Whatever his reality is—being badly hurt by women or whatever—he’s made it over, taking bits and pieces of things he’s seen in movies. He sees his life as a strange western movie, with himself as the hero. He thinks he’s a sane person in an insane world."

Any sane person would agree that Norman Bates was insane. And won’t there be some who think Gus van Sant and Vince Vaughn (at right, as Norman) are crazy for following in the footsteps of director Alfred Hitchcock and star Anthony Perkins in "Psycho"?

"I have a lot of respect for Mr. Hitchcock," says Vaughn, taking no offense at the question. "I’m a fan. And I think Mr. Perkins rocks—I’m certainly not running a race with him. But I feel all movies are something to be grasped and touched and smelled, not something to be venerated, like religious relics. Obviously, Gus and I are fans of ‘Psycho’; we’re simply trying to say, ‘Hey, this is a great film, and we want to celebrate and explore it.’ If someone 20 years down the line wants to remake ‘Swingers,’ I’ll be flattered."

That should make his dad, who is undoubtedly a fan of "Swingers," prouder than ever.

"My dad was in ‘Swingers,’" Vaughn says, laughing like a kid. "He’s the gambler at the blackjack table—the high roller, with a beautiful lady on either side."

Like father, like son.