Stranger danger: ‘Hick’ villain Dave Vescio’s true crime backstory

Thelma Adams
The Reel Breakdown

Actor Dave Vescio, 42, specializes in bad guys. Just scan his past character names in the 40-plus horror and sci-fi movies he's made: lewd cab driver, Bruce the Killer, creepy pirate. Now, in "Hick," he's been a bad, bad boy again, playing a threatening character known only as "Stranger." In this literary adaptation about a Vegas-bound Nebraska teen starring Chloe Moretz and Blake Lively, Vescio embodies the unknown predator waiting in the shadows for Moretz's reckless runaway.

Vescio, an army brat whose longest stint in one place has been this past six years in Hollywood, spent two-and-a-half years in Leavenworth Federal Prison for drug trafficking from 1993—95. After jail, the army vet and former CBS journalist turned his life around, studying acting with David Mamet at New York's Atlantic Theater Company. Since then, Vescio ("Gemini Rising," "Virus X") has turned a liability into an asset, drawing on his experience behind bars to play villains on screen.

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Thelma Adams: You've said prison was the best thing for your acting career: Why?

Dave Vescio: Because I lived with the worst of the worst criminals on the planet for two and a half years

TA: And this was no Club Fed — it was the maximum security prison at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Rough, huh?

DV: They start you in the hole, and you have to work your way out.

TA: Why is the hole so horrible?

DV: You're stuck in a concrete cell as wide as your arms can spread, with a concrete bed. At 10 p.m., they give you one of those little thin mattresses to put on the bed and blankets and sheets and a pillow. At six a.m., the lights come back up, and they take away all that stuff again. You're left with the concrete cell and two books: the Holy Bible and the prison handbook. And that's how you start off for the first week or two. You're only allowed out of the cell for a physical, dentist, social work, and stress management class because they're warning the prisoners of where the f**k they're going.

TA: Were you scared?

DV: I was scared s**tless. I'd dealt drugs, but I hadn't really done violent crime.

TA: Never?

DV: I'd definitely threatened people with their lives. I've only had one person ever steal from me. I threaten people, and they tend to listen.

TA: That must have been a necessary skill once you emerged from the hole. What next?

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DV: Then you go to maximum security. This was Fort Leavenworth before they tore it down, the old castle with 50-foot walls, and you don't see the outside life at all.

TA: Tell me about maximum security.

DV: You're stuck with the worst of the worst. I've had serial killers. I've had child molesters, rapists, murderers.

TA: How did you cope? Did it help that you'd been in the U.S. Army?

DV: I was in the infantry. I was Eleven Bravo. I'm 150 pounds on a 5-foot 10 frame. I'm a tiny little guy even though I was trained in jungle warfare. It doesn't apply in prison. From day one, I had to f**k with their heads, somehow, some way. I had to scare them. I ran in my cell for an hour. I worked out alone, I stared at them. I gave them their space, at the same time watching the other prisoners' games with each other: People getting jacked up; people jacking up the guards. The U.S. Army taught me physical warfare. The prison system taught me psychological warfare.

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TA: What were those lessons?
DV: How to get inside and find the weak spots, push the buttons, and just push them and push them. The thing about criminals is that we live two lives. We act like we're nice, like we're normal. We collect knowledge, and then if we need to, we'll use it against you. It's blackmailing against themselves, very melodramatic type stuff.

TA: How did you get jailed in the first place?

DV: I was mostly dealing LSD, sometimes cocaine, sometimes steroids. I would buy LSD or cocaine in bulk, and I would pass it out to my runners, I would give them three hours to bring back the money. One was an undercover agent, a woman. And then I remember at the Ala Moana Center in Honolulu on a Sunday, I saw one guy with an earpiece in his ear, then one girl with an earpiece. I disappeared for a year and a half.

TA: How did you get caught?

DV: I was at Virginia Tech. I got drunk in public, got in a fight. I came to sitting on the ground with three or four police cars around me. They took me to the drunk tank at the county jail, and they found out there was a warrant for my arrest, and that's when everything started. But Fort Leavenworth was not county. What's funny is that I'm not afraid of any human now. But I was then. Don't get me wrong.

TA: Are you still in touch with anyone from Leavenworth?

DV: No. I am not. As soon as I got sentenced, my goal was to get the f**k out of the system as fast as I could. I did two and a half on the inside. I could have done one more year on the inside, but I did federal parole for two and a half years. I was drug-tested every single week. It's a drag. They wouldn't let me leave the county. The first two months into it, I thought I should have spent another year in prison. I did my time and wanted to walk away from it for good.

TA: What changed that?

DV: I decided to become an actor, and I had to go back to these memories. Every single project this is what they hire me to be. I have the backstory for it. I would love to play antihero roles, and all different things, but as of now, this is what the world wants me to be, I'll play it for them.

TA: Is it hard to dredge up those memories?
DV: Sure. These child molesters would sit with me and talk normally [about their crimes], often their first signs of love was being raped. They never felt remorse. Whenever I play these guys, I think this is abnormal behavior, and they think it's normal, and still be real to Dave Vescio. Maybe the character wants to stop himself, but he can't.

TA: How do the movies get villains wrong?

DV: The one thing I see in Hollywood is that they're one- or two-dimensional. They're very scary. But drug dealers can live next to you, and you have no idea. They're good at living double lives. I went to a federal prison. These were normal people who decided to do f**ked-up, abnormal s**t. They're intelligent people. The FBI, the CIA are just as smart as the inmates, if not smarter. Every police officer I ever met loved hunting criminals. That's why they do it. There's a prison saying: We all come from the same cloth, the cops and the robbers, we just pick different sides of the war.

TA: Can you give me an example of a specific movie that falls into this trap?

DV: The two criminals in "Silence of the Lambs": Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill…

TA: …Anthony Hopkins and Ted Levine…

DV: Anthony Hopkins entertains you. But every female I've ever asked, they're afraid of the Buffalo Bill guy. I would love to have all my characters be like Buffalo Bill. That's the reality. 'Can you help me put this in my van?' The next thing you know, you're in the van. And he becomes something else. That's how they are. That Buffalo Bill guy should have gotten the Oscar, not Anthony Hopkins.

TA: How did the techniques you learned from the David Mamet school of acting bridge the gap between your real-life experience and your on-screen villainy?

DV: The Mamet idea is that there is no character. You are the character. If you and I are in a scene and my character needs to get bread out of your kitchen, we're on set, I'm trying to get that bread, and get you the human being to get me that bread. If you can turn the imaginary circumstance into your own personal reality, the audience will understand. I want it to feel that you, the viewer, are watching a documentary, that you're seeing life. If I continue to play villains, or antiheroes, these are real-life people, and it's my job to figure out how to do that. Don't put on the funny voices, the funny faces, just bring your life to it.

TA: And you've had quite the life to draw from. In "Hick," out today, there's been some controversy about whether the movie reveals, or exploits, the teen star's adolescent sexuality.

DV: It's about a 13-year-old girl who ran away from Nebraska to Vegas, going from town to town to town. There's a novel by Andrea Portes. I read it before I got on set. My character is where the stuff gets dark, personal, and real. When I was on set with Andrea, she told me this is exactly how it went down. In real life, the character played by Chloe was her. I read an interview the other day where Andrea was asked 'how much of the novel is truth?' and she said 60 percent.

TA: What about your character?

DV: My character is true — what I was getting ready to do to that little girl was based on real life. I know this movie is controversial. It's R-rated, but it should be told. Kids do run away from home. I live in Hollywood. The problem is, if they're not smart enough to compete with adults, they end up dead, hooked on drugs, or as escorts.

TA: So you see "Hick" as a cautionary tale?

DV: Maybe it will prevent some kids from running away from home. Adults want to protect kids. At the same time, why not warn them? My character is a real-life guy trying to find young girls to abuse. I've met people who do these crimes. The more that people understand about this world, maybe this vicious cycle will slow down and end. That's the whole point.

Watch 'Hick' Theatrical Trailer: