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Vin Diesel May Be An Action Hero and a Trailblazer – But He’s so Much More
By Mens Health Staff | Jul 5, 2021
Hatfield, North of London, England, 1997: The rain machines have been running for nearly two days straight.
Tom Hanks, already the winner of two Oscars at this point in his career, is soaked. This particular sequence includes one of the few times he’ll ever say fuck on film – fucking, to be precise. Steven Spielberg is directing the death scene of Private Caparzo, a brash soldier with a heart who just tried to save a little French girl whose house had been bombed to ruins. Spielberg has won one Oscar for directing. He’ll win his second for this film, Saving Private Ryan.
Caparzo is being played by a young actor, barely 30 years old, named Vin Diesel. He used to be Mark Sinclair, but a few years back he renamed himself Vin Diesel. For the movies. And right now Vin Diesel is lying on his back in a puddle of mud and fake blood. He’s cold. Someone has brought a few dry towels to cover him between takes, when the rain stops. He is drinking a cup of hot tea.
Spielberg has assembled a company of new kids for this ensemble – Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, Ed Burns, fresh off his breakthrough film, The Brothers McMullen. But Diesel is a new kid among new kids. Those guys had some credits already. Diesel? He made a 20-minute short film a couple of years ago, starring himself. Spielberg saw it and put the guy in his movie.
It’s a complicated sequence, Caparzo’s death. Spielberg is taking his time, building the tension. Hanks’ character, the captain, grabs the girl from Caparzo and gives her back to her family (“We’re here to follow fucking orders!”), and everyone’s shouting, and Caparzo’s pleading that they should try to help the girl when pop! He’s hit, falls forward onto a piano in the street rubble of a war-torn town, then tumbles to the muddy gravel.
In the next three minutes and 16 seconds of film, there are 40 cuts. We see the intersection from every angle. Dolly shots from the ground looking up at Caparzo’s face, blood and rain splattering the camera. Third assistant director Andrew Ward remembers the use of a snorkel system, a periscope-like tube attached to a remote camera that allows for intense, low-angle shots. We see Caparzo through a Nazi sniper’s rifle sight.
And in several shots, we look down at Caparzo from approximately the level of a second-floor window.
What happened was, when they were blocking the scene, this young kid Diesel, who had all of a short film and a single indie feature under his belt – both written by, directed by, produced by and starring himself – said to Spielberg, “Hey, Steven, where’s your C camera?”
“What? Why?” said the man who had directed Jaws and Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. and The Color Purple and fucking Schindler’s List.
“Put a C camera in that second-floor window,” Diesel says he told him.
Then, the way Diesel tells the story, Spielberg did put a C camera in the window, and the shot was so good it ended up in the movie’s trailer.
That’s the way Vin Diesel tells the story. And he is, it should be known, a storyteller, the product of a childhood spent watching Sidney Lumet and early Scorsese in Manhattan movie houses and hanging around his stage-actor father’s theatre friends. He wanted only to be in the world of movies, but no one was going to hand it to him – not a mixed-race, marble-mouthed kid with receding hair.
If he was going to be a movie star – his goal was nothing less than to “change the face of Hollywood”, he would say many years later – he would have to manufacture a movie star to inhabit.
Not fake. Not phony. Truly talented. But Hollywood. A synthetic creation forged for the Tinseltown machine, with a name like the fastest car you ever saw.
Dominican Republic, May 2021
“Oh God. Oh God! I shouldn’t even be saying that,” he says, cracking up. Diesel is in the D.R., living in a house
he refers to as the “campus”. He’s talking about the Spielberg anecdote.
“But it was a blessing, and I can say that because Steven was also the person who said – he’ll say to this day – ‘I didn’t hire you just as an actor, Vin, I expect you to be directing. I expect you to be directing’. ”
He likes the “Caribbean breeze” that blows across the campus. In the morning, he drinks fresh-squeezed vegetable juice with a ginger shot. He hits the training gym on campus. Then he’ll go kayaking with his kids or take a bike ride. Right now he’s watching his daughter’s horseback-riding lesson.
Diesel grew up far from here, in a building called Westbeth, on the far edge of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Artists’ housing, they called it, for actors and other artists who needed an affordable place to live. “When I was a kid, I used to say, I know as sure as I’m breathing, I am gonna be a movie star,” he says.
Diesel willed himself into becoming a movie star:
Dom, Private Caparzo, Riddick, Xander from xXx – he created all these characters. But his greatest invention of all is Vin Diesel, one of the biggest movie stars of all time.
He hasn’t directed again, but he did become the anchor – star and eventually a producer – of a movie franchise that may be unprecedented in its box-office take, its life span, its budgets and the career it created for its star. The Fast & Furious movies have collectively grossed more than $6 billion, and he’s in almost every frame. This year, F9 – the ninth instalment, shelved for almost a year by the pandemic – gives us Vin Diesel as Dominic Toretto once again.
“There’s a filmmaker instinct in Vin, for sure,” says Justin Lin, the director of five Fast movies. “But he never shows up and says, ‘We should shoot at this angle or that angle. . . .’ By the time we get on set, every beat has been talked through – like, thoroughly. And explored a thousand times. That’s what I love about Vin: as we’re developing, we’re always dramaturgically breaking
down every scene. It’s been two years of that before we even film.”
The collaboration is always in person. Lin and Diesel not only block out fight scenes and race sequences, they’re conjuring the story – what Diesel refers to as the “mythology” of Fast & Furious. Lin visited Diesel on campus in the D.R. just a few weeks ago, the first time they’d seen each other in more than a year – since the start of the pandemic. They spent four days together, riding bikes and sitting outside by the water. In that time, Fast & Furious 10 started to take shape.
“It built the foundation for the next chapter,” Lin says.
London and Tbilisi, Georgia, 2019
There’s a scene in F9 in which Dom is skittering through the streets of London at impossible speeds behind the wheel of a Dodge Charger. He’s trying to outwit a truck carrying what must be the world’s most powerful magnet. (You’ll understand.) Anyway, there’s shooting, and Dom notices that some bystanders are in danger of getting killed by stray bullets, so he thinks fast and drifts the Charger so it can act as a shield.
The whole thing takes a few seconds.
“Emotionally, Vin and I locked that in probably four to six months before shooting,” Lin says. They knew what Dom would be feeling at that moment and how he would react to save the pedestrians. “Every beat we film goes all the way back to when I’m talking to Vin. As he preps, he’s going through every beat with me. A lot of times for these big stunts, we have six, eight, 14 months and hundreds of meetings with departments from all over the world, so usually when we do them, it’s pretty accurate.”
And yet when Lin watched the driving sequence, filmed in Tbilisi by a second directing unit with stunt drivers, he knew it wasn’t quite right. “The driving was so perfect, precise and clinical that I felt it missed Dom’s intentions and emotional moment,” Lin says. “There’s humanity behind the wheel.” He and Diesel talked with the drivers about Dom’s intentions. They tweaked the suspension on the Charger – “to help tell the story of the moment”, as Lin puts it. They went back twice over three days to film a sequence that Lin felt captured Diesel’s performance as Dom in that moment – those nanoseconds when we see on his face what he feels he has to do.
The last step was to get Diesel actually driving in London, cut in the stunt driving, and you’ve got yourself about four seconds of a movie.
“When people are in the middle of the process, trying to manifest something, maybe they don’t spend enough time thinking about how it will be remembered – how it will be regarded,” says Diesel. “But at the same time, you have to identify the significance of it, in order to get the most out of yourself – and the most out of the people that you’re inviting on the journey. So it’s not uncommon that I’ll give a speech on set where I’ll say, ‘We’re making this franchise for people that are no longer with us’, which is very real, and the implications of that are very heavy. ‘But at the same time, we’re making the franchise for the people that aren’t born yet’. When you have a unique perspective of creating a franchise that spans generations, you realise, okay, we all have to be as brilliant as possible. We have to reach as high as we can. Because it may be more important than just a movie. More important than two hours of escapism. There may be something more at play.”
Watch Multi-Facial on YouTube. Watch Find Me Guilty (2006), directed by a legend, Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Wiz, The Verdict), in which Diesel plays a wisecracking mobster defending himself at trial. Hell, watch The Pacifier, a 2005 comedy in which a little girl asks his character if one day her boobs will be as big as his. You’ll remember, or discover, that Diesel is an actor, and a good one. “He is not Dom,” says Jordana Brewster, who plays Dom’s sister, Mia. “Dom speaks and walks in an entirely different way. Vin’s creation of Dom is genius because it’s completely different from who he is.” Diesel had certainly never raced cars. (“When you grow up in the city, you grow up on public transportation,” he says. “Now, I was a daredevil, so I actually was a good driver – which doesn’t seem to make sense, but I rode everything with wheels in the most dangerous city in the world. That started with skateboards in the street at five years old, which led to banana-seat bikes, which led ultimately to motorcycles. Nothing makes you a better driver than having to navigate New York City cabs on an XR750.”)
“There’s a filmmaker instinct in Vin, for sure”
Diesel’s occasional on-set speeches fortify the Fast films by unifying an ever-sprawling cast of characters that Brewster refers to as the family. (“We’re often forced to give speeches, too,” Brewster says, “and my nightmare is public speaking!”) Then there are the dinners. “I think what I once thought was an accident, like, ‘Oh, we’re all just going out for dinner!’ is actually something that he puts a lot of energy into,” she says.
Before filming began on the first movie, Brewster says Diesel invited her to the famous Cuban restaurant Versailles, in Miami, to talk about their characters’ relationship as brother and sister. “I was this really green, super-nervous actress,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Holy shit, okay! This guy’s for real’.”
One previous family member who doesn’t appear in F9 is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who first showed up as Luke Hobbs in Fast Five (2011). It’s a bit of a messy story, with vague tales of discord on the set and Johnson
calling unnamed male costars “candy asses”. In the
end, all parties chalked it up to family squabbles.
“It was a tough character to embody, the Hobbs character,” Diesel says. “My approach at the time was a lot of tough love to assist in getting that performance where it needed to be. As a producer to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to take Dwayne Johnson, who’s associated with wrestling, and we’re going to force this cinematic world, audience members, to regard his character as someone that they don’t know – Hobbs hits you like a tonne of bricks. That’s something that I’m proud of, that aesthetic. That took a lot of work. We had to get there and sometimes, at that time, I could give a lot of tough love. Not Felliniesque, but I would do anything I’d have to do in order to get performances in anything I produce.”
Los Angeles, sometime around 2012
There is, of course, another member of the family who isn’t here. Paul Walker, whose character, Brian O’Conner, became like a brother to Dom Toretto, and whom in life Diesel considered kin, died in a fiery one-car crash in 2013.
Here’s a fun fact not many people know: Diesel and Walker used to play World of Warcraft. Like, a lot – at Diesel’s house, on set, wherever. That’s a PVP (player versus player) game, and they played as a team against strangers out in the world. The workweeks were intense, and this was their secret unwinding on the weekends. And here’s the thing, Diesel says: “No one in the world knew that they were playing Dom and Brian”.
One day, after playing, “we were in this bodega – we walked into this bodega, and people just cannot believe that Dom and Brian are walking into a bodega. We were going to some birthday party or something for someone in the cast, and the – one of the guys said, ‘Brian’. One of the guys called him Brian. And when we left, and we were in the car, he said, ‘That’s my favourite thing. It’s my favourite thing when people call me Brian’. And it always stuck with me. Because he was so adamant about it. To him it was a beautiful compliment. I still think about it to this day, because it just says so much, that there was so much pride in this iconic character he created. It was his creation, his superhero, and that moment represented a simpler life, I guess. And it made me want to protect that even more, because that mountain looming that is Fast 10 – that’s what we promised each other, that we would take this franchise and end it at Fast 10.”
New York, 1995
He’s sitting in a booth at the Frontier diner on 39th Street and Third Avenue shooting the last scene of his first film.
Diesel has been to L A, tried to get an agent, tried to get acting gigs. Nothing – he kept hearing he was too Black, or not Black enough, or too Italian, or not Hispanic enough, or too Hispanic, or whatever. (Diesel’s mother is white; he doesn’t discuss the ethnicity of his biological father, whom he’s never met. His stepfather, who helped raise him, is Black.) So he’s back home, working as a bouncer again –
all the guys are saying, “Hey, I thought you were gonna be a movie star?” But he’s scrounged up $3000 and he’s going to make this movie about an actor who can’t get a part because he’s too everything and too nothing. He’s calling it Multi-Facial. Written by him, starring him, everything by him.
In it he wears mostly a muscle shirt – even in 1995 he has the sculpted upper torso he’s known for. But he doesn’t look much like Dom Toretto. He slings a backpack over one shoulder and pretty much looks like an actor going
About 30 blocks north of the Frontier is Hunter College, the well-regarded public school where Diesel was an English major before dropping out. In 2018 Hunter awarded him an honorary doctorate, and he spoke at commencement. He stood onstage before thousands of graduates filming him on their phones and told them about how he had set out to change the face of Hollywood. Toward the end of his 11-minute speech, he said, “My only little, small advice is: if you don’t see it out there, create it”.
Even as he films Multi-Facial, he’s thinking about his next thing, a downtown saga he’s written called Strays, about a bunch of bros getting high and chasing women – until his character, a small-time drug dealer, meets a woman he calls “pure” and tries to clean up his life.
He finishes filming Multi-Facial. The film sits unedited while he moves on to his epic, Strays. “It sat there for a year,” he says. “I had already written Strays before I did the short film, and I wanted to quickly get to the feature, because that was where I believed any hope of success would be. And I remember my father saying, ‘What about your short film? Is it done?’ And I said, ‘Dad, I’m trying to get my feature made. That’s just a short’. And I’ll never forget it – he said, ‘Finish what you started’. ”
So he does. He attacks the project with voracity. To force himself to follow through, he reserves a screening bay at Anthology Film Archives on Second Avenue in exactly a month. He can’t get out of it now – he’s going to will this thing into existence.
He unseals the film and edits until his eyes hurt. He has to get it sound-mixed and colour-timed, and back then you did that at DuArt, a film lab on West 55th. “I had all this pressure,” he says. “I remember they called me into DuArt to say, ‘We want to show you the timing’. They projected it against a white wall – it was 16mm, obviously. This 20-minute film. And the thing I remember after that is walking down Broadway, above the subway grates, feeling like I was ten feet off the ground. Literally ten feet off the ground. I wasn’t walking. I was floating. I was flyyy-ing! Jumping over subway turnstiles with one leap. There was no gravity.”
And then it played at film festivals, and Steven Spielberg saw it and called him up to tell him about this character called Private Caparzo.
Dominican Republic, May 2021
A few years ago, Diesel took his mother to a screening of Spielberg, the HBO documentary about the director’s life. He remains so proud of Spielberg’s early encouragement. “It was not just flattering, it was so supportive,” Diesel says. “And when we saw him at the screening event, he said, ‘Vinny, Vinny! When I hired you, Vin, I hired you not only because of your acting but because I believed in what you would do as a director’. ”
So whatever happened to that Vin Diesel? The one Spielberg saw, the one with Lumet and Scorsese dreams? He hasn’t directed a film since Strays, which was then part of his DIY Hollywood strategy. He’s 53 years old now, as powerful as any actor or producer in Hollywood. But never an attempt to make a film of his own. What’s up with that?
He laughs, and is then serious.
“My reality is, I wake up and go, ‘I haven’t done the Hannibal trilogy’, ” he says. He first started talking about this 18 years ago: his desire to make a trilogy about Hannibal Barca, the Carthaginian general, one of the greatest wartime generals in history, the man who in 218 BC led a troop of elephants over the Alps to invade Italy. “I promised myself I would try to make the Hannibal trilogy. Part of creating mythology in Riddick and creating worlds like Fast, in some bizarre way, was preparation for the ultimate task.” He’ll do it, he says. But first, there is Fast 10. “On some level, there is that voice that says, ‘My God, you’ve done it, you’ve created this mythology out of scratch’. But the Fast finale weighs on me. Right now Fast 10 is Everest.”
“I remember my father saying . . . ‘finish what you started’”
Hatfield, England, 1997
The crew on Saving Private Ryan has built a wartime town in the Hatfield Aerodrome, an abandoned airfield. A British company has constructed a bridge that the men will defend for the last half hour of the film. Huge volumes of water are pumped under the bridge – a fake river.
Caparzo? He died about an hour ago, in movie time. But Diesel is here on set, and Spielberg makes an unusual gesture: he hands him a camera and asks him to film. “He threw him a bone,” says Andrew Ward, the third AD.
Diesel sits, in civilian clothes, wedging his mushroom body into a dirty bunker in a movie-set town, holding a camera that Steven Spielberg gave him to help film the climax of his big movie. He’s a multicultural kid playing an Italian. Back home he’s got a production company with a single film to its credit, Strays. The name of that production company is One Race. Twenty-five years from now, audiences starved of moviegoing by an enduring global pandemic will make their way back into theatres to see a film – also produced by One Race – that might just help save the movie-theatre business. It will be like no other movie before it, the ninth instalment of an unlikely action franchise that forged a star of the man who forged the franchise.
Says Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, whom Diesel’s kids call Uncle Chris: “Especially starting with Fast 5, the first one where you first got to see the dynamic of all those different ethnicities together, if you look back and you see the trend of power box-office movies, they all tried to diversify and use inclusion more in their casting – because of Fast 5. I don’t think you saw it being done on a scale that huge. A precedent was set.” Indeed, it will star people of different races playing a family unlike any other in Hollywood back when Vin Diesel was too multicultural to get an agent.
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