Just over a decade ago, Vin Diesel shot from near-obscurity to earning a $10 million payday in what seemed like record time, racing from an ensemble role in “Saving Private Ryan” to headlining “XXX” in nearly four years. But those who think of Diesel as an overnight action star don’t know the half of it.
“Vin is one of the most wildly misunderstood actor-producers out there,” says Universal co-chairman Donna Langley, whose connection with Diesel predates even 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious,” tracing back to “Boiler Room” at New Line.
While Diesel’s fans are familiar with his muscular physique and the trademark thunder-roll of his voice, what they don’t necessarily realize is just how much work Diesel puts into developing the movies they see as pure popcorn fun — or how hard he struggled to get to this point.
Before he became a star, Diesel broke through as an independent filmmaker, writing and directing work that was invited to screen at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. And before he retires, Diesel will likely step behind the camera again, maybe even to direct his long-brewing passion project, “Hannibal.”
Diesel grew up in Gotham’s Westbeth Artists Housing and started acting at age 7, but opportunities stalled as he got older. Ironically, the qualities that make him such a distinctive star today — including an ambiguous ethnic background that makes it possible for audiences of various races to identify him as one of their own — confounded casting directors determined to pigeon-hole him into existing parts.
In 1990, Diesel came out to Los Angeles for the first time. “I thought, ‘I’m probably going to be the first multicultural movie star,’ ” recalls Diesel, who booked a small part in the movie “Awakenings,” but otherwise met mostly with rejection. He moved back home after a year and a half, working as a bouncer to help chip away at the $10,000 debt his Hollywood fling had cost.
“I had already acted for 20 years in New York City, going on auditions, licking stamps and sending out Manila envelopes with headshots and cover letters, thousands of them, and I got to a place of frustration because I was waiting for someone to grant me access to a place where I could be artistic,” he says.
This time, instead of giving up, Diesel channeled his anger into a short film, “Multi-Facial,” about a mixed-race actor talented enough to play the stereotypes who still can’t find work because he doesn’t look the part: “not too light, not too dark.” Diesel wrote, directed and starred in the semi-autobiographical 20-minute short, which doubled as the perfect audition reel for his diverse range.
“Multi-Facial” was invited to Cannes, and though that screening didn’t lead to direct opportunities, it motivated Diesel to move forward with the feature-length script he had already written, “Strays,” which premiered at Sundance in 1997.
“I remember Robert Redford stopping me on the street and saying he really liked my movie, which was a really great sign that I was somewhere on the right track,” says Diesel, who was able to concentrate on acting after Steven Spielberg cast him in “Saving Private Ryan.” (Diesel didn’t even have SAG insurance when he made that film, he remembers.)
David Twohy directed Diesel in “Pitch Black,” editing the movie to give the actor more screen time when he saw how strongly preview audiences were responding to his Richard B. Riddick character.
“Even then Vin had this unshakeable belief in his future as a star in this business — so much so that he could make others believe it, too, with precious few credits to back it up,” Twohy says. “He just has this uncanny knack of willing things into being, and as a result I’ve learned it’s only fools who bet against him.”
Diesel’s emphasis on story didn’t go away when he became famous either. Rather, it is Diesel’s behind-the-scenes attention to the bones of a project — not his onscreen muscles — that represent the integrity behind the “Riddick” and “The Fast and the Furious” franchises. Diesel is an active producer on both, dedicating long hours to make sure the films deliver what audiences expect.
He’s not bragging when he says, “I turned down more money than I had ever even heard of to do ‘2 Fast 2 Furious,’ and instead of taking millions of dollars, I took $50,000 to do a WGA polish on ‘Chronicles of Riddick.’ ” For Diesel, getting the story right is the first priority, and neither he nor director Rob Cohen wanted to be part of a pro-forma sequel.
After the third “Fast” film, the studio came around to Diesel’s way of seeing, allowing the producer-star to shape where the franchise might go. Per U’s Langley, “He’s always seen the ‘Fast’ franchise as a family saga,” and Diesel’s character-first approach has led the way since.
“You have to look at the ‘Fast’ movies as two trilogies,” explains Diesel, who talked the studio into letting him direct a short film, “Los Bandaleros,” down in the Dominican Republic. According to Diesel, “It essentially was the reset button for the second trilogy,” serving as the first act of the fourth film.
The next three chapters, which take place before “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” were conceived together (Diesel even urged Universal to shoot them at the same time), and consciously reference details from earlier installments.
“After all that great stuff, you see a photograph of (Michelle Rodriguez’s character) Letty at the end, and the audience goes bonkers, because they have equity from a decade,” he says.
In the case of “Riddick,” the new film exists because Diesel was willing to approach it as he had his very first filmmaking endeavors — as a massive independent film for which he had to raise the money himself, flying to Berlin with Twohy (who wrote the script on spec) and courting investors directly.
“There were times where if that film didn’t go through, everything I had would have been leveraged,” Diesel says.
At one point, the production was called to a halt in Montreal when Diesel’s One Race shingle couldn’t pay the bills.
“It puts me in a position not unlike where I started in the first place, which is the ability to will a film into existence, whether it’s a $3,000 short from a guy who’s lucky to make $100 a night bouncing or ‘Strays,’ where I telemarketed for a year and a half to save $40,000,” Diesel says.
With “Riddick,” he notes, “It wasn’t the studio saying, ‘Let’s make it.’ ”
If anything, Universal had lost faith in that franchise after “The Chronicles of Riddick” bombed. But one of the things that impresses Langley and chairman Adam Fogelson about Diesel is the way he engages directly with his fans online.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen somebody who is more honestly, organically committed to connecting with their audience,” Fogelson says. “I think people who aren’t part of his social community are shocked that none of it is farmed out, that he does that all himself.”
For Diesel, the communication flows both ways. “If the fans didn’t have the opportunity to express how they feel about the franchise, it wouldn’t have gotten made,” says Diesel, who has more than 45 million fans on Facebook. “One of them said, ‘Hey Vin, I’m sure 50% of us would automatically pay for a ticket in advance. Surely you would have enough money then.’ And this was before Kickstarter!”
That audience feedback, coupled with Diesel’s determination, convinced U to partner on “Riddick.” Meanwhile, Diesel had identified what had gone wrong with “Chronicles” (which, he accurately insists, is “one of the most ripped-off movies” by the current wave of CG tentpoles), ditching the space-opera theatrics in favor of a purer genre movie designed to appease fans of “Pitch Black” and the two hit Riddick videogames produced by Diesel’s own Tigon Studios.
Diesel has three films lined up in pre-production now — “Kojak,” “The Last Witch Hunter” and “The Machine” — plus a seventh “Fast” movie, but he refuses to rush any of them.
Meanwhile, he’s positively giddy about the progress on “Hannibal,” the kick-off film in his epic Punic Wars saga, which he calls “the first history-of-the-universe trilogy.” Though fans have heard about the project for years, Diesel has been taking his time, reaching out to contacts such as Frank Miller and Spielberg (still in touch, post-“Ryan”) for their creative counsel.
“It’s about waiting until you get it all on the table and everything is right,” says Diesel, who identifies with the impulse that drove Mel Gibson to direct “Braveheart” himself. “I don’t have to make a movie. I do it out of love. That’s why I took that road of financing my opportunities to be artistic.”