Hubert Burda Media

HEART OF STEEL

JOE YOGERST meets actor VIN DIESEL, and discovers how a former bouncer and break-dancer became a world-class action star.

HEART OF STEEL

VIN DIESEL is just finishing a photo shoot in a gritty factory building near downtown Los Angeles. All around are rusty old machines and bare brick walls, and just across the street is a garage that repairs those big hulking Mack trucks that pull 18-wheelers. This is most definitely the wrong side of the tracks. But then so is the man I’m about to interview. Or at least that’s the image that Diesel has come to portray on film – the uncompromising tough guy who’ll use just about any means to get what he wants or needs.
The irony – and anyone close to Diesel already knows this – is that he doesn’t come across that way at all in person. Determined, for sure, and that’s probably his main character trait. And, given his muscular physique and baritone voice, not the sort of dude you want to mess with. But uncompromising, die-hard, to-the-core tough? No way. During the course of our conversation, a different Diesel starts to emerge – the family man, the globetrotting raconteur, the eclectic artist. A man so at odds with his onscreen image that you recognise he really is acting in all those action-packed films in which he stars. Or perhaps acting now in this interview? Either way, Diesel unfolds as a much more complex person than first meets the eye (candy).
The “Diesel” is a tag that derives from his days as a Manhattan nightclub bouncer. The “Vin” comes from his real-life name – Mark Vincent. Born in New York City in 1967, he was raised in the notorious “projects”. But this was public housing with a difference, an experimental neighbourhood for lowincome artists of every ilk. Diesel’s stepfather was an acting teacher, theatre manager and stage director. All around were other creative people – writers, painters, poets and actors. Perhaps it was inevitable that young Diesel would drift towards the arts. But he also had to contend with growing up on the mean streets of Manhattan in the drugaddled, crime-ridden ’70s. Especially hard for someone with mixed roots – black, Italian and six other ethnic groups.
For more than a decade Diesel laboured in the trenches of the Big Apple, acting – mostly off-Broadway stage stuff – and making a living from busking and bouncing. Along the way he wrote, directed and starred in two low-budget films: the autobiographical Multi-Facial (1995), which earned a screening at the Cannes Film Festival; and a poignant indie movie called Strays (1997), about a down-andout New York drug dealer.
He famously got his big break in 1998 when Steven Spielberg cast him in a small but memorable role in Saving Private Ryan (1998). Diesel parlayed that into a starring role as archcriminal Richard B Riddick in the creepy sci-fi thriller Pitch Black (2000). A year later he became a strong-arm superstar playing Dominic Toretto in The Fast and the Furious (2001). The third jewel in his action-packed triple crown was xXx (2002) and its stunt-man-turned-spy Xander Cage. Not even Diesel could have dreamed that all three flicks would evolve into blockbuster franchises.
Fast & Furious 6 was released this spring, the last of a highly successful second trilogy that was also produced by Diesel. The third Riddick film will be out this autumn and the third Xander Cage movie is scheduled for a 2015 release. All are expected to earn big bucks and draw the sort of critical acclaim that normally bypasses muscle-bound movies. That’s become a trademark of Vin Diesel the producer – pushing the edge of the action envelope with complex characters and intricate plots that weave incredible stunts and deep personal angst. Things are running smoothly on the personal side, too. Diesel is the father of two small children and has a longrunning relationship with girlfriend Paloma Jimenez, a Mexican fashion model. Meanwhile, he’s started giving back to the mean streets from whence he came. He has donated an estimated US$2 million to various charities since hitting the big time, and his own One Race Global Film Foundation is dedicated to fostering the growth of diverse national and international voices in the global entertainment industry.
Some people are satisfied doing one thing but you seem to be driven to be really good at a number of things.
I think there’s some truth that I would like to be really good at everything. But the irony is, all I do is film and my dreams and goals and ambitions are all around trying to master this art of filmmaking. When I started, I was lucky enough to do off-Broadway plays. But I didn’t get to cameras yet. I didn’t start working with cameras until about 20 years after I’d been acting in New York City. I actually started directing as a shortcut to get in front of the camera, as I clearly was not getting the [movie] roles. I’d licked enough stamps and sent out enough headshots over two decades that I had to come up with a new plan. I almost told my agent, “Don’t worry about the acting, I’m just going to keep writing and directing.” The ability to tell stories and the ability to be a raconteur has always been very, very attractive to me.
Over the years you’ve become pretty good at all the major elements of filmmaking – acting, writing, directing and producing. Which is the one closest to your heart?
I’m a writer. But I guess don’t exercise my writing ability in the traditional way. It’s miraculous how much a writing interest or experience in the writing world helps you as an actor with this sea of unfinished scripts that we’re supposed to turn into movies. And that writing ability has been one of the most valuable things in my career because invariably every line I’ve ever said has been modified.
The producing allows me to be a little more accountable for the overall production, the overall picture, which could include getting cast, which could include lobbying the studio to make sure that the film is being released with as much enthusiasm as we need. It could be choosing writers, directors.
The director part I love. It is a very tough job to direct, and it takes three times the amount of time to fulfil your requirements as a director, which is sometimes hard for the industry if they’re trying to slot me into movies. So I love the director, I think it’s the most challenging. I love, love, love it. So the directing is super alluring for me and probably the sweet spot that I will fall back into.
Acting is therapy. It’s the most therapeutic out of all of them. For a guy who grew up in search of an identity, when I play a role the frame of that character is very solid. The parameters of that character are very clear and the character is on paper and there is something very therapeutic about committing to that person and not the world of mystery that I am.
What’s your earliest memory of getting up in front of an audience and acting?
I grew up in artist housing, in a place called Westbeth in New York City, which was the first government-subsidised artist housing that kind of led that artistic movement which later became SoHo and the Village. There was a Christmas type of play that the kids were doing for all the grown-ups, and my brother was supposed to be the prince. Halfway through the production he choked and didn’t want to go out and be the prince. So I went out and did the prince. It was very weird as I had a huge Afro.
So you were kind of a New York version of Billy Elliot – you’re living on the mean streets and you have to be tough to survive, but you have this totally artistic side.
Yeah, totally! Totally! Very artistic. A very present and celebrated artistic side. I remember singing old Broadway tunes to my grandmother who just loved Clark Gable movies and musicals. I remember performing for everyone. I was the class clown in grade school. But I loved to dance. I was a break-dancer, real New York City break-dancer. While Flashdance was going I would go to Columbus Circle, the centre platform at the Times Square subway station, outside the Village gate, 8th Street and Avenue of the Americas and the famous Washington Square Park. You had to practise because some other crew could come and clown you and take your crowd. So you would be working and in some ways that was my first job, to be a street performer.
But at the same time you learned how to handle yourself.
Growing up in the city, you have to make a decision about whether you’re going to be predator or prey. At a very young age I thought that when I got older I was going to be on the tougher side. I did learn how to handle myself. I started boxing at Gleason’s Gym when I was 15 years old, when it was still on 30th Street. You had Roberto Duran fighting in there, you had Sugar Ray, you had all the great fighters there.
Is that what got you into bouncing?
[Laughs] I first went to Studio 54 when I was 15 and there were so many beautiful women I lost my mind. I could not believe all of these beautiful women. And I was already dancing on the street. Literally on the dirty street. On the dirty train platform. So dancing in a nightclub was just like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” And nobody knows.
I’m going to give you a really good one. When I was 16 years old I went to a club called Danceteria where Madonna was discovered, where all these people were discovered back in ’83-ish. The first time I went in there, I went in with the Beastie Boys because they’d grown up in my neighbourhood and I’d known them and I was going in as their dancer. So while they were performing I would be dancing on stage. So that’s how I got addicted to the club world at about 16 years old. I went out every single night to dance to the point that my money was wet [with sweat] when I came home because I was dancing so much. And then I saw how much money these bouncers were making. So at 17, I became a bouncer. That was the transition.
But you still held onto your acting dreams?
Yes, I kept at it. You know who taught me that, by the way? I was doing extra work in New York City in the ’80s and I met Harrison Ford. I said, “Can I just ask you a question?” And he said, “Sure.” We sat down on two apple boxes and I said, “I don’t know anybody who’s a movie star. I’m going to do it, I know I’m going to be a movie star, but is there anything you can tell me? Any secrets you can give me?” And he said, “I can tell you this. Thirteen years ago, I and 15 buddies went out to California to be actors. Two years went by, two people went back home. Three years went by, two more people went back home. Five years went by, the rest of them went home. I just never went home.” The message was clear – persistence.
And much like Harrison Ford, you’ve made a career playing tough guys in huge action adventure franchises. I’ve gotta ask – Dominic Toretto or Richard Riddick? Which character is most like the real you?
That’s a good damn question. Between Riddick and Dom I would have to say Dom. I realised something after watching the latest Riddick that might sound a little weird. And maybe it’s because I have kids now. But it’s uncomfortable for me to watch me as Riddick. He’s so dark that I feel almost apologetic for going to that dark place. I feel embarrassed that I can have that darkness in me to portray that role. And I love the franchise and I love the character. There’s something very therapeutic about that character. Probably the most therapeutic of those three is the Riddick character because he’s so clearly dealing with origin issues and identity issues. It’s a little bit of an out-of-body experience when I watch any character, quite frankly. But the Riddick character…the Dom character gets to celebrate family, which is something I can identify with. These are admirable things. He’s got a code. And he drinks beer!
How does Fast & Furious 6 evolve the franchise?
I think Fast 6 is going to make history for a few reasons. Never has a character been resurrected by the audience. The Letty character [Michelle Rodriguez] has been resurrected by the audience. We’ve never seen that in this town. A studio saying, “No, we’re done! We’re gonna kill that character.” And the audience saying “No you’re not!”
I always knew she wasn’t dead. If you look at Fast 4 you’ll see the way we shot where there is no verification of her death. But audience reaction on social media is how I first got the confidence to manifest it, to make sure that it was going to happen.
How much do you get involved physically in the Fast movies?
To the point where there are days I come home, drop to my knees, kiss my kids and can’t believe I made it home.
You have two big releases coming up, which means two big publicity tours. So when do you start acting again?
It depends. If they get Kojak done fast enough and if Ang Lee is ready to direct Kojak in New York, then we get to start a movie. There are a couple of smaller things that would be interesting. I got a script about a guy named Gary Gygax who is like the grandfather of MMOs – massively multiplayer online games – who created Dungeons & Dragons.
One of the newest things in your life – that you are no doubt trying to excel at – is family and fatherhood.
Totally. And ain’t that a beast. I don’t think there’s a parent on the planet that doesn’t wake up and think, “How can I be a better parent?” It’s tricky now for a lot of reasons. The most glaring thing is the Internet. The Internet changed the game forever – the way movies are made, the way presidents are elected and the way we raise our children. Our ancestors were so lucky to be right because they were the parents. And now, no parent can be more right than a computer or Wikipedia. There’s so much access for kids.
Do you have enough time for family?
It’s a constant struggle. The type of work that we do…to really, really do it well, it’s not too easy to turn it off. How do you explain to your kids that you have to write tomorrow’s pages or you have to write anything? For writers in general, it’s hard to explain to your wife, your friends, your family. Because so often as a writer you can be sitting with nothing in your hands, it can look like you’re doing nothing but you’re writing in your head. Someone can feel like you’re neglecting them or you’re somewhere else. With my kids, it’s all or nothing. They won’t let me do a thing. It’s “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” As it should be. And I’m grateful for it.
Are you a slacker on anything?
[Laughs] Oh my God, yes. I’m bad at communications. I’m bad at keeping in touch with people. My mind goes so deep into the thing I’m working on that I have tunnelvision issues. But that’s the nature of film, you can’t stop thinking about it.
But the things that you care about – you have this remarkable drive.
Yes, I do. I have a twin brother and that kind of helps. We both came out of the womb competitive. It was either sink or swim. When you come out of the womb and all you’re looking at is your mother and you have a twin brother and there’s no father there, it’s fight or flight. You’re ready to kill everybody. You will win! If only for the survival of your bloodline.
I want to do more. I’m still hell bent on trying to master film. I’m so vested in that, that I don’t think I can ever really give anything else a fair shot. I played with being a boxer when I was younger. I played with music when I was younger. I tried to do things, but never to the point of getting in the way of this. I wanted to realise great film. I didn’t need immediate gratification at the end of it. I wanted the opportunity to tweak, tweak, tweak, you know, to embellish in the way that film allows you. There is something sacred about movies to me. I grew up on movies and I never watched TV. I would rather watch a movie a hundred times than watch TV. Like yeah, I want to be the best that I can be in this field and not just as an actor, not just as any label. Just as somebody that shepherds remarkable film.

PHOTOGRAPHY / PHILIPPE MCCLELLAND
CREATIVE DIRECTION AND STYLING / PARIS LIBBY
STYLING / SHAB MOHAMMAD
GROOMING / ROXY D’ALONZO
PROPS AND FURNITURE DESIGN / WESTIN MITCHELL DESIGN GROUP, LOS ANGELES
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS / NOAH SCHUTZ AND RICKY TOMPKINS
LOCATION / WESTIN MITCHELL DESIGN GROUP, LOS ANGELES
SHEENA THE LEOPARD / HOLLYWOOD ANIMALS / ERIC WELD