When Vin Diesel stands before you, it feels as though the shadow of Mount Olympus has just clobbered you into darkness. The 47-year-old actor and self-described “anti-hero” cuts an imposing figure, to be sure. He looks as though he could tear you from limb to limb without breaking a sweat, and he talks even tougher, full as he is of stories of train jumping and skyscraper-tumbling as a young punk growing up in The Big Apple.
On the silver screen, the gifted behemoth has deployed that brawn in the dispatch of aliens, Russian terrorists, black ops assassins, and adrenalized, misbehaved children. (That latter film is 2005’s The Pacifier, if you’d forgotten). But it’s the unexpected tenderness that very occasionally eclipses the brawler in Diesel, especially as ex-con and elite street racer Dominic Toretto in the global box office sensation that is The Fast and The Furious franchise. Furious 7, the seventh installment in the 14-year old pop culture phenomenon, has already grossed $1.5-billion around the world, which has Diesel in particularly good spirits these days.
You’ve described playing the anti-hero as being your bread and butter. Even when the men you’re playing commit nefarious acts, there’s a real heart to your performances.
Yeah, they’re multi-dimensional characters, multi-layered. I find myself being drawn to anti-heroes, and now what I’m finding is that I’m being drawn to different variations of anti-heroes. The antihero in the Fast and the Furious movies, unlike others I’ve played, originally had no character arc, per se. The understanding that my character has at the end of that first film is present in the beginning of that film. What’s interesting about the character is that it’s for the audience to catch up to speed. My character has all of the character insight and conflict from the beginning. He doesn’t change, and that’s fascinating to me. Well, maybe he’s changed a little since the first one.
When other muscle-bound actors like Stallone and Schwarzenegger made their film debuts in the 1970s, they played the kinds of flawed characters you’ve talked about. But as their careers progressed, they played increasingly superheroic characters. Do you see that being a problem for you?
For a long time, I heard a lot of people say that I’m going to be the next action hero. Well, that’s incredibly flattering, but honestly I don’t approach an action film any different than I would something like Saving Private Ryan. If I’m ever going to be the next action hero, don’t think for a moment I’m going to disregard the acting and think that the action can take over for the acting. The acting is what I need to do. Hopefully, people see that in the work. Hopefully, you’re being entertained by the character I’m playing. We don’t learn anything from the whitewashed heroes. We learn from the imperfect. You learn more from guys like Robert De Niro in Raging Bull than you do from James Bond.
Almost 20 years ago, you made your big screen debut with "Saving Private Ryan." You came from out of nowhere. How have things changed for you?
The pressures have definitely increased through the years. Early in your career, you have to make whatever script you get work. What Pitch Black was in the theater wasn’t in the script. You have to take a script and work your ass off to bring it to life. That’s your only option when you’re starting out. As you move along in your career, you have to be a lot more cautious. Tom Hanks said to me that the most important thing to learn how to do in Hollywood is to say “No.” I didn’t know what he meant, but I think I understand that a little bit now. Everyone will see you as an opportunity to get their film made, and you’ve got to weed through all of that. You have to be cautious.
What was the strangest part of being suddenly famous?
I remember – this was a lot of years ago – and I was watching the NBA finals. I was really into the game. I’m a big fan. I’m a spectator. All of a sudden a trailer came on TV for my movie, and I came into the clip, and I was sitting there in my living room going, “Who the hell is that guy? Put a shirt on.”
The durability of the "Furious" franchise is somewhat stunning. Somehow, these films continue to get not only bigger, but in a lot of ways, better. What do you make of that?
It’s about increasing the emotional stakes. That’s what sets this saga apart from any other movie series. All the events of the previous Fast movies, they’re tied into the new one. There’s a mythology we’ve built with these films. Everything comes together in this movie. Questions are answered. New thoughts are proposed. Characters, their identities are unraveled even further and the themes that have been initiated in the previous movies, they all come full circle here.
You said that you enjoyed how your "Furious" character didn’t change much in the first film. Almost 15 years later, what are your thoughts about Dominic?
I've grown up in this franchise, you know. I've grown up in this saga. I've become a man in this saga. I was young when I started it and now I'm a family man. When the first one came out, I just had to deal with the responsibility of portraying the character, and now I have greater responsibilities in protecting a mythology for a global audience. So I've become more precious about things, more precious about my relationships with people, more protective of them. I want to do significant work. I don't need to just work. If I'm going to do it, I go 110,000% in. I do with it my heart and I do it with my soul.
In your opinion, what separates "Furious 7" from the previous installments?
There’s a certain emotional maturity throughout the picture. There’s time for the relationships in this one, like the Dom and Letty relationship. The past is uncovered. I think there are more metaphors in this Fast and Furious than any of the other Fast and Furious movies. It feels mature to me, in a certain way. I think it's a full experience. It's so rare to have a complete, full experience when you see movies nowadays. That's one of the coolest things about the film. Nothing's left on the table. You get it all. You get everything and you get it with guys that you've known for years, like they’re friends. It’s so cool.
The scope of this film is just enormous. Tell me about that.
It's a harrowing experience, in some ways, because you’re thinking to yourself, "How in the world am I going to top the last movie?" You always think that, and then you always figure out a way. It always happens! Luckily, we had a team on this movie that was so well oiled that we were able to reach for something pretty crazy. There was a theme we were playing with, this idea of flying cars. There's actually a scene that never got shot where Jack is throwing his cars at the wall and Brian says, "Hey, man! Car's don't fly!" Which was going to dovetail and set up all of the flying cars in this movie. It's a testament to a great team. It's a testament to a great studio, a studio that's been so supportive and willing to backup these insane ideas. These things don’t happen by accident.
In films, you’ve played quite a few reckless, endearing adventurers, men whose inner workings are not quite known, who can be dangerous, yet are also fiercely loyal. What’s the appeal for you in playing those characters?
First of all, I worked as a bouncer in New York City for a lot of years, and that is an adventure unto itself. You’re a soldier in a war. I mean I used to do things. I used to do road trips without any money and kind of beg my way into a vacation. I was a huge adventurer. We’d go into a Kentucky Fried Chicken and schmooze our way into a free $1.99 chicken and biscuits. One time we made it all the way from Washington DC to Florida to Atlanta, and somehow ended up in Cancun. So yeah, I know who these guys are in a lot of ways.
But you’ve mellowed at the ripe old age of 47?
I do find myself less adventurous now, in some ways. I find myself looking for quiet, for serenity. Serenity has all of a sudden become more important to me. But I can still get into trouble. I went to Cuba about 10 years ago. My character in the Fast movies is of Cuban descent, and – maybe I’m old-fashioned as an actor – I just had to go to Cuba. Completely different place. Completely magical. I went there and I realized I didn’t have any cash. I didn’t think I’d need it, because I can go anywhere in the world and use my credit cards. Couldn’t use my credit cards in Cuba. Nothing. So stupid. I had this big bill that I had run up at my hotel, and it’s not like you can just leave without paying. You can’t get money wired into the country. You can’t get any money anywhere. Nobody’s going to waive your charges. It’s amazing that as an American you can go to another country and feel powerless. You feel like being an American citizen hurts you. It’s a handicap, or something. So, we ran up this bill at the hotel. No one knows who I am in Cuba because they didn’t really have movies back then, no cable tv or anything. We went to this one sort of Buena Vista Social Club-style bar at night. We know we have this pending bill. A couple – one gentleman from Tel Aviv, who was selling arms or was into peyote distribution or something, and this lady who was like a Saudi Arabian princess – comes in, and they’re kind of hiding out from the law in Cuba, and this guy had a satellite dish. The only guy in Cuba with satellite. And he just flipped out, because he had seen my movie Pitch Black the night before. Anyway, I guess the lady had some way to get money out of the country – something to do with her connections or being a princess – and she gave us the money to pay our way out of Cuba. She came to our rescue.
I’m telling you, man, I’m crazy. I’m a New Yorker. I can’t even tell you some of the stupid shit I did as a kid. The most ridiculous stuff. You wanna know the stuff we used to do? We’d ride in between the trains, and we’d put our hands on one car, while the train was moving, our feet on another car, and shimmy up to the top of the train and then come back down. We’d scale the damn trains. Our hearts would beat, man. Asinine. In fact, just the thought of it causes me stress.
You seem like the kind of guy who acted like a star before he became a star.
Now that’s smart! (Laughs) You’re catching on.
How has actually becoming a star changed your life?
Well, that’s exactly it. People ask my sister, “What’s it like having your brother become a star?” And she’d say, “He was always a star.” I was an extrovert, the guy who was loud. The second I started getting unwarranted attention – attention without working for it – it changed me, and I started to become introverted. Now, you’ll find me staying at home. I try to walk into a room undetected. I’m self-conscious about everything now. Everyone thinks movie stars are conceited. I used to be conceited. Now I’m not even conceited anymore. I’m covert.