Sunday 20 October 2019

The slow and the sensitive

He made his name in big-budget action films, but don't make the mistake of thinking that Vin Diesel is just a meathead, writes Will Lawrence

Vin Diesel with Paul Walker in Fast & Furious 6
Vin Diesel with Paul Walker in Fast & Furious 6

Will Lawrence

Considering that he is known for his massive muscles and hulking action films, it may come as a surprise to learn that the heroically named Vin Diesel is something of a softie at heart.

The 45-year-old star with the trademark bald pate has earned millions of box office dollars courtesy of adrenaline-pumpers like Pitch Black, xXx, The Chronicles of Riddick and his contributions to The Fast and the Furious franchise.

The arrival of his daughter, Hania, in 2008, however, changed everything.

"I always used to be a very independent-minded person," recalls Diesel when we meet on the set of his latest film, Fast & Furious 6.

"I always considered myself something of a stoic. I never needed anyone else," he adds. "But when my daughter came along, I became addicted to her."

The addiction is palpable. Diesel is now the main man on the Fast & Furious films (though Paul Walker is the longest serving) and his trailer park at Longcross Studios in Surrey, England, resembles a small fortress. Whenever Diesel emerges, however, his daughter is invariably in tow.

"I had her during filming of the fourth film, close to the end of the shoot, but I kept the news quite quiet at the time because I didn't want it to affect everything," he adds.

"Then I wanted to be home every second of the day to see her all the time. Becoming a father does change your approach towards your work, the projects and what stunts you might do, because you are definitely not thinking only about yourself all the time.

"I have to take into consideration every little thing I do," he continues. "A child alters your perspective on everything that you do in life."

When we meet, Diesel (born Mark Sinclair Vincent, in case you were wondering) is approaching the end of production on Fast & Furious 6 and his girlfriend and Hania's mum, the model Paloma Jimenez, remains a high profile visitor on set.

Their attendance is fitting: the importance of family is a theme that runs strongly through the Fast & Furious films, standing as one of the key reasons for the franchise's global success.

"When people think of Fast & Furious, they think of very fast cars but also the people in the movies," says Diesel, who plays a prominent role in the first, fourth, fifth and sixth films, starring as iconic driver Dom Toretto.

"And what is very consistent throughout the series has been the theme of family, though we've been exploring that in a very unconventional manner."

Toretto and his family of misfit on-screen buddies are a bunch of criminals, "but by making multiple entries into the franchise," Diesel notes, "we've been able to grow and evolve these characters.

"They have grown and evolved over 10 years and the films have grown with them."

The movies remain popcorn action flicks, however, and are unabashed in their use of genre staples. Each film – especially 4, 5 and 6, which are all directed by Justin Lin – seeks to outdo its predecessor in terms of high-stakes, vehicular-based spectacle.

"Over the years, I learned something about being precious about scripts," says Diesel. "One of the things I learned from this franchise was that people just wanted to see Dom.

"With a franchise like Fast & Furious, you don't always have the luxury of having the award-winning script, which means that you have to do more work along the way – but so be it because the audience for these characters feels a sense of entitlement.

"They own Dom more than I do in a weird way, so I guess I've learned to be less precious about it all."

In building the success of the Fast & Furious films, which have earned over $1.5bn worldwide, Diesel and the producers have listened to their fanbase. The introduction of Dwayne Johnson in the last film and his return in the sixth was prompted by fan interaction on Facebook.

These characters, Diesel says, belong to the fans. "Really, with a character that's already been adopted by the public, I have to be a little bit more careful."

Diesel's hunt for artistic satisfaction is wrapped up in projects where he can afford to be a little less careful – as with his bid to bring a live action film of the Carthaginian hero Hannibal to the big screen and also his desire to release a third film centred on the character of Riddick, who rose to notoriety in 2000's Pitch Black.

The actor and producer oversaw a critical and box office flop with the follow up to Pitch Black, 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick, but such is his star power and conviction he's finally completed the third instalment.

"I remember talking about making the sequel to The Chronicles of Riddick in 2006, but it is only in the can this year." It is a big-budget sci-fi with a hard R rating.

"It was a big win to be able to pull that off," he says, "because there are not a whole lot of R-rated movies anymore, especially with that kind of production value.

"I'm proud of that movie, just like I am proud of this one," he says.

He has worked as a producer as well as a star on the most recent Fast & Furious films, though in truth he thought that the original movie, released back in 2001, would be his first and his last.

"After the first one I told everybody at the studio, 'Don't even bother making another one,'" he remembers. "I said that because I was under the impression that the only way anyone would make sequels is by revisiting the brand."

And repetition is not what Diesel wanted. Yet, after a cameo in the third film, Tokyo Drift, Diesel roared back onto the scene with the fourth instalment and the franchise has gone from strength to strength.

The last two films have taken almost $1bn alone at the international box office. The studio has high hopes for film number six.

"These last three films – 4, 5 and 6 – have been treated like a trilogy on the studio's behalf," he explains, "and I think that the fact that the studio has regarded this franchise this way has proven to be really successful.

"They changed their outlook on franchises and sequels," he adds. "With the first three films they were approaching the Fast & Furious franchise like a brand.

"But one of the things that we were very clear about doing in the last two films, and this new one, was connecting three movies to one another. You've never seen Fast & Furious so linked to each of the other movies."

Trilogies are all the rage, as we know, and Fast Four ended in the middle of a scene; Fast Five, meanwhile, finished with the promise of a major character's return – Letty, played by Michelle Rodriguez.

The latest instalment fulfils that promise: Letty and Diesel's character, Dom, will enjoy their reunion.

"I thought Fast Five had one the best fight sequence in film," he says. "So maybe Six will have one of the best love sequences in film!"

There he goes again – Vin Diesel, mega-star, muscle man, action hero and a true softie at heart.

Fast & Furious 6 is out on May 17

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