Hollywood may have been built on the cult of the movie star, but in an industry now dominated by branded franchises like Star Wars, Marvel and Bond, it’s notable how rare they’ve become. For all the millions raked in by Iron Man and Star Wars movies, audiences don’t turn out for Robert Downey Jr. or Harrison Ford, they come to watch Tony Stark and Han Solo.
In this climate, there are perhaps a handful of actors who can draw audience based on nothing more than their presence in a movie, and perhaps none more successful than Vin Diesel. Since his breakthrough role in Pitch Black, Diesel has been the leading man in two blockbuster franchises: The Fast And The Furious and Riddick, and with xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage, he’s poised to reinvigorate a third.
According to Return Of Xander Cage producer Jeffrey Kirschenbaum, who has worked with Diesel on the last six Fast & Furious movies, the actor has had his sights set on a return to the role of Xander Cage for nearly a decade. Indeed, Diesel was signed on to xXx 2 until a scheduling conflict with The Pacifier forced him to leave the project.
As a result, Xander Cage was written out of xXx 2 – killed off with a line of dialogue – and Diesel was replaced as leading man by rapper Ice Cube. The decision killed the franchise; xXx 2: State Of The Union was a flop, grossing only $71m, losing $16m in the process. Meanwhile, The Pacifier went on to gross nearly $200m on a budget of $56m and helped to secure Diesel’s position as the 21st Century’s answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Since then, Diesel has longed to breathe new life into xXx. But as his star has continued to rise, his availability has reduced. “For the last eight years I’ve been trying to find a window to launch this franchise,” Diesel reveals, when we chat to him on the set of xXx 3, “and if it wasn’t for a kind of darker period of my life, a more melancholy period of my life, the experience of finishing Furious 7, I might not have fought so hard to play a character so fun.”
That darker period was, of course, completing Fast & Furious 7 after the death of co-star Paul Walker during the film’s production. Speaking to Australia’s Herald Sun in 2015, Diesel described the experience of finishing the movie as “torture”, explaining: “I have been acting my whole life but who the hell is going to teach you how to pretend you are with somebody while you are simultaneously mourning their loss in real life?”
Part of Diesel’s appeal as an action star is his ability to humanise his characters by injecting a hint of vulnerability. In person, reflecting on the death of close friend and Fast & Furious co-star Paul Walker, it’s clear that vulnerability is part of Diesel’s own character too: “I needed to play Xander now, more than ever in my life,” he continues, “and recognising my own personal need to play a character that fun, that liberating, that outrageous, after playing so many stoic and serious characters, it was something therapeutic and something I really needed to do.”
Although it’s been nearly fifteen years since Xander Cage first base jumped from a sports car careening off a bridge, he’s never been far from Diesel’s mind. “These characters live inside of me”, he reveals, “When I’m not playing a character they lie dormant, when I am playing the character I evoke that character inside of me”.
And with the benefit of a decade and a half hiatus, Diesel has had time to assess what made the first movie, and it’s hero, resonate with audiences: “He’s not the guy who could be an athlete and get a scholarship to go to college,” Diesel explains, “he’s the athlete who broke his neck doing some crazy thing that the Olympics never acknowledged in his back yard, or on the street. That accessibility for the character is one of the things that made the character so popular. So, aside from the humour and the irreverence and the sexiness of the character, there is something very tangible and very underground and something that speaks of this millennium.”
Interestingly, while Xander Cage may be an action hero for the 21st Century, Diesel’s career seems much more akin to the one followed by the stars of the 1980s like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone than to that of his contemporaries. While other stars of action franchises like Nicolas Cage, Gerrard Butler or Vigo Mortensen alternate between action movies and roles in more ‘worthy’ features, Diesel is alone amongst A-list movie stars in sticking almost entirely to the guns and explosions genre that has made his name.
While this is likely to have something to do with the demands that the Fast & Furious franchise has put on Diesel’s time, it’s also something that he is keenly aware of, and he puts down to an experience that took place while he was filming Find Me Guilty, one of his few non-action roles:
“If I think about the moment that was a turning point for me, I was on set on the Hudson River with the late Sidney Lumet, and I was doing a film called Find Me Guilty,” he recalls. “It was the end of the day, he was so generous with compliments. He said ‘If I had known you then in the fifties, I would have two great actors and not one. It’s a real shame, it’s like a beautiful girl. When someone does action, people think it’s easy and they don’t give it the credit that it deserves. The same way that the critics have written off a beautiful woman, and refuse to believe that a beautiful woman could be an outstanding thespian.’
In so many ways, he was saying continue to do these action films and do them the way you want to do them, what he was seeing in this courtroom drama, Sidney Lumet the king of courtroom drama, nobody’s seen better thespians than him, and he was basically saying I can see now that you approach any film, whether it’s a courtroom drama or an action film, with the same conviction, and something about that empowered me, and made me feel like I had the permission from someone I had respected my whole life to continue venturing into the action world.”
Indeed, the very concept of an action movie is something that Diesel has given a great deal of thought to. As a self-proclaimed ‘perfectionist’, who describes the sequence he’s filming on the day we speak to him – one that sees him spinning through the air on a wire, as “one of many incredible, spectacular stunts”, it’s important to Diesel to offer something to the audience that goes beyond noise and explosions.
“I believe that the best action scripts not only have the mandatory set-pieces that are going to make you go ‘aahhh’, but that there’s something that touches your soul about the story,” he explains, “that it complies with the rules of classic mythology. Those are the two elements, your action set-pieces, but then a story that people can relate to. You have the story about the classic hero or the antihero. The little extra thing that I like to put in movies is the ‘oh shit’ moment, where people go ‘OOOOHHHHH SHIIIIIIIIT!!’”
“Nobody realises how hard they are, how rare they are,” he continues, “That thing that makes everybody – like in gaming, that epic moment when you’re about to kill the boss or get a new item, and you’re watching the screen and you go ‘AAAAHHH!’. We saw the pioneers do it in movies like Rocky, that moment that gets everybody at the edge of their seat, blood racing through their veins and they can’t contain it anymore, and they start to ejaculate – THAT’S the moment!”
While Diesel’s views might make his friends less inclined to sit next to him at the cast and crew screening of Return Of Xander Cage, they typify his attitude towards his craft. Throughout his career, Diesel has served as a producer on most of his projects. While some actors insist on the credit as a form of ego massage, for Diesel, it’s a way of ensuring the quality of the finished product.
At its most basic level, that’s about Diesel ensuring the dialogue written for the characters is suitable, and memorable – “Often [memorable] lines have come from intensely trying to articulate with words what my character is feeling, and sometimes those kind of lines aren’t the kind of lines a writer could write” – but beyond that, it’s about developing the movies into something that has the same level of conviction he brings to the project.
As is well known by now, Diesel is just as much of a geek as the rest of us, and that has played into his role as a producer. “I was always proficient in myth-building and building mythology, and that comes from countless nights of playing Dungeons And Dragons and building worlds,” he recalls. “That entertainment that you got in roleplaying came from somebody spending countless hours designing a world for all of you guys to adventure in and escape reality. That level of detail. Michelle Rodriguez would always say to me, ‘You know Vin, they don’t get what you’re doing, you’re DMing Hollywood!’ So I was lucky that the hobby that I was so addicted to growing up lent itself not only to the world building that directors talk about, but building mythology.”
“I’ve always been a champion of maintaining familiar elements,” he continues, “that kind of goes back to Dungeons And Dragons, the gaming mentality. When you see something like Fast And Furious you are somewhat rewarded by the number of films you’ve seen, the same way that somebody who plays video games is rewarded by the number of bosses that they play. If that makes sense.”
Above all else, that desire to reward the audience seems to be the main reason for Diesel’s box office success, and it’s something that he learned from his late Fast & Furious cast mate. “There was a turning point for me when I realised that the audience adopts this character,” Diesel explains. “Paul Walker used to say this, ‘who am I to not be that character for them?’”
xXx: The Return of Xander Cage is in cinemas now.